The technology used in Nonny de la Peña’s art installation “Use Of Force” looks ancient. It’s a virtual-reality rig, but the visor is so heavy, users are asked to hold it up with both hands. A foot-long positioning rig protrudes from the top, tipped with glowing red sensors that make it look like a nightmare version of a Christmas tree. The gear trails a clump of thick, heavy black cords. As people try out the installation, an assistant stands immediately behind them, supporting the cord to mitigate its weight, and maneuvering it so they don’t trip if they want to move around the three-dimensional space they’re experiencing. Putting the rig on is like donning an old-fashioned diving bell, complete with an electrical version of an air hose, and descending into the deep.
The deep in this case is a 3-D, 360-degree computer-generated simulation documenting the killing of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a Mexican immigrant who died after being handcuffed, then repeatedly beaten and Tased by U.S. border-patrol agents in June 2010. De la Peña built the computer simulation from eyewitness accounts, cell-phone video and audio of the incident, and her own on-site digital mapping. Viewers can move around in the space—the virtual-reality rig tracks head tilt as well as body movement. But they’re unlikely to go too far from the center of the action. The simulation plays out like a short film, with witnesses shouting, “He isn’t resisting!” and trying to forestall the agents punching and kicking Rojas as he lies on the ground, restrained and screaming for help. The CGI figures are simple and crude by modern standards, but the piece is still horrifying. De la Peña calls it “immersive journalism”; as with her past works, the technique is meant to let users experience news as close to first-hand as the technology permits.
While “Use Of Force” is immersive—and emotionally intense—it was hard to miss the fact that it’s a single-user experience, especially once the wait to plug in hit the two-hour mark. There’s no collective audience for a piece like this, apart from after-the-fact conversations, in person and online, between people who’ve experienced it. It’s interactive, but the interaction is entirely between one user at a time, and the simulation around them. Like so many of the exhibits at the Tribeca Film Festival’s Innovation Week lineup, “Use Of Force” was fascinating, but a little lonely. It’s designed to remove people from the shared space of the art gallery, and put them in an enclosed, user-specific one, miles and years away.
This is the second year for Tribeca’s StoryScapes exhibit, which brings transmedia experiments to the public. While another program on Tribeca’s Innovation Week docket was a series of panels called “Future Of Film Talks,” those conversations—including one headlined by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, discussing the fandom for psychopaths, and another with Aaron Sorkin, about morality in 2014—seemed far more focused on the present. Instead, the future of film seemed to be at programs like StoryScapes, Interactive Day, and the “Possibilia” première, which each highlight new ways of telling stories. The experiments at Innovation Week filter familiar cinematic language through growing technologies that heavily emphasize interactivity and customization. At both StoryScapes and Interactive Day, all the focus was on viewer choice: how each individual participant could affect what they saw.
In two new pieces showcasing the Oculus Rift—the virtual-reality headset Facebook just purchased for $2 billion, mostly in Facebook shares—viewer participation significantly defined the experience. Jonathan Minard and James George’s short StoryScapes film “Clouds” puts viewers into a vast, black three-dimensional space where objects whiz by and questions pop up in mid-air. The headset tracks eye movement to enable choices. Once viewers look at a given question long enough, it activates, and short interview clips on the topic play out, with fragmented talking-head interviewees from various programming fields discussing the future and applications of interactive technology, or just telling funny stories. Over at Interactive Day, another Rift installation—Richard Emms’ “Spacewalk”—puts users in the helmet of an astronaut orbiting the International Space Station. This piece is entirely interactive, rather than clip-based; users can navigate the area with propulsion rockets activated with a game controller, playing out the opening scenes of Gravity, with the Earth spinning dizzily below. As in space, there’s no strong sense of up or down in “Spacewalk,” and no friction to stop movement. Without a stable frame of reference, it’s eerily easy to lose track of the real world, and to feel as weightless as the onscreen avatar.
Watching people experience the Rift installations was its own form of art exhibit: Once users settled into chairs, headset covering their eyes (including their peripheral vision; one of the Oculus Rift’s claims to fame is a seamless wraparound experience) and headphones covering their ears, they were completely tuned out from the space where they were actually sitting. Unselfconsciously whipping their heads around, grinning or frowning, they were unaware of their own audience. They were, so far as they were concerned, entirely in another world.
Another StoryScapes piece, National Film Board of Canada’s “Circa 1948,” more literally tries to take users elsewhere. The piece takes place in a virtual-reality re-creation of several now-demolished locales in 1948 Vancouver: Users step into a small room where projectors wrap those environments around all four walls. Kinects track the viewer’s movement around the space, and move the environment accordingly: Step forward, and the environment slides forward smoothly, letting the user feel like Josette Day in Jean Cocteau’s Beauty And The Beast, floating around her spooky new castle home. It’s possible to slip down Hogan’s Alley like a ghost, or go from room to room in the Hotel Vancouver, looking for the glowing objects that signal interactivity; touch an object, and a conversation between locals reveals something about the space. “Circa 1948” is unique in that Apple-based users can play along at home; the installation is available as a free iPad/iPod app. But whether in app or installation form, it’s still primarily a single-user experience.
