Die deutsche Fassung dieses Textes ist im Immersion-Magazin erschienen.

The Virtual Reality experience “RHIZOMAT VR” by Mona el Gammal can be seen from now on free of charge on the ARTE360 VR platform. “RHIZOMAT VR” is produced by INVR.SPACE and the pilot project of a cooperation between ARTE and Berliner Festspiele/Immersion. The VR experience extends the Narrative Space “RHIZOMAT”, built by the artist Mona el Gammal, from physical into digital space.

Mona el Gammal: „RHIZOMAT VR“ © INVR.SPACE GmbH | Berliner Festspiele/Immersion | ZDF/ARTE 2017

“RHIZOMAT VR” is the first virtual reality experience to be produced together by ARTE and the Berliner Festspiele. How did this project, which extends Mona el Gammal’s Narrative Space into the digital sphere, come about between you?

Thomas Oberender (TO): Mona el Gammal was invited to the Stückemarkt at the 2014 Theatertreffen with “HAUS//NUMMER/NULL” and I thought this format of Narrative Space which I didn’t know at all until then was remarkable and striking as a form of theatre – a play that no longer has any actors and where the leading role is taken by the space. After that we decided to work together with Mona for “Immersion” – a project devoted to forms of art work where the viewer no longer faces the work but enters it. Not simply in the form of immersing oneself in the fiction and the atmosphere but in quite literally crossing the physical boundary between the work and the zone of the audience. At the same time we agreed a partnership with ARTE, which operates a 360° platform. The ARTE360 VR app means you can access films whose centre is provided by you, the viewer, so you’re completely surrounded by what is going on. That’s the hallmark of VR and of immersive theatre. This prompted a leap forward on both sides – ARTE was immediately interested that we had constructed a virtual space inside that physical space.

Mona el Gammal (MeG): When Thomas rang me up, at first I found it very exciting. I had never worked with Virtual Reality and 360° before. It only started to get more concrete a year later and once I began to work more closely on it I realized that I had quite a critical view of the entire medium. So it was important to me to find a place for those ideas in the script and in the story. And then we all started feeling our way forward with the Festspiele and the production company INVR.SPACE and the editors. In Narrative Spaces I work with all the senses – for example, I really like adding the smells at the end. Virtual Reality doesn’t have that yet, which I found quite difficult to begin with. And of course we had no movement by the viewer because there’s only one camera position. The way Narrative Space works, you can move, pick things up with your hands, open things up and look for fragments. I transposed this movement that the viewer can’t make in the film into movement by the spaces, a choreography of space.

Kay Meseberg (KM): You’ve mentioned a number of points there that touch on the whole core of the project. With Virtual Reality we’re faced with a medium that’s to a large extent a promise and a much smaller extent a possibility you can actually realise. When we first got involved in this at ARTE three years ago, there were grainy images, the editing techniques had yet to be fully developed and there were a lot of questions. Now we’ve come further but this project threw up a lot of new questions where we needed the help of people like the Berliner Festspiele, Mona and Thomas to find answers. Because storytelling in virtual spaces is something which was thought of a long time ago, it’s a very old idea but it actually hasn’t been tested much in reality.

What specific challenges need to be confronted in shooting a VR film?

KM: Ultimately you have to try out a lot of things. Ideally the script will not be written in a classic linear way, but more like an Excel table. Some people even work with scatter diagrams or pie charts. At the core will be the story you want to tell and then there are more and more layers around it which represent the different elements to describe the elements of the 360° sphere. So we’re amazingly lucky to have something like Narrative Spaces where we’re faced with both kinds of scenography and can learn as much as possible. I thought the experience of “RHIZOMAT” was great and when I went in myself I thought: “We’ve got it.” Being in a real place was virtual because it’s a virtual theme and because it has been built there. It’s a great project to launch our co-operation because we can see that the book of virtual reality can be opened and we can help write a chapter of it in terms of artistic interaction with this technology. A lot is happening in the area of technology – in computational power and memory. But what content that memory is ultimately going to be filled with is something we don’t yet know.

