This spring, I was invited to be a juror for a competition of proposals for "art projects on the surface of the moon." The criteria: It must be achievable by an artist and astronaut, it most not cost more than $500,000, it needed to be set up on the moon within 48 hours, and so on. The exhibit, held at King Street Station, was called Giant Steps, and it offered a prize of $10,000 to the best exhibit.
The night before the opening of the show, I walked around the space with seven other jurors and a Shiba Inu dog and examined each successful entry (51 in all). Most of the installations were interesting, some made me mad, and several were very clever—but one caught and held my attention like nothing else. It wasn't so much the proposal itself that got me (it was called Illuminous Analemma and involved placing 3-D printer–built pyramids in a massive moon crater), but its presentation, which was not in the gallery space but in virtual reality.
You donned an Oculus headset and suddenly found yourself floating above 10 pyramids. You looked up: A spaceship was rotating in the sky. You looked right: The huge blue Earth was slowly spinning in space. You looked down: There were the many memories of small and big impacts on the lunar surface. You looked up again: distant stars. And though this was an animation, it moved you like something real. Your mind seemed to accept and work with the fiction it presented. Indeed, the mind got lots of pleasure from it. But did the mind know it was enjoying an illusion? Did it know this was a trick? Did it matter?
Maybe there is a split between awareness and the processes of the mind. I was well aware of the fact that what I was seeing was not real, but my mind was not. This is like the opposite of dreaming. The mind knows exactly what it's doing when, say, it presents my dead mother as a living, breathing, talking, laughing person. But my awareness has no idea that this is an illusion. It engages with the ghost as if it were real. In virtual reality, I'm aware of the fiction, but my mind is the clueless one. It falls hard for the frankly fantastic images of me flying around the moon.
I did not vote for Illuminous Analemma. I instead picked a standard installation, whose name and features I have completely forgotten. Stranger still, it never occurred to me to award Illuminous Analemma or to see who made it (I later learned it was by Brandon Aleson and Reilly Donovan). Stranger still, I returned to Giant Steps the next day and made a beeline to the headsets and spent nearly 30 minutes in space. I did this again two days later. When the artist DK Pan commented on an Instagram picture of the headsets that he "loved" Illuminous Analemma and was "surprised it didn't win," I also became surprised that it did not win. Why did I not vote for the installation that most captured my imagination? Why didn't it occur to me that it should win?
The more I thought on this, the more I began to realize that I was just not prepared for virtual reality (VR). I had no way of knowing what was good or bad about it. For me, it was just something new and kind of cool—a technology rather than a form. It was not something that I had to (or even thought I could) form a strong opinion about. I'm used to evaluating things that are in the real world, things I can see and touch and walk around. How can you compare something that is with something that is not?
"VR is so new, we need a basic education about it," says Sandy Cioffi, Seattle filmmaker, 2016 Stranger Genius Award nominee, and VR activist. We are sitting at a table in Vermillion gallery. Wine glasses are on the wobbly table. Above us, the light from a skylight falls on a boxy machine that hums as it clears the air. Nineties hiphop fills the background.
Cioffi is describing the very ambitious VR show that she and a team of filmmakers, technologists, and media professionals put together for the Seattle International Film Festival. It's called SIFFX. It runs for four days (June 2 to 5), has 20 VR pieces (some of which will be screened in the Pacific Science Center's Laser Dome), lectures, installations, and something that looks a lot like a crash course in the coming age of VR (SIFFX: X-Academy). There will be a makers lab where people will learn about performance capture devices and how to edit VR. "People who are nowhere near this technology will be invited to participate," Cioffi says.
"I'm totally against the $1,500-a-credit education. I think it's a crisis in this country. And I feel that if you attended everything at SIFFX, you would in essence be attending a miniature program on VR. In fact, because there isn't a program like it anywhere, it's more like attending a graduate program in a new technology...
"The traditional academy has not been at the level of dialogue about VR that it should be. And I think the reason for this is that the technology is potentially disruptive... Formal institutions are not able to get behind this, and so we have to use informal ways to do what those formal institutions should be doing."
"You have to see this as an inquiry. Four days of asking ourselves if VR matters. Is this just good for entertainment? Or is it a potential doomsday device? People seem to have a pretty visceral reaction when they experience it. And by it, we mean X. The unknown. We are trying to solve for X, the radical unknown. And it will be a terrific opportunity for the community to experience aspects of this X."
Cioffi is a filmmaker. What's in it for her?
