As environmental concerns continue to mobilise artists, filmmakers and media practitioners, new technologies are increasingly being employed not only to call attention to problems, but also to present hopeful futures. Just before Melbourne’s Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI) shut down for its extensive upgrade,Nick Buckley, ‘ACMI Is Closing for a $40 Million Update’, Broadsheet, 18 April 2019, <https://www.broadsheet.com.au/melbourne/entertainment/article/acmi-closing-40-million-update>, accessed 25 May 2019. I caught two recent virtual reality (VR) titles: Joan Ross’ Did You Ask the River? (2019) and Lynette Wallworth’s Awavena (2018). These two works have little in common other than female protagonists, environmental messages and their use of the virtual space. However, they both draw on various VR techniques that allow creators to explore the potential of the technology to implicate the viewer/user in embodied and interactive experiences. Both make use of simulated natural environments in responding to colonial pasts and issues surrounding the Anthropocene.
Wreaking havoc: Did You Ask the River?
Arriving at ACMI on the final day of Did You Ask the River?, I was relieved to discover that, despite the session being booked out, a few people hadn’t turned up. Therefore, I was given the opportunity to experience this work by the winner of the 2018 Mordant Family VR Commission.
Donning the headset, I assume the first-person avatar of an eighteenth-century colonial female explorer, complete with impractical dress and giant hat (in what I later learn is Ross’ trademark fluorescent hi-vis yellow). I know this because my on-screen persona is positioned in front of a mirror in an uncanny experience of self-witnessing. The attendant gives me a pair of handheld controllers, which allow me to pick up objects – and, as I soon discover, to wreak havoc on the Australian landscape. While I recognise the gum trees, this terrain, with its garish colours and anachronistic touches, is a surreal representation.
Ross and her collaborator, Josh Harle, made the seven-minute-long Did You Ask the River? using the readily available games engine Unity,Joan Ross, in ‘Joan Ross Talks Did You Ask the River?’, YouTube, 12 March 2019, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwuM4eUqKAs>, accessed 26 May 2019. with their resulting work resembling a computer game or animated virtual environment. Unlike many other VR or 360-degree works, Did You Ask the River? has no linear narrative; rather, it offers the user (alongside their on-screen character) a space to inhabit and explore. While making my way around it, I am reminded of media theorist Janet H Murray’s argument that, rather than ‘a film to be watched’, VR is ‘a virtual space to be […] navigated through’.Janet H Murray, ‘Not a Film and Not an Empathy Machine’, Immerse, 6 October 2016, <https://immerse.news/not-a-film-and-not-an-empathy-machine-48b63b0eda93>, accessed 26 May 2019.
However, I feel like something of a novice in this context, unsure of where to go and what to do. After spending too long gazing at a barbecue, I pick up the lipstick nearby and smear it on my face – an action emphasised when I catch my avatar’s reflection in the mirror again. I also notice that, regardless of what I am doing, the rabbits in my vicinity are multiplying, reaching plague proportions. Turning my body in the space, I spy a pokie machine and cannot resist. With unprecedented luck, I win the jackpot on my first spin. But this is a bittersweet victory: as coins tumble out of the tray, trees around me collapse. Did You Ask the River? constantly makes me aware that every action has consequences.
Documentary theorist Elizabeth Cowie has suggested that, in documentaries, false causal relationships are created to make the depicted world knowable.Elizabeth Cowie, Recording Reality, Desiring the Real, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis & London, 2011, p. 39. Through linear sequencing, for instance, viewers are encouraged to draw links between consecutive sequences. However, in the virtual world of Did You Ask the River?, the key causal relationships are formed through an embodied experience: personal gain leads to environmental destruction. Moving to the other side of the space, I find some hand grenades and watch them explode as I throw them into the distant horizon. Detonating some dynamite causes industrial factories to spring up from the water. After some movement, I approach a vast open-cut mine. Progressing from there, I pick up a spray-paint can with the idea that I’ll do a drawing; however, blobs of coloured paint pour out onto the rocks. Everything I touch is ruined, I see destruction looming at every turn, and I cannot stop.
In a discussion of the logic behind Did You Ask the River?, Ross claims that she was interested in exploring how greed is facilitated by the VR medium itself, with the virtual space provoking a mentality of grabbing at whatever is on offer.Ross, op. cit. Certainly, within the world that Ross has created, the more one engages with objects, the more devastation is wreaked on the environment. Documentary theorist Kate Nash suggests that the embodied ‘I’ that wanders through VR’s simulated space, which is both real and not real, is ‘fundamental to [the] creation of meaning’.Kate Nash, ‘Virtually Real: Exploring VR Documentary’, Studies in Documentary Film, vol. 12, no. 2, 2018, p. 98. Although I am embodied as a fictional character, I also feel confronted by, and question, my own destructive desires – both in the simulated space and in the world outside it.
