#1037: [DocLab] Moniker’s Immersive Social Experiments & Emergent Interactivity

Roel Wouters is a founding partner of Moniker, which is a small tight-nit studio doing projects on how people relate to technologies, social impact of technologies, and the side effects to our lives. We talked about many of their social experiments and interactive projects featured at IDFA DocLab since 2016:

This was recorded on Friday, December 3, 2021 as a part of a collaboration with IDFA’s DocLab to celebrate their 15th year anniversary.

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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye and I do the Voices of VR Podcast and we're continuing on in our series of celebrating the 15th anniversary of DocLab and having a number of different conversations with both the artists that were featured at this year's festival as well as previous festivals. And so today we have Raelle. Raelle, why don't you go ahead and introduce yourself.

[00:00:29.646] Roel Wouters: So my name is Roel Wouters and I'm a founding partner of Monocar and we are like a small tight-knit studio who do all kinds of projects that somehow relate to how humans and people relate to technology and how that affects our life, the social effects of technology also sometimes. So we're always very interested in technology but also very curious about what side effects those could have to our lives and respond to that.

[00:00:57.631] Kent Bye: Okay. Yeah. And maybe you can give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into making this type of interactive and immersive work.

[00:01:05.014] Roel Wouters: So I was educated in the late nineties in The Hague, in the Royal Academy of Art. And then I did a master in the Sandberg Institute where I studied media with Mieke Gerritsen and Rob Schroeder. And there I got to know Luna, who's basically the other co-founder of Moniker and partner. Then we started with the three people, we started Moniker. But first I learned to know Luna with lots of experiments in lots of performances. And it was the early days of what was called new media back then. And we were very much excited about all the democratization of knowledge and like the optimistic vibe of technology could bring us and how to sort of emancipate humanity at the time. Yeah. How different did it turn out?

[00:01:52.117] Kent Bye: Yeah, and so because this is the 15th anniversary of DocLab, I'm curious, like when was your first encounter with the IFA DocLab in that community then?

[00:02:01.941] Roel Wouters: I don't really know, but it has been a very long time. We have been doing so many things, but I think the first time we encountered this was when we made this project called Do Not Touch, and it was like a web-based music video where the position of your mouse cursor of all the viewers was recorded while watching, and you got all kinds of questions asked, like follow a specific line or do touch something or not, like all kinds of questions while looking at it. And then your mouse cursor was to get, was recorded into the video itself. And then cumulative over time, like thousands and thousands of cursors create like certain patterns and swarms behavior. And it dealt a little bit about the idea that like, um, it was 2013. So that's not that long ago. Anyway, it was like on the verge when we're starting as Dutch as our main computer input device, basically. And I think at that time we were also nominated for, or are we just in the exhibition? I don't know exactly. And afterwards we did a lot of other things as well with them. Yeah.

[00:03:04.968] Kent Bye: Yeah, when I attended the doc lab in 2018, I was really struck by my conceptions of what documentary was and what that meant versus the type of work that I was seeing there that I kind of associated with more of the immersive storytelling or something that was, I guess, in my own mind, I thought of it different than documentary. And so how do you see your work as like, it sounds like almost like these interactive web experiments or to see these group dynamics that you're able to pull forth and how you see that is connected to the form of documentary?

[00:03:34.955] Roel Wouters: Yeah, I think that's super nice thing. It also like similar as you, it really made me think differently about what the documentary or what documentary is basically. But the idea that somehow you capture something that is out there in the world and it's not a narrative that is basically author driven and completely come from like a genius mind, but somehow exposes something like how people relate to each other or how people move into the world or deal with the world. I think that is what is central. And then often new technology it's not so visible what it actually captures. And it's often quite different from what it promised and what it actually does. And I think that that is what DocLab does very well is somehow recognizing that often new technology are new cameras and therefore can document behavior in a very specific or new way. And they're also very willing to stress the definitions all the time, which is of course, that's why it's a laboratory, you could say. They're really curious about all these kinds of new possibilities of technology.

