Venice 2019 VR Dispatch: COSMOS WITHIN US Is Perhaps The Biennale's Brightest Star
The Venice Biennale's VR Island continues to be one of the festival's most exciting, ambitious and promising projects, even if its commitment to this fledgling form of cinema is by far one of its newest. In fact, if last year's decision to create a dedicated space for VR on the island of Lazaretto Vecchio was the Big Bang that started this bright new vision, then films like Cosmos Within Us show exactly how exciting this new universe could become.
Though not related to the cosmic Spheres project that boldly guided us through the universe and won at last year's festival, growth and consolidation from last year's successes have definitely been the theme of this year's festival - with there even being rumours that the blossoming team behind this strand are now hoping that they can make the island's annual installation a more permanent fixture; and Cosmos Within Us is definitely a great demonstration of how this new medium is reaching ambitious new hieghts on this fascinating global stage.
The advances have in parts been theoretical, as the festival consolidates its distinctions between linear (where you primarily spectate on a linear narrative) and interactive forms of virtual reality (where you get an immersive experience, and can sometimes even dictate the direction stories take). And the festival has also encouraged greater VR criticism by running a symposium on how exactly people should try to approach reviewing VR better.
It was also easy to see technological progress, as this year's exhibition saw new additions of different types of AR glasses; and in general the headsets seemed better designed, and also more suited to people wearing glasses (hallelujah!) - with the brilliant Tónandi (which features glorious music from Sigur Rós) even giving you the option to select lenses that match your prescription. Full marks there.
But the most noticable thing was the artistic strides that are being made, with many of the projects coming on leaps and bounds most noticeably in terms of length. Battlescar, for example, returns in a now much more extended form as Battlescar: Girls Invented Punk - both looking and feeling much slicker, and all without compromising any of its wonderfully teenage-feeling pizzazz or creativity.
Whilst the Ghost in the Shell franchise followed up last year's award-winning and breath-taking Virtual Reality Diver with the second installment Ghost Chaser, still directed by Hiroaki Higashi. This piece felt a little less strong than its predecessor, as the new POV perspectives it gave you made me feel a little more confused as to where to look as a spectator, but it still shone out as an immensely visceral experience and clearly demonstrated a template by which VR could grow as an episodic offering.
But as a general rule, projects seemed to have been allowed greater financial breathing room this year, including a number of projects supported by the Biennale College scheme. And as a result, they seem to be aspiring more and more towards long-form or feature-length experiences, as the industry seems to be trying to break through and outcompete something like the traditional cinema experience in terms of being a product people will want to part cash for. At 45 minutes long, Cosmos Within Us is no exception, and should make a vital addition to film festivals everywhere at the very least.
So without giving away too much, what is the piece about and what happens in the "experience"? Well, Cosmos Within Us sits at a delightful intersectional sweetspot between film, theatre and orchestra, which means you don't simply just strap on a headset and beam into another world. Rather more theatrically, you're beckoned to sit in a tiny cupboard. You're even invited to take off your shoes, if you wish. Once sat, someone mysteriously asks you if you consent to be part of the "Behind the Scenes," and the various accoutrements of VR are delicately strapped to your head and waist. Then like a trip into Narnia, you're then guided to step through the other side of the vestibule...
If you've opted to liberate your feet, you feel what feels like carpet under your heel. The room has a sort of fusty fragrance to it, and somebody guides you to the centre of the room and then leaves you alone in the dark. What happens then is that you move between being suspended in outer space to fragmentary, reconstructed memories that take place in a series of domestic spaces, a forest and in darkness itself.
At first you start in a dark, dank house - and the smell from your fusty surroundings seems to mysteriously intensify. The building you're in is in a state of significant ruin, with a roof collapsed on one side and rain streaming in. A wooden chair is strewn across the floor, and everything remains extremely dimly lit, blurry and difficult to make out.
A superbly acted British, male voice over begins to rapidly chime in, in a sort of panic, telling you that it doesn't know where it is. But it adds that it did know this place one... As this stream of consciousness streams into your ears, it soon becomes apparent that you're a guest into the mind of a character experiencing dimentia.
