"We must stand for the independence of creation in virtual reality" - Michel Reilhac (Venice VR Expanded)
The Virtual Reality section of the Venice Film Festival (La Mostra, included in the more global art event called the Biennale) returns in September 2021. A pioneer of the genre among A-festivals, Venice VR will be expanded again this year for Covid reasons, with a few events on site but a developed presence online and in 14 satellite locations around the world (list to be found below).
Selection process, virtual worlds, stakes and limits linked to Covid-19, avatar... Debriefing of a new particular edition with its co-programmer Michel Reilhac.
Credits cover: IN THE MIST by CHOU TUNG-YEN (Taiwan)
Venice VR Expanded : a very diverse 2021 selection
Michel Reilhac - We received about the same number of projects, around 170. If the quality level is increasingly high, we have noticed with Liz (Rosenthal) a certain lack of diversity in the subjects tackled, of creative risk-taking. This is certainly due to a difficult Covid year, where innovation was not the priority. Our selection nevertheless reflects a list of strong projects, which fully embrace the medium.
M. R. - With Venice VR, the only official A category competition in the world, we have to obey the same criteria as the film festival: only world or international premieres. We propose a real official selection, not a corner near the main event. This forces us to be vigilant about the quality, diversity and impact of the films we select. In terms of logistics as well, this forces us to have a very strict roadmap for the satellite locations (see below). Or on the question of premiere, we have to ask for a world premiere or at least an international premiere to integrate the experience in Competition. Some works like GOLIATH: PLAYING WITH REALITY were presented in a prototype version before, others were only partial and will arrive complete at Venice like SAMSARA.
M. R. - For the BAL DE PARIS, it is a special case because Blanca Li will present this multi-user work, a dance performance in Venice physically next to the festival. And it will be presented in a magnificent building that will be the Conservatory Benedetto Marcello of Venice. Despite the sanitary constraints, she wanted to offer direct access for the public during the festival - where we could not do so at the Lido. We've been following her project since she came to Venice VR in 2018, and it was a no-brainer to have it in Competition. There will be a linear version, produced especially for Venice VR, online for accredited people.
The horizon of virtual worlds: the VRChat selection
M. R. - Faced with the rules of broadcasting platforms, our interest was focused on the virtual worlds that exist under VRChat and others. We selected 35 of them in our official selection, in an unprecedented way for an international festival at our level. The pandemic has accelerated these virtual explorations, with interactive or wandering worlds that are increasingly rich and fascinating. These are spaces of diversity and inclusion, of very rich proposals - we visited 400 of them to make our choices, and we could have kept many! They are often young talents, far from our content industry (ICC), or from any idea of festivals, celebrations, multi-year productions. Most of these worlds are conceived in a few months, with little or no funding, but a lot of passion and solidarity (Raindance 2020 presented some of them, ed. note).
M. R. - To observe the blossoming of this type of creation, not totally underground either, is to discover a discrepancy within the VR universe. On the one hand, there is an industry coming from the cinema, from the audiovisual sector, which proposes a very professional production model. On the other hand, the tools available (Unity, ...) are within the reach of newcomers, of those who are passionate about images and immersion, who can already create something. The community spirit is very strong, leaving room for unavoidable and protean proposals. Hence our choice to present them in the official selection this year. In addition, we are adding 5 concerts and live events in VRChat - again with the help of our partner VRrOOm.
M. R. - Last year, the whole festival period had been complex for me personally, with many hours in VR, already in virtual worlds and a final impression rather mixed about the risks of an intensive use of my avatars. This year, a VR designer friend of mine created a personalized avatar, in my image, which allows me to be more comfortable when I spend several hours inside these worlds. These steps have become very natural, we have to be comfortable there. Obviously, I adapt my look according to the visited universes, as in the real world in the end.
Working with platform constraints
M. R. - The technical constraints for putting works online are increasingly draconian - and we are no exception to the deadlines of the global platforms for validating content, which are almost all world or international premieres. The last few weeks before the festival are therefore particularly stressful and complex. This situation of quasi-monopoly of the platforms is a real problem to discuss for the future, because for the moment we depend on them, on their audience, for the experiences to be seen. And we hope, in the best possible conditions.
M. R. - We must defend the independence of virtual reality, which remains an emerging artistic medium and trend. Today we are filtered by the platforms, with little space for free (or different) expression. And constraining technical demands. Some artists want to propose something else, more radical, daring proposals. Obviously, if we find the VR island, Lazzaretto Vecchio Island (we hope in 2022), the problem will not arise on site where we will have full freedom to present the experiences we want. The problem arises in the digital access to works, and we will make it one of the themes of conference this year.
M. R. - And for an event like ours, the question is one of accessibility and social connection. And of a network that already hosts an audience, like Quest and Oculus. In 2020, we have studied many broadcasting platforms. The existing proposals are technically complex, risky and do not have an audience. Not to mention the installation required for the viewer, who often remains a professional likely to have the equipment to discover the selections ... We are watching for the arrival of solutions that we hope will help democratize our virtual creations a little more and putting aside the technical barriers to access the contents.
M. R. - Accessibility is also about content. This is why we have chosen in the Best Of section (Out of Competition) experiences such as JURASSIC WORLD AFTERMATH, MICRO MONSTERS or MYST, in particular, to show the full range of VR proposals. Our job is to open new doors, not to lock VR into a single style of content. And this will be the case for our special event, IN THE MIST by CHOU TUNG-YEN (Taiwan), which did not meet the editorial criteria of the platforms and will only be presented at the satellite venues. It is a very raw immersive experience, with a lot of nudity but above all a lot of poetry, a reflection on solitude. Our act of artistic resistance is to make it a specific part of the Selection.
M. R. - We are at a turning point where wired headsets, with a heavy installation, are still the most efficient and offer the best definition. It's very frustrating, because next to them, standalone proposals are multiplying! But we still have to move forward so that they offer the total freedom we are waiting for... Also, we are asked to adapt the experiences for several headsets, even if it means reducing the quality - this is absurd. There are technological barriers to overcome.
The convergence of the College Biennale and Venice VR
M. R. - We have to look at our work at Venice VR as a 3-step movement, every year. With the College, we accompany projects in development and identify new talent. And this is so that 12 projects can find their creative fulfillment, with several workshops per year for the teams. We can start with an idea, a concept, to build the project with them. And then we have the Gap-Financing, which is a real more active financing phase with 15 projects pitched on the Lido in September. And finally, the presentation during the festival with the selection of projects in a dedicated category. In all of this, what characterizes us is our long-term work with creators and producers, such as CONTAINER (South Africa), which is in Competition this year.
Consolidate the network of Satellite locations
M. R. - We find the same number of partner venues (satellites) as in 2020, 14 instead of 15. Some venues, particularly in Asia, were not able to renew the operation due to the resurgence of Covid-19. Similarly, we are not pushing to expand the network exponentially. Integrating the Venice VR satellite network means meeting a set of important criteria and constraints. And then, like any festival with world premieres, the venues only receive the films a few days before - especially with the constraints of VR, broadcasting tools, production ends... Not to mention the financial aspect, where theaters keep all the revenue without making a profit either. The material, human and marketing investment remains very expensive for this type of operation.
M. R. - That being said, we are very happy to find most of the places that were already there in 2020. The time period limited our efforts, even if we had good contacts with South Africa, Kenya, Taiwan or cities in South America. But the economic, political and sanitary situations of these countries did not allow us to finalize these geographical choices.
- Centre PHI, Montréal, Canada
- Sandman Studios - Sandbox Immersive Festival, Beijing and Shanghai, China
- MC2: Grenoble, Grenoble, France
- Centquatre-Paris, Paris, France
- Invr.Space, Berlin, Germany
- Meet Digital Communication - MEET Digital Culture Center, Milan, Italy
- Fondazione Giacomo Brodolini - Laboratorio Aperto di Modena, Modena, Italy
- Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Turin, Italy
- M9 - Museum of the 20th Century, Venice Mestre, Italy
- Eye Filmmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands
- Less Media Group - Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA), Moscow, Russia
- Espronceda - Institute of Art & Culture, Barcelona, Spain
- Euromersive Turkey - IKSV salon & Kolektif House, Istanbul, Turkey
- Portland Art Museum & Northwest Film Center – Portland Art Museum, Portland, USA