I was a total VR virgin going in. Virtual Reality technology has been around and evolving since Ronald Reagan was still eating oatmeal in the White House, but I had remained remarkably untouched by VR’s ghostly fingers.
The SIFF VR Zone is a pop-up virtual reality installation living, for now, on the first floor of Pacific Place Mall. It’s the most intriguing thing the 44th Annual Seattle International Film Festival has had going on all season – or for even the last two SIFF seasons. Maybe three. The installation contains 28 different virtual reality experiences, from elaborate, all up-in-your-grill music videos (The Posies and Billy Corgan stand out) to the rather video-gamey Hot Air Balloon Ride and Snowball Fight (this one is a workout! I ripped my pants up the middle bending over to pack snowballs…) to complex and incredibly moving interactive art and film experiences that will leave you in tears. (Or at least they left me in tears. Thank goodness that the VR Zone provides a box of real-world tissues… I’d have hated to try to blow my blubbery nose into my spooky VR hands.) You have 90 minutes to get through as much of the VR Zone as you can. It’s not nearly enough.
Kim Voynar, CEO of WonderTek Labs, is curating the show. “We travel to Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca and LA to discover content and artists and curate their work into festivals,” Kim explains. “We also directed and edited the Posies 360 music video for ‘Unlikely Places’ and shot and edited the experimental dance piece ‘Seduction’.”
After a brief tutorial on how to use the VR headsets, Kim took me by the hand, rushed me to the back of the installment where the more highly interactive VR experiences are kept, and busted my VR cherry with something she knew was right up my alley – a wondrous and moving VR art experience called “Queerskins.”
“Queerskins” is a collaborative installation that contains actual physical objets that you can explore before entering the VR portion of the program. You enter a small but very melancholy room crammed with an odd garage-sale assortment of things, such as diaries, vintage Halloween masks, newspapers and even old-school sewing patterns. When you have had your fill, the technician helps fit you with the VR goggles and the hand controls. Suddenly, you find yourself in the back of a vintage Cadillac, driving through a pastoral landscape of corn fields and farm houses. You have a perfect 360° view, and can turn and look in any direction. You can even feel the vibrations of the car in your seat.
In the front seat of the car sit a man and a woman. Through their sometimes emotional and heated conversation, you learn that they are long-married conservative Catholics (hence the dusty vintage Caddy – it all makes perfect sense!), and you are all driving to the funeral of their estranged gay son. The detail is astonishing, from the perfect dust motes dancing in the light to the well-worn floor mats.
In the backseat with you is a box. You use your VR hands to open the box and explore the objects you find within – many of them recognizable from the actual physical part of the installation. Religious statues and picture books of the saints, Polaroids, personal letters and souvenirs of the dead son’s life; as you ride along and the conversation gets more heated and emotional, you pick up and explore these items, read the diary, flip through the photos. It’s fascinating and incredibly powerful stuff. The entire experience last approximately 12 minutes.
“Our overall program is more that 50% diverse creators and that is our company policy,” Kim tells us. “To seek out diverse artists to ensure our programs maintain that.”
After “Queerskins,” I went to “Visigoths,” a somewhat simpler, non-interactive experience where you find yourself with a fly-on-the-wall, 360° perspective of a young couple’s entire relationship, from beginning to end, in a tight and economical and thoroughly well-acted 13 minutes. It comes complete with sex, romantic camping trips, fun full-frontal nudity, and a devastating break-up scene so true-to-life, it had me thoroughly shook.
But the next most compelling installation for me was doubtlessly, “Where Thoughts Go,” an ever-evolving, interactive project. Housed inside a cozy (and blessedly, necessarily, private) blanket fort, “Where Thoughts Go” takes you into a beautiful, stylized world. A question appears floating in air before you, and the landscape suddenly populates with floating glowing “thought spheres”. These contain the answers provided to the question from everyone who has gone through the experience before you, and you cannot move on to the next question unless you answer. The phrasing of these questions is a bit tricky and make you think, like, “Why did you fall in love the first time?” and “What were your childhood dreams?” The answers people recorded are remarkably moving and insightful – an emotional window into shared humanity. I was deeply grateful for that box of tissues.
“SIFF VR Zone is not a gaming arcade,” Kim says, “It’s a presentation of digital contemporary art. ‘Queerskins’ in particular is what I consider that level – they just opened a huge ‘Queerskins’ installation in Toronto at Lightbox, and I am hoping to collaborate with them on a future festival as well.”
The SIFF VR Zone is $25 ($20 for SIFF Members). It is an astonishing, worthwhile, and moving glimpse of the future, and you only have until Sunday, June 10th, to experience it.
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