#1169: IDFA DocLab Founder Caspar Sonnen Reflects on 2022 Program, Industry Trends, and Distribution Challenges

In my final interview from IDFA DocLab 2022, I had a chance to catch up with DocLab founder Caspar Sonnen to reflect on the 2022 program and the ecological points made by the piece Okawari, to comment on the “Nervous System” in this phase of the global pandemic, to share his insights for why immersive documentarians are on the bleeding edge of innovation, and to elaborate on various distribution challenges with the type of immersive stories being shown at DocLab 2022.

We also cover the many variety of different IDFA programs from the selected pieces of XR work and digital stories, the planetarium, The IDFA Market and DocLab Forum, the R&D Summit, Roundtable Discussions, the research collaboration with MIT Open DocLab, the commissioning of immersive works, the ONX + DocLab MoCap Stage, different industry talks, and some of the other DocLab staff helping to pull it all off including Wotienke Vermeer, Annabel Troost, and Yorinde Segal.

That’s a wrap on my 15 hours and 39 minutes worth of coverage about the 2022 edition of IDFA DocLab. Lots of amazing pieces and interesting themes and trends emerging in the coverage. Thanks for joining in, and be sure to support this type of work over at Patreon here.

This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. It's a podcast that looks at the structures and forms of immersive storytelling and the future of spatial computing. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. So this is my last interview from FADOC lab and it's with the founder Casper Sonnen. So I always like to sit down with Casper just to hear about some of his different thoughts about the program or the different trends in the industry and all the different things that are happening at the doc lab. Sometimes I like to try to, ahead of time when I do interviews, do a comprehensive look at all the different experiences as a sneak peek. This was much more focused in terms of some of the highlights I had from the festival. I got some of his thoughts, but also some of his deeper reflections on some of the specific ones, including Okawari and thinking about the ecology and sustainability, and some of the other challenges of distribution and what they're doing in terms of starting to look into kind of a year round exhibition place for the IFA doc lab. And there's just a lot of different things that are happening with the doc lab forum, the planetarium, there's a market, there's these round table discussions, there's the exhibition and some mocap stage. And so yeah, just a lot of moving parts that they had this year at IFA doc lab and just wanted to get some of Casper's thoughts and some closing things to kind of chew on as we move on from the rest of this series. So, that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So, this interview with Casper happened on Tuesday, November 15th, 2022 at IFFA DocLab in Amsterdam, Netherlands. So, with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:51.090] Caspar Sonnen: So, my name is Casper Sonnen. I'm the founder of IFFA DocLab, the immersive interactive new media program at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. And together with Wout-Inke Vermeer and Annabelle Troost, I make the program here. as well as the R&D program, the market run by Urinda Sehgal. We are one of the places, I guess, for immersive media and art. I started the program 16 years ago with then mostly screen-based, digital, interactive things coming out of the internet. And yeah, over the years, very quickly, the first years we started developing live performance formats to present digital interactive art to collective physical festival audiences. Then moved to exhibitions as the work increasingly became physical, or artists started to think about physical presentations of it. And then I think was 20... In 2012, if I'm not mistaken, we had our first VR experience and as I guess the DK1 came out and the whole boom of immersive experiences started, we've been showing VR. I think we started in 2014 with a program called Immersive Reality. And it's been growing since, and currently we have our 16th edition here with the Nervous Systems theme, which consists of I think the biggest physical exhibition that we've ever done, as I guess the field itself is becoming increasingly physical. We have a full dome program in the artist planetarium. We have some big immersive experiences in dedicated venues, like in pursuit of repetitive beats in Slumberland. And we have a live conference and live immersive theater programming as well.

[00:03:40.052] Kent Bye: And I'd love to hear, maybe first off, as we think about the program this year, what were some of the trends that you saw as you were programming?

[00:03:50.908] Caspar Sonnen: I mean, it's a tricky question because I think we've been through quite a tumultuous few years as an industry, I think. I think there's been a lot of existential exploration, a lot of experimentation by both physical festivals as well as artists in this space. Like, I remember just dealing with the risk of not being able to organize a physical event. or being able to organize a physical event under very strenuous circumstances. I think that nervousness within the field is something that reflected in the works that we saw or the things that we were able to prepare for this year. We are incredibly happy and lucky that we Even though numbers were going up a little bit in September, they went down right before the festival. And we've had a really successful physical event like we used to. It really feels like we're back to physical events. But of course, over the last three years, there's been a lot of experimentation with doing things online, with doing things hybrid. And I think definitely you can see that that put a lot of strain on the industry. I think there's a lot of exhaustion. There's a lot of questions around like who do we do this for? How do we do this? As a lot of things in the world are in crisis. A lot of elements of the world feel a bit broken. A lot of the systems around us feel a bit broken. I think a lot of works raise important questions or deal with those questions or try to play with these in quite meaningful ways, if I'm honest. I think the relationship between the world itself, between reality itself and the imagination of artists, in many ways, got together this year. We're more closely connected.

