October 01st, 2021 | by Mathieu Gayet

"We need to be adaptive and to stay at the very edge of discovery" - Keram Malicki-Sanchez (FIVARS)

FIVARS is one of the longest running events dedicated to immersive content, and was traditionally held in Toronto. But the health crisis, and the evolution of the industry have transformed it: first with an online event last February, then a hybrid proposal that physically relocates FIVARS... to Los Angeles!

We discussed the new (and future) FIVARS with its founder Keram Malicki-Sanchez.

How is FIVARS and the team after these strange Covid-years?

Keram Malicki-Sanchez - FIVARS has always been an interesting challenge, from its very first days: how do you exhibit works that arrive in a wide variety of formats, targeting different platforms, with variable sizes and runtimes? We might get pieces that are proprietary to VIVE, or Oculus GO, or the Web, or WebXR, or require us to find an outdoor park for AR or create a unique installation. It is like building a theater, an IT, center, a performance art space, and an art installation all at the same time, usually for only a weekend!

K. M.-S. - As people? We could use a little holiday :) We have been running events non-stop since at least 2016 when we were basically in a 6 month rotation between FIVARS and VRTO.

Excellence in Visual Design @ FIVARS 2020: HOMINIDAE

You organized 2 events last year, now a 2-part event : was that something already planned or did you work around the new situation after Covid? Why L.A. ? :)

K. M.-S. - When the pandemic forced us all to stop doing in-person events, we shifted fast and aggressively to WebXR solutions, and with the help of programmers like James Baicoianu, Hunter Fox, Jin, and others, created our custom FIVARS virtual platform.  In 2021 we wanted to be able to capture all the new material that was being launched between October and April, so I inaugurated the FIVARS in FEB show. I am not sure that we will keep doing it then, but it was a good experiment.

K. M.-S. - As for the hybrid event and moving to Los Angeles for this autumn event - we used to always be in Toronto running against the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) - because it brought thousands of creators, producers, distributors, journalists into town and we wanted to be right there to show them the future of cinema and immersive experiences. Which we did. But once the festival was forced to operate online, there was really no need to stay there.

K. M.-S. - In fact, with the exception of 2018 and 2019, FIVARS has always taken place in a different creative space. The first one was at a bar beside TIFF, the second at an old furniture factory, and once even in an abandoned Masonic temple that was used as a speakeasy for artists and police alike. (Shhh).

K. M.-S. - But I have lived between Los Angeles and Toronto for 25 years and I know a lot of people in Los Angeles - from the gaming scene, Hollywood and tech alike. Additionally an old friend of mine from UCLA and his partners took over a gorgeous space on the border of Beverly Hills and wanted to get a better understanding of the immersive art world, NFTs and the like so everything lined up beautifully.


K. M.-S. - One of the most powerful things about FIVARS is that it is mutable, limber, and adaptive. If we want to be at the very edge of discovery, we must be able to behave that way too. We are certainly not about tradition - but we do also want to ensure that our audience and participants can stay with us and understand what and where we are. So thank you for this interview.

K. M.-S. - For those wondering about our in-person event - we are doing it by limited appointment only. Tickets are a mere $85 for a two hour block that may not host more than a couple of people at a time; We want to ensure that everyone who attends has sufficient time and space to consider or discuss the catalog, meet creators or important exhibitors who attend. We have strict and comprehensive Co-VID policies in place including showing proof of vaccination, masks, for mouth and eyes, and the latest version of the incredible medical grade Cleanboxes that serve the VR industry so well.

K. M.-S. - So the live aspect will be very exclusive and white-glove for those lucky enough to grab one of the few tickets available. Then we go into 2 weeks of online WebXR showcase for most of the 360 content. We will also make available as much of the interactive selections as possible, but the two elements are really different sorts of events.


A look back at almost 6 years of curation: how do you see the current state of XR/VR?

K. M.-S. - It is undeniable that familiarity with VR and AR as a whole is entering mainstream awareness. I wouldn't dare to say that the tech is mainstream, but the awareness is there now to a much greater degree. When we started we were basically training publicists to speak the language and then they in turn had to educate the press outlets about what the heck we were even talking about. It was a very steep uphill battle. On the other hand we had novelty and scarcity on our side. Now that it is more commonplace, the onus is really there to create a festival that is worth attending. 

K. M.-S. - I have great hope for all the media that we exhibit. Even the spherical video content gets better and better year after year. I hope that the creators, that everyone keeps exploring and telling their stories without reservation. 

About the projects submitted this year, can you give us a few numbers and notes regarding the quality of these experiences? How many did you select?

K. M.-S. - FIVARS usually aims for around 35 pieces. Invariably we end up adding a few more, often performance, or installation or something unique on top of that. So likely we will end up with about 40 pieces this year.


K. M.-S. - The quality is all over the place, but nothing is unwatchable. Some of it is jaw-droppingly high quality and incredibly executed and some of it feels very low budget, handmade and full amateurish technical choices. However, that does not necessarily make the latter less important or effective. In fact some of those lower budget pieces are sometimes the most memorable for one reason or another. It really is about an ongoing process of inquiry to what the medium can afford us, and testing the outer limits.

What trends, topics or technology are emerging from your selection?

K. M.-S. - This year and last year I have been seeing a lot of work focused on consciousness, identity, bias, language preservation, and phenomenology. Immersive creators like to explore the ideas of self and perception through this medium a lot. Which is great, because this medium is a powerful abstraction and proxy, and in some ways, a literal demonstration of how we coalesce sensory input into a sense of reality.

K. M.-S. - I always wish there were more Augmented Reality pieces, but we do have a few very special surprises up our sleeve for FIVARS in FALL 2021 so stay tuned.


Any personal comment to add?

K. M.-S. -FIVARS is one of the oldest wholly immersive story arts festivals in the world at this point. We are not part of a larger film festival and we live and die by these new media alone. It is tactically, logistically, and promotionally one of the most challenging things I have ever had to manage, but whenever I sit down and work my way through the catalog, with my HMD on or my AR interface, I am completely re-convinced that this is where I want to be. What an extraordinary medium, what extraordinary innovation and creativity are we seeing, and what extraordinary times through which to capture our ideas as a people.

K. M.-S. -I send my warmest wishes to everyone innovating and persevering in these media today, and give thanks to everyone upon whose work and toil we are building. I also want to acknowledge Stephanie Greenall my co-producer for all the hard work she does in helping me to put this show together, and thank you XRMust for being here to support us and help to get the word out there! You are telling our stories!



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