[00:04:34.313] Kent Bye: So the Do Not Touch looks like in the notes that I was passed along by some of the researchers at DocLab. It was 2016. There's also a click, click, click, dot click browser-based game that's also at DocLab. Was that also at the same time, the same year, or is that something else?

[00:04:47.639] Roel Wouters: No, it was later. It was at least a year later. And that is maybe less documentary. Although, No, it's also, it's basically capturing user's behavior. So let's say the browser has like all kinds of called browser events. It's basically things that the browser can know at the moment you do it. So of course the position of your mouse screen, but also the size of your screen and also the browser using the amount of computational processes you have. And there's like virtually not endless list, but there's like about, let's say 15 kind of things that you can measure in the browser what the person on the other end exposes at the moment he goes to a website and in this click click click click dot click project we basically make all these things achievements so the goal is to basically expose all the possible browser events that you can possibly trigger with your behavior so we do that on the one hand and on the other hand we also try to interpret or attempt to interpret sometimes a bit wild guess what that behavior could somehow mean in the reality so for example if you visit the website at a specific time the website would respond that's awkward it's like eight in the morning your time zone shouldn't you be at work this is a very simple interpretation of what you might do or we expose, like, relatively to other people, you're way more in the left upper corner of your screen. Why would I try to make some conclusions? We try to build, like, not only expose the bare facts, but also somehow interpret that. And therefore it becomes very personal and it feels as if you are really, like, watched closely. And therefore, yeah, so that's what that project does. So it's also a bit documentary, but that's also, you could say, very much an author narrative somehow.

[00:06:33.718] Kent Bye: Yeah, and the next piece is the tonight.dance, which I think I actually saw the world premiere at the Google IO in 2017. What I remember was that it was on WebXR, WebVR, but you go into this world and it's like a music video, but it's recording your movements and your body movements. And then then it was tracking how I was moving, but then recording it. So then I was seeing different aspects of my own embodied playback as I was going through this music video. So maybe you could talk a bit about the journey of working on that piece. Cause that was quite an innovative piece that was playing with embodiment and recording and looping embodiment.

[00:07:10.484] Roel Wouters: Yeah, totally. Yeah. I think when we were invited by Google to make something with their new newest technology at the time that was WebXR or WebVR, I don't know anymore. I think WebXR. We're a bit skeptical about VR maybe because it's so much like, especially to me, the most fantastic moment in the five was the moment that I first put on the glasses and I saw the controller and I picked it up with my hands, but I was not able to see my own hands and that it was so real. I think it never got any better than that. And I think often VR projects somehow really thrive on that, that sensation basically. And it's very difficult to make something that's bigger than that. but then we realized so but then of course we're also very curious to investigate the medium and then we realized that the body itself like everything is basically as real as you possibly like it to be except for your body that's the only thing that somehow really stays behind also if you see a photo of somebody who's in vr it's basically only a body also because his eyes are shut off and you're very unaware of your body, it also becomes that you somehow don't really look at your posture anymore. You really become like a mass, a body mass. And the weird thing is that it's not visible. If you look down in VR, you don't really see your body. And we thought that that somehow was very typical and very defining of that medium at the time. And then we thought that we just did like that was very generous of Google. They allowed us to really play with that, really take some time to really play with that notion, do all kinds of experiments. And in the end, we came up with the idea of a music video, which was the result of like lots of iterative play. I did that together with Jonathan Pukki, like also our co-founder of Moniker.

[00:08:56.362] Kent Bye: Yeah, that's a great piece and certainly cutting edge for using the WebVR at the time. I don't know if it was WebVR or WebXR. And then I saw a brief video of the red follows, yellow follows, blue follows red. I don't know if the actual piece that was at DocLab, it was just a series of these different performances where you put people in these different colors and then different instructions. And then you see the different emergent behavior, which I imagine as I'm watching it from the top down, I get a whole experience of what is happening in the group dynamics. to be a part of it I imagine would be quite a different experience and so maybe if you give a bit more context to that piece.