[00:05:42.634] Kent Bye: Yeah, I've had a chance to see all the pieces in the festival that are available to be seen. There's a couple still yet to be shown and premiered. Some of the highlights for me, I'll just share some things that I really enjoyed. I really love the in pursuit of repetitive beats and this whole immersive documentary in a way that is pulling in all sorts of archival resources, but really focusing on creating a embodied recreation of like this elements of nostalgia of going on this adventure with your friends, but you're put into those scenes. And so, yeah, that was one that I really appreciated in terms of the structures and forms of immersive storytelling mixed with documentary forms that mix this museum quality but with this first-person embodied adventure that you're going on and all the different haptics and whatnot. And some of the other ones that really stuck with me were like Horizon of having a one-on-one immersive theater performance where I'm being confronted with the next generation and talking about where things are going to be in the future in 30 years. And I was approximately like 30 years older than this 15 year old. And so I'm basically talking to them about their future for where they're going to be when they're my age right now. And it was almost like this world building imaginal exercise of trying to project out what the future is going to be like to this person that I'm talking to. And so, yeah, using the conceits of immersive theater in that way, I thought was really effective. And also another piece that for me was a standout was The Missing 10 Hours VR, really powerful, interactive story that has some branching at the end, but going into a lot of really deep and intense issues around drugging people around sexual assault. And also, With These Hands is another piece that was on the theme of sexual assault. And actually another favorite that I have was He Fucked the Girl Out of Me, which was a really powerful trans narrative around the trauma around sex work and just the way that it was introducing all these different contextual dimensions of the narrative, but through the interaction that Taylor had in order to explore these different themes. I just thought it was a real brilliant use of the interactive medium to blend different aspects of graphic novel and video games. this retro aesthetic and just the topic, it really stuck with me as a story. So, yeah, those were some of the highlights for me. And so, yeah, I'd love to hear any of your thoughts as you were programming what was striking for you in terms of what was either really emotionally moving or stuff that you feel like is pushing the medium forward.

[00:08:09.050] Caspar Sonnen: I think it's very interesting to hear your thoughts on what are your favourites, knowing how much you see. But also from the 35 works, which ones are the first that come to mind in your case? Just to go through the first two, I think you can definitely see on the one side we have In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats, I think is really a landmark piece that shows where XR as a medium, as a physical experiential art form is right now. I think it's... I can sometimes be quite sceptic about the sort of multi-sensory rollercoaster experience of step into the shoes and we'll add a fan to put wind in your face and we'll add like sensors and things to make it even more real. I think this is a piece that actually does all of that, but done by an artist who's basically explored every potential type of XR storytelling over the years. In 2014, he was one of the first artists that we featured a 360 video by, called Witness 360. Still one of my favourite 360 films. He's done 6DOF, he's basically played with all different technologies and throughout his... career has always tried to combine these different technologies, which, as we all know, is quite challenging. Combining 3DOF with 6DOF, combining CGI with 360 video, those are very complicated things. And in Beats, it all comes together with this multisensory installation experience as well. And it just feels like this is one of those pieces where we'll look back to in a few years and go like, Yeah, remember that project. I still want to see that in five years, I know. And it's also one of those pieces where we very quickly felt when we saw it at its premiere in Coventry, because it was commissioned for the Coventry City of Culture earlier this year, we instantly felt like this is a piece that we would love to not just show for 10 days at the festival, but actually This is one of those projects where the frustration around there's only so many people that get to see the limited spots we have is something that we really need to work on. We knew it was going to be selling out way too quickly and there was going to be way too many people disappointed. So I'm very happy that we explored how we could bring this work to more people. And out of that, we didn't succeed in putting it on for a very long period in the end, but we did create a very good collaboration with the Amsterdam Dance Event, because we felt like this is also a project that extends, let's say, the traditional VR audience, whatever that is, but the traditional types like us that go to festivals that have immersive programming. people from within the immersive field, I think Beats is a project you want to see if you are into rave culture. It's a project you want to see if you're not into rave culture. It's a project you want to see if you're into VR. It's a project you want to see if you're not into VR. It's just a really good experience. That, I think, is why it's one of those landmark pieces. It's been great. We did show the simple version of it, the non-multisensory installation, just the in-headset experience. at the Amsterdam dance event a couple of weeks ago. And it was amazing to already hear the responses from that completely non-immersive industry audience. I mean, we did lose one pair of headphones. And my colleague asked me, what is the insurance situation? But it was a really good experience also to extend it to these different audiences. So it's one of those pieces where I'm very excited about continuing the exploration on how can we bridge the gap between festivals and the actual year-round exhibition of these works. So that's In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats that really goes into this multi-sensory, I would say, this is where XR thrives or is at its best right now. And then the second example you gave was Horizon. Where Beats basically uses all technologies we have available at its best, Horizon just uses a very simple idea. It's ask a 15 year old kid or young adult as we would have to say to them. to deliver a script to whoever appears in front of them for the duration of their performance. And it's zero technology. It's like the technology we would have when we were still sitting at the campfire talking to a 15 year old asking you questions. maybe after we'd just been, I don't know, picking some berries in the forest. Both projects, to me, really stuck with me. And I think they resonate with a lot of people. And then I think the other examples you gave shows maybe a little bit what I said, like how the Nervous Systems theme reflects into some of the works. And really also like how, I mean, the three projects you mentioned, With These Hands, Missing Ten Hours, and Fuck the Girl Out of Me, When programming, we were like, there is similarities in the subject matter here or relations you could draw. And it just showed, like, A, these are the topics that we are discussing today. I mean, these are not just something to brush over and go like, well, we already have that topic. But looking at the completely different approach and a completely different background and way that technology has been used by the three different artists, I mean, they each deserve their place and each give us something completely unique. And I think that's something that we see. We heard a lot of that from audiences. Yeah, reflecting like how the work in the exhibition, in the events made them reflect about reality today. And I think that's a great testament to the artist, because it's one of the most difficult things to do, is to make good work about the things that are happening today. Normally, art needs to take a little more time. But yeah, I think it's beautiful to see how some of the works have been resonating.

