Kate Bailey, Senior Curator of Theatre and Performance at the V&A in London discusses “Curious Alice” – a new VR experience set in the wonderful world of Wonderland
Released on 22 October 2020, Curious Alice is an at-home VR experience presented by the V&A and forms part of its landmark exhibition Alice: Curiouser and Curiouser opening in March 2021-- charting the evolution of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, from manuscript to a much loved global phenomenon. We spoke to Kate Bailey, Senior Curator of Theatre and Performance, about the enduring appeal of Alice in Wonderland, and the impact of innovative technology on a world-leading museum.
Can you introduce the VR experience?
It has been an amazing opportunity to develop this VR piece with the production studio Preloaded. Curious Alice is the at-home version, and A Curious Game of Croquet is the VR experience within the exhibition. Both take visitors on an interactive journey through Wonderland. You travel through different worlds and engage with Alice’s adventures in a virtual space. You are given her agency to grow and shrink, and interact with imaginary scenarios that would not be possible in reality. There is the opportunity to play flamingo croquet, and in the at-home version users can also solve riddles from a caterpillar and encounter the iconic ‘white rabbit.’
Why is virtual reality such a fitting medium through which to explore Alice’s world?
The narrative of the book is about moving into different spaces – through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole – so it’s a brilliant catalyst for working in a virtual space. It feels fitting to be using virtual reality in 2020, and the book has often sparked experimentation with new technologies.
What was the process of creating the VR experience?
We tested the headsets in January 2020, when we weren’t completely aware of what lay ahead. We continued to work during lockdown and, on a personal level, it was exciting because I hadn’t worked in virtual reality before. We thought about what is possible in a digital world that’s not possible in reality and Wonderland was the perfect stimulus. For example, we considered creating a physical flamingo croquet and then realized that this could be translated into a playful and fantastical virtual experience.
The experience uses illustrations by Kristjana Williams. What was behind the decision to use these artworks?
We commissioned contemporary Icelandic artist Kristjana Williams to create new drawings for the exhibition catalogue, to illustrate our different approach to Wonderland. Influenced by the V&A, architecture and perspective, Williams works in a layered way which echoes traditional theatre techniques. As a result, the new VR experience is based on Williams’ drawings for the catalogue, as we felt the style could translate and animate well in a virtual environment.
Why does Alice in Wonderland remain such a captivating story in 2020?
The book has been translated into 170 different languages, because the underlying themes are universal. I think the theme of imagination resonates as we navigate through a global pandemic. I also think the fact that Alice finds herself in worlds where things do not really make sense resonates today. And Alice’s character with her spirit of curiosity, learning and adventure feels very relevant. In Wonderland, Alice grows, she speaks truth to power, endures the weird and wonderful, and comes out the other side discovering more about herself and the world around her.
How will the VR experience bring a new aspect to the exhibition at the V&A?
The exhibition looks at how and why Alice has inspired lots of different creative disciplines. The first black and white silent movie from 1903, inspired by the book, will be on display – the VR experience acts as an apt counterpoint to this. The experience encapsulates a fantastic intersection of scientific ideas and artistic imagination, which is fitting as the books continue to be a springboard for creative technologies.
The home version of the virtual reality experience makes it accessible, not just to exhibition visitors, but audiences around the globe. How important is this for the museum?
Engaging with our visitors off-site has always been fundamental, and creating dedicated digital content is of increased importance as we navigate COVID-19. As a curator, I am familiar with physical environments. However, I think a lot of the work that I do with designers translates well into the virtual realm, and is part of a journey that will continue.
How do you think technology can shape the future of museum programming?
Staging exhibitions across the physical and virtual realms will become increasingly relevant. There is huge scope for a permanent museum such as the V&A to not only share its collections outside its walls, but imbue the objects with a wider context. For example, if you were to put Michelangelo’s David in its original context – the Italian Renaissance – you could rebuild this world and interpret the object in a new light. I am interested in the mixing of realities and think there is brilliant opportunity to provide more information on our collections in that way.
The HTC VIVE Arts program is hugely exciting, as VR is becoming its own art form. Previously, technology was driving the content, and now it feels like the content is coming into its own. We are hungry for new cultural experiences, and I think people will increasingly own more headsets in their homes.
The launch of the at-home VR experience is being celebrated with a virtual sneak preview on 22 October 2020. Can you introduce the event?
The preview event is the V&A’s first-ever VR event. It will give a sneak peek of the VR experience, as well the whole exhibition in a virtual representation of the museum. We will give attendees the opportunity to explore the development of the final exhibition – you’ll be able to see John Tenniel’s original drawings for Alice in Wonderland, as well as some of the contemporary fashion on display.