[00:09:30.152] Roel Wouters: Yeah, we did it in Docklab, we did a first experiment so that was only the first test and then later we also did the ones in a big in Austria in a contemporary music festival. So there's like three groups of people, they all get instructions on their head, instructions like if you have this red for example, a red suit on, you are very much attracted to all the other red people that are in the place and therefore automatically it becomes one bulb. And then we give another instruction, say like as a group, you're now completely attracted to the yellow group that similarly at the same time was like somewhere followed, but you're repulsed by the blue group. And then automatically, and they all got like different instructions, like similarly designed to somehow respond to each other. And therefore you've got all kinds of immersive behavior that was not per se descripted in the instruction, but as a result of the behavior, basically. And then we did like lots of different kind of tests on how can we come up with instructions that are both predictable in the outcome and also not descriptive in what to do, but somehow would create some sort of emergent behavior. And yeah, maybe another interesting thing is that we were a bit insecure about when the audience would come in, if they would somehow accept us putting these thoughts in their brains, like we were a bit worried that people maybe say like, yeah, why would I do that? Or what is me? But especially in the moment we did it for contemporary music, we're quite a bit of older people. But afterwards, they were like super enthusiastic in terms, they said like it was if I was on drugs in the music festival, because I just felt I became one with my group. And I was allowed to leave control, control was completely gone, I could just emerge in this wholesome experience where we together became one. And I think that was very funny because we never expected that as a result. We thought it was way more critical about the individual decision making or something like that territory, but it was way more about collective. In the end, it's a collective experience and it was beautiful and completely unexpectedly positive as well.

[00:11:39.068] Kent Bye: Yeah, yeah, that type of emergent flocking behaviors and the complexity chaos that happens from these simple instructions that have all these group dynamics, you know, you don't have a lot of opportunities to have that type of interaction to be immersed in a field like that. So that's pretty cool.

[00:11:53.793] Roel Wouters: Yeah. What we also did there was that because normally we really like our audience to be completely in control of Let's say we always try to be super explicit and precise in the instructions so they fully understand and also have the basic amount to rationalize it and then engage or not. But we also in this work, we purposely did like some instructions that we knew that was not easy to completely directly commit to because they were just too complex. For example, you had to make a split decision on where to go left or right, depending on the specific construction around you. And that also created beautiful side effects that we also really could not predict and also in a computer simulation would probably look completely different and I think that was also but it's a bit nerdy but we really enjoyed that aspect as well that you somehow not only the algorithmic flocking behavior but also somehow the human intuition of some became visible.

[00:12:53.638] Kent Bye: Yeah. And you've, as a studio moniker, you've been quite prolific actually, in terms of all the different pieces you've had at DocLab over the years. That piece was in 2018. And then in 2020, you had another piece called Come Shave, which maybe you could explain what that piece was and how it fit into this overarching larger body of work of these experiments that you're doing.

[00:13:12.406] Roel Wouters: That's a good question. It was made together with Aleksandra Barankovic and Jay Paris. And together with them, I was in Germany, I missed the train and ended up in Berlin and I ended up sleeping at their place. And then the night we were having these conversations about gaming and we somehow observed that it was so strange that normally when you're in a game, basically your body and the game character is always in the center of the world and the game world around him or her. is always there to exploit. Let's say Mario just jumps to eat the mushroom and it gets better. So there's always the narrative of you are basically the center of the world and somehow you, Minecraft is of course a very good example. There's always this idea that you somehow, the world is there for you most of the time and you grow by somehow exploiting it. And then we thought, is that a view on the world that we somehow promote because that's how the world works or is it also maybe possible to come up with something completely different where you maybe exploit your own body in order to progress in the game. That was just the thought. And then we thought of sort of very gore game where you can chop off your arm and somehow use that to throw your head through a hole. We had like all kinds of sort of gory fantasies then. And that's still related quite well to, for example, Dance Tonight, where it's really also about the body in a different way. And also the question of what does the digital body mean? And then we did all kinds of workshops about how is it possible to exploit your body in order to do something. Like one of the things that came out of that was just like a very tiny side project was like the idea that you could somehow together shave, that that would somehow could be like an, but it actually was like a super small idea, but that somehow we thought that was worthwhile to execute and see if that would work in a, in a social context. And it's a result of, let's say, an ongoing research project that's called Figurable and that really discusses the body in the digital space.