[00:14:15.921] Kent Bye: Yeah, another one that I forgot to mention, but I really enjoyed just because it was more of a embodied visceral experience was the Aket, the sound pyramid, which I saw that probably four times just sitting through the different loops and trying to understand all the different layers that were happening. And I had a great talk with Ali this morning about it. But there's also other experiences that I saw, like at Venice, that I watched Okawari again. And I think the conversation I had with them was also reflecting this deeper question around sustainability, around all these technologies that we're doing. And I think that'll be a conversation as we, I guess in some ways, take a pause and reflect on what we're doing and why. And there's all these tech layoffs that are happening with Twitter being bought out by Elon Musk and on the path of potential implosion.

[00:15:02.657] Caspar Sonnen: systems.

[00:15:04.680] Kent Bye: Yeah. Speaking of the nervous systems, exactly. When we got that, I just laid off like 11,000 people. And so we've got this constriction moment and the technology. And so when I come to a festival like doc lab, I see the book that you're supporting and as the book of the year, the one that you're highlighting here. The collective wisdom co-creating media with equity and justice and there's this bottom-up organic growing of the community I feel like that's a lot of what you've been doing here at doc lab not only in curating the programs, but creating all these other Institutional infrastructures with all the different programs that you have and maybe it's worth kind of elaborating on that because I feel like that is There's this bottom-up co-creation process that I feel like the medium is really suited towards. I'd love to hear any reflections you have on this broader context of the industry and how you're cultivating the community in a way that seems to be slowly organically growing, that the end result, at least when I come here, is always producing these really meaningful works, but then on the other hand, there's the distribution challenges that then, you know, getting out. So anyway, there's a lot in that, but I'd love to hear any thoughts.

