Artists and filmmakers are using V.R. in documentary films to address environmental problems, social issues and exotic places. Nonfiction Immersion looks at shows and art installations such as “Say Something Bunny” and “The Privilege of Escape”, which incorporate real events and invite the audience to participate in new forms of storytelling.
Kobayashi: There's so much more layers
in the reality of people's experience
that can be told through trying to dig
into nonfiction research-based practices
and trying to make a story out of that material.
Puno: In the Immersive World, you feel these very real emotions,
and you feel a sense of anxiety, and you feel frustration,
and so I feel like those emotions
are something that I think is an interesting way
to address difficult social issues.
Asher: There are pieces here that have a very specific social message.
Empathy, when it comes to VR, is a really great tool.
May: Every experience, every film you will see here today
has a new understanding of what --
how we can use the tools.
So we're still designing what it is as a medium.
Did she make this all up?
Like, I think this is all fake, and people were like,
"No, I think it's -- I think it's real."
If you say something is nonfiction, people still think,
"Maybe they're making it up.
It's an artist that's doing this."
Puno: It is an escape room-inspired experience, which for...
In case you don't know what an escape room is,
it's where you go with a group of people,
usually friends, family, coworkers, and you agree to be,
like, "locked" inside a room for a set amount of time,
and in order to get out,
you have to complete a series of puzzles.
Inside the rooms, you'll be faced with a set of exercises,
and your objective will be to complete those exercises
in the allotted time, which is 45 minutes.
In our version, we are using that format to address issues
of privilege and social inequity.
If you have an A badge, please line up by the A door,
and a B badge, please line up by the B door.
Woman: It was a interesting, fun, challenging set of games.
You're with a group of people you don't know.
Some are fabulous.
Some rub you a little bit the funny way,
but that's all right.
It's part of a whole group experience,
and it's a big series of just problem-solving exercises,
and I think the one thing that I wasn't quite sure about
was the ultimate objective is getting out of the room,
and so it's just a nice series of challenges to get there.
So this might give a clue to
unlock the door over there.
And this one, too.
Puno: In doing research about privilege,
a lot of times people use analogies to talk about it.
Like, they talk about it being running a race
and how far back from the finish line you start,
or they talk about it in terms of swimming.
It's like people who just float easier than others.
These are all analogies used, and very useful analogies,
but I think I wanted to create more of an experiential metaphor
that people could live even for just a short amount of time,
and so that's why the immersive experience was important to me.
I wanted it to be something
where you felt those real emotions.
You felt that frustration.
You felt that sense of achievement,
and then we sort of crushed the myth of the meritocracy later.
But it's important to feel that first.
And if you're just talking about it,
and you're not actually doing it,
it's not the same thing.
So I think the immersive aspect of it definitely makes it,
I think, more impactful.
It allows us to tap into issues of what makes a game fair.
[ Alarm sounds ]
Woman: We're getting a clue.
[ Bell dings ]
Woman: Examine the dice for visual information.
We don't know if everybody has been given as much help
as we were because, every time we were taking a little bit
too long on something, we would get a clue.
So it was being flowed for us into easy momentum,
and I thought that might be the thing
that wasn't happening there.
Woman: Press green.
Press red. -Oh.
I guess it's the one that's not the color that it says on there.
-Oh, I was thinking... -Oh, interesting.
Puno: The genesis of it came from when we decided to split the rooms.
And so it was kind of thinking
about how to set people up to understand what's happening,
and I think the thing with experiments is you understand
why things are split up.
You understand that there's different conditions,
and it makes you sort of think about those conditions,
and that's what we wanted to do.
Man: I'm assuming that this is the bottom row.
So the light ones go at the bottom, right?
These are all the lightest colors, right?
Puno: I think it helps especially with the addressing
the invisibility of privilege, the fact that privilege
is everything you don't have to deal with, right,
because people do think of it as something extra.
And they're like, "Well, I'm not privileged.
Like, I had this, this and this."
And it's like, "Sure," like, just because you're privileged
doesn't mean you've never had hardship.
Like, the people in the privileged room
work really hard.
The exercises we've developed are not...
They're not easy.
It doesn't guarantee a win,
but it makes it a hell of a lot easier to play the game.
