Ulrich Schrauth during a presentation at the Virtual Reality & Arts Festival Hamburg 2019
For the second year running, Hamburg is hosting VRHAM! (the Virtual Reality & Arts Festival Hamburg), the only event of its kind in Germany, founded by Ulrich Schrauth, the previous helmer of the Thalia Theatre. From 7 to 15 June 2019, the “Oberhafenquartier” district, known for its post-industrial decor and creative vigour, is hosting what is now considered to be one of the biggest international event devoted to virtual reality. In 2018, the festival managed to draw in 4,000 viewers, a more than respectable result for a first edition, with the support of its main partner Telekom (Magenta VR App).
According to Schrault who is the driving force behind this resolutely forward-looking initiative, “VRHAM! allows visitors to familiarise themselves with virtual reality from a variety of perspectives”. The artistic director gladly reminds us that, generally speaking, art always looks towards the immersion of the viewer; virtual reality, therefore, is a natural extension of this aspiration. It might even be seen as the most sophisticated expression of the immersive and inclusive nature of theatre or cinema.
VRHAM! is developing three large sub-sections, offering different ways of “consuming” virtual reality. VREXHIBITION consists of several individual installations set up at various points throughout the “Magenta VR-Lounge” and the “interactive playground”. VRHAM! Live places the focus on collective experiences. As such, installations can be used by two viewers at a time (Meet Juliet, Meet Romeo designed by the Germans Björn Lengers & Marcel Karnapke from CyberRäuber) or they can bring together as many as 30 viewers (Let’s VRHAM! Together – A Virtual Live Concert, the festival’s first home-made production, during which three musicians give an improvised musical performance). Finally, VRHAM! On Top consists of a number of free-of-charge, outdoor installations, aimed at encouraging laypersons or beginners to familiarise themselves with the art of virtual reality.
For those looking to learn more about this flourishing industry, the debates organised within the DISCOURSE sessions will be questioning the links between VR and music, or the political content of certain documentary installations. In this respect, VRHAM! is showcasing two distinguished works. Home After War, written and directed by Gayatri Parameswaran, a German-US-Swiss-Iraqi co-production unearthed during the most recent Venice Film Festival, offers viewers a poignant immersion into Fallujah, a city recently liberated from Islamic State and where concealed explosives continue to threaten the lives of the local inhabitants.
Meanwhile, the German production Paris Terror – Die Geiseln Vom Hyper Cacher by Ricarda Saleh cleverly pushes the boundaries of live TV journalism and takes the viewer back to January 2015, plunging him/her into the anti-Semitic hostage crisis which unfolded in France at the time: the sober, pared down aesthetic of the animation sequences serves to intensify the survivors’ testimonials which are delivered straight to camera; the 360° angle allows the viewer to move around in real images taken from the scene of the tragedy, as well as among the victims and their stories, creating a staggering sense of directness, while the hostages are held captive in the cold-storage rooms of the supermarket.
At the close of this year’s edition, the well-named VRHAMMY Awards will honour the best work, selected by a jury of professionals comprising Myriam Achard (exhibition curator and director of public relations and communications at Montreal’s Phi Centre), Astrid Kahmke (producer and virtual worlds specialist at the Bavarian Film Centre) and Michel Reilhac (a director based in Amsterdam and programmer of the VR section in the Venice Film Festival). A residency will also be offered to a Hamburg artist, while the audience will name its own champion to be handed the VRHAM! People’s Choice Award at the festival’s close.