[00:16:09.082] Caspar Sonnen: Yeah, wow. Many things to reflect on. Maybe to start with sustainability in Okavari. When I saw that in Venice... Of course, it's the new work of Landia and Omori, who made Notes on Blindness and Umami and so many other great works. But what really struck me was their personal connection to it and the personal departure of two of the great artists in the immersive field, really trying to explore in a vulnerable, authentic way, not in a performative way, like, how can we make an XR project in a more sustainable way and what does that mean? without knowing the answers, it wasn't a sort of campaign, a pamphlet to do this or do that. It really was like an open exploration. And I think that conversation after, or what is it, the little presentation they do after the experience itself, and I think it's good not to spoil it, but in the end there is a reflection on where the world will end if we keep going the way that we are. And they mentioned this one thing where they said on the one side they really measured what is the sustainability of creating a physical installation. What is the carbon footprint of all of us traveling to an event like this? All the airplane miles, the materials into the installation, all of those things add up to a giant cost that we should think about what does that mean? Just even to start thinking about maybe how can we make sure that this experience is not just seen by one person but seen by ten persons at the same time. Just to share the costs a little bit more evenly or do it more efficiently. And I think that was a great reflection that they helped us or that they facilitated. Because looking at the expenses of a physical installation or location-based experiences, It's very easy to start thinking, hey, maybe all these things we did during the pandemic online and these hybrid experiences and in virtual worlds, isn't it a lot more carbon efficient if everybody would have a headset at home and we wouldn't have to travel and we could all stay inside our living rooms, enjoying all these great experiences from the comfort of our own house? They said, yeah, but we don't know, because we also measured what are the costs of turning the XR industry into an actual successful XR industry. And all the predictions of the big corporations that are investing in this space, or betting or banking on this space, becoming something big. If we look at the projections of the amount of headsets sold in five years, They just looked at like if you take that number and then look at what is the cost to the world of like finding enough aluminium, minerals, cobalt, etc. to build these headsets. We actually don't have enough materials in the long run. Or they are there but they're so difficult to get out of the ground. and the climate impact of getting those materials out of the ground are so much higher than we actually know. Basically, they said something like, well, we don't even have enough materials for everybody to have a smartphone in the world. Like, can we even afford for everybody to have a headset at home? And that really stuck with me as a very interesting point, where I think everybody of us kind of feels like, this space needs more headsets sold, and we need more headsets in the living room, just like we have televisions in the living room, so that film could be distributed to as many people as possible. Because I think we all believe that the stories that are being told, the experiences that are being created, are incredibly powerful, and they need to be shared and seen by as many people as possible. But this sort of strange dichotomy that they said like between either presenting it physically at a festival or at a museum versus seeing it at home. I've always felt like to a certain extent what we were doing at festivals presenting these XR works was kind of like creating the home for works that didn't have a home yet, because museums are struggling with them too. They are inefficient and clunky and you need volunteers and people putting on headsets. It's quite an awkward, intense production. And isn't it way better for just people to do it at home? And this sort of... If we can't afford everybody to have a headset at home, climate-wise, shouldn't we also think about this space as maybe the way that cinema started? Like, in the early days of cinema, it was a fairground attraction type thing, like at markets and stuff. And then we started building these amazing movie palaces. I mean, the Dushinsky Theatre in Amsterdam is one of the most beautiful examples of this, where I worked when I was studying. It's like a palace to enjoy the art of cinema. And back then, nobody was saying like, yeah, but the true potential of cinema will be fulfilled once everybody has a home cinema set at home. Or the true potential of cinema will be there when everybody has a smartphone and they can watch Apocalypse Now or Man with a Movie Camera or whatever classic film you want to mention on their phone as they sit in the subway. We actually agreed, we actually still agree, the best cinema experience is sitting in or whatever your favorite movie palace is, and watching it on the big screen with great sound and people around you that are not eating crisps. There is something that really, I think, in that sense, I found, yeah, like a great reflection for us to go like, of course, the answer is not festivals itself. Like, there is something really broken in the system, like a project like In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats or Okavari at this point is way too expensive and inefficient to put on for longer than 10 days in a regular museum. We are all working on that really hard and I think we're making really good steps, but it's still a huge challenge. But I am definitely very inspired to look at that challenge and to look at ways of doing that and not just look at digital distribution. Because I really think this art form, if you want to embrace the sort of uniqueness of each piece, you have to embrace that it sometimes requires a little bit more production to set it up. It's where in our for instance in our R&D summit. We had a roundtable called mind the gap Where we wanted to talk about the gap between festivals and year-round venues And it was also a little bit because we are starting next year our own year-round venue as it first a documentary festival And we're also exploring what we can do there year-round with new media. So

[00:22:55.697] Kent Bye: And you have a lot of other programs. I love watching the work, but it's also one of the more challenging conferences to cover because there's so many things happening that I want to see and do. It's a little bit more spread out across all over Amsterdam, so it's just a little bit more tricky for me to cover it. But that said, you do have a lot of programs that are happening. You have a lot of efforts and initiatives, from the R&D Summit to the IFA DocLab Forum, where you're funding projects in the market, and then you have different talks, and you have the MoCap stage this year, you have the existing program. Maybe you could just give a bit of how you make sense of all the different things that you have going on during this week of the IFA DocLab.

[00:23:35.663] Caspar Sonnen: Yeah, if I'm fully honest, I think it is a little bit of a beast that has been growing over the last 16 years. And that means that where 16 years ago I was doing this on my own, now there's a giant team that is DocLab. So it's not just me, it's like Jorin de Segal has been doing the market. Odinke Vermeer has been not just setting up the Full Dome program, but has also been making the program together with me and Annabelle throughout the year. All of us bring in different connections and come across great ideas. And because the team has been growing, because we have a great creative production partner, because we have been at it for a while, and the documentary community and the documentary industry is such a let's say agile industry, I think I can be incredibly in awe of a festival like Venice or what's happening at Sundance. Mental note, it's not happening this year with New Frontier.

