You can be a mushroom carrying out bioremediation. You can be a bug sliding down an esophagus. You can even be yourself, watching your breath leave your body. The New Frontier lineup at Sundance 2020 shows the power of virtual reality to create playful experiences of agency in the face of climate change.
A standout from this year’s festival is “Hypha,” a beautifully inventive VR experience that let viewers act as mushrooms sent down from outer space to save the Earth. The viewer transforms from spore to mycelium, with branching, stringy limbs that decontaminate soil, absorb water, and hug tree roots. In the end, the viewer turns into a familiar mushroom fruitbody, with its cap and gills obstructing their vision as they shake loose spores that will continue the mission of bioremediation. While the project includes scientific advisors from the Fungi Foundation, it educates through an emotional journey rather than lectures or diagrams.
Another abstract, poetic experience is “Breathe,” a multiviewer mixed reality (MR) piece that uses body sensors and a headset to let viewers play with visualizations of their breath in the physical space around them. When viewers first put on the headset, they’re invited to focus on their own breathing via a visualization of air particles leaving their body. The accompanying background music and soft narration would feel at home in a guided meditation. The peaceful tone and delicate interaction design continue as viewers are then able to see the breaths of the other people in their session. Finally, viewers are prompted to think about how far their breath will travel through time and space. Explaining this project’s approach, lead artist Diego Galafassi said that “climate change tends to be quite disembodied… but breathing is your direct relationship with the atmosphere.” The team trusted peaceful contemplation to carry a message about the need to rethink our relationship with the environment.
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“Breathe” and “Hypha” exemplify the opportunities that immersive media technologies present to discuss the environment. They can let viewers try out what the future might feel like and figure out for themselves what to do about it. If embodying a mushroom and visualizing your own breath don’t sound like familiar fear-inducing messages around climate change, that’s exactly the point.
For Galafassi, addressing climate change will require “reassessing the way we perceive ourselves in the environment, the way we relate to others,” he said. “Using storytelling, poetry, to me it’s a very powerful approach.” By employing VR technologies, this poetry can offer the chance for viewers to practice their own agency in the face of complex, global issues.
The chance to practice agency in environmental media can be powerful, even when that experience is decidedly silly. The VR experience “Animalia Sum” uses hilarious, squishy 3D models and a David Attenborough sound-alike to put viewers in the roles of future humans and the bugs they consume. As creators Bianca Kennedy & The Swan Collective describe it, the viewer “slips into the minds of the insects and experiences the promise of salvation from the other side: gaping human mouths and overcrowded bug farms.”
After experiencing the bug’s point of view, the viewer is then put in the role of a human, aiming a syringe to extract precious compounds from bug bodies. By the end of the piece, it’s easy to sympathize with the bugs’ protest over the sacrifice of billions of their own lives for the sake of humans. The piece puts viewers face-to-face with the shortcomings of trying to replace industrial farming of mammals and birds with a different extractive process. “Animalia Sum” cleverly uses absurdity to question the idea of quick fixes for environmental issues. As the creators note, “People tend to leave our piece with a smile on their face, while still raising awareness for ecological problems.”
The impact of agency in VR is clear in comparison to the climate-related New Frontier performances. “Infinitely Yours” is a 25-minute stage performance by Miwa Matreyek encompassing dance, shadow puppetry, animation, and live music. Matreyek said that this piece helped her process her climate grief and confront her role own responsibilities, going so far as to incorporate her own garbage into the performance. “Anti-Gone” is a 75-minute theater piece in which live actors perform simultaneously onstage and in a digital world via motion capture suits. The piece centers its main characters’ detachment and apathy towards the state of their sunken city.
Lead artist Theo Triantafyllidis said that climate change is “always sort of in the background of what is going on,” with main characters so detached from their ruined city that they’re content to just “[continue] this life of looking for experiences, drugs, things to do and things to buy.” These two impressive performances left me tired, upset, and sympathetic because I could see my own flaws in them. I connected with Matreyek examining her own plastic trash under the bright light of a projector, as well as with main characters of “Anti-Gone” chasing distractions when it feels like nothing can save their city.
By contrast, at the end of “Hypha,” “Breathe,” and “Animalia Sum,” I felt peace, happiness, and a connection with others. These immersive media projects let me feel what I could be, and it was empowering. I could participate in the industrial farming of bugs and then reject it. I could use fungal magic to keep soil healthy. I could take a moment to breathe. This year’s New Frontier selection was filled with moving moments around issues of climate change and the environment. The creative VR projects highlight the new opportunities of playful, immersive environmental media to reach new audiences and inspire new emotions around the future of our planet.