Real World Virtual: TIFF’s POP 02

"Irrational Exuberance" by Ben Vance. Photo credit: TIFF
“Irrational Exuberance” by Ben Vance. Photo credit: TIFF

It seems to be the general consensus that virtual reality is the art medium of the future. Maybe so, but this summer, TIFF is showing visitors what’s happening right now in the world of VR. On the weekend of July 15th – 17th, the TIFF Bell Lightbox hosted POP 02, the second of three pop-up virtual reality events that examine different aspects of the burgeoning art form.

This time, the theme was “empathy + real world storytelling.” It wasn’t always clear what this meant, but the trend was to showcase socially conscious documentary pieces and imaginative meditations on history and geography alongside some broad-appeal narrative works.

Visitors to POP 02 spent their visits wandering through the darkened gallery from one installation to the next, shoving their heads into the Samsung Gear VR or Oculus Rift goggles-headphones-combo to see what world was hidden inside. Inevitably, this involved a certain amount of waiting around, especially for the more hyped pieces. Moreover, a warning to those with heads as bulbous and noses as prominent as the author’s: the experience is not always a comfortable one. But the lineups and the skull clamping were almost always worth it once you reached the front, got into the gear, and slipped into something like a dream.

As in dreaming, you never knew quite what you were in for. Some pieces were totally interactive, asking you to use your hands to manipulate the virtual world, like “Irrational Exuberance,” in which you find yourself suspended in deep space, knocking meteors to bits as comets glide overhead. In “Virtual Strangers,” you stand in a desert landscape and draw three dimensionally in the air with your bare hands, and you might even encounter someone, somewhere in the world, who is doing the same thing.

3 x 9
“3 x 9: A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement” by Guardian News & Media. Photo credit: TIFF

Other pieces posited the headset wearer as strictly an observer, essentially short films viewed from within. “Henry,” a sweet, kid-friendly piece produced by Oculus and narrated by Elijah Wood, tells the story of a lonely hedgehog looking for a friend with whom to share his birthday.

In the next room over, you are ushered behind a curtain, offered a headset, and sentenced to nine minutes in a concrete cell in “6 x 9: A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement,” accompanied by documentary audio discussing the real thing. Similarly emphasizing the “real world storytelling” theme, “Nomads” has you keeping company with the seaborne Bajau tribe of Borneo as they go about their daily chores aboard wooden rafts aloft the tranquil, coastal waters.

In one of the most haunting moments of any of the installations, you sit across the kitchen table from a woman who looks you in the eye as she tells the story of her daughter’s disappearance along the infamous stretch of BC highway in the VR documentary “Highway of Tears.” Here, one glimpses the capacity of this new and exciting medium, not merely to create fantastic dreamscapes, but to bring the dark or faraway corners of the real world intimately into view.

The three day pop-up event was the sequel to POP 01, which focused on VR works that created novel encounters with music and art. POP 03 goes up August 19th – 21st and will look at the experimental side of virtual reality. For more details on the upcoming event, or the events past, go to the website here.