For the VRHAM! FORWARD, Markus Selg is part of the selection committee for the teams. The artist, stage designer and musician was awarded the German Theatre Prize “Faust” in 2020 for the stage design of “ULTRAWORLD”, a theatre performance he conceived together with Susanne Kennedy for the Volksbühne Berlin. At the end of February, the new common production “I AM (VR)” celebrated its digital premiere in Tokyo. Markus Selg is a researcher, someone who crosses borders. A conversation with him about experiments, multimedia spaces of experience and VR in theatre:

VRHAM!: Susanne Kennedy told in an interview about your new joint project “I AM (VR)”: VR … “is a tool that lets us realize what reality is in the first place.” What artistic potential does VR offer for the field of theatre, for the performing artists and the audience?
MARKUS SELG: VR is a kind of mirroring of the human sensory experience, directly in one’s own head. It is not only a powerful technology of simulation, but a profound tool for reflection on human perception and ego-consciousness. Who am I? Who is this avatar with whom we identify? Do we exist in the physical world or do we exist primarily within the stories our brains tell themselves. Who or what hallucinates these stories? If we live in our own simulation, how can we interact with others? Can we even distinguish between reality and simulation? With the walk-on stage and VR, theatre has the possibilities of total immersion with simultaneous collective presence in the space. Compared to cinema or computer games, our physical bodies can also be included in the theatre space. With the fusion of theatre, VR and art, a system can emerge within which we can create the most complex cosmologies – with the audience as actors at their centre.

V!: The current situation has brought many things out of balance, has accelerated developments and opened up new areas. What should theatre “learn” from this?
MS: Theatre is now slowly opening up to digital thinking and virtual technologies. Right now, however, there is still a lot of forced actionism – like the streaming of conventional plays. I see the opportunity more in fundamentally envolve the form of theatre. If we extend the fantastic but somewhat cumbersome theatre machinery into digital space, a wide variety of actors – human, non-human, biological and synthetic intelligences – will have the opportunity to play together. Physical limitations can be lifted and navigating between worlds can become more fluid. A platform can emerge that will come closer to the idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk than any art form before. The venue where we will perform our algorithmic rituals and celebrate life in its entirety and its mysteriousness.

V!: You are on the jury for VRHAM! FORWARD, which is explicitly aimed at artistic teams. Does art only work together? What benefits do you see in collective artistic process?
MS: Art works quite well on its own, but I am most fascinated by the collective process. The magic that happens in the interaction between people. When a work is created that was actively envisioned by each individual, but no one could have dreamed of the result on their own. I see the stage as a kind of ritualistic architecture for community, a system of collective dreaming. An experimental space for a collective practice. How can you generate a creative situation and make it so concentrated and open that everyone can best contribute with their abilities?

For VRHAM! FORWARD, VRHAM! Virtual Reality & Arts Festival, together with the Institut für theatrale Zukunfsforschung  (ITZ) at Zimmertheater Tübingen, is looking for artists from Europe who are working in the field of the performing arts experimenting with Virtual and Augmented Reality.  An interview with the artistic director of the ITZ, Peer Mia Ripberger.

VRHAM!: Who is the Open Call aimed at, who can apply until 31st March?

PEER MIA RIPBERGER: For the joint Open Call, we are looking forward to receiving submissions from artistic production teams in the field of immersive art. These can be both conceived projects and artistic works in the early stages that can be continued here at the ITZ in Tübingen in a concentrated working environment. We provide one of our stages for this and the most beautiful terrace on the Neckar for breaks and evenings.

V!: The use of digital media including VR is at the centre of your theatrical work. What potential do you see in this for the artistic process and socio-political exchange? What does this mean in concrete terms for the residencies you have announced?

PMR: Our focus on developing plays on socio-political themes allows us to think together contemporary theatre approaches and innovative media art. In doing so, digitalisation and automation occupy us both in terms of content and form as a means of staging. With VREEDOM, for example, we brought out a VR production in September 2020 that focused on the shared experience of VR for several people. Reflection on the media used also always plays a role for us – like VR here. Together with the VRHAM! team and the residents, we want to build a bridge from Tübingen to Hamburg and enter into an intensive exchange with the productions in order to push this reflection further.

V!: The last year has (inevitably) accelerated digitalisation in many cultural institutions. Do you now see your expertise and experience as even more of an impulse generator and networker?

