A guided tour of Lazarretto Vecchio, an island dedicated to VR during the 74th Venice International Film Festival, accompanied by Michel Reilhac, the organizer of the first edition of Venice Virtual Reality.
After 85 years of existence and 74 editions, the Venice Mostra has become a true monument of tradition in film. As is the case of many other festivals, it opened up to virtual reality last year and proposed its first virtual reality (VR) programming under the aegis of producer Michel Reilhac, who pioneered the genre.
A few immersive experiences were presented in a 50-seat hall of Venice’s Lido island casino. Although the setup was modest, its success had the merit of confirming festival participants’ interest in this new creative form.
Therefore, this year, it’s with the full ambition and means of an institution as well established as the Biennale of Venice that the Venice VR team decided to go much, much further.
“I had suggested to the people in charge of the Biennale to organize a first official artistic virtual reality competition and thereby consider virtual reality as a new form of art rather than simply a technology, a gimmick. The idea was to envision virtual reality as a new creative space for artists outside of the realm of cinema. We wanted to sign virtual reality’s birth certificate as an artistic media.”
– Michel Reilhac
In that optic, the decision was made to set aside last year’s modest-sized hall. The new setup for this “festival within the festival” is unique and breathtaking: an island off the shores of the Lido, Lazarretto Vecchio.
We reach the island—a long-abandoned leper colony—by boat. We set foot on a pontoon specially built for the occasion. It must be noted that, only a few weeks before the festival, the island was covered in weeds and rubble.
The decision to hold the event on the island had been made less than two months before the beginning of the festival. The team therefore hurried to design the site, compensate for the lack of running water and electricity on the island, and hire a team of 40 people to ensure that participants lived the best possible experience...
“To my knowledge, there has never been a VR setup that has been as faithful to the works presented. Our ambition is now to make this a site of reference where VR works are presented in their best light,” says Michel Reilhac.
This island appears as a symbol. A new untouched space needed to be occupied, if not conquered, to allow VR to blossom. Land had to be cleared. To measure its full potential, pioneering adventurers had to take over the place. That’s not always an easy sell to the film-going public that attends the Mostra...
“The film audience is highly skeptical, very conservative and highly resistant to VR by principle. This audience is therefore the most difficult to get over to the island. But once there, after a few experiences, the audience is impressed, yet expresses a recurring criticism—which is to be expected—concerning the quality of the images projected by the headsets.”
– Michel Reilhac
But let’s go beyond this shortcoming—which is temporary and will soon be a thing of the past given how the technology is improving—and instead focus on the powerful storylines of this VR patchwork.
“We wanted Venice VR to be a starting point that allowed people to discover this universe," says Reilhac. "We therefore made the decision to categorize the works according to three main types of experiences: the VR Theater for linear works, stand-up spaces for headset experiences involving little interaction, and all-out installations for works closer to immersive theatre.”
Let’s begin with the VR Theater, which enables groups to discover linear works that do not involve moving around (other than simply turning one’s head).
Comfortably installed in swivelling seats, we discover seven competing works, each of which is listed in a very different register. The traditional film narrative codes may be quite distant, as with the mute experience that lasts a few minutes inspired by Baudelaire’s poem titled Proxima.
At the opposite end, they may also have a huge presence, as is the case of The Deserted, the first film of celebrated Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang, and its 55-minute linear storyline. According to him, “every movie should have its own independent narrative characteristics and the audience does not need to get involved in the story.”
Between the works that exhibit a very strong film legacy and those that attempt to distance themselves from it by opting for a less conducive storyline, two fundamentally different schools of thought are emerging (in between a myriad of intermediate positions, it goes without saying).
These schools of thought are being developed through experimentation that is facilitated by, among other things, the Biennale College, which made it possible this year to complete three projects (in three months with 30,000 euros). These were also presented in the VR Theater along with other non-competing works, such as the VR comedy Miyubi produced by Montreal studio Felix & Paul.
A little further on, the stand-up space presents works that are even more interactive. We engage our bodies, move our hands, make decisions and sometimes even play. It's our own space.