Not empathy, but something else: Awavena
Despite much discussion around VR’s ability to evoke empathy in audiences,See, for example, ‘Chris Milk: How Virtual Reality Can Create the Ultimate Empathy Machine’, YouTube, 22 April 2015, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXHil1TPxvA>, accessed 26 May 2019. more productive possibilities for this emergent technology are increasingly being championed by both practitioners and theorists. Wallworth’s formidable two-part mixed-reality VR piece Awavena affords its audience an encounter not only with the Yawanawá people of the Amazon, but also with the materiality of the Earth. This is an experience that makes full use of multiple technologies in order to simulate how human perception of the forest can be heightened by shamanic medicine ritual.
After seeing Wallworth’s previous VR work, Collisions (2016) – which tells the story of Indigenous elder Nyarri Nyarri Morgan’s first contact with Western culture – Yawanawá chief Tashka invited the filmmaker to come to the Amazon to make a similar piece. Tashka recognised a synchronicity between VR and traditional Yawanawá medicine, feeling strongly that this technology could emulate shamanic vision states. Rather than attempting to foster an experience of empathy with the Yawanawá people, Awavena is – in the words of its promotional materials – ‘a gift from them, to those who will virtually visit their forest and receive this transmission’ and ‘a gift that […] can shift our consciousness, changing the way we perceive the world we know and the decisions we make’.‘The Film’, Awavena official website, <http://www.awavenavr.com/about-the-film>, accessed 26 May 2019.
Wallworth’s direct engagement with the Yawanawá underscores the ethic of collaboration that is intrinsic to her practice. Discussing Collisions, for example, i-Docs co-director Mandy Rose contends that, rather than adopting observational methods, Wallworth makes use of cinema vérité strategies pioneered by French ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch that result in a ‘joint’ approach ‘in which the subject influences the filmmaking process and outcome’. For Rose, this produces ‘less a feeling of being there’, and more something attuned to the perspectives of those who actually ‘are there’.Mandy Rose, ‘Technologies of Seeing and Technologies of Corporeality: Currents in Nonfiction Virtual Reality’, World Records, vol. 1, 2018, <https://vols.worldrecordsjournal.org/01/11>, accessed 27 May 2019. From my experience of it, Awavena could be described in similar terms.
Virtual reality as shamanic medicine
In the first part of Awavena, a seventeen-minute film, the viewer is seated in a chair in front of a significant-looking book. We then enter the narrative world through opening the book; in voiceover, we hear the translated story of the first female shaman of the Yawanawá, named Hushahu. The first half of the film tells her backstory: travelling by canoe down the river, performing rituals in the village and honouring the dying shaman elder Tata. Throughout these scenes – filmed in 360-degree video – we are an invisible presence, and the images are represented as indexical.
After spending some time in this world, we gradually cross a bridge, which is both literal and metaphorical. Arriving at the forest, Hushahu then begins her shamanic training, and her transformation, by drinking the uni tea (more commonly known in the West as ‘ayahuasca’). As Hushahu’s story progresses, the technology used in Awavena also changes to better simulate the transformations in both shaman and world: from that which is known to other ways of seeing. We begin to perceive the forest landscape not as the solid mass that it is usually represented as in the filmed image, but rather as composed of tiny particles. These images were created from meticulous scans of the forest using a device that captured data at 300,000 points per second, thereby rendering the forest in a biologically accurate manner.Lynette Wallworth, ‘Filmmaker’s Statement’, Awavena official website, <http://www.awavenavr.com/about-the-film>, accessed 26 May 2019. Additionally, night cameras were employed to capture fluorescing species, which become visible over the course of our unfolding journey; in this way, the technology helps to illuminate the creatures and phenomena that the Yawanawá ‘have always known’.ibid. The representational strategies used by Wallworth and her team to visualise Hushahu’s experiences resonate with the second of two documentary approaches identified by visual anthropologist Jay Ruby. The first is to imprint the filmmaker’s vision on the world and the material; this positions filmmaking as a ventriloquial act through which the director speaks. The other is to attempt to render their subjects’ experience of the world through available filmic techniques.Jay Ruby, ‘Speaking for, Speaking About, Speaking with, or Speaking Alongside: An Anthropological and Documentary Dilemma’, Journal of Film and Video, vol. 44, no. 1/2, Spring– Summer 1992, p. 44. In Awavena, Wallworth has incisively used technology to capture firsthand accounts of the Yawanawá’s traditional culture and worldview via Hushahu. The medicine-induced journey is long and challenging for her – and for us, as we listen to and see this world unfold alongside her. Shifting from the trees, we are subsequently submerged in a stream; as Hushahu describes the feeling of drowning, we too see the water rippling above us, evoking the feeling of suffocation.