[00:24:30.878] Kent Bye: It's a pause this year in New Frontier, yeah.

[00:24:33.879] Caspar Sonnen: Which I think is a very sad thing, but at the same time I think a very bold and brave move of Shari. I think there's nothing very strange for all of us to occasionally say, like, hey, let's pause and critically reflect on what we are doing. I think we've all been doing that in certain ways in the last couple of years, and at the same time, like, ploughing ahead, making sure that the festival happens. I think it's really good to have these... I wish there were more moments where we could have a pause and take stock, and maybe change things and move ahead. Yeah, so with the great team that we have I think there is a lot happening at the same time and even within it for itself like There's the paradox program. There is it for on stage there is special programs and theme programs within the film festival itself where there's little connections and bridges between the new media side and the film side and Which makes it increasingly the case that sometimes within this big festival, even we ourselves don't know exactly what is happening at what time sometimes. Or things get programmed in parallel and there are things that we ourselves are also not able to attend. So I hear that struggle. I guess it's also a little bit the joy of a festival. It's kind of like going to, to use that analogy again, going to a Chinese restaurant and realizing you can't have all the amazing food that's there in one go. And I mean, another thing that has made it easier for us to do things like this or make experiment in different ways and with different platforms is because the program has become an R&D program besides the festival itself. For the last five years we collaborated with MIT OpenDocLab, which allows us to not just support specific projects or invite artists to create an experimental version of something or to create something new, but it also allows us to work together. We have an ongoing collaboration with the immersive storytelling studio of the National Theatre. through which we've commissioned and supported various new works, like TM, the online play last year, of the same Ondroerend Goed that are now back this year with Funeral, the physical immersive theatre play. Together with them we co-presented Horizon, this one-on-one theatre play that we talked about. and actually just had a conversation with them about how can we take this one-on-one play and maybe develop it in the future into a more collective experience. So maybe a one-to-many version or not. What does that mean? Does that kill the entire experience or is there ways that we could actually explore that? These types of ongoing more R&D type things and activities is something that in the past we occasionally did, but actually couldn't. And now we've set up this program in a way that it allows us to enter into these collaborations, sometimes with very little involvement from our side or very modest involvement from our side, but just the fact that we are able to offer a platform at the end, the festival, and a receiving audience at the end. I mean, that's something that I think we've been very happy and proud and fortunate to be able to do that. And some of these experiments have turned out great, some experiments, are still in development. Yesterday, Piotr Wienowicz and Mads Damsbo presented the Casper AI project, which is this ongoing attempt to use AI to create a Werner Herzog movie. They did a great presentation and showed us a few first snippets of the film that they are currently producing with the kind of begrudging, skeptic blessing of Mr. Herzog himself. But festivals are a great place to support these types of experimentations, to play with what is possible, to allow artists to walk into the dark a little bit and come back with something beautiful sometimes. after three years. I mean, we called the program DocLab 16 years ago, just because it was an in-house lab for a film festival to figure out how to show these things. And that's still a very key part of what we do. But I guess over the last years, it has become a lab and an exhibition and showcase platform at the same time.

[00:28:46.145] Kent Bye: And with the market, there's also the funding aspect as well, because it's helping to bring resources into these projects. And, you know, this year was also the Onyx DocLab stage that you had, different performances that I had a chance to talk with Matt and John about. And yeah, I guess, you know, one of the things that I've heard from William Uricchio and both Sarah Wallace and also mentioned just how documentary as a form is usually when new media emerge, that that's where you go to first and like, majority of the very first films that were made were in the documentary format of capturing different aspects of physical reality. And so I'd love to hear any reflections you have in terms of the nature of documentary as you see all these different emerging technologies and the structures and forms and interactivity, participation, the different qualities of presence, of having embodiment and interactivity and participation and still with an emotional story and being able to have different social dynamics. And so, yeah, I'd love to hear any reflections you have on the state of documentary and where is it going and how you start to have conceptual frameworks to make sense of it.