The selection here is admirable, but I was especially impressed by two works in particular. The first is Dispatch in which you live the story of a police emergency service operator who is faced with a series of rather difficult calls of distress. Despite the difficult subject matter, the experience is not the slightest disturbing… The tasteful choice of very plain aesthetics avoids giving too much realism to the violent scenes unfolding before our eyes.
Dispatch skillfully places us in the role of invisible witnesses of the action. In this work, we are not victims, but we are given a glimpse of the fear felt by people in danger as well as their isolation at the moment they call emergency services, when they are most vulnerable.
The second work that struck me profoundly is Arden’s Wake, an animation film in which a father and his daughter are in survival mode floating on the surface of a mysteriously deep and perilous ocean. The animation is detailed and the artistic direction is sublime. The project was led by the team of Penrose Studios, to which we owe the highly acclaimed Allumette.
We evolve in Arden’s Wake’s submerged world through movement. We can approach the characters to within millimetres, take a step back and travel through their homes’ walls… The sensitivity of the storyline combines admirably with our simple and fluid movements through the virtual space and we pinpoint what sets this work apart from others: the relevant combination of the storyline and immersive technology.
Creating directly in virtual reality
Remarkably, Penrose Studios developed its own creative tool that enables every member of the team to work directly in virtual reality.
Conversely, it is difficult to find fault with the last category of works presented at Venice VR when it comes to fully exploiting the potential of virtual reality. Regrouped within installations, these works present a set design that takes on a fundamental dimension and in which actors sometimes take part in the audience’s experience.
That is the case for example of Separate Silences, produced by two Danish students. You are lying on a hospital bed and discover that both you and your sister have been plunged into comas while the actors work at “deepening” your experience. If wind is blowing in the experience, they will make you feel the wind in the real world...
It would be impossible to conclude this overview without mentioning another festival sensation. Alice is an adaptation of Lewis Caroll’s work that is at the crossroads of VR and theatre. In it, you embody Alice and your actions will have multiple impacts on the universe. Actors whose movements become those of the virtual characters accompany you and adapt to how you behave, thereby promising you a truly unique experience.
On several occasions, experiences such as Alice have been described to me as “plays designed for an audience of one” and I find this description quite appropriate. Consequently, these works are not designed to please large audiences and it’s not the goal they pursue in the first place. Here, we have the impression that the place and the role of the spectator in a narrative world are pushed to their limits. The goal is to design singular experiences in which the realism of sensory stimulation is sublimated and in which our participation in another universe is optimized.
I have absolutely no intention of declaring one of these categories superior to the others, because the fundamental interest of this new media resides in the diversity that it allows! The audience may react more or less favourably to these different proposals, but it seems to agree on one thing.
“What works best are works in which the audience plays an active role, for as long as they understand their role and as the role is totally intuitive. Conversely, anything that is perceived as a technological demonstration devoid of emotion or particular narrative effects is usually shunned.”
– Michel Reilhac
Venice VR has truly helped make virtual reality an art form that can no longer be considered simply as a recreational curiosity. It is a feeling that is widely shared by the professionals who attended the event and who were very pleased to set foot on this anachronistic island, where the old stones of a former leper colony have been taken over by works that are reinvesting storytelling’s cinematographic, theatrical and recreational codes.
The future seems promising for the team of Venice VR given it has already been confirmed that the island experience will return next year. The logistics will be somewhat improved and the site may even be extended seeing as only one fifth of the island is currently being used.
Michel Reilhac is of the opinion that Venice VR and the Biennale may also benefit from funding to produce the works of the future. The island of Lazaretto Vecchio may even become a permanent research site at the crossroads of the arts and science.
“It is still too early to take a stand, but we may very well see Venice VR become a sort of Biennale of virtual reality as is the case for dance, theatre, or cinema… Or, better still, a Biennale of immersive storytelling. By opening up to immersive theatre, to performance… to all of these forms of art in which the spectator is no longer protected by a fourth wall.”
– Michel Reilhac
See you all next year!