Friday, February 26, 2016

VR - Vicarious Reality

It may be ‘virtual‘, it may be ‘augmented‘, but the inescapable reality is that we are today confronted with the emergence of a revolutionary new medium. History reminds us that such times, marked by disruptive innovations, have always been confusing.
In January 1896 one of the earliest motion pictures ever made was was projected onto a screen in Paris. L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat was just fifty seconds in duration. The film by Auguste and Louis Lumière consists of a single, unedited view, a continuous real-time shot. The story goes that when the film was first shown, the audience was so overwhelmed by the moving image of a life-sized train coming directly at them that people screamed and ran to the back of the room. Wikipedia cautions that this may be mere legend, but it is certainly true that it undoubtedly astonished people who were unaccustomed to the amazingly realistic illusions created by moving pictures.

In just over 120 years that scary French train minute has morphed to become the mature medium we call cinema. It quickly became more than just pictures which came to life, the storytelling was soon not just a photographed stage play and almost a century has passed since the first ‘talkies’ amazed audiences.
And yet one attribute of cinema has remained unchanged, the frame, the successor of theatre’s proscenium beyond which the audience observes from a more or less unified angle the events taking place upon the stage during a theatrical performance.
VR eliminates the ‘beyond’. The audience crosses the footlights and ventures onto the stage itself, to be surrounded by the action, interactively and personally immersed in it.
Am I to be chained to the rails in the station at La Ciotat while the locomotive bears down on me? The very idea makes me want to scream and retreat to the back of the room!
There I’ll ask myself who will take the creative ownership of this strange new medium? D.W. Griffiths, who popularized the close up with the success of his pioneering films in the earliest decades of the twentieth century, would be flummoxed. During the 1920s, the Russian film theorist Sergei Eisenstein demonstrated the technical, aesthetic, and ideological potentials of montage. Thereafter editing became the lynchpin of worthwhile filmmaking. But how can this accepted dogma obtain in VR, absent a frame within which the film director, the cinematographer and finally the editor can enclose and concentrate their creative effort?
It will be for others to master VR and make of it a compelling narrative audio-visual experience. I can imagine a polymath like Karl Lagerfeld seeing the potential of the medium. For him the typical fashion show runway was too constraining and as an alternative he built an imaginary supermarket in 2014 and an airport check-in to show this year’s spring and summer fashion at the Grand Palais. In a film studio in Rome he simulated a vibrant bohemian Paris quartier. I could well imagine Chanel-branded VR headsets!
Might VR be welcomed and used to performative advantage by avant-garde dramatists for whom the ‘fourth wall’ is seen as an impediment? The Living Theatre troupe founded by Judith Malina and Julian Beck in the 1950s was dedicated to transforming staged drama to make it a cooperative and communal expression, counteracting complacency in the passive audience. I could imagine the new generation of choreographers happy to experiment with VR. placing the spectator virtually among the dancers.
For the creators of performance art installations, like Vanessa Beecroft, the promise of vicarious reality could add immediacy and a participatory dimension to her strange, mute tableaux.

We shall just have to wait. For a while the new medium will be the plaything of many. There are still bugs to be eliminated; the VR experience should not cause nausea! I am confident, however, that the Eureka moment will come. A Pabst, Murnau or Lang will emerge and astonish us with mastery of the new technology, with storytelling of an entirely new kind.

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