[00:15:12.533] Kent Bye: Yeah, lots of interactive experiments and tinkering, I'd say, you know, just this kind of through line of having different pieces of interactive art. And, you know, this year you had another VR experience called Disarmed. Maybe you can give a little bit more context for what that project was all about.

[00:15:26.419] Roel Wouters: Yeah. So there was another project together with the same team, with Jay and Alex, and that was basically quite close to the idea, this original deer that we then had in Berlin. In the broadest sense, you could say it's about the relationship between our physical molecules and the real tangible body and the digital body. And how do these two relate? What does touch mean? So that's in the broad sense. But then we also thought about, and that was maybe more also the critical documentary way of looking at it, that we can buy these Oculus hardware and kind of cheap. They're super good. And we put them on our faces and we start engaging with whatever's in this device. And we, to a certain extent, are not super aware that we're actually not the only owners of the gestures and the body movements that we make, because we pay to a certain degree with our movements, just as we pay with click, click, where click basically show the exploitation that you can have by just using your mouse over the screen. is that the same case with our body movements at the moment you put on a VR glasses and somehow you could say this project also creates a little bit of awareness in that kind of area and we didn't want to be this time too explicit about it because we have the feeling that also the whole surveillance narrative has been already taught so often and it's so one hand exploited so we wanted to try to become a bit more poetic and we're also very much interested in the more let's say narration kind of poetic rather than make like such a specific point that we earlier often did. And that is a bit of an investigation in that area. Yeah.

[00:17:07.093] Kent Bye: And was that a part of also, like, there's a note here about a grant that you were working in terms of investigating embodiment. Was that a piece and part of that grant?

[00:17:15.618] Roel Wouters: Or was there more there? No, that was a piece of this grant. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, we got like a grant from stimulating funds to work on that research, but also from the film fund. And I think that you're referring to that. Yes.

[00:17:28.726] Kent Bye: Okay. Yeah, well, it's been 15 years since DocLab has been around and it sounds like, you know, your own studio and your journey and you've been engaged within both creating work and coming into the community. So I'm just curious to hear some of your reflections in terms of how this dialogue has influenced the work that you're doing and what you've, I guess, what you're taking from the DocLab and how that has been influencing the type of experiments that you've been doing, both in interactive and embodied media.

[00:17:55.009] Roel Wouters: Yeah. Yeah. First, I think we are super thankful to DocLab that they always are so generous in like trusting us and always coming up with a new project and also always somehow find a way to give us a place or host us in one way or another. I think also over the years we have been having so much nice conversation with all kinds of people and also indirectly later on we got a lot of new work through that. And that's nice because the field of interactive design or that critical interactive work is not so, I mean, I think they're one of the hubs that really unite as a group of people. And I always forget how valuable that is because normally during the year, then I, yeah, we're just super busy and you go from the one thing to the other. And then. And that's also why I think it's so sad that this year is was an office. I mean, it was physical, but nobody like the pandemic. kick the festival kind of hard. But before that, I was always felt like, especially after a week, then I really felt that it's so nice that all these other people, they really like mine so often. And we really get to know each other and have a beer together. So I think for me personally, that is like, it's very much a feeling of a community, because these projects have often a very remote audience. They're not part of, let's say, the local art, scene per se. Often the audience is remote behind computers. What DocLab does is these makers create, but also the audience really create physical space where we can meet and interact with each other. That's like super nice.

