How I almost fell off my bike through a VR documentary #IDFA Doclab

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IDFA DocLab has returned home to Brakke Grond, and how! More than 35 works explore the limits of documentary in content and form. DocLab is the digital playground where everything that is technically and conceptually possible is now possible. So I saw a work with fragrance, danced in the 80s and got so relaxed I almost fell off the bike.

Nervous Systems is the name of this edition. Some works actually tap directly into the non-rational part of the brain. Fragrance has that quality par excellence. Other works touch you emotionally because of the content. And still others are about the nervousness of the system itself, for example from systemic insomnia.

Urgent stories

Even more than last year, I felt a significant urgency in all the works. These are the stories that need to be told, and the XR shape helps maximize the impact. The stories are about climate change, violence against trans women, diasporas. But also about society as a whole, about how digitization locks people in or out. The form varies from abstract (you have to read the description to understand what you see) to a sensory bombardment.

One of the more abstract works that struck me was Border Birds. In a series of pictures you can see circled birds flying. In the caption you can read where the birds were photographed: on borders that are difficult for people without the right papers to penetrate. Artificial intelligence learned to recognize the birds on video from publicly available cameras at the borders between Mexico and the United States, Morocco and Spain, Greece and Turkey, and France and England. Dries and Bieke Depoorter chose one hundred images. It is part of a larger project using NFTs to raise money for the European Network of Migrant Women and the Red Cross. The opinion and the technology are not in your face but it is precisely the indirect and actual economic contribution to a complex situation that makes this a very powerful piece of work.

Dance in your own world

Less subtle but a brilliantly made documentary is In Pursuit Of Repetitive Beats by Darren Emerson. In 1989 rave culture big in England. Illegal acid parties in abandoned warehouses or other hard-to-find places attract thousands of dancers. How do they get there? We join the hunt for the best parties. This VR documentary is very well constructed, you experience the quest while watching short interviews with ravers from the first hour. Emerson guides the visitor through a series of flyers which, when picked up, show an interview from an organizer, a dancer or a police officer. In a phone box there is a hint about where the party is taking place. In the back of the car, with your head out of the open roof, you can feel the wind. A fan gives a physical experience and a euphoric feeling takes over me.

the cat-and-mouse game of the organisers, the police and ravers is palpable. The documentary shows the context, a hopeless England, where different groups of people supplement each other to escape the daily life. The Jamaicans provide the sound systems. Ex-hooligans provide security. It is precisely the fact that so many different people – who don’t mingle during the day – can dance to the stars of the sky together at night that made the rave scene so unique. When we outwit the police and get to a party with thousands of people, you experience and understand the release. And I miss the freedom and irregularities of the illegal parties.

The release of heavy rain

Another, softer, almost sweeter work is The Anticipation of Rain by Naima Karim. In rough brushstrokes, she creates a 3D environment with a hypnotic soundscape. She says she couldn’t move for a year because of an inflammation and was doomed to look at the sky. She experienced the impending monsoon even more intensely than usual. This intensity was also reinforced by the climate crisis: the monsoon in Bangladesh is more severe and destructive than before. Still, it’s a romantic time, according to Karim. The build-up with the looming dark sky and the thunderstorm, the discharge washing everything clean. A perfumer has developed two scents especially for this VR work, one of the heavy earthy scents before the monsoon breaks. A fresher, more floral scent for afterwards. The scents draw you deep into the animated world.

Sleeping as a radical act

The last work I visited is one of the most relaxed works I know. Slumberland is a Swedish VR installation about insomnia. A social worker told a Swedish newspaper that many of the young criminals he works with complain of insomnia. 30% of people (it is not specified whether this is worldwide or only in Sweden) suffer from insomnia. The Bombina Bombast company rightly concludes that if insomnia is such a problem, and at the same time a revenue model in our attention economy, then resting is a radical act. So the visitors can go through the work on their own sheepskin and with carpet and cushions.

Two adventure women – one in Stockholm, one in Malmö – take visitors into a soft night landscape. They hold our hand, their controllers almost touch our controllers, but it feels more intimate. In their bedrooms, the young people talk about why they can’t sleep and what their ideal sleeping environment would be like. Slowly, the fairy women lead us to a starry sky, where we can doze off a bit before heading into the cold evening. Once I’m on the street, I can’t really wake up anymore. At home, I quickly curl up on the couch under a blanket and think about the physical experiences of the works I’ve seen.

And it is a difficult matter. Would I have experienced the monsoon the same way without the smell? Would I have found rave culture as liberating without my head out of the car roof? Maybe not, but the question might be as frivolous as what a Mondrian would look like if he had used pink and green.

Good to know

Good to know: IDFA runs until November 20. Click here for more information about DocLab

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