The other room had to do so much more work
just to complete the same tasks,
and that's what's really important for us to get across.
Attention, there is a small section full
of spectrum light in the room. -Ooh.
Make sure you use every opportunity.
-Nice. -It's funny.
At first, I thought this might be all
about group dynamics inside of the room,
and I think there's plenty of that that could be explored.
But then I think there's also the facility
with what are the sort of brain characteristics
that make some things easier, some things harder?
And then coming in here and realizing
that it was about an entirely different set of circumstances,
I think it's a pretty impactful message and realization.
Woman: Small section of spectrum light.
-Oh, so there's colors. -Oh, fun.
-Oh, okay. -All right.
So as a woman in business, it's something that I feel like
is constantly there all the time,
so I appreciate the feeling of it
from the place where you don't know
when the unfairness is as systemic as it is
and as unknown to all of the parties that are participating.
Even women who are not... You know what I mean,
we all sort of participate in something
that feels ultimately like a slightly rigged game,
so it's fantastic to kind of play it out from a ground zero,
Puno: It's interesting how few people have talked
about whether there should be different rooms in life.
I find that most interesting
when people bring things like that up.
There was a woman.
She was like, "Everybody here has someone in the other room,
and you feel more empathy when someone you love,
someone you care about
is going through a more difficult situation."
I think that's absolutely true.
I think that that plays out in real life, too.
Whether it's race, gender, sexuality,
ability, obviously, if you know somebody,
it is easier to be compassionate,
but I guess I just hope that maybe people
can be compassionate
even if they don't know somebody just because they --
just knowing that they wouldn't want to be in that position
or just knowing that it's not fair.
Oh, green, red...
That was probably the indication of the order.
-Yeah. -Oh, was it?
Puno: There was somebody who totally got it,
and somebody was like, "Yeah, well in life,
sometimes there are rooms that are red with a spotlight.
Some in life, it's a red room, and there's no spotlight.
Sometimes it's a red room that's noisy,
and sometimes the room is well-lit."
And I guess the question is,
"What do we want to do about that?
Is that fair?"
They just took all of the... -I know.
...different lettered blocks and put them all into one stack,
so now it's impossible for them to win.
Woman: See, those are -- the people in the control room
told us that the letters are corresponding
to the message on the wall.
Woman: You just arrive on your own to these conclusions
and these feelings, and I think that's better than necessarily
having a didactic kind of presentation of things.
So I think all of the best art
is something that starts with a feeling,
and then you kind of have your ways
that you're able to interpret them.
Woman: How would you feel if the outcome of this game
had consequences in real life?
If we didn't know they had the unfair conditions,
we might feel superior to them. -You might feel superior.
Puno: I mean, since it is an artwork, I'm not here to preach.
I'm not here to -- I'm not an educator.
I'm just an artist with an idea, you know,
and I just wanted to bring up this topic
and start conversations.
I'm here, rather than looking to have all the answers,
I just want to be asking the questions,
and hopefully, the conversation continues when they're done.
That's all I can ask for.
May: It's a 360-film that we filmed in Northern Kenya last year,
which tells the story of the Reteti Elephant Sanctuary.
It's a community-run elephant sanctuary,
and we see it through the eyes of a 16-year-old Samburu girl.
My name is Naltwasha Leripe.
It means the start of the rains.
[ Speaking native language ]
And at this time of year,
we are all waiting for the rains.
May: You get to interact with the elephant.
You get to feed her and nurse her back to health.
And what we want to do with the film is we want
to take people to Africa to tell this amazing story.
It's a really positive conservation story.
The elephant sanctuary is run by the community,
and therefore, the community
have a very close connection with the sanctuary.
And with the interactive piece,
you really appreciate the work that goes on
as they care for orphaned baby elephants.
Leripe: Here, at the Reteti,
my auntie's job is to take care of the babies.
She has called the new orphan Dude.
May: It was fascinating.
I mean, it was once-in-a-lifetime opportunity
for the film crew to be this close to the animals,
and we went through a number of process
so all the animals felt comfortable with it.
We had to take a number of camera choices
across to really sort of find the one
that the animals react most positively to.