"A key principle for me is that it is not about the headset. It's not about whether or not the actual hardware has come or when it is going to come. Or even if the crafting used to make work for it has arrived or not. This has everything to do with the shift in language and thinking that follows from 360 degrees of virtual simulation, augmented, mixed reality. And more important than all of that is the way in which it represents an actual leap into a different way of communicating what's loosely being called 'story.' From my point of view, everything is not a story. When you place a visual field that can imitate stereographic 3-D and a fully spatial relationship inside a cell phone or headset, you have created the ability to build a world. That's what I'm interested in as a filmmaker. Building worlds."
Cioffi once ran for a seat on the Seattle City Council on the promise of challenging the big-money interests that influence the system. She has also made documentaries that deal with community and environmental issues. Surely, there has to be something political and potentially progressive that's also drawing her into VR.
"Yes, there is," she says. "There has been over the years a terrific intersection of creative technology, activism, and art. The best representative of this direction is Nonny de la Peña. She is the keynote speaker of SIFFX. Peña has been using gaming technology for close to six years. She rigs it so that you can be placed inside the world that feels like the game world... It's like being in a first-person shooter game. But instead of first-person shooter, her thing has been to make you a first-person witness, a first-person empathizer.
The signature piece by de la Peña is Hunger in Los Angeles, which places you in a line for food, waiting in 100-degree heat. A man passes out right in front of you.
"Though you're looking at animated figures," Cioffi observes, "your body feels something. You are moved, truly. Her theory is that reporting is fine, but what if we could place you in Syria and a cluster bomb explodes behind your head? That experience, plus reading the story, will deepen [your understanding of and feelings for] what is going on in Syria. It would make you more empathetic."
SIFFX also has two traditional films in its program. One is the science-fiction thriller Strange Days, arguably Kathryn Bigelow's best work. Released in 1995, and set at the turn of the millennium, the film is about a dandy on the streets of LA, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), who sells experiences recorded on a Superconducting Quantum Interference Device (SQUID). These memories, usually sexual or violent in nature, are contained on minidiscs, which people buy as if they were crack. The more extreme the experience, the more addictive the memory. Lenny, however, ignores number four of the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Ten Crack Commandments" ("Never get high on your own supply") and spends much of his free time in the VR of SQUID. But the memories he consumes are gentle and sensual. They are of the sunny days he spent with a beautiful woman, Faith Justin (Juliette Lewis). Whenever he is alone in his messy apartment, he pulls out the minidiscs and returns to the past to watch himself play, talk, and fuck Faith.
The reason for showing this film during SIFFX is obvious. The device in the film is very similar to contemporary VR delivery devices. In fact, I thought of Strange Days right after my second important experience with the technology, which came recently during the Taiwanese electronics manufacturer HTC's demonstration of Vive VR, the new headset it has produced with Seattle-based game developer Valve (Bloomberg rates it as "top of the market").
I walked into the media event at HTC's Pioneer Square office. A young man introduced me to the headset. I slipped it on, and it transformed the room into a world I could walk around in. When I got close to a wall, it warned me that reality was right in front of my nose. The details in this VR experience were just stunning. I walked around a sunken ship. A column of water was filled with green light. Fish swam this way and that. A whole whale approached me and stopped for a moment. Its big eye blinked. Calling the visuals animation does not begin to do justice to how real they seem.
Later that night, I dreamed of my dead mother. We were, of all things, dancing in her bedroom to "Under the Pressure" by the War on Drugs. She was so real, so alive, so there. When I awoke, I was amazed by how perfect the illusion had been. I wanted to go back to it. But I couldn't. I have no control over my dreams. Now imagine if someone had filmed my mother, who died in 2003, dancing with a 360-degree camera. I could enter a room in my house, or in a karaoke joint repurposed for VR consumption, and visit my mother in the virtual world. I could walk to her and dance with her. I could do this again and again. I could be a Lenny. The addiction to the realness of the illusion would only grow.
(This idea of repurposing karaoke places like the Rock Box or Venus Karaoke for private VR sessions came from the talented producer and director Steven Schardt, who is on the team that organized SIFFX. An interesting inversion is the difference between the purposes—one a room made for nonperformers to perform in, the other a safe public space for the most private, internal experiences.)
"Virtual reality" has been one of those vague sci-fi neologisms that's been hanging around the culture for the past 30-odd years without anyone really knowing what it means. But SIFFX, like Illuminous Analemma, makes a strong case that the period of VR existing only in theory is over. It isn't going to change the nature of storytelling/filmmaking/consciousness itself. It is changing those things, even now.
This future is happening right now, in front of our eyes.