Edgy Interactive at IDFA’s DocLab 2019

Some parts of this report are cross-posted from Documentary.org

IDFA DocLab, led by the indefatigable Caspar Sonnen, is one of the premier sites worldwide to view experiment in audio-visual interactive art. In 2019, new work was loosely collected around the theme of “Domesticating Reality.” DocLab’s annual

IDFA DocLab’s Caspar Sonnen.

conference brought together curators, funders and artists from around the globe, many of them survivors of a rough two years watching the collapse of the home market for VR and related tech funding.

Still protean.

The exhibition shows how very new the form really is—still protean in terms of formal language, still puzzling in terms of what its closest artistic siblings are, still largely unknown in terms of impact on the user.

Works made for mobile in the exhibition were simple to understand, limited in functionality, high-resolution, and featured a strong story line. Missing (Kylie Bolton and Matt Smith), from Australian public broadcaster SBS, recounts an Aboriginal tracker’s search for a missing white girl. Far Away from Far Away (Bruce Alcock and Jeremy Mendes), a National Film Board of Canada (NFB) production, recounts one family’s story. The trajectory of the fishing family on the remote Fogo Islands (a site of NFB filmmaking in the 1960s Challenge for Change initiative) is one of modernization but also loss. Find both on your phone, now or later.

Deep, deep fake.

Richard Nixon–real or fake?

Probably the most topical work was the relatively simple, and immensely accessible, In Event of Moon Disaster. Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund use deepfake video technology to simulate Richard Nixon announcing the catastrophic crash of the mission that, in real life, landed astronauts on the moon for the first time. The words are the text that William Safire wrote for Nixon, should the launch fail, but the sound and image are deepfaked. (The speech is worth hearing; it was only unearthed in the 1990s.) At IDFA, we watched the simulation on an antique TV, while sitting in a mock 1960s living room. The makers have already heard from people seizing upon the work to reinforce their conviction that the moon landing was a hoax. The work won the Special Jury Award for Creative Technology.

Awesomely immersive.

A few spectacular works caught a lot of deserved attention. Darren Emerson’s Common Ground is an epic 45-minute journey through the largest public housing unit in Britain, now in the process of destruction, to make way for upscale apartments designed for money-laundering and asset parking. Featuring dizzying overhead shots, long walks down abandoned hallways, and reconstructions—decade by decade—of an apartment that demonstrates the loving care of residents for their homes, as well as interviews with residents, the work achieves an emotional immersion that often goes lacking in such work. By the end, you’re worried not just for the people you met, but the many more who have already been bulldozed away, along with their investment in their long-since purchased apartment.

Hsin-Chien Huang’s Bodyless immerses viewers in an alternately thrilling and terrifying virtual experience.

Hsin-Chien Huang’s Bodyless is an ecstatic dystopian experience, with elaborate set-pieces, a terrifying tunnel, and allusions to a dark past. The viewer can fly through a night-time landscape, exploring 3-D artwork and poking around claustrophic rooms of forgotten horror. One interpretation of the work is that surveillance and big data have become so pervasive that we have become part of the problem; but that’s just one interpretation. This was a polarizing work; people loved or hated it. I loved it.

Other work fell more often into the category of experiments with daunting new technology. Among those I enjoyed was A Symphony of Noise VR, by Michaela Pnaceková. Users could compose music with a collection of sounds variously from daily life, nature, and commerce, also triggering new visual displays.

Money and memory.

IDFA DocLab proudly lives at the bleeding edge of this emergent artform, and one of its notable achievements is spurring much-needed conversations around it. These include funding–the DocLab now has a pitch forum to encourage investment–and preservation, an ongoing feature of its conferences.


IDFA 2019: The Power of Public Memory in Documentary Film