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IDFA 2023 - DocLab and the shadow worlds

Does something get better when it is sanded? Art as the grindstone of the mind? The age-old concept of dialectics, the clash of opposites from which something new emerges? This 17th edition of IDFA's DocLab, the programme full of digital art, interactive work and virtual worlds, is themed 'Phenomenal Friction'. Technology is mostly focused on efficiency and convenience, but DocLab invites us to see how friction can actually lead to creativity.

That theme is explicitly named this time, but looking over the programme, my impression is that the character is not really different from other years. Friction, friction is a broad concept that, if you try a bit hard, can be seen in almost all installations in one way or another. Even in previous DocLab editions. Especially if you can also interpret it as amazing, surprising or unusual.

This friction can lie in the work itself, in the experience you have as a participant, or in the outside world. Like the algorithm with which Amsterdam believed it could predict which young people would commit criminal acts in the near future. Hundreds of young people were thus marked, without the parents being able to find out why. Only the algorithm knew that. It is no longer used now, but it was the inspiration for Nirit Peled for her documentary Mothers, last year at IDFA, And now for her poignant performance (this conversation is) Off the Record. More on this later.

AI

A distinct example of a video installation that is itself brimming with friction is William Quail's Pyramid by Piotr Winiewicz and Constant Dullaart. An experiment around whether artificial intelligence, or AI, will ever be able to create original art. What I saw was a bizarre and rather confusing video film from which the dystopian theme of improved life forms can be distilled. As an unsuspecting viewer, I was constantly in doubt. Is this AI poetry or just AI weirdness? At any rate, as a conceptual art project by the duo Winiewicz and Dullaart, it is striking and intriguing.

Emperor, by Marion Burger and Ilan Cohen is a seemingly 'classic' virtual reality that puts you inside the head of someone with aphasia. When I took off the VR headset again, I noticed that I had really felt the same kind of frustration that someone with aphasia must also often feel. To say more about this would be a spoiler.

A somewhat similar, but more concise and lucid VR installation is Turbulence: Jamais Vu. Sufferers of the 'jamais vu' phenomenon often experience a kind of distortion of reality, as if everything has become strange. Ben Joseph Andrews and Emma Roberts have cleverly managed to translate this into a VR experience.

I sit down at an ordinary table full of everyday items, and when I put on the headset I see everything in drawn form, including my own hands. So far, nothing worrying, but when I want to grab a cup or browse through a book, for example, I feel that all sorts of things are wrong. Try as I might. Andrews, who herself has been working on jamais vu suffers, has thus made his condition a source of creativity.

Dual worlds

When you put on one of these VR glasses, with a little imagination, you actually find yourself in two worlds at once. The real one, and the VR world. That alone could be seen as a form of friction, and with the rapid rise of AI, something else looms. A digital world that is becoming increasingly dominant. A shadow time alongside real time. Or other example: you live your life carefree, only to suddenly realise that we are also in a climate crisis. A shadow time.

The VR installation Shadowtime by Sister Sylvester and Deniz Tortum works with that idea. It lets you play with the very first digital object, a cube, and meanwhile you drift through all kinds of landscapes with structures and ruins, historic or otherwise. You also discover that you have two pairs of hands, and see digital copies of your fellow travellers. Such a moment when you are suddenly addressed by a woman in that VR world is poignantly realistic, as VR can be. Yet, with me at least, a special shadowtime feeling didn't really want to come.

That did happen with the prior screened and relatively traditional short film Our Ark. In it, Deniz Tortum and Kathryn Hamilton show how digital 3D copies are made of endangered animals. Only to calmly build that into a pretty eerie fantasy of the future in which even the world we know turns out to be simply one of countless simulations. And can disappear without a problem. I was also reminded of The Matrix.

Stigmatisation

Then back to the algorithmic crime prevention Nirit Peled delved into. Not a futuristic AI fantasy, but something already very concrete. The latter also applies to the performance inspired by it (this conversation is) Off the Record. In front of a room full of audience, a police officer (actor Janneke Remmers, with texts from real interviews) and human rights lawyer Jelle Klaas explain both sides of this stigmatising technique. Concluding with Peled wondering where empathy has gone, and why the algorithm's checklist does not look at the children's positive traits. They have all been given a digital copy of themselves, but where have they themselves gone?

At that moment, it slowly starts to become clear how we can see this beautiful animation with figures wandering across a hall-wide screen. They are people, youngsters no doubt, but all wonderfully distorted. Towards the end, one slowly comes closer and closer, and behind that bizarre, digitally animated mask I thought I could actually see a pair of children's eyes. An unexpectedly touching moment. It just makes the thought that we could all be relegated to digital files all the more oppressive.

DocLab offers a lot more until 19 November, including at the Brakke Grond, of course. Go to idfa.co.uk/doclab .

(this conversation is) Off the Record is unfortunately no longer visible. Shadowtime will be screened at Eye.

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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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