We only lost one camera to a lion attack,
so that was pretty good.
Because we tell it through the eyes of a young girl
and her experiences, we're really trying to find
that sort of human side of the story,
look at big biodiversity conservation stories
and really try to zero down to a single human experience
rather than just sort of just telling a big story,
and in this case, telling it through the eyes
of a young girl, we sort of see how her life
is changing, how Africa is changing,
how the attitude to animals are changing
and how we can all sort of work together to address things
like poaching and conservations issues together.
Leripe: At this time of year, for everybody,
water is the most precious thing.
May: I thinks it's exciting.
We haven't defined what the grammar is of it yet,
and that's really exciting to be at that point in history
where we're defining exactly as we go forward
how audience is reacting.
Every time we show something to somebody,
it feeds back into,
you know, our next project and how we want to move forward.
As more people get access to it, it's becoming less specialist,
more people are finding more interesting ways of doing it.
At the moment, it's exciting because
we haven't really defined it into a particular box yet,
and I think it's really powerful for arts,
for education, and for cultural stories like what we're making.
I think finding a way to share experiences
that people may never have, it's a medium
that I think hopefully connects in a different way
to traditional television or film.
I think empathy does play really strongly into it.
I think we're always looking for subjects
that don't necessarily just present the mundane.
They're either environments or stories
that potentially people have no reference point to,
so this is a great point for, you know,
a way for them to actually get involved.
We've had three people burst into tears so far
as they're affected by the piece,
which we think is really emotional.
I think, you know, taking people to a part of the world
that they may never get a chance to go to,
into an environment and into communities
that, you know, it's incredibly hard,
as an outsider, to go, to give you a greater empathy
and a greater experience of what they're going through.
VR is a really great tool for empathy,
but it's all about the context in which you use it, right?
VR isn't a magical machine that you put on a headset,
and you suddenly feel more empathetic
to everything around you.
It's really about the context
and the experience that you create.
Man: It kind of shows you how to use them in the experience,
but the only buttons you use are the triggers on the bottom.
Asher: Our project is a piece
that allows you to interact with the environment
and is about what it's like to lose your home.
Announcer: More hard times, area employees are now bracing
for another round of layoffs.
This comes just two months after multiple companies in the area
notified over 500 employees of their impending termination.
Asher: I'm from the Virtual Human Interaction Lab,
and we're out at Stanford University,
and what we study are the psychological
and behavioral effects of VR,
and the head of our lab, Jeremy Bailenson,
has been studying VR since the late '90s,
and he's been at Stanford since 2003.
And so we have a wide range of projects
that we're always working on in our lab,
and there are really four main reasons that we use VR
or we believe that VR is really great for.
Those would be if something would be dangerous to do
in the real world, impossible to do,
expensive to do, or counterproductive
to do in the real world.
And so something like this piece here,
where you're going through what it's like to lose a home,
is you're embodying the life of somebody else.
That's something that is very difficult,
you know, to do in the real world,
and that's why we choose something like this.
Announcer: You've been unemployed for over 2 months,
and you need to find more affordable housing,
which is difficult to do in this area.
While you look for a new place,
you sell objects in your apartment
to offset the amount of rent you owe.
Asher: VR, I don't think is going in any one way.
This is me personally.
I think we're seeing, just at the festival right now,
so many different applications of VR.
About a year and a half ago
is when the consumer VR revolution really took off
in a very visible way.
There were consumer VR headsets being developed
for a little while,
but it wasn't really until about a year and a half ago
now that we were able to take VR outside of our lab.
We have a really fancy, expensive setup in our lab
that works really well.
We've been able to do full-room tracking for many, many years,
but we had to be in our lab.
It wasn't mobile, and that's all changed
with the advent of the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift
and these great pieces of technology.
That's allowed us to leave the lab,
do not only demos outside of the lab
but also do studies outside the lab.
VR, at least in our lab, we really believe
that it's great for short, salient pieces.
We don't want to put you in VR for really long periods of time.
We don't even want to put you in VR
probably for the length of a feature film
or even a short film, which can maybe run 15 minutes.
This experience is 8 minutes.
That's on the long side of what we would like.
We really believe in our lab
that there are many really great uses for the current,
you know, mediums that we have out there --
film, television, radio, real life.
