Venice Biennale VR Expanded: observations

Last weekend I watched the 360-degree films (what they called 3DOF) that were part of the Venice Biennale VR Expanded exhibition. I have thoughts on a couple of topics.

The 3DOF works were available through a virtual exhibition hall within the VRChat platform, and I thought there were a lot of missed opportunities there. The experience began in a sort of antechamber where one could select a mask off of a table, and then board a gondola which whisks one away through a series of canals to the exhibition hall proper. The antechamber was nicely done, and I liked the masks; however, it struck me that one of VRChat’s more popular functions is the ability to pick up an entire new avatar inside a world, and it felt like if the designers wanted to go with a masquerade theme, they could have thought bigger.

I did not care for the gondola ride. It felt theme-parky, and the environment felt thin. It felt like it was signifying the Biennale’s home without representing it — gondolas! masks! canals! palazzos! There were several points at which I could see between the polygonal palazzos to an infinite expanse of water beyond, which was uncanny without even being surreal.

Eventually, the gondola arrived at the exhibition hall itself, which was minimalist. Essentially there was a dock for the gondola and some stairs, leading to a tasteful warehouse with a red carpet that pointed the attendee to a series of portals for each of the available pieces. I realize, on reflection, that I cannot remember seeing anything but the exhibition hall from the dock. In my memory the infinite expanse of water just goes to the horizon in all directions, which may illuminate the aforementioned uncanny feeling. I am reminded of Larry Niven’s description of hyperspace as a giant blind spot.

The other thing that was a bit offputting about the exhibition hall was that whenever I left one of the pieces, I respawned on the dock, not at the portal for the piece I had just left. I understand that this was probably technologically simplest; I’m not sure how hard it would be within VRChat to create that many different spawn points. Still, it disrupted the flow of the experience very effectively.

I did, however, very much enjoy the works being exhibited themselves. They were my first experience with 360-degree films, and there were all sorts of exciting formal novelties for me.

The most obvious difference between 360 films and regular films is the absence of the frame, and this has various downstream effects. It’s tricky to manipulate focus appropriately; on the one hand, you don’t want the viewer to miss important story information, but on the other hand if there’s only a single point of interest, what was the point of using 360? I thought several of the pieces that were centered around interviews were disappointing for this reason. What the subjects had to say was (mostly) interesting, but that was really all there was. I could look around, but why? It was a little interesting to experiment with placing the subject in different places within my field of view, but only a little. The freedom the format gave me to explore was basically useless, and actually distracting from what the creators appeared to be trying to do.

Conversely, while I really liked the fairy-tale-style adventure In The Land of the Flabby Schnook, I feel like I missed a lot of interesting environmental detail trying to keep up with the story. On at least two occasions I missed story developments because I was looking at some exciting bit of the world in the opposite direction.

The key, I think, is pacing. I thought Penggantian (“Replacements”) handled this really well. That piece is essentially a series of vignettes — almost snapshots, really — of a neighborhood in Jakarta spaced over decades, tracing the changes to one stretch of road. Very little really happened in any given segment, but because there was a limited time to look around and explore that static space, it *felt* like things were happening as I absorbed all of the things that had changed from the last segment. Furthermore, the *pace* of change was managed quite masterfully. In the early segments, very little changed. It felt slow and lazy, and even a little boring, which was appropriate to the point I think the filmmakers were trying to make about Jakarta’s transformations over the years. As it went on, however, more and more changed with each transition, and I felt increasing urgency to find all the interesting new details before they changed again. Then the second-to-last segment was relatively uncluttered, creating the sense of a pause and a moment to reflect. It was a really remarkable management of tempo for a piece with virtually no actual action.

4 Feet High also did a good job with pacing. Its story — a teenager adjusting to life at a new school — is conventional, but the filmmakers did a good job of adjusting the pace and style of the film to exploit the 360-degree format. At any moment, the story was focused on the main characters, but the pace of events was slow enough that I had time to glance around and explore the environment. The creators also did an excellent job of selecting visually interesting locations that rewarded those little excursions. I often had the feeling that I had missed something in the corner of my eye that would have been interesting, but wasn’t important; I think that feeling may be the sweet spot for this sort of pacing. The best environmental experiences have always made deft use of an inchoate sense of FOMO.

Another thing I thought 4 Feet High did well was its use of signposting. There are several moments during the film where animated effects appear, and to me they felt like small nudges indicating where I ought to orient my attention without demanding it. It was so gentle, and yet in combination with the pacing choices I think it was the only film in the exhibition where I never felt like I had made a poor choice about where to look.

I had very much the opposite experience with 1st Step. That piece adapted historical footage of the moon missions into an immersive environment. It is a really impressive technical achievement, but I felt almost constantly that I was looking in the wrong place, that the rocket was always behind me. The creators also seemed to like using fades to black, which had an almost diametrically opposed effect to what they do in traditional film. In a regular film, a fade to black is a pause, a moment to reflect on what you just saw; in the 360 environment, my instinct was invariably “crap, is something happening behind me? Did VRChat crash?”

It is, I think, a lesson of environment-oriented performances that one has to let go. There are so many possible interactions of viewer and viewed that a creator can’t control them all, and a viewer can’t encompass them all; you can only hope to channel the flocks of possibilities. The most successful works are the ones that roll with that truth, that point and nudge without trying to direct, that offer a buffet rather than a tasting menu.

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