[00:29:50.559] Caspar Sonnen: Yeah, I think this became clear quite quickly when we started the program. I mean, we started the program with an idea of doing a program around stuff that was happening on the Internet that was somehow documentary art or storytelling. not knowing how much there was. That was when we walked into the dark to see what we could find. And we started finding these amazing things online. And what we found was that often the things that were most interesting were non-fiction or were not completely fiction. Especially in interactive, we realized it's so much harder to create an interactive fiction than it is to create an interactive documentary. The most difficult question to answer if you're making something interactive is, who is the audience? What is their role? And you always feel that in a bad interactive experience, where you're just like, why should I click? You become like that actor in a film that doesn't have a clear script or a good director, where it's like, what's my motivation? And I think the question of what's my motivation is so much easier to answer if in an interactive experience, you can just be you. You can just be someone watching something, looking for an interesting experience. Already that's a big ask, to become a conspirator of the artwork itself and putting something of yourself in. It's a step that a lot of people don't want to make necessarily. That's one of the reasons why our job as a festival is to lower the threshold as much as possible, make it as easy as possible. That's why in our exhibition we can select an amazing interactive graphic novel of 90 minutes that you can do on your phone then we create a little very comfy chair, living room setting, nice lighting, where it's nice to sit for 90 minutes and flick through this experience on a screen. But I think that in non-fiction, it's just easier to make those decisions. The question is, do you want to be buried or cremated? If you're a fictional character in the experience, you're like, I don't know, who is my character? If that's you, yourself, and it's a documentary experience, it's like, well, I don't know. Shall I choose this or that? Or I do know, but shall I choose the other one to see what happens? It becomes instantly meaningful. So I think that's one thing that we saw quite quickly, that working at a documentary festival and creating a programme within a documentary festival was actually quite a little unintentional advantage in curating and finding great stuff. Another element, I think, is that within the documentary industry, similar to the animation industry, as opposed to, let's say, big-budget blockbuster moviemaking, fiction filmmaking. Both animators and documentary are used to work with very little, and they are used to, especially in documentary, of course, people are used to be agile, to respond on the spot to something changing. You follow reality around with your camera instead of scripting it. Not to say that there is no scripting in documentary, because of course, I agree with Herzog, it's essentially, there is almost no difference between fiction and documentary, it's just cinema in many cases. But that connection to reality, I think, especially with new media, with new technologies that are volatile, that are vulnerable, that are clunky, that might break, that do things you don't expect, it's easier to turn that new technology, that new thing to record or represent reality, to point it at reality, before you start inviting actors and building sets and spending your budget on all of that. You just pointed at reality first to figure out what happens. The first film was workers leaving a factory. You pointed at people leaving a factory or a train arriving at a station. That's for a reason. And that isn't to say that there is not great interactive fiction. I mean, just play Last of Us and you can say that this is an amazing experience. It's not to say that you cannot have incredible meaningful experiences in fiction. I think increasingly we see these examples And I think immersive media are a very interesting space because there we see, I mean, I can walk around Sundance or Venice or Tribeca and be incredibly frustrated with some of the amazing fictional works I'm seeing and like, oh, we are not the exact right space for this. Like, I don't know, what is it, the egg-tastic experience?

[00:34:17.839] Kent Bye: Oh, egg-scape?

[00:34:18.819] Caspar Sonnen: Xscape, I mean, I remember seeing the prototype at Tribeca and just going like, whatever I can do for you guys, this is going to be such an amazing experience. I'm so happy that actually I have a headset at home. I want to play this with my family. But no, that's not where... I mean, that's a beautiful game, that's not what IDFA is intended for, it's a fictional experience and it should be. So it's not to say documentary is better at all, it's just that some of the traits of the documentary industry, the agility, the willingness to explore and step into the unknown instead of preparing everything beforehand, As well as the willingness to work together much more. I think there's a lot more impetus to go to Kat and William's book. The impetus to co-create in different ways. You need to co-create with reality in all its forms if you want to make a documentary. It's much harder to sit somewhere on your own and say like this is my exact perfect vision of how it should be and I'll just take take after take after take until it's there. You have to embrace the chaos, embrace everything around you in that sense. So that's I think maybe what's one of the reasons why we've been at it for so long as well, why like every year feels like a completely new year as well, where production-wise, curatorially, exhibition format-wise, we have to reinvent the wheel every year. Every year, we kind of, as a team, go like, can we just do things the way that we did them last year? But no, the medium, what artists are doing, is developing so quickly every time we have to reinvent. And in that sense, it's great doing this program.

[00:36:02.768] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of these new emerging forms of immersive storytelling might be and what they might be able to enable?