[00:19:35.003] Kent Bye: Yeah and as I look back on all your different pieces there's a theme of interactivity and embodiment and the group social dynamics and a question that comes up is for me as I look at that is why interaction or why is that compelling for you as opposed to just like say watching a film what is it that you feel like you've been either exploring or really trying to get to the bottom of for what's it mean to interact with either a piece of art or to be able to interact with other people?

[00:20:01.305] Roel Wouters: Yeah, so I think interaction as itself was never really a goal. It was more a means, I think. And we were always very curious how this new technology, especially if you look at the beginning years, how that somehow, let's say the social potential of these things, what does it do to us? It was never really about like the technology as a goal, but way more as a means to basically show something human or investigate in what like human decision making or human behavior Yeah, the beauty of that or the quirks of those things. And I also feel that which is maybe a bit of a sad thing that we have been doing so many of those things successfully on the web mainly because we also really always believe and still do actually in the openness of the web and the fact that it is not like a proprietary platform. But that space, the web as a platform, I don't want to be like a lamenting old guy, but it is really declining. There's not so many people really go to a website anymore to have an experience as a platform. And that is something that I think that over the coming time, we have to find a way to relate to that. And of course, we did now with like making something on the Vive and the Oculus, but and also on the Vive earlier, but that was still a web piece. But I can imagine that could also become at one point more performative, for example, or more into performance or theatre, or maybe even film, documentary film, and leave away the interactivity as a goal or as a means. But now we're also like, we are, of course, a bit further in our careers, we also became experts in that field. So we also know we have so much experience that it's also like an easy and comfortable place where we are. But at the same time, we're also often very discussing that and debating whether that's really the place where we want to be at this moment.

[00:21:47.708] Kent Bye: As we start to wrap up, I'm just curious what you think the ultimate potential of these immersive technologies and immersive storytelling might be and what they might be able to enable.

[00:21:57.658] Roel Wouters: Yeah. I like now to give like a super smart answer. I must say I have, I find it hard to stay like very tech optimistic, although maybe I'm optimistic about technology. I think it's the only, yeah, maybe it's the only thing we have, but I think the screen itself, I think maybe I have a screen less focus on technology is something that I, for example, would be personally like to investigate more. And also Luna, I think. like the potential of technology, yeah, that it's so complicated. It's always like in the one hand, it's like something very promising. I think like, especially the Western world, we still think that somehow technology will find its way out for out of the, for example, the climate crisis or like all these kind of things. But on the other hand, we also see often that this drift in creating like a new technology is often also creating other ways. So in the long run, I am a bit disappointed in the, let's say, the democratic potential that or the democratization or emancipating potential that there was. I think it still is in the technology itself, but we just use it in a completely different way. And I think if I then want to somehow, if I would, let's say, become enthusiasts, for example, students, then I would say there's like so much potential in all kinds of social issues and systems that we could design. as makers or reflect on and I think we should use that way better that potential and not commit so quickly to all kinds of capital jobs or ways of living and of course that's easy to say but I think that's also why it's so important that it's vital club is here.

[00:23:47.577] Kent Bye: Right is there anything else that's left and said that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community or doc lab community?

[00:23:56.081] Roel Wouters: No I just want to thank Kasper, Abotinke and the whole team, everybody for hosting us like so often, be so generous. And I'm also looking forward to talk with them again after the dust of the festival has been settled and think about what's coming next. That's always nice. And I want to congratulate them and sing a song for them.

[00:24:15.425] Kent Bye: Awesome. Roel, thank you so much for joining me today on this podcast. Thanks again. So that was rule realtors a founding partner of moniker a small tight-knit studio doing projects on how people relate to technologies the social impact of technologies and the side effects on our lives This conversation was recorded on Friday December 3rd 2021 as a part of a collaboration with if his doc lab in order to celebrate their 15th year anniversary if you'd like to support the voices of a our podcast then please do consider becoming a member at patreon.com slash voice of ER. Thanks for listening

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