PMR: We are of course trying to use the full potential of digital technologies in the performing arts and to bring their potential out into the city and the German-speaking theatre landscape. This is particularly exciting here because Tübingen, with its ‘Cyber Valley’, is one of the best and most innovative AI research locations in the world. Face-capturing as a means of staging, social VR and innovative progressive web apps that enable audio walks without audience contact as GPS-based smartphone applications – we have dealt with digitalisation in very different areas. Our discursive and contemporary approach, the young team and the wealth of ideas and innovations at the ITZ enable us as a theatre to break new ground not only aesthetically but also structurally. However, we always confront these digital technologies with analogue settings in order to make theatrical experiences possible – and we consider this to be the way forward. So far, we have refrained from exclusively digital productions.

On 7 June, VRHAM! VIRTUAL ends musically: In cooperation with the Schleswig-Holstein Musik Festival (SHMF) and with the support of the NORDAKADEMIE-Stiftung, the work Tessellatum by Donnacha Denney will be performed at the festival hub by viola da gamba player Liam Byrne together with the musicians Johanna Ruppert (violin), Friedemann Slenczka (viola), Simone Drescher (violoncello) and Kristina Edin (double bass) and streamed live to the Museum of Other Realities and YouTube. Hannah Bregler on common concepts and special challenges:

VRHAM! VIRTUAL: How did the cooperation come about and which piece did you choose for the closing event? 

HANNAH BREGLER: The current situation also brings about new formats, approaches to mediation and possibilities, as we are experiencing in a wonderful way in our cooperation with VRHAM! After the cancellation of the SHMF we immediately started looking for opportunities to perform some of the planned concerts without an audience – so we were faced with the same challenge as VRHAM! Our concert series “Moondog” stands for concerts with experimental music in innovative formats, not limited to genres, which is why Tessellatum from this series fits so well with the concept of VRHAM!

VV: What were the special challenges in the preparations for such a concert?

HB: We usually plan with much longer lead times. But the pressure we are all under now has also released a lot of creativity. We were faced with the question of how to integrate virtual elements and the transmission of the live stream into the Museum of Other Realities in a meaningful way. Then we developed ideas with our partners from the PODIUM Festival. Thanks to the enthusiasm of the ensemble we finally chose, and thanks to the entire VRHAM! team, we gradually became familiar with the special appeal of the virtual cosmos in Zoom meetings, telephone calls and a technical rehearsal. Since the transmission of a live concert to the virtual stage is a world premiere, some technical hurdles only became apparent on site, which we were able to tackle and solve together.

The SHMF will not take place this year, instead you are planning the “Summer of Possibilities”? What does that mean in concrete terms and how will the concert at VRHAM! be integrated into your program?

The “Summer of Possibilities” arose from the idea to give artists the chance to perform despite the cancellation of the SHMF and to bring music to people through different channels. There will be numerous formats to be experienced on radio, television or the internet. The VRHAM! concert will be the start of our summer and the closing event for you. It is one of a total of three “Moondog” concerts. All three concerts will be streamed during our festival period from the beginning of July to the end of August. In addition, we will present about 100 events during the “Summer of Possibilities” – thanks to the reduced restrictions, some of them in front of an audience.

New World by Kerenza Harris and Alessio Grancini has been selected from the Open Call on the current situation due to COVID 19 for this year’s digital festival edition VRHAM! VIRTUAL. The experience will be shown in the festival section VRCinema.

VRHAM! VIRTUAL: Tell us a bit about your artistic approach to the pandemic.

KERENZA HARRIS: Our personal experience of isolation during the pandemic is confusing to us. We feel both happy to be safe and alive while at the same time scared and devastated by what is happening around us. It feels like we are dreaming, alone in a tiny bubble. We’ve kept this dreamlike quality in New World and tried to center the story on the conflicting emotions we are going through. While making the experience, we also felt it was important to reconnect our bodies and minds. We purposefully used Tilt Brush to build the environment and essentially used our bodies to create New World.

VR is an important social and cultural medium that we hope will continue to grow.

VV: A major theme of both the experience and the pandemic is isolation. What do you think, does VR technology lead us more into isolation or does it help us out?

KH: VR technology has the ability to directly affect our perception and impact how we experience the world as a simulated environment; It is both physical and emotional. New realities, new world, new bodies, there are no limits to what can be explored. We believe strongly that as the technology becomes more accessible, it will have a greater impact on our lives. We already see the amazing artistic experiences that are created everyday and the variety of subjects that are dealt with. It is an important social and cultural medium that we hope will continue to grow.

