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IDFA's DocLab: I walked blind through a splendid day in cyberspace

DocLab is the section for digital experimentation and media art at the IDFA documentary festival. One of the most bizarre installations, the Meat Puppet Arcade, we meet immediately upon entering the Brakke Grond. To the left of the entrance are three digital gaming machines. On the screen, no pinballs or fairground coins, but the lifelike naked bodies of artists Matt Romein and Joe Mango who have scanned and copied themselves in 3D.

Vibrating flesh

With the joystick, you can make all that meat tumble and fall and fold into the weirdest curves - the DocLab theme 'Elastic Reality' gets a very literal interpretation here. On the face of it, it is a funny and original elaboration on the fact that we are more and more emphatically present in cyberspace with our writings and photos. So why not upload our bodies too? But there is a creepier side to it. As soon as I try it myself, it soon feels very uncomfortable, being the indifferent master of all those helpless and vulnerable trembling human bodies, no matter how virtual. What exactly it means I haven't figured out yet, and maybe that's the point.

Real life

DocLab is celebrating its 10th edition this year, and a lot has changed in the digital world and on the internet in recent times. In a nutshell, the playground full of promise has been colonised by mega-corporations like Facebook. Our free view has turned into boxed vision. How that can turn out has been shown by the US presidential election, at least it is suggested. But not to worry, all kinds of new opportunities for new experiments are emerging at the same time, which DocLab is following closely. 'Elastic Reality' turns out to be a broad catch-all term that covers just about everything on the border between the internet and reality.

A by now familiar formula is the so-called 'interactive documentary', which is a fancy word for all kinds of more or less ingenious websides on which you walk through a subject by clicking. At the exhibition in the Brakke Grond, but usually also via your own browser. See for instance the project Everyday Everywhere which aims to portray real life behind stereotypes worldwide.

Smell and follow

Strangely enough, if you want to experience something really new when visiting DocLab, you quickly end up with projects that do not look for it in even more futuristic technology, but rather take a step back to our real physical reality. Follower by Lauren McCarthy brings the idea of following and being followed that we know from social media back to reality. With the Follower app on your smartphone, DocLab gives you a real follower for five hours. Yes, a stranger of flesh and blood, who follows your steps for five hours, even though the agreement is that there will be no direct contact. You do get a photo as proof. Seems to be a very special experience. By the way, you may also follow yourself.

Another piece of news is Smell Dating, a kind of Tinder with your nose that we at DocLab can literally sniff at first. An online service for scent-based matchmaking. Participants are sent pieces of T-shirts worn by other participants. No photos, no profiles, just the smell to go off on. Also available in the Netherlands in February.

Pleasantly concrete and without digital frills is also The Island of the Colorblind by Sanne De Wilde. Visitors get to work themselves with a colour box using watercolours while unable to see colours due to monochrome red light.

The intimacy of the answering machine

A successful Dutch project that straddles the line between old and new technology is Bert Hana's I Am Not Home Video. He incorporated his love for collecting the recorded tapes from old answering machines into a moving Virtual Reality installation. A virtual flashback to a vanished time.

An instant classic

But the best thing I came across on my first quick tour of this DocLab is really the French-Brtise virtual reality production Notes on Blindness VR, rightly called an instant classic by programmer Caspar Sonnen. The VR headset immerses you in a strange but also intimate-feeling environment that should give you an idea of what it is like when the world around you consists only of sound. Not by making everything pitch black, but rather by translating the sounds of a day in the park - footsteps, birds, the wind - into a kind of glowing ghostly apparitions that exist only as long as it makes sound. For a blind person, a beautiful day is a day with lots of sounds of wind and rain. Simple and effective, with a wonderful mix of animation and sound-design. Based on the audio diary of writer John Hull, who went blind in 1983.

Good to know

Doclab, a co-production of IDFA and the Brakke Grond runs until 27 November, with various presentations and a number of Live Cinema Events promising spectacle and surprise. Access to the exhibition is free.

Leo Bankersen

Leo Bankersen has been writing about film since Chinatown and Night of the Living Dead. Reviewed as a freelance film journalist for the GPD for a long time. Is now, among other things, one of the regular contributors to De Filmkrant. Likes to break a lance for children's films, documentaries and films from non-Western countries. Other specialities: digital issues and film education.View Author posts

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