Wasn’t one of the ideas discussed at the beginning to simply document the route that one takes as a viewer walking through the “RHIZOMAT”? How did the autonomous work that is now “RHIZOMAT VR” develop from that?

MeG: For me it was never an option purely to document something. If I use a different medium then I have to engage with it. For me the starting point was the basic idea of making an issue of the imprinted glasses within the Rhizomat story. After we had premiered the Narrative Space I took the script away with me and wrote a story which persistently engages with the fact that you are wearing these glasses while you’re watching the film. The viewer never forgets that he is wearing those glasses.

TO: One can be more precise here: both the film and Narrative Space as a physical environment are routes which are constructed in a very linear fashion. They are not spaces through which you can construct a different tour of your own: instead one door leads to the next. The advantage of transferring this to VR is that it makes visual experiences possible that I can’t have in the physical world: for example the images in the VR film that are beamed into these spaces as holographic realities or the idea that I have a permanent display situation in front of the inner eye on the imprinted glasses. What was new – and I think what was challenging for you – was to engage seriously with the situation of the viewer in this highly immersive experience, who is at the centre of all perception. In my opinion the analogue constructed space still offers a greater degree of freedom, because I can touch everything there, I can open drawers or check if the coffee cup is still warm. That game of playing detective can be tried out much more intensively in the analogue world.

KM: We’ve reached a point with this technology where it’s not all finished. That’s an exciting moment, which also happened with the invention of the telephone or the television, where there is a certain kind of freedom in trying things out and maybe even being able to define them. We can count ourselves lucky to be able to participate in some way in moments like this. At the same time the big question is how this is presented, what sort of virtual screen is placed before us. This search for a language for the project had a magic in itself and if we look at the result now, we’ve got something that will find its place in the field of artistic engagement with this medium.

When you investigate unknown territory, the answers you find often bring new questions with them. Are there questions you can already ask of future VR projects?

TO: One question that concerns me comes from the fact that we are still dealing with this new medium in a very old-fashioned way. We have a situation in which I’m telling a story in 360° and the person experiencing this takes on the position of the narrator is an entirely new way. However, I’m still going from A to B and am more or less forced to go from one point to the next. That’s not like being in the real world where I can leave the room at any time through the door or the window. In computer games you can already go a lot further – there I can move round the room freely, can click on everything and enter the world behind the world. Another question is to what extent the physical, material places in this medium can be transported without losing their patina. A world like this tower block that we converted which has such an aura, with all the old apertures, pieces of paper, drawings and photographs … this whole charisma that the world of things creates for itself, which has also got to do with fragility, gets lost in the transfer to the digital. I can see a big challenge there: in warming up the new medium.

Mona el Gammal: „RHIZOMAT VR“ © INVR.SPACE GmbH | Berliner Festspiele/Immersion | ZDF/ARTE 2017

MeG: When I saw the recordings for the first time after the shoot I almost cried. I found it so hard to accept that these extremely detailed rooms on whose construction a lot of people had worked with such love, suddenly … before I’d only ever seen VR productions which had been manufactured digitally and thought we could get closer to reality by filming a real space. That was over for me relatively quickly. But I’m also not at all sure how desirable it is for us to get closer to reality. I’m happy for us to leave it as artificial as it is. I’m not at all interested that genuinely real worlds can be manufactured virtually.

TO: But your Narrative Space lives to large extent from just such a promise of authenticity. That’s missing, in VR you’re clearly entering a world of science fiction computer games.

