#1144: Venice Immersive Panel on The Art of Reviewing Immersive Art and Entertainment

This is the 26th & last episode of my Venice Immersive 2022 coverage, and I wanted to end with this discussion amongst film and immersive critics about the various challenges for reviewing and critiquing immersive art and entertainment. This is a continuation of two previous conversations that I also participated in during Venice Immersive 2019 (I hope to air the recordings of those here soon), and the major conclusion back then was that the challenges of the limited distribution of immersive stories makes it difficult to cultivate a broader audience for reviews and critiques.

Fast forward to 2022, and many of these distribution challenges by and large still exist, although it is slightly better given more immersive stories showing up on the Meta platform and Viveport has the most robust selection of immersive stories, even though Steam still is largely games only. But the challenge for immersive festivals is that they’re still having many challenges trying to attract the mainstream film critics to pay more attention to the selection of immersive stories.

It’s under this context that there was another gathering of mostly film critics who occasionally write about immersive work and myself who is solely dedicated to covering immersive stories, immersive art, and immersive entertainment.

  • Moderated by Michel Reilhac & Liz Rosenthal (co-curators of Venice Immersive)
  • Federica Polidoro (Contributor, Repubblica, L’Espresso, Vanity Fair, Il Foglio Quotidiano)
  • Kent Bye (Philosopher and Founder, Voices of VR Podcast)
  • Róisín Tapponi (Contributor, Frieze Magazine, Sight & Sound, The Guardian, & Founder of Habibi Collective and Shasha Movies)
  • Xan Brooks (Film writer & novelist, former associate editor at The Guardian)

A big takeaway for me is that the editors, who are driving mainstream journalism coverage, are still not fully bought in or are just simply are not aware. Lots of really interesting insights from XR press relations specialist Jessie Cohen and Nicole Kerr who represent a number of different experiences as well the Venice Immersive festival itself, and they’re on the frontlines of translating and holding the hands of journalists who are still getting onboarded to VR.

As an independent journalist (supported by Patreon), then I have the freedom to choose to cover the experiences at Venice Immersive, but that doesn’t mean that I’m immune to the market dynamics of it being a niche or a niche of the entire XR industry. And I can’t claim to have fully figured out how to sustain the coverage that I’m already doing (did I mention that I have a Patreon?). But I’ve also very passionate about the topic of immersive storytelling and think it’s vitally important to cover it anyway despite all of the many ways it doesn’t make sense.

One insight that I was able to share during the meeting was the interdisciplinary nature of XR as it’s fusing together insights from video games, human computer interaction, neuroscience, web design, UX, social media, podcasting, film, music, theatre, dance, architecture, and beyond. My episode #1000 of the Voices of VR podcast features 120 different perspectives about the ultimate potential of VR, and it’s helped me immensely to get a firm grounding for how different design disciplines are bringing different insights into the medium.

I’ve been digesting my insights more and more into a variety of different talks, including my recent talk at Storycon where I gave a fairly comprehensive primer on Presence, Immersive Storytelling, and Experiential Design (certainly the most comprehensive talk on the topic that I’ve given so far).

The foundation of my approach has been through the lens of oral history and in trying understanding the underlying process of experiential design through the different backgrounds and lenses. It’s through understanding the roots of creation that helps me understand the different decisions, tradeoffs, and the realms of potential that were either explored or closed off within their experience.

I suppose my personal motivations are more philosophically-driven to more fully understand the principles of experiential design by seeing as much work as I possibly can and to talk to as many creators as I possibly can (while still being able to produce and release all of said interviews).

The XR and immersive storytelling industry is still nascent as compared to the film industry, and so it’s still not clear what role or function immersive criticism plays in the broader ecosystem. A theme that came up was knowing and understanding your audience. For me there’s a dual role of trying to provide guidance on an overall selection for people on-site, which for me happens via Twitter threads like I did for Venice, Tribeca, SXSW, and Sundance.

The second part is the more in-depth interviews that I do to help unpack the experience, get more context on the creator’s design process, share things that worked or didn’t work, ask questions for anything I didn’t understand, share some of my own phenomenological impressions and peak emotional moments as a form of ad-hoc memory capture, and perhaps smuggle in some of my deeper analysis, criticisms, or praise.

I’m also able to discover more about the narrative structure of the piece during this phase as it’s usually impossible to fully understand an interactive experience with branching paths on a single playthrough. Because I’m limited for how much I can interrogate an interactive piece with limited time constraints and under festival conditions, then being in direct dialogue with the creator is a huge crutch to more fully understand anything that I might have missed before.

Perhaps part of the challenge of covering these more immersive and interactive forms of media for those who are coming from the more passive and linear realm of film criticism is it rubs up against the constraints and limitations of linear media for how film criticism has traditionally been done. Again, calling back to the need for an interdisciplinary fusion of methods.

These are just some of the thoughts that have come up from this discussion, and I’m sure I have a lot more thoughts on the topic across different contexts and conversations with others.

I think it’s important to note that there’s a pure physical endurance and mental capacity to be able see all of the work. Watching all of the Venice Immersive pieces in competition is nearly 15 hours worth of content with another 6 hours of content out of competition, and then 6-8 hours worth of VRChat Worlds Galleries. As someone who is completely dedicated to covering the immersive selections, then I find it a lot easier to do that when I’m fully 100% committed to trying to see everything rather than trying to drop in and out over multiple days.

After attending over 100 events over the past 8+ years, then I’ve cultivated a capacity to see a large amount of immersive content in just a few days. But even I would benefit from having access to some dedicated press stations for some of the content that are not the installation pieces. Being able to just drop in and see something would make it a lot easier for those who are not able to block off entire days of their schedule.

I’d recommend tuning into the panel discussion to hear the other challenges and constraints from the other more film-oriented critics. Again, I’m not limited by those same constraints and so I am free to go and do 26 interviews totaling over 24 hours worth of coverage of Venice Immersive. And if you enjoy this coverage and find it valuable, then please consider supporting me over on Patreon at patreon.com/voicesofvr so that I can keep following my passions and covering this space to the best of my ability.


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Music: Fatality