A group of people spin around in their seats with strange-looking goggles on. They look up and down and to the sides. They can’t see you, and you can’t see what they’re seeing. For those moments, you’re cut off from each other’s fields of perception. Virtual reality surrounds and possibly amazes them – though to you, they actually look a little silly.
“Have you ever imagined a world where virtual reality will replace first-hand experiences?” I ask the friend next to me as we wait in line in the Messehof at Leipzig city center, about to look silly and disoriented ourselves. “People are told more and more that everything is dangerous. So they could see this as a suitable replacement and become totally sedentary.”
The thought is simultaneously scary and appealing. It’s fascinating to be able to explore other earths within our own earth without the risk of getting hurt (unless you fall off your spinning seat or get dizzy and hit something). But then it could increasingly cut us off from others’ problems, and even from contact with others and our own immediate reality.
Could we manage to find a balance in virtual reality? In any case, you can get a taste of it here in town until the end of this week, through a bunch of 360-degree, interactive short films.
DOK Neuland has turned two empty Messehof stores into a capsule where you get to explore different realities, or worlds, without leaving the safety of your small area.
Curious, we eagerly put our goggles and headphones on with the help of DOK staff. The nice lady working there tells me I should start with the short film Sea Prayer, because “it’s easier” to navigate for a virtual reality first-timer.
I sit on the spinning stool, and everything around me in the Messehof fades. I’m immersed in the world coming to life before me, through an artist’s strokes. Up, down and to the sides, the story begins to take form and grow. The moving force is a letter from Khaled Hosseini, as if a father has written it for his son.
We hear the voice of a father from Homs, Syria. We see his life go from a green garden with family to armed fighters and destruction. He is speaking to his son through the “letter” in beautiful, poetic language. He says he wishes his son could’ve known the Homs he knew, instead of spending his childhood in a reality of constant fear, bombings and death.
We see people going to sea. The father desperately hauls himself in, too, with his son. Touched, I look up the movie online, and find out I already know this boy’s story from the media. We probably all do.
People are gathering around the “capsule” and I know I should make room for someone else, but I want more.
I ask one of the DOK staffers if I can watch another one. He recommends Planet. There are a few others you can pick from, all on different themes.
I put on the gear once again, and this time am immediately transported into what looks like another planet. But, spoiler: it’s actually a dystopian view of our own earth after environmental damage kills us all off. Ah, those French directors… always so cheerful and optimistic about humanity.
A world without humans.
There are mushrooms and ladybugs and fish, and it feels like we’re about to fall into the sea. Sort of vertiginous, but quite cool, and I don’t even get dizzy.
My friends and I go to the other store in the Messehof with a virtual reality station. There are other exhibits in DOK Neuland but I’m not really interested, because I want more virtual reality. See, I’m already getting addicted, and it would be very dangerous to install something like this in my home.
In this case, we have to stand in line for quite some time because there’s only one set (goggle, headphones, stool). This looks more elaborate, which also means the viewer looks even sillier. Not only does the viewer look around with big goggles while on the seat, but also gets up and walks up to a podium, totally blind to what’s actually around.
While waiting, I grab a flyer and find out this exhibit goes together with the full-length documentary The Congo Tribunal, playing at Cinestar. The joint Swiss-German production is about Congolese people and a group of foreigners – including a co-founder of the International Court of Justice at the Hague and the film director – staging an unofficial war crimes trial. The tribunal in East Congo (later continued in Berlin) brings Congolose government officials, the Canadian mining company Banro and a mining association to account for their role in perpetuating the bloody conflict and an environmental crisis. Millions of people have lost their livelihoods or died as a result of haphazard precious gem extraction and the ensuing war, in a region rich in mineral resources feeding the development of technologies for the “First World,” while Congolese people starve and are slaughtered.
But this is the full-length film. The short virtual reality one in the Messehof puts us right in the middle of the conflict, and the tribunal. Except it looks like we’re inside a comic book.
You’re riding in the front seat of a car with someone else beside you, moving forward. It’s speeding. You read part of the story from text squares that keep popping up. But you’re probably too distracted, because a bullet hits the windshield. Then you can change the radio station. And finally, you see a white line on the floor and someone beckoning you to walk into the courtroom.
This is different from the other virtual reality exhibits, because there’s active movement – besides moving your feet, you move the plot rather than watching the plot move around you. Right before you testify at the podium, you’re interrupted, like waking up from a dream right before the climax.
The DOK staffer gently touches my hand, ushering me back into reality. But what’s, in fact, reality, other than what we perceive?
DOK Neuland is part of the free admission program at DOK Leipzig. Its location, the Messehof, is a passage at Petersstr. 15. The interactive area will be open until Saturday, 4 November.
Cover shot: Film still from “Planet.” (Copyright DOK Leipzig 2017 / Momoko Seto)