Expanded Performance Category
The vibe, the grain, and further adventures in VR
by Tanuja Amarasuriya
Back in 2017 my company, Sleepdogs, tested some early work on a new dream-pop musical we’re making, called A Million Tiny Glitches. The story is about grief, and we chose to use songs as a form because songs can convey emotion very powerfully. At one point, a mundane phone conversation morphs into a capella singing. We see the performer talking quietly into a phone, but we hear her voice through the phone, amplified through the theatre sound system – so it’s loud, but it feels like it has the intimacy of a private phone conversation. And when she starts singing, the emotion that floods through, also has that quality of intimacy even though it rings out loud in the theatre.
In the bar afterwards, a filmmaker spoke to us about that moment. He said: he’d never seen technology used as an emotional tool before. We became interested in that perception of how we were using technology, and three years later it formed the basis of my umbrella research question for this Fellowship:
Are there inherent ‘emotionalities’ in different technologies that open up new ways to connect with story in the live moment?
Or - if I didn’t have so much insecurity about my lack of academic creds, perhaps I’d simply be asking: Can tech make you feel stuff?
How does it feel to listen to an album on vinyl?
How does it feel to see a photograph of a place that no longer exists?
How does it feel to hear her voice down a phone line?
How does it feel to talk to someone through a screen?
How does it feel to hold someone who is not physically present?
I’m interested in the potential of immersive/XR technologies as emotional textures in live performance. If all we do is use these technologies as novelty cool or digital delivery mechanisms, are we missing a trick? What new layers of aesthetic expression might these technologies unlock?
From everything to virtual reality
I’d originally hoped to experiment with a variety of different technologies, but COVID restrictions put paid to that. I most definitely did not expect to be focussing on Virtual Reality, but that’s where I’ve found myself.
I’ve never spoken to anyone who’s had a wholly satisfying VR experience. The notion of “virtual reality” is so seductively easy to imagine; but the phrase also contains an admission of its own impossibility. It’s not real. It’s virtually real.
But then, humans are imaginative creatures. We communicate using symbols and metaphors. We have emotional responses to abstract forms like music and colour. We tell each other stories. We make art. Are these non-literal and subjective engagements real? Or virtually real?
One of the things I find extraordinary about using a VR headset is that the transport into another world can be so instantaneous. I find it even more powerful doing it at home: switching from my most familiar environment, to somewhere totally other. But I’m not interested in VR as a space of empty escapism. I’m not interested in VR that does all the imagining for you. I’m interested in how VR can turn your imagination on, and through that, create a space for emotional immersion.
"There’s no wrench in being distracted out of the VR world, because I’m not being asked to invest in it."
It amazes me that in my VR at home experiences, real-world sounds (spin cycle on the washing machine, bin truck reversing, boyfriend asking if I want a cup of tea) don’t really break the transport. Even though I couldn’t tell you which wall of the room I was facing any longer, I can clearly separate what’s within the world of the VR and what’s extraneous. The real world exists quite separately from the virtual one…
…and I wonder if that’s a problem. If I was truly emotionally immersed in an experience, wouldn’t I be the least bit annoyed at that extraneous sound spill? I get monumentally distracted by phone screens at the cinema, and the crackle of sweets being unwrapped at the theatre. I get annoyed by interruptions when I’m reading a novel. So why don’t I find it distracting in VR?
Perhaps it’s because the VR is doing it all for me. There’s no room for my imagination – or no call on my imagination. It’s not requiring any work from me. There’s no wrench in being distracted out of the VR world, because I’m not being asked to invest in it.
“I ask of each performance: Will I carry this event with me tomorrow? Will it haunt me? Will it change you? Will it change me? Will it change things? If not it was a waste of time.” Tim Etchells, from Certain Fragments
I’m always thinking about this when I’m making work. You can ask these questions on any scale, and of any form. There’s a real challenge with VR, that such enveloping transport into a virtual world can make it lose any relationship with the real world.
But the virtual world exists only in the headset. You, the audience member, are a non-negotiable living, breathing bridge between the virtual and the real worlds.
How do we invite you, the audience member, to inhabit the space of VR in a way that feels truly present? I don’t mean in terms of pressing buttons to make things happen outside of you; I mean in terms of stories taking hold, characters finding their way into your heart, visions and possibilities lingering in your mind long after the headset comes off.
"We’re often asked to think of technology as functional, rather than material. But what if we delve into the materiality of these technologies as a starting point for creating with them?"
Why even make VR?
I’m excited by making VR because I’m a theatremaker. Theatre is an innately experiential form, as is VR. The thing I love most about theatre is that you are in the room with the story – and that’s what VR does too – in an immediate, visceral way. VR can make you feel like you’re in the space where these events, images, stories are unfolding.
It’s early days for VR, so of course it’s expensive, its mechanisms are clunky, its audience-base is tiny, its technical capabilities are limited. But it’s undeniably magical. In fact, I think so much of people’s disappointment with the current quality of VR experiences is because it’s so easy to imagine what amazing VR could feel like. The what if? of VR is so easy for people to reach for.
It’s a powerful tool, so I want to find ways to use it well - before it gets completely hijacked by corporations… though I’ve already had to reactivate my Facebook account to use an Oculus headset (sigh), so maybe I’ve lost that battle already…
…but then, I’ve literally just spent minutes sitting inside the menu screen (yes, really) of the Space Explorers VR app, marvelling, in sheer wonder at the immensity of what I’m surrounded by. I mean, I’ve always spent a lot of time thinking about space exploration, but this was something else…
…so I think it’s worth battling for.
Working the grain of VR
I’m an artist. I construct experiences for audiences. I work with different materials to do that.
“technology is a material – a family of materials – like any other, and to understand how to make things with it, we need to manipulate it with our hands. We need to feel the grain of it... We don't understand materials – not really – by reading the manual. We read it, sure, just like we know the on-paper tolerances of a sheet of metal, or of an electronic component – but we still have to understand how that translates to the real world." Tom Armitage, from Some of these Things are not like the others
We’re often asked to think of technology as functional, rather than material. But what if we delve into the materiality of these technologies as a starting point for creating with them? How can I get to feel the grain of VR and its components – so I can learn how to manipulate and make with it as material, working with (or against) its own material tendencies, to create things that resonate in the real world strongly, rather than weakly?
A lot of the narrative VR work I’ve seen has been made by filmmakers, and you can really feel the misfires where they’ve tried to impose film-logic on the more experiential, unframed space of VR. Theatre might be a much closer artform to VR, but it is not an analogue. My understanding of theatre-logic might give me a head start in VR experience design, but there is still so much to discover about how the form itself can extend our imaginations for how we build and connect with worlds and stories.
Photo: A Million Tiny Glitches R&D. Credit: Jack Offord