During the IDFA DocLab, you can participate in a computer lesson for seniors in a VR installation by Jeroen van Loon. The animated experience with real scenes and dialogue is funny but also thought provoking. How long might it take someone to find the tab on the keyboard?
“What happened to you in the meantime, nothing?” The expectations teacher Cor has for his group are not too high. In the two weeks since the last meeting, not one of his students has independently continued the computer lessons, just as he thought. The hoped-for fast start today is also delayed because Paul, one of the older participants to whom he is giving computer lessons, has forgotten his password. How to solve it turns out to be a question of Kafkaesque proportions, which consumes almost half the lesson.
The real world of Cor and his students is usually located behind the doors of a community center in Sittard, but has been captured (in sound) by artist Jeroen van Loon and edited for the VR experience NewUpdateAvailable – Version 2.1. This can be seen under DocLab, IDFA’s creative playground, where pioneering documentary narrative forms are presented.
Much of Jeroen van Loon’s (37) work is about the constant renewal, changeability and impermanence of the internet, the virtual world and digital data. This is his first VR project. Or more precisely: VR installation, because IRL also applies to the DocLab exhibition NewUpdateAvailable to see is a lot to experience.
Upon entering the showroom, a row of chairs (plus one wheelchair) await around a table with laptops, of the interchangeable kind that litter office islands the world over. Windows, photos and videos open on the running laptops as if people were working on them – more on that later. And there is one VR glasses on the table. Whoever sets it up sees the exact same island of desks as in real life, behind which – pling – computer teacher Cor appears. And then, one by one, pling pling pling, eight people attending Cor’s computer class. You yourself are the ninth participant.
Although, participant… A timeline can be seen on the screen of the virtual laptop in front of you: your laptop just updates during the entire lesson. It is therefore difficult to participate, but what you can do is look around and listen to Cor and fellow students.
I often laughed out loud as I watched, torn between empathy, recognition and disbelief. For example, a participant endlessly searching for the tab key. And for the slightly tired, but always calm Cor. Was it difficult to balance absurdism and compassion? “When I listened to the audio material, I thought: it should be funny, but it shouldn’t be laughable. Much of what happens and is said is touching, but also very beautiful. The participants really do their best to learn new things.”
How did you find Cor and his students? And what were you looking for when editing the audio? “I followed this group in Sittard for six months. I also went to Utrecht, even to different courses. And to Liverpool, because for a while I thought that maybe I could do the project better in English. But I couldn’t find a group anywhere that was as open and informal as the one in Sittard.
“Cor’s lessons are 2.5 hours in real life. He has a lot of things he wants to explain, but he also takes the time to see what everyone is dealing with individually. During the editing, I discovered that it shouldn’t be too much about specific computer problems or software – then you drop out and it quickly becomes outdated – but about problems that we all know: everyone has to update their computer, everyone has passwords. Once it becomes more common, it becomes more interesting. I especially tried to choose the fragments that are not really about computer technology, but about people.
“That’s why the class also opens with Cor’s remark that one of the participants has died. [De opmerking luidt: “Nou, even ter verduidelijking, ja, dat Ger overleden is, dat weten jullie dus nog allemaal, hè.” – JR] And he says that another is absent because of a broken tooth. It is an older generation, unfortunately such things are also part of it. Such a meeting is not only about learning skills, it is also – and perhaps above all – a social get-together.”
How did you get the idea to make this a VR installation? “The project has a long history. In 2017 I attended that computer course for the first time; two years later I started recording there. For a long time it was a project in the background that I always wanted to do again, but something kept getting in the way. Until a certain point, the Pompidou Center in Paris was interested. They were preparing an exhibition of video art about media and aging, and it suddenly took off last year. They ultimately helped produce the work. A 4K video version of the project was shown in Paris in January. And now the VR installation has premiered here at DocLab.
“I had all sorts of different ideas about how it could be done. Initially, I wanted to film with depth cameras and transfer the material virtually. You then get a very realistic picture, but as a director you no longer have control over how people, for example, move. Then MetaHuman came out, relatively easy software for game designers that allows you to design digital humans in a hyper-realistic way. And I thought: that’s what I want, then I can design all those people all by myself, like some kind of game characters. And I did.
“Sjoerd Mol, the VR designer I worked with for VR and all the software and hardware, then put my designs into a 3D setting and animated them. We also used software that allows you to make speech sounds automatically folders over a character’s face so you can automatically make the mouth and eyes move naturally with the dialogue. So it really becomes a kind of puppet package: You can say who should sit where, what to say and when. You can pretty much design anything you want through these kinds of programs.”
The VR is rich in beautiful details – wrinkled necks, thinning hair, big agendas. Cor has a recurring, slightly impatient hand gesture that suggests something like ‘Are you getting it now? Haven’t I said that before?’. What details were you particularly happy about? “Great to hear, I’ve been looking for those moves for a long time. So these are literally separate moves that you can buy for 3D characters. You then program them into a species along with other movements go until it looks somewhat realistic.
“And yes, what did I really enjoy? Especially with the search for the Tab key. And something I also really enjoyed doing is working on what the character Sandra is doing, who sits directly to your left in VR. She looks at all sorts of things that you wouldn’t expect in such a computer course, for example at images from the history of VR, i.e. very rudimentary VR applications. And she sees CodeMiko on Twitch, a virtual influencer of sorts, created by a programmer who can track himself wearing a bodysuit and posts videos of that copy of himself online. These are things I like at the moment.”
She is actually a hidden alter ego of yourself. “Ha ha, of course. And then I’ve hidden all sorts of little stories in what happens on the laptops on the tables. For example, the character Paul, who had forgotten his password, is looking for templates that you can print out to write your passwords down. They really exist.”
What I also really like is that Cor has printed out his own 72 passwords and always has the printout in his pocket. Thus he appears with all love and respect as a one-eyed king in the land of the blind. “He obviously doesn’t use a password manager, a printout is fine with him. There may be better solutions. But that’s actually the idea of it NewUpdateAvailable: Everyone is going to fall behind sooner or later. Everything is changing faster and faster, the pace is getting higher and higher. Many people who watch this VR say they find it all so calm and so slow. But the scenes you see lasted much longer in real life. When Paul plays with his password at the beginning, it takes about 3 minutes. It actually took 20 minutes. But Cor takes his time for it.”
All in all, did you like making your first VR experience? “Yes, in the end I am very proud and happy with the end result, especially now that everything has come together with the right tables, chairs and laptops. I really like the installation that has two layers of reality and that as soon as you are in it, the real laptops are also controlled, on which the other visitors can see what the people in the VR are supposedly doing. I also didn’t want to make a pure documentary out of it, like: this is what happens in Sittard. The fact that it is a VR experience also ensures that the sound is taken out of its specific context.”
Does being animated rather than being filmed make it more universal? “Yes, I think so. And of course also because you can now be a part of it. It was actually the starting point that you get in the middle of it yourself, even though you might be a sixteen-year-old who doesn’t think he’ll ever come to end up in such a place. For a long time I thought that my own parents’ generation would be the last generation to experience computer problems; after all, everyone after them grew up with computers. But I can already see that I don’t always understand things myself . My conclusion after all those lessons was: yes, I will also be here one day, on such a computer course for seniors, in the future. Maybe not in Sittard, but definitely in VR.”
The exhibition DocLab: Nervous Systems at IDFA can be visited free of charge until Sunday 20 November 2022. New update available – Version 2.1 by Jeroen van Loon takes 13 minutes and can be experienced in both Dutch and English.