[00:36:15.907] Caspar Sonnen: It's a great tradition that you always end your things with this question and I always think I have to really make sure that I catch up with all the episodes that I haven't heard yet because there's probably way too many great answers to this question how to even add something to that other than I don't know. I think this year, especially, there were a number of experiences that really made me realise we are there, to a certain extent. We are there in a sense that I think the problem isn't content. I think five years ago, we could say the problem with VR was technology, it was content, and we didn't even think about distribution, probably, or funding, all of those things. I think now, artistically, and to a certain extent if you embrace the limitations of what the technology is today, we are pretty much in a position where this is an early medium that is not going away. And that really is getting us somewhere. That is providing experiences that other media cannot do. I'm very much against saying, oh, but this could have been a film, why VR? I always find that quite a silly discussion because there is an amazing story you could tell as an opera or as a poem or as a video game. I don't believe that certain stories are only to be told in a specific medium. It's rather the opposite. It's when you see a great VR project, you realize wow, this is what VR is. When I see In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats, I don't think this could not have been a documentary film. It could very well have been a documentary film. I actually would love to see a great documentary about the birth of rave culture in 1989 in the UK. There's actually ones that are made, that have been made. This one just provided me with a different type of experience that only VR could do, where I both was informed, was taken on a narrative emotional journey, but I also really experienced something viscerally, physically. Coming out of it, I really felt like, yeah, the world is going to shits. But, you know, back in 1989, the world was also not in such a great position economically in many ways. and people figured out a way to unite, have fun and actually be together across very different demographic groups, got together and partied. That is something that I think right now I'm seeing, we're seeing around us, like the pandemic has taught a whole generation, you don't need to buy a ticket to a commercial experience to have fun together, to get together, to unite, to make something together. That DIY culture that has been part of the immersive space from day one, I think is something that we're seeing in audience as well, like a willingness and an openness to experience something crazy and unknown and collective and beautiful. And I feel that that is something A project like Beats points to that, to an earlier moment when there was something similar. That is something that I'm not sure if I would have gotten from the film version of that story. And I think that's something where we're starting to see, and it's also outside of just VR, a project like He Fucked A Girl Out Of Me, what Taylor does there, taking this incredibly traumatic experience, personal experience, telling it, in their own words, creating a little robot to tell their story for them because it's too traumatic to actually tell that story personally or retell and revisit and they felt like They had to use the video game format instead of a film or a book. I mean, we're starting to really see between film, between games, between literature, between theatre, there is this space of experiences that we still find hard to define. Maybe we should just call it XR or maybe we should just call it art. I don't know. But it is becoming a space that I think if we succeed in showing these experiences to more people than just our own little bubble, I think the problem will start solving itself at some point. People will figure out what it's called for us. Maybe we'll be journalists like you who will come up with a term. Maybe we'll be audiences that start to discuss it in certain ways. Just like cinema back in the day. Was it motion pictures, moving pictures, cinema, film? Which word is it? Well, I guess it's not a problem sometimes. As long as it's good.

[00:40:49.167] Kent Bye: Awesome, and is there anything else that's left unsaid you'd like to say to the broader Immersive community?

[00:40:55.251] Caspar Sonnen: Other than thank you, Kent. No, but I do think it is important to say thank you, Kent. You've been making a lot of content that I think nobody has been able to keep up with. But that's another thing that I'm quite hopeful for. I'm increasingly seeing people, the writing around, the critical reflection around in this field is getting better and better. Like that coincides with the works getting better. And that is something that, yeah, we should all be thankful for what you've been doing. And I think, yeah, thank you.