If you can do something in the real world,
that's what you should aim for, but if you can't do that,
if you can't do something in the real world,
well, what are those short, salient, impactful pieces
that you can do in VR?
Kobayashi: I think people are really open-minded here in New York,
also really confident, too.
They come here to experience something new and
to be kind of at the forefront of experimentation,
I think, in theater, in art, in culture, really.
We've had a lot of audience members that come into this,
and they, like, talk back.
And I'm like, "Oh, you don't have to do that."
But, like, I'm like, "It's New York. That's going to happen."
"Say Something Bunny" is a one-woman show.
It's based on a found recording made on a wire recorder,
which is kind of an extinct recording device from the 1950s
that actually recorded sound on a piece of wire
as thin as a piece of hair.
And it's based on a recording made on this machine
that was made by a family in the 1950s
where they just are kind of going around
at a family function and recording each other.
It's mundane in a lot of ways,
but I just really connected with this audio recording
and started researching this family,
and so the show shares all of my research
and everything that I found about this family,
and the audience is really immersed into this recording
and are asked to take on a role of one of these family members.
All I want you to do tonight is listen and read.
So I got this recording in 2011 from a friend.
He got it from a friend who got it from a man
who got it from an estate sale somewhere in New York.
And when my friend opened the box,
there were two reels hidden inside.
Kobayashi: When you listen to the recording,
it just kind of sounds like anyone's family.
It's people talking about just pop culture.
You know, they're quoting commercials,
but then when you get into, like,
listening to their family dynamic, it just made me laugh.
I am always drawn to material that has a sense of humor
and that you're rewarded by spending more time in it
because it just brings you joy.
And I think that the family just has so much joy and play,
and they have so much fun with each other.
There's so much play in language and, like, double entendres
and kind of, like, these sex jokes
that are, like, hilarious.
Like, it just really, for me, rewarded repeated listening.
-You coming east of time? -Yes.
I'm coming east. -I hope my...
Man: Have a room ready for me in a couple of days.
Woman: How about a couple of nice girls?
Should I have that ready for you too?
Man: Have that ready for me.
Kobayashi: For the first 4 years of the project,
I kind of was like, "Okay. I'm going to use this document
but imagine who these people were."
And then I just decided to kind of spontaneously research it
and just see if it was even possible.
I think, before I started that point,
I was like, "I don't even know if I can find this,
so I don't want to get my hopes up."
In the second recording,
they are celebrating Thanksgiving.
Like, I figured out that they're celebrating Thanksgiving.
There's, like, reference to the turkey,
and through that, they also were celebrating
the grandparents' anniversary.
So I was being like, "Okay.
They're celebrating the grandparents'
44th anniversary on Thanksgiving,
so if I find that date, take away 44 years,
I could potentially try and find a marriage
document in the New York City archives."
That was the first time that I had this, like,
document that said a first name and a last name.
Once I found this document, I really had to go forward
in the process of finding out who I was,
and it was so much more interesting
in terms of who these people
were than something that I would have made up.
One of the characters, I don't know how much of this
is a bit of a spoiler, but, like,
completely not mentioned in the recording at all
because stuff like this doesn't come up,
but one of the characters was a child film actress,
and I was like, "Is this the same person?"
Like, it was just so interesting
that this family that's just this ordinary family,
she ended up, like, having two kids,
like, lived in the suburbs,
had this, like, completely other life as a child.
It was, like, moments like that where I was just like,
"Oh, I have to keep finding more and more."
And every time I looked deeper,
I found more, which I think is just...
If you look at anyone's history,
if you really pay attention to it,
there's going to be something that's really interesting
or compelling in that if you decide to pay attention to it.
You're talking about your husband, Sydney,
and when you say this, I'd like you to scan the room.
And when you notice that Sydney is not there,
you feel at ease mentioning some things
that he might not want you to talk about in company.
It's about your -- your mother-in-law.
And I think that's what so interesting about nonfiction
storytelling is, like, if you really try and dig deep,
you'll find stories that, like, contradict assumptions
about how you imagine, in this case,
like, kind of like a Jewish family in New York.
They're celebrating Christmas.