The forest as other way of knowing
Moving into the second part of Awavena, a six-minute interactive experience, I am equipped with a large headset and handheld controllers, and find myself immersed in a living forest. The image is composed of thousands of light points captured through the aforementioned forest scans, as well as multiple versions of the blue morpho butterfly – an integral part of Hushahu’s visions. The headset contains a microphone that can detect human breath; when blown into, it causes the particles forming the trees to shift and reshape. Similarly, when I move my hands, the forest shifts momentarily before reconstituting itself. This space transcends story and language, engendering a participatory experience with nature.
Rendering the world through these technologies that draw on authentic data yet represent it in unfamiliar ways emphasises the existence of other ways of seeing and knowing. By allowing the audience to physically ‘engage’ with the materiality of the forest, Awavena interrogates documentary’s long-held historical connection to realism and truth through the indexical image. While Nash questions how embodied interaction might impact documentary’s truth claims,Nash, op. cit., p. 98. we might also question what these emergent technologies can do within embodied spaces that engage with other representations of the phenomenological world. That is to say, engaging in alternative and embodied ways of recording knowledge can challenge documentary’s reliance on the representational value of words spoken as either narration or interviews to convey truths.
After leaving Awavena, I am given a cup of lemongrass and ginger tea, and requested to leave a message in a book that Hushahu will read. I am also given a card with a message from Hushahu, which concludes with: ‘I am meeting you inside your thinking, inside of your being, inside your own perception of reality. So go back home and don’t forget this encounter.’
While Did You Ask the River? and Awavena provide very different encounters with nature, both explore the potential for technology to implicate the viewer within the environment. In the case of Ross’ work, the destructive aspects of human behaviour and greed are foregrounded as part of a critique of the ongoing effects of colonialism; in Wallworth’s Awavena, VR is used as a visionary tool to reimagine components and inhabitants of the environment. Through exploring how VR can simulate spaces that go beyond documentary’s traditional means of representation – which positions the viewer as separate from the portrayed landscape – we can subvert our anthropocentric perspective and ultimately reconsider, and repair, our relationship with the natural world.
|1||Nick Buckley, ‘ACMI Is Closing for a $40 Million Update’, Broadsheet, 18 April 2019, <https://www.broadsheet.com.au/melbourne/entertainment/article/acmi-closing-40-million-update>, accessed 25 May 2019.|
|2||Joan Ross, in ‘Joan Ross Talks Did You Ask the River?’, YouTube, 12 March 2019, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwuM4eUqKAs>, accessed 26 May 2019.|
|3||Janet H Murray, ‘Not a Film and Not an Empathy Machine’, Immerse, 6 October 2016, <https://immerse.news/not-a-film-and-not-an-empathy-machine-48b63b0eda93>, accessed 26 May 2019.|
|4||Elizabeth Cowie, Recording Reality, Desiring the Real, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis & London, 2011, p. 39.|
|5||Ross, op. cit.|
|6||Kate Nash, ‘Virtually Real: Exploring VR Documentary’, Studies in Documentary Film, vol. 12, no. 2, 2018, p. 98.|
|7||See, for example, ‘Chris Milk: How Virtual Reality Can Create the Ultimate Empathy Machine’, YouTube, 22 April 2015, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iXHil1TPxvA>, accessed 26 May 2019.|
|8||‘The Film’, Awavena official website, <http://www.awavenavr.com/about-the-film>, accessed 26 May 2019.|
|9||Mandy Rose, ‘Technologies of Seeing and Technologies of Corporeality: Currents in Nonfiction Virtual Reality’, World Records, vol. 1, 2018, <https://vols.worldrecordsjournal.org/01/11>, accessed 27 May 2019.|
|10||Lynette Wallworth, ‘Filmmaker’s Statement’, Awavena official website, <http://www.awavenavr.com/about-the-film>, accessed 26 May 2019.|
|12||Jay Ruby, ‘Speaking for, Speaking About, Speaking with, or Speaking Alongside: An Anthropological and Documentary Dilemma’, Journal of Film and Video, vol. 44, no. 1/2, Spring– Summer 1992, p. 44.|
|13||Nash, op. cit., p. 98.|