The title is a bit of a misnomer because the most awesome thing about the awesome list is The Tribeca Film Festival itself, which highlights the XR media as part of its twenty-year mission to bring together visionaries across media to celebrate the power of storytelling. This is our fifth year of highlighting some of the outstanding offerings curated by the interactive programming team, led by Loren Hammonds.
This year Tribeca Immersive, as its XR (VR, AR, and allied technologies) section is called, was distinguished by its hybrid format. The five titles in its Storyscapes competition can be seen in the physical world at the 50 Varick Street location in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. There are also twelve titles in its “virtual arcade,” hosted by the Museum of Other Realities (MOR) inside VR. These are ticketed, but there are another dozen free mobile AR experiences that can be seen anywhere with a smartphone. The new format, forced by the pandemic, has had a democratizing effect on the festival, making the works far more accessible to far more people than ever before. It has always been difficult to see everything in their crowded confines. That said, the depth and breadth of Tribeca Immersive has always been one of its strong points. We still only saw two thirds of the experiences available in the time we had to write this story.
This year was distinguished by the overarching themes of racism, social justice, mental health, the environment, and much less about entertainment than previous years. It has been said many times that VR is an “empathy machine” that will allow viewers to literally walk in another’s shoes. Indeed, all the titles in Storyscapes fall into these categories, and each has something important to say about its subject.
“Critical Distance” uses the Microsoft HoloLens 2 AR headset to take us to the Pacific Northwest, where Orcas are suffering from loss of habitat. Orcas glow when you touch them. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect to find in a local museum. “Inside Goliath” is an abstract piece. As all of the storyscapes pieces are. Goliath is a gamer who narrates his experience with schizophrenia.
“Kusunda ‘’ introduces us to Nepal’s last Kusunda shaman Lil Bahadur, who as the last of his tribe, has forgotten his indigenous mother tongue. His eleagic memories of his primitive formative years in the jungle speak of a time when man lived in harmony with nature. His granddaughter, Hema, wants to revive the language. [Update: “Kasunda” has won the 2021 Storyscapes Competition).
“Lovebirds of the Twin Towers’ ‘ tells the story of two elevator operators who fell in love working in the iconic towers, and how they narrowly escaped with their lives on September 11, 2001. It’s exceedingly well done but could have been an effective 2D documentary as well.
Finally, “We Are at Home,” a Grand Prize winner at the Venice Film Festival, is a beautiful free roam VR installation based on the poem “The Hangman at Home” by Carl Sandburg, that uses the Oculus Quest. The experience is an untethered free roam walkthrough rotoscoped environments that show someone dying. I’m not sure I would have understood what I was looking at had someone not explained it. We’re glad we don’t have to choose between these excellent pieces, as the jury does, and award a prize to just one.
In Tribeca’s Virtual Arcade inside the PC only MOR, we found the first of our most awesome experiences, “The Changing Same,” from Scatter and Rada Studio. Scatter has been in the festival previously with the first most awesome experience “Blackout” (2017). Directors Yasmin Elayat (“Zero Days VR”), Michèle Stephenson, and Joe Brewster, used Depthkit Studio, a portable multi-camera volumetric capture solution, to create a new version of reality: a dreamlike version of the physical world, where time and location melt into an infinite pop culture whirlwind, to tells the terrifying story of how the law is used to convict a man already the victim of racism before he is even accused. What the hapless Kafka-esque hero is accused of, no one knows, and no one cares. When you’re black, and a cop decides you have a bad attitude, it is the end of your life or, if you’re lucky, life as you know it. The system takes over. And there’s not a damn thing you can say or do. Submit, and be smothered. Or don’t submit, and be smothered. You can cry out at the rude irony, you can laugh at it, you can ridicule it, fight, or not fight. It doesn’t matter. Because you don’t matter. The end is brutally preordained. I am still thinking about this piece. I walked in this guy’s shoes. And I didn’t like it one bit. And that is the most awesome thing I experienced at Tribeca this year. This is the first in a three part series that will eventually be available in the Oculus store. [Update: “The Changing Same” has won Best VR Narrative Award at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival]
Also awesome in Tribeca’s show at the Museum of Other Realities is “Passengers,” the story of a mundane eventless train ride told from multiple points of view. Everyone is the hero of their own story. Everyone lives in their own head, and we get to inhabit each one. Nonny de la Pena’s Emblematic Group, the pioneer of empathetic VR, presents A Life in Pieces: The Diary of Stanley Hayami, which brings to life the wartime diary of Stanley Hayami, a Japanese-American teenager imprisoned with his family during WWII. It was produced with Japanese American National Museum, which will be exhibiting the piece.
Not exactly AR, nor VR, though interactive, is “Republique,” an interactive mobile phone movie from France, directed by Simon Bouisson. We see a terrorist attack on the Paris Metro, seemingly live-streamed by three victims, who are getting reactions and comments from anonymous people watching them remotely. It is a surprising and jarring way to tell a story that reflects how we are creators, commenters and consumers of social media narratives. And despite all the information we have at our disposal, we still can’t see the big picture as it unfolds in real-time. You can download and watch this for free from the app stores now.
Wonderful, if not totally awesome, is “The Severance Theory: Welcome to Respite” a scripted, live-action experience performed in virtual reality. I was cast as “Alex,” a child whose parents’ relationship is shaky ground. The role playing with my “parents,” played by Deirdre V. Lyons and Stephen Butcko, was extraordinary. They were extraordinary. Apparently a dozen people were watching this superb production, in which I was an unwitting participant. Like real-life parents, they showered me with love, played with me, and listened to me, as they subtly tried to justify themselves. We all acted much too human together, suggesting the amazing potential of VR to combine live performance with scripted narrative to create a new form of entertainment. The project is inspired by the real stories of people suffering from dissociative identity disorder. I didn’t get that. I thought it was about me. People are probably sick of hearing me say that VR is giving new life to live performance, but it is a continuing epiphany of which few are yet aware.
Finally, there is for me one piece that truly characterizes Tribeca Immersive this year: the elegiac simplicity of “Breonna’s Garden”, by the artists Lady PheOnix (sic) and Sutu. By now, everyone knows the tragic story of Breonna Taylor, a young black EMT mistakenly murdered by the Louisville Police in a drug bust gone bad. Although the city paid the family $12 M to compensate for their deadly blunder, no one has been held responsible. Breonna, erased as a person, has become a symbol of our society’s failed, racist approach to policing. This tribute, created in collaboration with her sister, allows us to connect with the person who was loved and lost. “Breonna’s Garden” allows the viewer to plant an interactive flower in a virtual garden to her memory while reminding us she never wanted to be a symbol. Breonna was a person with a family, friends, achievements and dreams. Anyone with a smartphone can download it and contribute to her memory.
“The creators are responding to very real issues that have been bubbling up for a long time in our world. They’re creatively using the medium to address topics like mental health and racial equity in surprising and entertaining ways,” Hammonds told me. “What’s been most inspiring about curating this edition are the ways in which we’re expanding the definition of Immersive entertainment, with outdoor AR installations, immersive audio storytelling and so much more.”
Tribeca Immersive runs through Sunday, June 20th. Tickets to the Virtual Arcade can be purchased in The Museum of Other Realities. A VR headset connected to a compatible PC is required to access the selected works within The Virtual Arcade.