MeG: The script originally had a different structure, with real characters. I then replaced them with holograms because on a first viewing of the material it was clear that I couldn’t claim for a moment that it was real. I had to stay with it being digital – that the secret organization Rhizomat was sending an image from a real room into the digital space of this Orwellian “Institute for Method”. In the Narrative Spaces authenticity is very important to me but I don’t believe that I can create it if I’m sitting just anywhere. I don’t know where the viewer is sitting: on a hard chair, on a sofa, perhaps he is standing or lying down. Then he puts the glasses on and these have a weight. It might be cold or much too warm where he is. I can’t think of any way to create complete authenticity there because there’s too much I don’t know about the recipient.

KM: That’s also linked to VR still being the medium of promise and not the medium that genuinely delivers its promise of the real.

TO: But I’ve already experienced that. I was wearing glasses, the image was pixelated and not at all real but it put me in the situation of standing on an overhanging rock from which I was supposed to jump into the valley. And I couldn’t jump. I couldn’t.

KM: I felt the same thing. I was standing in front of a building and I knew the step is only 10 or 20 cm high but my body refused. But what I mean by promise is that it’s seamless that you can no longer tell the difference between the real and the virtual world.

TO: That’s not what Mona wants.

MeG: No, not at all.

KM: Why not?

MeG: VR has huge potential in areas like education. The experiences it makes possible can be much closer to us and touch us, and that has enormous potential. But in my opinion we urgently need – perhaps we can create it as part of all this – a discussion about what the content of such worlds and experiences should look like. There are discussions about something like a code of ethics because we have no idea what the long-term effects of this technology are. We know from our own experience that our spatial awareness is altered when we wear these glasses – that they work on an entirely different level of our brains to say a cinema film.

TO: Artists always wanted to do that. Be effective like a drug.

MeG: If you look at who is primarily driving these technologies, it’s Google and Facebook – companies who have departments of emotional research and are already intervening in entirely manipulative ways. And now in that context I find these glasses extremely dangerous. It is not necessarily the time to build ourselves virtual realities because there’s so much in genuine reality that we need to deal with. There’s no comparison. That’s why I’m very grateful for the opportunity to be able to build in this criticism. We have got to discuss how we can and want to deal with this medium. If people can soon live out their terrible fantasies in a VR space, experience a rape in VR, then we need to remember that these experiences can also be perceived as real experiences and they can lower the threshold of people’s inhibitions.

Mona el Gammal: „RHIZOMAT VR“ © INVR.SPACE GmbH | Berliner Festspiele/Immersion | ZDF/ARTE 2017

TO: For us the concept of immersion is where everything starts. An artist – Ed Atkins – recently told me: “Immersion is not a warm bath.” Immersion is not what leads me to feel content like a bird in the woods where everything is sunny and nice – horror is immersive. It is the most immersive genre of all. Smacking your lips has an immersive effect, the squeak of skin on glass because it’s a noise that gets under your skin. We know that immersion cancels out moments of reflection, of distance and that’s why we regard it with ambivalence. But immersion is currently revealing itself to be a key concept which allows us to gain a different perspective on a lot of social and artistic developments. That doesn’t mean that everything appears in a positive light. But the experience of immersion doesn’t only take us to La La Land, it also has the potential to make us more alert and more critical. And we want to initiate a debate about this fundamental ambivalence. But I believe that we first need to sound out this shabby expression as Andreas Wolfsteiner recently called it, in order to be able to describe and discuss what this radical change in our epoch is.

KM: We are still at the point where VR is a medium like film, radio, theatre or the novel and we have yet to reach the area where it is extended into another actual reality. Studies like the one by Madary and Metzinger from the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz are very interesting here. They investigate the question of what ethical code VR needs and even make recommendations. In principle a lot of this is still currently science fiction but it is already becoming apparent in some developments. At some point we will need to think about this for the Rhizomat.

MeG: Yes, we need to do that urgently. We’ve already built the first explantation machine … (laughs)

“RHIZOMAT VR” is available free of charge on the ARTE website.

At Theatertreffen 2017, “RHIZOMAT VR” can be experienced in our Virtual Reality Experience Space at Haus der Berliner Festspiele.