VV: Will the so called “virtual world” become more important for social and cultural life during and after the pandemic? If so, how? 

KH: For us, it goes beyond social and cultural life. The stakes are much greater now. Our world is moving towards more polarized thinking, there seems to be less and less common ground, less compassion.  For the past two days, the tense situation in Los Angeles (US), where we are based, highlights how far out of touch we are from each other and how important it is for us to reconnect. Creating virtual worlds and imagined stories is a way for us to question the status quo, to express new ideas and share our beliefs with others in a safe immersive environment.

VV: What does it mean to you to be a part of VRHAM! Virtual 2020?

KH: In this changing world, we are searching for ways to reconnect to others, to feel like we belong somewhere. VRHAM! has given us the unique opportunity to share our story and find hope and unity in the most unlikely places.

The short film Gravity VR turned into an exciting VR work, which was shown at VRHAM! VIRTUAL in the VREXHIBITION section. Fabito Rychter about new artistic challenges:

VRHAM! VIRTUAL: What was exciting for you about making a film about falling?

FABITO RYCHTER: Falling is usually a common nightmare people have. For me it was exciting to think about it not as something scary but something ordinary. And it was also exciting to think about what falling would mean for people who have been falling their whole life. What would their nightmares be about?

VV: You have been working together with Amir Admoni for 10 years and now Gravity is your first VR experience. Why did you decide to make this a virtual reality project?

FR: Gravity was first released as a short movie. But when we started producing it I was beginning to work with virtual reality and I soon realized that the universe in which the story takes place by itself would be interesting enough to experience in VR. Also when we started making Gravity we had already made another short, theatre plays and tv series. So venturing in this new language seemed like a fun challenge

»Not having a visible ground below you could make things harder. But, to be honest, causing the sensation of falling in VR is a lot easier than doing it in a flat screen medium.«

VV: How do you make falling experienceable for the audience, when you neither feel gravity nor have a (visible) ground to steer towards?

FR: In Gravity we play a lot with movement. Sometimes you feel like you’re falling, sometimes you feel like you’re floating. We could do that by changing the speed of the things around you. Not having a visible ground below you could make things harder. But, to be honest, causing the sensation of falling in VR is a lot easier than doing it in a flat screen medium.

VV: In Gravity the user has the possibility to interact with the environment and also has impact on the storys ending. Is Gravity a computer game?

FR: I’m not sure. It could be. It‘s interactive, it’s made in a game engine, but I don’t think it’s a game, it’s an interactive experience. You don’t have an objective, you can’t lose, you can’t win. But maybe we should release Gravity 2 as a shooter.

The experience Flow by Yao Wang is based on the Chinese fable “The Peach Blossom Spring”, in which a fisherman meets people who live completely apart from the rest of the world and its society and politics.An interview with the artist:

VRHAM! VIRTUAL: What about this story attracted you?

YAO WANG: Nowadays, everything about life is either accelerating or caving in. Living space gets smaller, the news gets bigger. I often find myself reminiscing about a time when life was slower and simpler; when there were fewer things to have but more time with loved ones. This was the sentiment when Tao Yuanming wrote this poem in 421 CE, and it still stands true today.

VV: Your work tells of nature experiences. At the same time, however, we can only experience it through high-tech means. Do you believe that VR has the power to bring nature, society and technology together in a new way? If so, how?

YW: I think there’s a beauty in that on its own. It’s very cyberpunk (laughing)

 

The challenge in bringing the abstract ink strokes to life with artist Jessica (Sijia) Zhai was in portraying depth, the randomness of paintbrush strokes, and syncing those strokes to musical elements. 

VV: Flow is based on the aesthetics of Chinese water paintings. Tell us a bit about the special challenges in translating a flat painting technique into an immersive 360° experience.

YW: The entire experience is drawn in traditional Chinese water-and-ink painting style, inspired heavily by the innovations of artist Wu Guangzhong (1919-2010). The ethereal mountains,  buildings, and people were delicately drawn by artist Chuantao Xu inside Quill, who overcame many design challenges as he translated a “flat” (traditionally with no use of linear perspective techniques or shadowing)  and translucent painting style into a lush landscape. The challenge in bringing the abstract ink strokes to life with artist Jessica (Sijia) Zhai was in portraying depth, the randomness of paintbrush strokes, and syncing those strokes to musical elements.

VV: For you as an artist, what is the most exciting thing about working with virtual realities?