[00:41:32.637] Kent Bye: I appreciate that. You're quite welcome and thank you for putting on for 16 years now with the DocLab and all the work that you've been doing to help facilitate the growth of this community and the collaborations with OpenDocLab and putting together what started with yourself and now as a whole organization with all these different efforts. It's really quite impressive to see all the different people from many different backgrounds and intersections coming here. year after year to come together to share their latest work, but also to see the latest work and to find out their dreams and potentials for what they want to create. And yeah, it's just a real interesting mix that you've been able to create in this community. And I always love coming here and seeing all the work. And yeah, I always love hearing all your insights as well. And I'll be chewing on all the different things that you've been sharing with us today. And yeah, thanks for coming on the podcast to share your journey and the latest of what's happening with DocLab. So thank you. So that was Kasper Sonnen. He's the founder of Ifadoc Lab, which has been going now for 16 years. And he was just reflecting on this year's program of the nervous system. And yeah, just some general thoughts on what's happening in the XR industry. So I have a number of takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Well, the one thing that I'm really going to take away is this distinction that Kasper had at the end when he was comparing interactive fiction with interactive nonfiction storytelling. And he's saying that it's a lot easier to be in an interactive nonfiction piece because you just have to be you, yourself. You don't have to be imagining what's your character, what's your motivation. You just make choices based upon who you are and what you want to see. Also, just reflecting on the nature of documentary, that whole section I think is something I'll be coming back to again and again. And I just want to read this quote from the Collective Wisdom, Co-Creating Media with Equity and Justice. It's talking about how the nonfiction filmmakers have often been at the forefront of innovation and with emerging technology. More than 90% of the film's copyright in the first decade of cinema were documentaries. Some of the first color films, some of the first sound films, some of the first uses of portable synchronous sound technologies were documentary. So too when the cameras came off the tripods, the documentaries literally took the technology and ran with it. They followed life as it unfolded in front of the moving camera. So, yeah, just the documentary as this creative treatment of actuality, as John Grusin said, and all the different structures and forms and experimentations across all the different technologies. And, you know, like Kasper said, you know, whether it's all these different in-between fusions of these things that start to make it a little bit more like just XR, or he said, you know, maybe we should just call it art. But that the nature of documentary is that it's very agile and the creators are willing to be so experimental. And also, they don't always have a sense of how things are going to play out. And so their willingness to go into these uncharted, unknown frontiers. So people who are shooting documentaries, they don't know how the story is going to unfold. And so they have to just be there as a witness, but also be very agile and be willing to collaborate and to explore into the unknown and to be in this co-creative process. And to embrace the chaos, which is a lot of what Casper has done over the last 16 years at IFADOC Lab, trying to, like he said, provide a home where a lot of these projects haven't had a home all the time. And that there's other kind of associated programs that have been going for 16 years as well with the Sundance New Frontier. Shari Frillo is taking a year off this year to kind of like reflect on how to take the action in the future. And so we'll wait and see what comes of that. But I'll certainly be thinking a lot about this overall journey of thinking about the co-creative process and the collaboration and the difference between creating these single authored stories versus the more co-creative collaborative authorship that is more focused on the process and the cultivation of community in different ways. And so that was also a big theme. And, yeah, just a lot of really amazing things that were happening there at DocLab. There was also co-creators from Latinka Vermeer and Annabelle Troost at the market with Yorinde Segal. The Planetarium show that I had the chance to go see right after this, actually, I saw the Funeral Immersive Theater piece, which is another piece that they were commissioning with the... It's impossible. I can never say what the name of that theater company is. It's sort of unpronounceable for me, at least. But there's also TM that they funded and I actually did an interview with the creator of TM because it was a really, really well done interactive theater piece that I had a chance to do and I really quite enjoyed it. And some of their other discussions of taking some of these pieces like Horizon and can they expand them out beyond just a one-on-one interactive immersive theater conversation into more of a group experience in some fashion. For me, I really appreciated that one-on-one conversation. There's something magical about just having a context set like that with that theatrical performance with someone who is an age of 15, you know, trying to imagine what their world is going to be like in 30 years. Yeah, the other things that stuck with me in terms of the Okaware and those conversations, I was really digesting that for the last month. Just these deeper questions, whether or not the XR industry could actually scale up with the entire planet with some of these technologies. Would there be enough minerals in the earth to be able to really actually sustain that? At what cost does the extraction start to scale up and become more and more expensive? So yeah, the distribution aspect I think is another thing that is a big open question and they're certainly doing a lot of exploration there at the doc lab and potentially even moving into doing more year-round different types of exhibitions and yeah, just the question around In pursuit of competitive beats, you know, Casper is saying this is a real landmark piece. And I have to agree. It's certainly the highlight for myself. And it ended up winning the IFADOCLAB award for immersive nonfiction. So in some ways, it's kind of like the top prize for the XR piece. And Pleistosapiens came in with a special jury mention, which I did an interview with them back at Tribeca. And Taylor McHugh won the IFADOC Lab Award for Digital Storytelling for He Fucked the Girl Out of Me, which again was a really amazing piece that really stuck with me and I had a conversation with Taylor back a number of episodes ago. So yeah, it was an amazing quick journey. Very grateful for DocLab for helping to support my trip over to Amsterdam to be able to cover this and to be able to speak and yeah, just be there and see all the different latest experiences and to be able to connect to a lot of different creators that are there. A piece that I didn't mention here, but also I really enjoyed and didn't have a chance to talk to the creator because they weren't there, was called Christine is Not Well. And that was a piece that was exploring some really interesting themes around censorship and kind of this toxic positivity that sometimes you get with social media and trying to create this embodied experience of that. And also other aspects of racism that are kind of embedded into the V2 being a virtual creator who's anonymous. And then once a race is revealed, ends up receiving a lot of racism, Asian hate racism. So yeah, that was a piece that I hope to get a chance to check in with the creator here at some point, because I think that was also another piece that stuck out for me in terms of really effectively using the interactions to be able to convey different parts of their story. So yeah, that's quite an epic trip and thanks for coming along on the journey. If you've listened to all the different episodes, thanks for tuning in. And yeah, just grateful to be able to be there and see all the different latest work and to do my part of trying to at least capture these oral history interviews and share some of my own thoughts on these different experiences. So, that's all I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. If you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a message-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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