For the last few years, the Venice Biennale has dramatically stepped up its support for virtual and augmented reality content. Now, we find ourselves at point where the festival is dedicating a whole custom space on Lazaretto Vecchio to championing this burgeoning art form for a whole week.
Little more than a tiny speck of land just off Venice's plush, residential Lido, where the most of the festival takes place, this island was once a leper colony and is actually where we got the word "quaratine" from. Originally, the Venetians were the first to pioneer the practice of isolating people with infectious diseases for roughly 40 (or "quarantina") days, and now the Biennale is using the red-brick convalescence shacks to cautiously incubate a new technology that is undergoing intense scrutiny from the production, exhibition and distribution sectors of the film industry.
Fortunately, the health of this absolutely golden 75th edition of the festival has not harmed at all by this risky new medium. In fact, if anything, this international VR platform has greatly improved the festival, and produced some of the most infectiously entertaining and pleasurable audio-visual experiences I have had in years! Certainly a big part of the sheer joy I felt on the island was due to the sheer novelty of the projects, but nevertheless the quality was extremely evident, and it's abundantly clear that this rapidly evolving art form is only going to go from strength to strength. So despite the 6+ hours I spent strapped into VR headsets and Oculus Rift controllers, I probably only got through about one third of the world-class exhibitions and installations on offer.
What I can definitely say is that, of the ones I tried in that time, four projects definitely stood out. Those included 35-minute-long popular favourite Eclipse, by directors Astruc Jonathan, Favre Aymeric and French outfit Blacklit, a very BBC production titled Berlin Blitz, a thoroughly well-thoughout Italian fashion piece by Francesco Carrozzini, titled X-Ray Fashion, and my personal favourite: the three-part Spheres installation - directed by Eliza McNitt, and exec produced by the great Darren Aronofsky.
These pieces shone out from their glistening, tiny screens in particular for me, because the realities they transported you to all seemed to be the most instinctive. The most likely to inspire moments of genuine wonderment. And they were by far the most representative of where VR seems to be just about to go next. Something never more apparent than with Part 1 of the Spheres project too, prettily subtitled Chorus of the Cosmos.
As I had been waiting to strap into this triology, I had seen some people making some pretty wild gesticulations and loud exclamations, and I had wondered what had made them forget the social norms of their public surroundings so readily. The answer, of course, is that Chorus of the Cosmos' cosmic experience is so poetic and natural, it quickly teaches, immerses and satisfies you in equal measure.
Suspending you in outer space, this VR places two Oculus controllers in your hands, and allows your hands, eyes and ears to interact with the various energy waves that etherially pass through our universe. The sage and mellifluous voice of Millie Bobby Brown cooingly sets the scene, and she invites you to reach out and touch the stars. To start with, tiny colourful particles float around you, and the movements of your hands slowly cause the particles to vibrate and generate trails. As you swirl all about you, you slowly begin to see waves of light slowly eminating out from where you stand: without even realising it, you've been instagating a gorgeous Aurora Borealis all along...
What's particularly nice about Spheres is that, whilst it will definitely gets your inner nerd bobbing and swooping, there's never any wrong answers. You can do pretty much your own thing in the vast expanses of space, and the carefully calibrated vibrations in the controllers merely give you prompts when you're on to the right sort of thing. Plus, the controllers provide really rather wonderful physical payoffs for your searching grasps into space, and the different intensities and types of vibrations really make you feel like you are learning something about the quality of the energy waves you're touching or catching as they hurtle toward you. The cosmic chorus you trigger with your motions is also really rather beautiful.
To be honest, I don't know if it was the sheer sense of newness that made Chorus of the Cosmos so great in those fleeting 15 minutes, but it definitely felt like the strongest of the three pieces. Though that's not at all to say that Parts 2 and 3 were not also euphorically spine-tingling. In particular, the second part, Songs of Spacetime, is lent a greater gravitas, as it's voiced over in a similar style, but in the slightly more commanding voice of Jessica Chastain. Her deeper tones seem to fill you with a starker sense of the almost incomprehensible forces of universe, as this piece slowly leads you to explore black holes and they effect they have on time.
And I really cannot stress enough how compelling it is when this piece first places you in the POV of a star being sucked into a black hole. Then, once you've finished being irresistibly absorbed, you take on the perspective of a black hole. Now it has to be said, seeing as this is a safe space, that I experienced absolute glee as I felt the force ripple through my hands as I messed up an entire star in the persona of a celestial being so dense that I have stopped even conforming to the rules of gravity and time. What's more, I'd say this project taught me more about event horrizons and singularities (and with greater ease) than any physics lesson ever did.
Completing the trilogy then came Pale Blue Dot, narrated by the gravelly and hypnotising voice of Patti Smith. This conclusion allowed you to run your fingers over time itself, as you trace the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the present day. And once you arrived at Earth today, the overarching theme of intergalactic music takes a very poignant note, as Spheres puts it to us the music of the universe won't end if we destroy our environment, but that music's only observers may well disappear forever. This uniting of a first-rate project with A-list talent was excellent, and the decision to place a female director and voice at the heart of an often male-dominated scientific discourse is highly commendable. I cannot advise people enough to try to see this VR experience.
Another intergalactic project that was well worth seeing was Eclipse. Only this time, this space simulation came much more in the form of a portable escape room - which is actually already being deployed in some arcades. The premise of this sci-fi adventure was a mission to save an interplanetary exploration ship that has suddenly stopped responding. As part of this Alien-esque rescue effort, teams of upto four can take part, and you are split into two groups: one who boards the ghost ship, and one who guides them from the mothership.
This VR gives you an infra-red joystick for each hand, with a trigger that then controls virtual hands or fingers that grasp and poke as appropriate to the new world you are in. Also built into the controllers is an intercom for communicating with the other team, and a space helmet allows you to see and hear all the important details of your mission. Meanwhile, an almost oxygen canister-like computer processor is strapped to your back to make this powerful and demanding VR even possible.
Once suited and booted, the way this VR then syncs you up with a virtual cosmonaut's body was really remarkably lifelike, and the intuitive functioning of your now fictional hands were uncannily good. So much so, in fact, that I suddenly found myself compelled to do more VR "suck its" than Triple H in WWE showdown match. Silliness aside, though, the hands generated in this VR were excellent, and your mission to problem solve by clumsily prodding around and flicking switches was made extremely palpable by the vibrations sent through your hands and a vibrating floor in the corner of the room.
Eclipse was definitely a high-quality, fresh take on the escape room experience, and incredibly ambitious objectives and landscapes could be achieved due to your not being limited by physical spaces. It performed very believably as you circumvent critical errors and unexpected solar surges, and was a hell of a lot of fun too. The only real flaw was that this piece's signposting still needed a lot of work. If you missed an AI instruction over the intercom, for example, there wasn't always a way to go back and see what you missed, and some of the layouts of the puzzles weren't always very intuitive - but admittedly that can also make for a nice part of the challenges that escape rooms pose to your brain.
Another similarly compelling journey through both real and virtual space was the augmented reality of Francesco Carrozzini's installation X-Ray Fashion. This project brings you firmly back to Earth, as it opens your eyes to the harmful impacts of so-called "fast fashion." This particular piece was one of the more disorientating ones, as you have to navigate your away across a elabprately designed catwalk runway - again in another one of those headset plus backpack get ups. But as soon as you acclimatise yourself to diligently following the bright white path it lays out before you, the project becomes easily just as enjoyable as those that came before it.
In X-Ray Fashion, we go from watching the power struts of a real-life models on a catwalk to following our own yellow-brick road of social and environmental consequences that come from the clothes we see them wearing. Done in bare feet, each stage of this installation brings you to a different physical experience under your feet, and once standing upon the right textured surface, a 360 video launches as Carrozzini earnestly talks to you through his concerns about the fashion industry and his place in it.
This piece is also designed to buffet you with wind or blasts of heat as you gradually travel the world, making your journeys to the places where your clothes are actually made all the more immersive. And whilst this project was perhaps not my favourite, the attention to detail both in the experience and the message definitely made X-Ray Fashion one of the experiences that made me feel the most authentic sense of surprise. It also amused me how the glamorous of VR slammed into low-fi realities, when you were asked to sanitise your feet before entering.
Just as studiously authentic as X-Ray Fashion, and the last of the four standout projects I experienced, was the BBC's Berlin Blitz. Using archival radio recordings from Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, one of the BBC's very own war correspondents during World War II, this appropriately seated piece places you right in the cockpit of a Lancashire bomber as Vaughan-Thomas flies with an Allied crew on a sortie over Berlin. During the course of this flight, we follow the crew's journey all the way from an airbase in rural Nottinghamshire, to a risky run in with flak guns over Nazi-occupied Holland, and finally on to the lethal conclusion of their mission over Berlin.
Falling characteristically within the BBC's skilful knack for educating audiences, Berlin Blitz cannot help but capture your imagination as it places you front row in a life-or-death situation we could only ever have imagined previously. The claustrophobia of space in this piece is really spot on too, its nicely restrictive feel gives you a real sense of what the crew would and wouldn't have been able to see. It is a little bit haunting to hear the glib and jingoistic voices of the crew as they carry out their run, but it's a real eye-opening experience and a brilliant way of getting people interest in the incredible archival material that the BBC has available.
All-in-all, all four projects were very different VR simulations, but each demonstrated quite different strengths on show here at the 75th Venice Biennale. They also demonstrate quite an interesting evolution, as several new major players seem keen to get involved in blossoming new form. What's more, the projects this year demonstrated, perhaps more clearly than ever before, how VR might be packaged up, exported and even profitably monetised. It's extremely exciting to see this new sector flourishing so dramatically, and it genuinely provided me with some of the most pure glee I have had in a long time.
PS. New pro tip: If you wear glasses, try inserting your frames into the headset, before placing it on your head.