Experience a secret cold war experiment ... Porton Down by Callum Cooper and Don Webb Photograph: Getty Images
Now in its third year, the virtual reality section of Venice is making serious forays into documentary territory.
The 76th Venice film festival has included sci-fi thrills and comic-book action, backstage melodrama and medieval court intrigue. During the event’s most escapist moments, anyone longing for a dose of reality would have had more luck finding it in the virtual world.
Venice VR is a pioneering festival sidebar dedicated to showcasing the best examples of an emergent art form, with a programme of 40 VR works from around the world. Now in its third year, the section already appears to have turned more mature and serious in its focus. “New art forms usually gravitate towards dystopian fantasy and escapism,” says Liz Rosenthal, Venice VR’s co-curator. “But we’re now seeing projects that are more interested in human relationships and social issues. It’s all got a lot more sophisticated.”
Venice VR takes place on Lazzaretto Vecchio, a deserted island off the Venice Lido that has been repurposed as an exhibition space. The exhibits run the gamut from experimental shorts viewed on an Oculus headset, through to Kiira Benzing’s exuberant Loveseat, an hour-long piece of interactive theatre involving live spectators and an online audience. But it also finds room for hard-hitting social commentary, such as Joel Benson’s Daughters of Chibok, examining the aftermath of Nigeria’s 2014 Boko Haram kidnappings. Callum Cooper and Don Webb’s Porton Down explores Webb’s experience of being an unwitting guinea pig in a secret cold war experiment back in 1954.
Lazzaretto Vecchio island, aka the Venice VR island. Photograph: Getty Images
“There’s a difference between the people who come to VR through the art of gaming and those who do so with a background in film,” says the British documentary-maker Victoria Mapplebeck. “Those who come from gaming tend to give us flights of fancy and the embodied experience of being in a genre of entertainment. But those with a film background are perhaps putting the user in a more voyeuristic, journalistic position. It’s more about looking and listening. Putting the viewer in the space of the story and letting them ask their own questions of the material.”
Mapplebeck was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2017. Her VR project, The Waiting Room, is a powerful 360-degree record of her final session of radiotherapy, interspersed with conversations with her family and some near-abstract images of her cancer cells under a microscope. It follows on from her 30-minute short film of the same name, which was commissioned by the Guardian. Mapplebeck hopes her films will challenge what she sees as reductive cultural myths about cancer – the notion that it’s either an alien curse or a welcome opportunity for personal growth. She hopes to use it in outreach campaigns across UK hospitals.
Victoria Mapplebeck in her original short film, The Waiting Room, which is now a VR experience. Photograph: Victoria Mapplebeck
“My oncologist, a bit aghast, asked me, ‘Would you have wanted to see something like this when you were starting your treatment?’ she recalls. “And I thought, ‘Actually yes, I think I would.”
One of the grandest exhibits on VR Island is Celine Tricart’s The Key, in which an actor leads visitors through a lush digital world full of colour-coded sprites and storybook monsters. But what initially plays as pure fantasy eventually reveals itself to be a first-hand account of displaced refugees.
“The Key is a story about the migrant crisis, but it’s not the sort of film you’d get from an NGO,” Rosenthal explains. “It puts you in the emotional state of the narrator and mixes the physical world with the virtual world.”
Rosenthal feels that technological advances have now pushed VR towards an artistic breakthrough. “What’s always been really difficult is marrying interactivity with narrative,” she says. “But we are now starting to see examples of voice-activated work in which what the user says and how they say it - even how they move - can impact the drama seamlessly and influence the whole direction of the story. We’re reaching the point of an entirely personalised experience.”