I mean, it's the '50s.
They're, like, assimilating to, like, a postwar America.
And so there's all of these things where,
if I had just made up who these people were,
I wouldn't have known that.
Because of this process, I've just become
so much more interested in looking at nonfiction,
at archival stories,
at stories that are just waiting to be told from the past.
Hopefully, I think that a lot of people
also just have that reflection on their own family,
or just kind of how we see value in things.
Like, what is an important document to preserve?
A lot of people are like, "Why were you interested in this?"
It's like, "It's not a famous person."
It's just this ordinary family,
and I think that they're both, like, touched by that gesture
but also hopefully are like,
"Maybe it's important to, like, preserve histories
that might be kind of forgotten otherwise."
The recorder is back in the curtain.
So this explains a lot, why the audio quality in this scene
is so much lower than in the scene before
because David is secretly recording everyone.
We're essentially eavesdropping here.
Kobayashi: The show is really not about finding the subject,
finding kind of the expert on this material
and having their first person, like, an oral history
of what's going on in this recording.
It's really about, how can you reconstruct a story
when you no longer have the people
who were first involved in it present and alive anymore,
and how can a person who's, like, a stranger
and very distant from that time period
and is not part of the family,
through the process of research and imagination,
try and tell a story that you don't really have answers to?
So the show is just as much about, I think, this family,
but it's also about my process of understanding who they were.
So it's kind of this mix of both of those processes together.
I just want to take a moment to review the characters
and their relationships before we move onto scene 2.
So we'll start with you, David.
You're 17. -[Indistinct]
You're at the center of this recording,
orchestrating the entire thing.
You're artistic and quite witty
and able to keep up with adult conversation.
In the performance, we really try to ask the audience
to use their imagination in constructing the story with me.
So we don't have, like, furniture and wallpaper,
and like, we're not recreating the '50s
in a physical environment.
We're really trying to ask the audience
to re-create that environment in their imaginations.
-Your brother is Larry, 13. -[Indistinct]
You're the baby of the family.
You love sports.
You're constantly cracking jokes,
and you have a great sense of humor,
and you're constantly seeking attention by whatever means,
and whenever the sound of a kazoo is heard...
[ Kazoo buzzes ]
...that's your cue.
Kobayashi: There's drawings, there's archival documents,
just a different way to engage in the material
that's not exclusively listening
or just having me tell the story,
but that they can actually look at the document that I saw
and see how I made that connection themselves.
It's kind of this, like, primary source material
that we're putting in front of them and saying like,
"This is real. Like, these are real people,
and this is, like, a document that they signed," or something.
So it's really trying to, like,
make that experience a little visceral for them
or something that they can actually experience,
that they're sharing in that moment of discovery
as well that I had the pleasure, and the tactile experience.
And so, I think that has so much to do with how those voices
resonate with you if you grew up and had grandparents
that sounded like that, or if you watched films,
what characters kind of sounded like that to you.
So it's really this, like, active imagination
for the audience in making this story with me.
Puno: You could say that since people can connect digitally,
I think that, on one hand,
that gives you access to, like, everyone and everything.
But I think, in a way, sometimes people crave in-person things,
like, in-real-life experiences,
and that's something I really love about immersive experience.
And I think why they're so popular is they're tactile,
and you're really in it.
You don't have to pretend you're in it.
Like, you're actually there.
I feel like immersive experiences
make you feel more connected to people.
I think that's what we really crave.
What I think is so amazing, you have to be present and be
in a space that's shared with other people.
And I think that that's the thing that's so fulfilling
about immersive experiences,
it forces you to be present.
It forces you to be other people.
I think with documentaries, you're able to take people
to environments that they may never get the opportunity to do.
We work really hard to try to realize those dreams.
It becomes a really interesting way to connect with people,
and it's the kind of thing where you can repeat
the stories over and over again because you're actually there,
and you have this sort of autonomy
over your own experience.
It's why I like making interactive artwork in general.
You understand that, if you stand up in the middle of it
and say something out loud,
you're going to change what happens in that space,
so it is this feeling of liveness, of being alive,
of being present.
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- VisualIMMERSIVE.WORLD traverses art outdoors and the interiors of the mindApril 27, 2021