Slowly, the panicked mind begins to conjure happier images from more complete memories, and the space around you transforms into a brightly-lit, warm, welcoming (and rather bourgeois) home. He tells us his name is Aiken, and he begins recalling moments from his childhood, both happy and sad. But throughout these scenes still all remain fuzzy and almost impressionistic.
Cosmos Within Us is stubtitled "Memory Is All We Are," and as we try to navigate the various partial memories of the experience to make sense of who Aiken is, the screenplay by Benjamin Farry chances upon some truly touching notes. Something transformed into the profoundly moving by Steven Weston's deeply emotive orchestral score.
What is also truly wonderful is the way the AR's myopic vision also encourages you to repeatedly look up to see things clearer, as though you were directly seeing them from a child's perspective. But all recounted via the mind's eye of someone with dementia. These ustable shifts in perspectives young and old are also reinforced by the numerous voice actors we hear: Aiken as a troubled aged man, as a loving, confused young boy boy, and as a damaged teenager.
But what really makes these fragments of memory come alive are the sensational elements of augmented reality in the piece. In ways that almost blew my tiny mind, parts of what you see come to life. On top of the smells you seem to catch, things like mentions of fire-breathing dragons bring gusts of hot air across your body. Miraculously, a trip to the forest causes wind to blow across your skin from various directions. And perhaps even more awe inspiring is the way the most tender and lasting of memories, say with a grandparent, are instensified as you're acutally even physically touched (not in a weird way) on the shoulder, and even fed cookies!
What's also wonderful is how self-referrential Cosmos Within Us is. It continues its theatrics into the film itself, with mysterious, black-clad stage managers moving around on the fringes of some of the more vibrant memories, struggling to physically piece together the parts that Aiken recalls. There's also moments where the houses we find ourselves in seem altogether like theatre stages, and a backward glance reveals a mysterious faceless audience behind us.
There's also a wonderful surrealist quality to the project, as certain more important objects in some memories begin to rain down in the background like a sort of memory screensaver. All of the vagueries of Aiken's memories are also told in a delightful mix of emotive styles, which each suggest something different about the types of emotions being felt at that time, and of how intense they were to Aiken as formative experiences.
Once you come out the other side, it's hard not to be left profoundly moved by Cosmos Within Us, but it also rather wonderfully leaves you asking how an AR experience became such a real-life experience. And that's exactly what Cosmos Within Us: Behind the Scenes is for. This is where the team invites four participants to go further down the rabbit hole, and see exactly what they were up to on the other side of that cupboard.
You enter through a second door, and traipse through an entire mini orchestra sat behind thick blackout curtains. It becomes apparent that the perfectly timed emotional journey of the soundtrack of Cosmos Within Us was actually the orchestra mickeymousing what you were seeing live, in real time, as they fill the VR theatre with their beautiful music. You're the taken to the other side of the curtain, sat on the edges of the "stage" and given headphones to wear. A screen shows you exactly what the active participant sees, whilst you hear exactly what they hear. You're also even treated to the same smells and tastes.
Again, without giving away too much of the magic of the experience itself, you see director Tupac Martir and his brilliant stage managing team masterfully pull the strings of their life-affirming experience. You also realise how much the person in the headset was a co-director with Martir himself, as both the team and the people sharing the experience become at the mercy of the person feeling their way through Aiken's experience for themselves.
I feel quite strongly that Cosmos Within Us is probably the most complete, most intricate and multi-dimension piece of art I have experienced at this year's Biennale. It's also perhaps one of the few times this festival I have truly been swept up in an experience. And what's even more impressive is that it took me on that journey twice.
It's absolute testament to why VR needs the stability that something like this platform in Venice provides it, and I hope they manage to make it into a permament feature so that I can make repeatedly holiday visits to see it.
Thomas Humphrey works for Bertha DocHouse, the UK's first cinema dedicated entirely to documentaries.