In “Circa 1948,” the sense of isolation is even more complete because of the openness of the movement space. It’s one thing to put on a pair of glasses and see stars spinning by, or people talking; it’s another entirely to step into a room alone, and have it turn into the experience of stepping into a sweeping set of back alleys alone. “Circa 1948” is all the more haunting for the sense of people just around the corner, or behind the doors, talking quietly, but never visible. It’s isolating in content as well as in form.
There’s no particular horror in the way all these futuristic presentations are meant solely for one viewer at a time, except to people who already feel threatened by the trend away from the collective theater-viewing experience, and toward the home-viewing experience. There’s a long tradition of finding new tech threatening and believing it’s going to destroy us all. (There are plenty of films on the subject, too.) But it’s unlikely that user-moderated, interactive, solo experiences are going to replace film as we know it anytime soon. In part, the technology isn’t there yet. Almost all the Tribeca pieces were plagued at some point by setup issues or bootup problems. Several are impractical for private use, because of the space required. They’re also all still in the novelty stage, most interesting as proof of future concepts, or brief tastes of a larger experience to come.
Still, it’s hard not to notice that in an environment so devoted to innovation and creativity, so many of the pieces were so bent toward cutting out interaction with other people, in any form. Some installations were more performative than cinematic: StoryScapes’ “On A Human Scale” let people play a piano and hear the music coming from video clips of dozens of New Yorkers, each singing a single note, while Interactive Day’s “Flow” generated music from the heart rate and other metrics of a person riding a stationary bike. And the performative ones tended to be intended as much for the audience as the participant. Taken in isolation, the trend suggested a fundamental difference in thought about music (meant to be shared with a group) and film (meant for one person, who should be closely involved in curating a unique experience).
It’s possible that this particular prejudice toward film-as-isolator is just a natural outgrowth of the innovation drive. If film is seen first and foremost as something normally experienced with a group, in a public space, then artists emphasizing innovation over other concerns may naturally be inclined to head in the opposite direction. At the same time, the growing drive toward customization in all areas of technology—social-media sites that let people curate who they interact with, reality-TV shows that ask viewers to use their phones to vote on outcomes, the many ways to physically customize personal electronics, inside and out—suggest that film is just following the market.
But customization and a collective experience aren’t necessarily mutually incompatible, as StoryScapes’ lively show Choose Your Own Documentary proves. Creator Nathan Penlington introduced the film in person, and laid out the backstory—as a lifelong fan of Choose Your Own Adventure books, he ordered a complete set on eBay, and found a few grim pages of a young man’s diary folded into one book. Audience members were given remotes they could use to vote on what he should do next: Launch a quest to track down the diary-writer and see if he was okay, or drop the whole thing? (When the audience mostly voted for the quest, Penlington expressed relief that the show wasn’t over after 10 minutes.) How should the quest start, with a visit to a psychic or a handwriting expert? What should the next step be, hire a private investigator or look for the author on Facebook? At each step, the audience was asked to vote, and the majority rule determined what film clips they’d see next.
Choose Your Own Documentary is puckishly funny and routinely surprising, but the group-interactivity experience still shows why the solo-interactivity experience is so popular: At each new fork in the story, some people would groan or boo when the majority vote nixed their personal idea of where the wanted the story to go. On the other hand, the enthusiastic reactions suggested that viewers were invested, whether their choices won out or not—and the questions afterward were almost all about the choices they’d missed. Penlington and his co-creators were coy, explaining that there are 1,556 possible paths through the story, and five different endings, but that the only way to find out about the other ones was to come lobby for different choices at a different showing.
Choose Your Own Documentary was an engaging, enjoyable experience as a collaborative group experience in a live setting—where Penlington and his partners expect it to stay for now, since the show relies so much on Penlington as host, explaining and bridging the gaps between clips. Any home-video version, he said, would require a great deal more filming, to put all his stand-up interstitial work on tape. Some audience members left frustrated, either approaching the filmmakers again to ask about the options they didn’t see, or complaining about the choices they wanted to see.
And that suggests another reason the solo experience is so popular: Some people were content with the Choose Your Own Doc they got, and some wanted more. Possibly, given the nature of fandom, much more—up to and including all 1,556 paths. Left most literally to their own devices, individual users and viewers can engage with a film at whatever level, at whatever depth, they like. Given the chance to make choices, some viewers inherently wanted to see how different choices would affect the narrative, and wanted to see Choose Your Own Documentary again and again.
That urge alone—the desire to spend as much or as little time with a film as personal tastes dictate—may determine more about the future of film than technological changes or the raw desire for storytelling novelty. As entertainment options multiply, people may naturally gravitate not toward the shiniest new solution, but toward the one that most lets them design their experiences around their level of engagement and fandom. The future of film may ultimately be at the multiplex, or in virtual-reality rigs at home. But either way, it’s likely to be increasingly dependent on personal taste—on a craving for isolation or for community, for the fast experience or the deep one, for the creator-designed experience or the user-curated one. Even if individual films aren’t increasingly customizable, the way users choose to take them in probably will be.
The Dissolve’s lodging for Tribeca 2014 was kindly provided by Hilton New York Fashion District. We gratefully acknowledge their sponsorship.