Vestige by Aaron Bradbury and Paul Mowbray.
Vestige by Aaron Bradbury and Paul Mowbray.

Alternate Realities – a conversation between Lighthouse and BDF

24 October 2018

For the 2018 Brighton Digital Festival, Lighthouse will be presenting selected works from the Alternate Realities programme which launched at Sheffield Doc/Fest in June.

FACE TO FACE at Sheffield Doc/Fest
FACE TO FACE at Sheffield Doc/Fest

The selected works explore notions of borders, identity, loss and how technology enables us to interpret and engage with them.

Following Lighthouse and BDF’s trip to Sheffield Doc Fest to view works selected for the Alternate Realities programme a few weeks ago, we got some thoughts and reactions from Lighthouse CEO and Artistic Director Alli Beddoes and BDF Festival Director Laurence Hill.

Alli Beddoes
So Laurence, tell me how the Sheffield visit was for you? What stood out?

Laurence Hill
The visit was great and really instructive. It was useful to see so much work in such a short space of time (though my eyes, which were very confused by the end of the day, might disagree). I enjoyed being there with the Lighthouse team and having a focus for viewing the work that was presented. There were two works that I, personally, really loved, one an AR piece called Terminal 3 that felt like a gamechanger and a very simple 8-bit game called the Loss Levels, which explored grief, lived out in public, in a really interesting and moving way.

It’s also clear that no one has really cracked the logistics of this kind of exhibition. Limited opportunities to see the works most of which are single person experiences meant queues and signing up for slots, which in the end may not be available because of tech problems. It’s a tough one to crack and I didn’t envy the organisers.

How was it for you?

It was a lovely road trip for us, wasn’t it? It is so good for Lighthouse to start conversations this far ahead of the BDF programme with you.

I thought Alternate Realities was incredibly impactful – through the presentation of a collection of works from across the globe with challenging narratives, the different technologies/platforms and managing audiences. I have big respect to Dan Tucker, Joe Cutts and the rest of the Sheffield Doc Fest team for a sterling job on its production.

From Lighthouse’s perspective, it was a treat and a privilege to see works three months in advance of an exhibition. We have been supporting artists to develop new ideas and new works – which haven’t been seen in public before, so it was brilliant to attend Alternate Realities in the knowledge we would be touring a selection works for Brighton Digital Festival. Further to this, working with this technology in this way allows a healthy conversation about site specificity and how these works are presented – be that in different environments, buildings and festival contexts and how that can introduce different perspectives to an artwork. I love the possibility and freedom that allows.

Agreed! The opportunity to select work that’s already made and trying to align that with the festival’s ethos and Lighthouse’s history, goals and location is a real treat. I’ll be doing something similar for the BDF exhibition in partnership with the Lumen Prize. I’ll be selecting work from the shortlist for this year’s submissions to show at Phoenix in Brighton.

You are open about your reservations with immersive technology, in particular, VR – did Alternate Realities reinforce or challenge them and how?

Alternate Realities largely reinforced my views and also allowed me to articulate my reservations better.

Going beyond the physical inaccessibility and the expense of VR which makes it unavailable to many people both as creators and consumers, I’d like to consider another important issue.

I wanted to start with a thought from Lisa Nakamura who writes a lot around race and identity in online spaces – she has said that every few years a new technology comes along that promises the end of racism and sexism and it never happens. VR is the latest of those technologies, sold as a kind of ‘empathy machine’, that will allow us to walk in the shoes of others and understand their particular experience of the world.

I’ve seen, or in some cases deliberately avoided, work that offers an experience of being bipolar, autistic, grieving. To be a woman of colour that experiences racism or to witness a teenage boy coming out to his parents who then beat him. These kind of projects feel exploitative of those that are frequently ‘othered’ and, given that I have the power and privilege to take off the headset and walk away makes me feel complicit in that ‘othering’.

That feeling is compounded by the passivity built into many VR works – the creator is inviting me into this space that they’ve made but I have very little, if any, agency in that space and that feels like a temporary colonisation of someone else’s experience rather than a genuine opportunity to learn from it.

The Day the World Changed by Gabo Arora and Saschka Unseld

Well, you’ve articulated concerns that are shared far and wide, myself included. One has to be so careful branding a piece of technology as an ‘empathy machine’. Placing an audience at the heart of a work and shared experiences can be incredibly empowering and informative, but this is entirely dependant on the themes and issues that the work is exploring… and its important to understand its limits.

VR introduces an intimacy to a project or work and does have the ability to prevent influence from other viewers and their perspectives, which I think is interesting. It is important to bring different viewpoints, interpretations and responses to a story but shared experiences can often become influenced or overwhelmed by other voices that might be louder or overpowering. In the political/social/ economic landscape we are living in I am ever more conscious of the effects of an echo chamber, and how unpredictable that can be.

This is interesting, I like your conception of VR as tech that can remove influence and silence those extra loud voices, allowing a viewer a more intimate experience. I hadn’t thought of it in that way. I guess, for me though, and this may well be entirely personal, there’s always going to be a tension in that intimacy being used to make a visit to someone else’s pain.

One other thought too, which occurred to me in Sheffield. Speaking as someone who is deeply introverted there’s a definite issue for me with being visible to others while I’m using a VR headset but not being able to see or hear what’s around me. Like I’m somehow on display – that makes me very uncomfortable!

Is that something that bothers you?

Yes, it bothers me personally – and it was undoubtedly heightened when I was handed a photograph of me in my VR defence pose after seeing the project Face to Face. (I’m sure I’m not the only one that stands like this with a headset on.)
But what bothers me more – beyond my personal feelings – is how an audience member might feel, as you say, on display or exposed, uncomfortable or even unsafe.
It’s an obstacle, and I’m yet to find an answer to it.

A question for you. I am sure that there is interesting work being made that is non-exploitive but is there still time for this iteration of interest in VR to challenge the norms and prejudices that are being built into much of it? Can VR be democratized? Or is it too late?

Despite my turmoil in response to recent political movements, I’m an optimist.
And I’m optimistic about VR and the work that is being produced with it and around it as a piece of technology. Helen W Kennedy (University of Brighton), Sarah Atkinson (Kings College London) and Catherine Allen (VR Producer & Curator) have been producing some critical work that explores the diversity challenges in VR. I’m thinking of the VR Diversity Initiative, which aims to upskill underrepresented groups in media and technology, including women, LGBTQ, disabled people, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic professionals who are considering a career in the VR space.
Of course, there is still a wealth of voices to be heard, but I feel we can learn from mistakes made in the deep depths of tech and gaming past.

I heard the phrase ‘critically optimistic’ used to describe someone’s feeling about our digital future and that’s pretty much how I feel about VR. The people you describe above are doing great work and I’d also throw Hyphen Labs into that mix as well. They’re an artist collective of women of colour and they are doing some interesting VR work.

The Alternate Realities programme presented 27 projects that each used film, games and web (or a combination of these) through installation or headset, the programme also had a clear focus which was to present political, social struggles in our world that are hard to imagine. Thinking of the BDF manifesto, and its mission to provide people with access to thought-provoking digital art that both explores and makes sense of our transforming world. Do you feel that AR/VR/XR has the power to enhance non-fiction (or fiction, for that matter) stories or narratives?

That’s a tricky one. I don’t think it doesn’t have that power but I’ve yet to see evidence. Documentary filmmaking is as old as the medium and so far I haven’t seen anything to suggest that any kind of alternate reality can do as good a job as film in showing those hard to imagine political and social struggles.

Do you think that the issue is maybe that we’re still trying to map what is essentially analogue content onto digital spaces? Do we need a complete rethink?

I am yet to see a documentary film on VR that couldn’t be presented in better quality and present the same message/experience on a screen in a cinema. However, Notes on Blindness – Into Darkness, directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney (Lighthouse Guiding Lights 7 mentees and now mentors on our Feature Focus pilot) springs to mind immediately. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest VR experiences – a companion piece to the documentary, which I think is a strong approach to work with VR and documentary filmmaking. (NB. Notes on Blindness is based on the audio diaries of theologian John Hull. After being told he would lose his sight in 1983, John Hull knew if he did not try to understand blindness it would destroy him. The recordings are beautifully realised through VR and documents his discovery of ‘a world beyond sight’.)

Some makers gravitate to a digital space without truly understanding its impact, but one has to explore and experiment to understand the right direction it needs to take.

I feel artists are using the digital space and immersive technology is used in successful ways already and we saw some extraordinarily good examples at Alternate Realities – which I’m looking forward to bringing to Brighton! What does need a rethink is how artists work in partnership with different disciplines looking to work with these technologies. Artists working in collaboration with the creative industries, healthcare or cultural economy is by no means a new thing – but the ultimate frustration for me (as a facilitator and commissioner for such projects) is when the introduction of an artist comes as an afterthought or bolted-on, its simply too late for any valid impact. It is high time artists become part of these conversations at the very beginning if we are to progress approaches to technology and how it impacts positively on social engagement.
Magic, not gimmicks! That’s the goal.

Belongings by John-Paul Marin, Matt Smith, Tea Uglow, and Kirstin Sillitoe.

I think we need to be clear on the different types of VR and separate out 360 video. I agree with you on that one, I’ve yet to see a 360 video that wouldn’t make better sense on a cinema screen. It feels like a gimmick and one that artists have seized on because it’s relatively inexpensive compared to other forms of VR but it never works and, at the moment, I can’t see it being more than a fad.

Last year, BDF presented the first edition of the Messy Edge conference – where we explored the politics of technology and challenged dominant perspectives and how we run the risk, despite opportunities that digital gives us, of a future that is built on flawed foundations of the present. Can you tell me what this year’s conference is exploring?

I’m still programming and having various conversations with potential speakers but I would say that my ideas are coalescing around tensions between visibility and invisibility. On one hand we demand the right not to be seen, for our interests not to be logged by advertisers, we demand the right to be removed from search results – this feels like a very Western desire. On the other hand there’s the equally powerful desire to be visible, which leads many of us to surveil ourselves – offering up our entire existence to the digital panopticon of social media. There’s a tension there but there’s also a tension around those whose need to be visible online, to be represented at all in online spaces goes way beyond a search for likes, is not about validation but about survival.

There’s certainly going to be a connection with the ideas of borders and identity in the works selected from Alternate Realities for the exhibition at Lighthouse.

Brilliant! Looking forward to continuing conversations with you Laurence. Until soon!

Alternate Realities Touring Exhibition 2018 will travel to the Barbican, London (20-27 August), Lighthouse as part of Brighton Digital Festival (21-30 September) and to the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford (5-14 October), in the lead up to and during the Widescreen Weekend. The UK tour is being support by Arts Council England as part of Doc/Fest’s newly acquired National Portfolio Organisation funding, and presented in partnership with each of the venues involved.



Sign up to our mailing list to receive regular email updates on exhibitions, events and other news.