YW: For me, it is the immersion that this medium offers. As the co-founder of ICTUS Audio, we are most excited about the development of spatial audio and spatial music within immersive experiences. Sound is a centre element in FLOW. The original ethnic score incorporates ambisonics and spatial audio technology to create an immersive sonic world. This world music score features a blend of ethnic instruments such as the Greek lyra, the Chinese guzheng, pipa, dulcimer, tap guitar and cello. It is a true artwork of multiculturalism. These instruments blend beautifully in a spatial environment, circulating around the listener.  We want to keep pushing the boundaries of merging art and music in virtual realities.

 

The project Daughters of Chibok, which was awarded the Golden Lion for the best VR story at the Venice Festival in 2019, is running in the VREXHIBITON section. The Nigerian director Joel ‘Katchi Benson takes the audience with him to the place of action:

VRHAM! VIRTUAL: How and when did you come up with the story of Daughters of Chibok and chose to share it with your audience?

JOEL KATCHI BENSON: On April 14th 2014, 276 girls were kidnapped from a school in Chibok, Nigeria. When that happened the whole world was shocked. We had never seen anything like that in the country. And obviously there was a lot of conflicting reports about what happened, also a lot of denial on the side of the government. As a storyteller I was always curious to find out more about this story, but I couldn’t go there, because Chibok is really far and kind of high risk as well. Last year I had an opportunity to visit Chibok while I was making another documentary. I was like “Where are the mothers of these girls?” and I met one of them, Yana. We spoke and spent some time together and I decided to make a documentary about the lives of these women and what they were going through for the past five years.

That’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to take people to Chibok, to see what I had seen, experience what I had experienced. There is no better medium to use than 360 VR.

VV: Why did you chose to do it as a 360° VR film instead of a conventional documentary?

JB: After speaking to that woman the question was: How do we tell this story? One of the things that I have noticed or that is said about VR is that it has the ability to take you to places that you ordinarily would not be able to get access to. And Chibok is one of those places. It’s remote and high risk to go there, but we can take people there with virtual reality. That’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to take people to Chibok, to see what I had seen, experience what I had experienced. There is no better medium to use than 360 VR.

VV: What is the impact of your VR experience?

JB: Daughters of Chibok is one of those projects that change your life as a filmmaker. Originally the intention was just make the film, raise some money for the women so that they can go back to their farms and continue with their lives, just a little bit better. We didn’t know it was going to go that far. Next thing you know: We’re in Venice and I’m holding the Venice Lion in my hands as a winner, which was very surprising and unexpected. And as a result of the press and the media, we were able to take Yana to New York where she attended the United Nation General Assembly last year, she met with the executive secretary of UN-Women, she met with officials from Facebook, from Ted, she was on CNN. There was so much love and support for her. And when we came back to Nigeria we were able to get people to support her in her community.  The biggest support we had seen was a woman who said to me: “Do they have power in Chibok?” and I said no. And she said “Ok, we’re going to give them power”. She was able to donate portable solar kits and we were able to power about 120 homes of women who have young kids that are still in school. And for us that was really symbolic because the kidnap of these girls was a statement by Boko Haram to say that women and girls should not be educated and our response was to support women who want to send their kids to school, so that their kids can get an education, especially the girls. We’re really working hard to raise funds so that we can support each of the women in some little way, so that they can feel that the world hasn’t forgotten them.

VV: What do you think about exhibiting your work virtually instead of in a physical festival?

On the one hand I will miss being able to give a high five and to hug people, I will miss the human contact. But on the flip side what you’re doing with VRHAM! is a testament to the ingenuity of the human mind. You could have easily just said: “There’s a lockdown, let’s move this to next year”, but you’re doing it virtually. And I find that very inspiring and I am actually very curious and want to see how this turns out. I can’t wait to wear my headset and join you from Nigeria. That’s the beauty of Virtual Reality

 

The NORDMETALL Foundation supports this year’s VRHAM! VIRTUAL edition with the implementation of the accompanying programme. Panels, artist talks and live acts will take place this year in the virtual Museum of Other Realities. An interview with managing director Kirsten Wagner:

VRHAM! VIRTUAL:  Is relocating the festival to the virtual world a chance for the future, an example with model character?

