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Xtended: How virtual reality is transforming film

Xtended Eye Film Museum Htc Vivearts 01.jpg

The head of art programming at Amsterdam’s EYE Film Museum explains how technology is opening new realms of possibility for artists and directors

Why did you decide to explore virtual reality?
Anna Abrahams: Eye has an extensive collection of over 40,000 films – from 19th century productions on nitrate film, to contemporary releases. We want to present virtual reality as a new form of moving image. The VR works we exhibit are exclusively by artists and film makers, and we present them in the wider context of moving image art, with a supporting programme of film screens, events and lectures. A lot of people still think of museums as places to encounter the past; we wanted to change that.

Which artists and filmmakers has EYE exhibited?
We launched our dedicated VR series Xtended in 2018, starting with a work entitled My Name is Peter Stillman – a virtual reality film based on Paul Auster’s critically acclaimed novel City of Glass. The piece transports the viewer into the world of Daniel Quinn, a reclusive crime writer who unwittingly becomes the protagonist in a real-life thriller of his own. Auster has written a number of screenplays, and Jason Wood (artistic director of HOME in Manchester) gave a talk exploring the connections between literature, film and VR in Paul Auster’s work.
Other works in our program have included CARNE y ARENA (Virtually present, Physically invisible) – an Oscar Award-winning, virtual reality installation by Mexican film director, producer and screenwriter Alejandro G. Iñárritu. Based on true accounts by Central American and Mexican migrants, this groundbreaking piece allows individuals to experience the journeys of refugees attempting to cross the desert and enter the US.

“The best pieces create an atmosphere and transport people so that they can experience another world.”

CARNE y ARENA is exceptionally immersive: viewers are made to remove their shoes and enter a cold space, finding themselves alone, at night, in the desert. Sirens sound, and you find yourself circled by helicopters and shouting border police. It’s an experience that makes you feel intensely vulnerable. At the end, you enter a video gallery where you encounter real people who have attempted the crossing and share their stories; it’s a powerful mix of reality and fiction, used to highlight a very urgent issue.   

How have people responded to virtual reality?
The response has been very positive. It’s been fascinating to see people encounter a new medium – for some, it’s a very intense experience, and it can even be frightening to begin with. It’s a reaction that was shared with early cinema’s first audiences: for people who had only ever experienced photography, film offered an entirely new dimension. VR expands on that further, opening up a new realm of possibility.   

How does VR relate to other forms of art?
I think all great artworks can be immersive: when I stand in front of a Rembrandt, it’s immersive, and when I read a good book, I can also disappear. VR is a new medium for creating art. The best pieces create an atmosphere and transport viewers so that they can experience another world. 

Which projects have you been most excited by?

I loved Chalkroom, a virtual reality work by Laurie Anderson and Hsin-Chien Yang. Viewers enter an enormous structure made of words, drawings and stories on chalkboard walls, which they’re free to fly around. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before; it’s poetry that comes to life.

What do you think the future holds for art and technology?
Art will always be art – it’s a creative expression that reveals the hand of its author, and introduces a new way of thinking. I’m excited, however, to see the possibilities that technology opens up for artists and filmmakers. Having shown pieces by well-known makers, I’m also looking forward to expanding our program to highlight young, emerging artists who are exploring the medium.  




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