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How I almost fell off my bike because of a VR documentary #IDFA Doclab

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IDFA DocLab has returned home to the Brakke Grond, and how! More than thirty-five works explore the boundaries of documentary in content and form. DocLab is the digital playground where anything is technically and conceptually possible now. So I watched a work with scent, danced in the 1980s and got so relaxed I almost fell off my bike.

Nervous Systems is the name of this edition. Indeed, some works penetrate directly to the non-rational part of the brain. Smell, par excellence, has that quality. Other works touch you emotionally through their content. And still others deal with the nervousness of the system itself, for instance through systemic insomnia.

Urgent stories

Even more than last year, I felt a substantive urgency in all the works. These are the stories that need to be told, and the XR form helps to maximise impact. The stories are about climate change, violence against trans women, diasporas. But also about society as a whole, about how digitalisation is shutting people in or shutting them out. The form ranges from abstract (you have to read the description to properly understand what you see) to sensory bombardment.

One of the more abstract works that touched me was Border Birds. A series of photos show circled birds flying. The caption tells you where the birds were photographed: at borders that are difficult to penetrate for people without the right papers. Artificial intelligence learned to recognise the birds on video footage from publicly accessible cameras at the borders between Mexico and the US, Morocco and Spain, Greece and Turkey and France and England. Dries and Bieke Depoorter chose 100 images. It is part of a larger project that uses NFTs to raise money for the European Network of Migrant Women and the Red Cross. The meaning and technology are not in your face, but precisely the indirect as well as the actual monetary contribution to a complex situation make this a rock-solid work.

Dancing in your own world

Less subtle, but a brilliantly made documentary is In Pursuit Of Repetitive Beats by Darren Emerson. In 1989, the rave culture big in the UK. Illegal acid parties in abandoned sheds or other hard-to-find places attract thousands of dancers. How do they get there? We join the hunt for the best parties. This VR documentary is very well constructed, you experience the search while seeing short interviews with the ravers from the earliest days. Emerson leads the visitor past a series of flyers, which, if you pick them up, show an interview of an organiser, a dancer, or a police officer. A phone box contains a hint of where the party is taking place. In the back of the car, with your head out of the open roof, you can feel the wind. A fan provides a physical experience and a euphoric feeling takes hold of me.

The cat-and-mouse game of the organisers, the police and the ravers is palpable. The documentary shows the context, a hopeless England, where different groups of people complement each other to escape the daily grind. Jamaicans provide the sound systems. Ex-hooligans provide the security. It is precisely that so many different people - who do not mix during the day - can dance the stars off the sky together at night that made the rave scene so unique. When we outsmart the police and get to a party with thousands of people, you experience and understand the release. And miss the freedom and unregulated nature of illegal parties.


The discharge of rock-hard rain

Another, softer, almost sweeter work is The Anticipation of Rain by Naima Karim. In rough brushstrokes, she creates a 3D environment with a hypnotic soundscape. She explains that an inflammation left her unable to move for a year and doomed to watch the sky. She experienced the approaching monsoon even more intensely than usual. That intensity was also magnified by the climate crisis: the monsoon is more intense and devastating in Bangladesh than before. Still, it is a romantic time, according to Karim. The buildup with the threatening dark skies and thunderstorms, the discharge that washes everything clean. A perfumer has developed two scents especially for this VR work, one of the heavy earthy scent before the monsoon erupts. One a fresher, more floral scent for after. The scents draw you deep into the animated world.

Sleeping as a radical act

The last work I visited is one of the most relaxed works I know. Slumberland is a Swedish VR installation about insomnia. A social worker told a Swedish newspaper that many of the criminal youths he works with complain of insomnia. 30% of people (it is not specified whether this is worldwide or only in Sweden) suffer from insomnia. The Bombina Bombast company rightly concludes that if insomnia is such a problem, and at the same time a revenue model in our attention economy, then taking rest is a radical action. So visitors are allowed to sit on their own sheepskin and undergo the work with a blanket and pillows.

Two fairy-tale women - one in Stockholm, one in Malmø - take visitors to a soft nightscape. They hold our hand, their controllers virtually touching our controllers, but it feels more intimate. In their bedrooms, young people tell us why they can't sleep and what their ideal sleeping environment would look like. Slowly, the fairy tale women take us to a starry sky, where we can doze off for a while before we have to go out into the cold night. Once on the street, I don't manage to really wake up. At home, I quickly crawl under a blanket on the sofa, thinking about the physical experiences of the works I have seen.

And that is immediately a tricky question. Would I have experienced the monsoon as much without the smell? Would I have found rave culture as liberating without my head out of the car roof? Maybe not, but the question is probably as nonsensical as what a Mondrian would look like if he had used pink and green.

Good to know Good to know

Good to know: IDFA continues until 20 November. Click here for more information on the DocLab


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Helen Westerik

Helen Westerik is a film historian and great lover of experimental films. She teaches film history and researches the body in art.View Author posts

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