KIRSTEN WAGNER: Definitely! The virtual world offers the opportunity to reach new target groups, to enable cooperation across distances and to facilitate participation. We are impressed by how determined the VRHAM! team immediately started looking for alternatives to the planned festival in the Oberhafen here in Hamburg. And we are pleased that the ideas found a correspondingly inspiring echo in its international network. It is precisely this willingness to innovate that we value in our sponsoring partners. The virtual edition will be a laboratory space in which new interactions are made possible and explored. It will also attract many people with whom it would not have been possible to meet in real life. We therefore see it as a great opportunity to enable completely new experiences that will be trend-setting.

VV: Your foundation, too, was quick to react, and set up the »Digital Engagement« workspace in museums as part of the »Das relevante Museum« project. What does this mean in concrete terms?

KW: Together with representatives of other foundations and an outreach expert, we used digital tools to set up a structure in March 2020 that enables knowledge transfer for visitor orientation in the German-speaking museum scene. Currently, almost 70 people are exchanging ideas on what makes a good digital integration of the public possible. International experts also provide specialist impulses and report on opportunities and obstacles. What we started in 2019 in real space will be put into concrete terms in the current digital situation – in a completely collaborative way. We see it as our task to show ways out of uncertainty, to encourage visitors to try something out, and to undauntedly build bridges between the audience and creative artists.

VV: The current situation will have long-term effects on the reception of culture. What does this mean for cultural funding in general and how do you as a foundation react to this development?

KW: Culture needs flexible support now. Physical experience, the moment, the encounter will remain important – but also enabling novelties and experiments. We still want to spark enthusiasm for culture and keep traditional values alive. Culture as the motor of a transforming modern world should be given space. We support this – both in the analogue and the virtual world.

Since three years INVR.Space has been a partner of VRHAM! The creative services of the Virtual Reality Full Service Studio based in Berlin and Munich are once again in demand for the current digital edition of the festival. An interview with CEO Sönke Kirchhof:

VRHAM! VIRTUAL: What are the biggest challenges for you this year?

SÖNKE KIRCHHOF: Location and heart of the festival in the last two years was Hamburg’s Oberhafenquartier. Now there will be no physical festival, but a digital edition by the name of VRAHM! VIRTUAL. We now have the task of transferring the look and the great set design of the Gleishalle, where the artworks have been presented in the last two years, into the virtual world and all this, because of the current situation, with a rather tight time frame.

VV: So you are now recreating the festival location 1:1 in the virtual Museum of Other Realities, where the artworks will be presented this year?

SK: That’s right, in close coordination with VRHAM!’s set design department we are creating a place that reminds us of the Gleishalle. On the basis of the design drafts, we are currently working on the virtual replica, using the development platform Unity, which is also used for the development of games, and other 3D editing programs.

VV: When you are not working for VRHAM, what are your current projects?

SK: Our company specializes in the development, production and distribution of immersive content. We also rent out special technical equipment. Apart from developing new formats and content, we also work on new technologies and their integration and transfer to other areas and applications. This is currently in high demand, since film festivals and trade fairs will probably be held digitally in the near future. The demand for virtual tools for a more realistic, less game-like appearance is growing continually. We are currently developing a platform for exactly these potential customers, aiming at creating an aesthetically appealing and adapted concept for the virtual space.

The NORDAKADEMIE Stiftung has been a faithful partner of VRHAM! Virtual Reality & Arts Festivalsince 2018 and is also a sponsor this year. How VR art can build bridges is revealed by the chairman Dr. Georg Plate in an interview.

VRHAM! VIRTUAL: Theatres, festivals, small and large cultural institutions are moving their program to the internet, developing alternatives. Does this mean the end of the real cultural experience or are new innovative possibilities opening up?

GEORG PLATE: Both areas will benefit from each other. The experience of virtual art makes people curious about art they can touch. Conversely, Virtual Reality makes it possible to implement artistic ideas in a new dimension and encourages the desire to compare it with traditional art forms.

VV: Which bridges can be built with VR art?

GP: Along with globalization and sustainability, digitization is one of the mega-topics of our time, and the NORDAKADEMIE Foundation is also addressing it with several projects it supports. Art in digital form opens up access to artistic representations, especially for younger target groups who have had little contact with traditional art objects up to now. For the older generation, Virtual Reality offers a completely new art experience combined with a new bridge to the digital world, which is changing and expanding at breathtaking speed every day.

VV: How do you as a foundation and educational institution react to the current situation?

The current situation is also a special challenge for the NORDAKADEMIE University, to which the team is reacting creatively with new forms of teaching and special support services. Virtual teaching and virtual art can inspire each other. In this respect, the NORDAKADEMIE Foundation is supporting virtual art forms this year – not only at VRHAM! but also at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival.