On August 21, 3pm, the online booking to reserve your slot for VR works presented at the 2019 Venice Film Festival opened. Two hours later, the installation COSMOS WITHIN US was almost sold out and it took me two days – and accurate planning – to find the coveted ticket and guarantee myself the chance to experience something that, on paper, looked absolutely stunning.
A story about memory and its loss that takes the audience inside the mind of Aiken, a 60-year-old man suffering from Alzheimer’s, COSMOS WITHIN US gave me the impression, even before experiencing it, of a story that could touch you deep inside, move you to tears, but potentially leave you with something good. Something that is strongly needed, especially when you have personally experienced what it means to have someone close to you going through a disease like Alzheimer’s and you find it hard to face all that it implies.
Conversations during the festival confirmed this impression but when it was finally my turn to try COSMOS WITHIN US, I found there was something that went beyond expectations. As a close friend effectively summarized: “it’s an experience that first tears you to pieces and then puts them back together to give you strength and peace, rather than take it away”.
We had the chance to talk about COSMOS WITHIN US with its director, Tupac Martir.
In Venice, something Laurie Anderson said during the Sunday panel stuck with me… She said that every time she experiences a VR work, she asks herself one question: Why? Why did the author decide to share that specific story? Why in that specific way? So, that’s what I’d like to start with: why Cosmos Within Us? What represents for you?
We wanted to create a piece that reflected us and our ways of working. We come from the Live Entertainment Technology world, so we wanted to create a piece that could be performed with this in mind. We started with the concept of “Loss”, the loss of a loved one, innocence, love, memory, physical objects, etc and it was at that point, that we realized that we needed one specific element to be the vehicle for the story. We decided that Alzheimer’s was the best way to express this, since a person experiencing this horrible disease would have to go through each one of these losses.
Every human will experience loss, in many different ways. We wanted to create a story that was universal and could be relatable to the widest audience possible.
We also felt driven to create COSMOS WITHIN US because we wanted to direct and produce an ever-encompassing performance. Without giving too much away, it gives us a freedom that wouldn’t exist if we did it any other way. This project it is the closest thing to a theatrical VR performance… something we don’t believe has been done before.
And indeed, one of the things offered by Tupac and his colleagues at Venezia76 was COSMOS WITHIN US – Behind the Scenes. At first, I have to admit it, I did not book it. I had the feeling – in a very “The Prestige” influenced way – that once I knew the trick behind Cosmos Within Us, the beauty of it all would have been a bit marred by this discovery. “You want to be fooled”, as the movie says. But after talking with some friends who mentioned how the Behind the Scenes gave completeness and a kind of closure to the installation itself, I decided to try it… right after trying the main experience. And it was incredible. Almost like watching a perfectly choreographed dance, where everyone had their roles, and everyone was part of something that was coming alive right in front of you. A new beauty, one found in the creation process, came out of it. We asked Tupac about it.
Why did you decide to offer your audiences Behind the Scenes viewings? And can you tell me more about the work you do to make Cosmos Within Us a live production every time?
One way to explain this is that when people watch a film for example, they don’t realize that they become an active audience member as part of viewing that performance, or piece of artistry. Further down the line, we might need to change the name of the experience in that sense, so that people understand that it is in fact part of the piece as a whole, being made in real time.
A key reason to show people what we’re doing is because we are a live performance. When we are performing [as musicians, actors, composers] the interactor is also performing. As each movement and reaction is individual, this in turn gives the COSMOS WITHIN US team moments that we wouldn’t see with another interactor.
The Behind the Scenes experience shows how we can create different illusions and the interactor enjoys a different experience within that. Yet most importantly, it allows us to showcase the performative aspects of the piece; this in turn becomes a performance itself for this audience.
Was there a moment during Venice when someone said something in relation to COSMOS WITHIN US that has really stayed with you, perhaps something meaningful to all the people involved in its creation?
I must say that I was very touched by some of the feedbacks we received during Venice. Many people approached me and opened up about their own experiences and memories. These are personal conclusions, and so not for public consumption, but it was lovely to be able to play a part in unleashing feelings in some and help others reach a certain empathy and closure.
When you make a piece that can have such a strong effect on people, you remember that it’s why we do art – we want to tap into people’s emotions. After that, everything else is the cherry on top.
Where will the piece go next? And how is the promotion going?
We are in talks with other festivals and cultural institutions, as we would like to tour the piece. We think we have a very good distribution model, which should eventually allow us to take our theatrical, live music VR production around the world!