Maya: The Birth (Chapter 1) is an animated Quill piece that explores menstrual taboos by juxtaposing lots of mythic and archetypal symbols with more mundane scenes of shame and exile within the context of family, schools, and the broader culture. The piece was created by Poulomi Basu and CJ Clarke, who are both artists working across a number of different media. Basu is an Indian artist and activist working across contemporary art, photography, book formats, installation, movement, sculpture, time-based media, as well as immersive media. Clarke is a British artist working across film, photography, virtual reality, and everything in between.
Their piece pushes on grammar of immersive storytelling with this combination of magical realism and dream logic blended with more traditional diegetic scenes. Basu says, “I wanted something that felt like they were literally paintings moving so a lot of the work that you see in the piece are a very magical realist way of telling the story so where you feel you’re in the real world, but then there’s something dystopian, something twisted, something magical happening within that. And then there’s also these dream-like worlds, you know, where you enter Maya’s own, like, dreams when she’s sleeping and she gets the visions.” The end result is spectacular spatial journey that’s exploring a vitally important topic of the “restrictive traditions of her conservative family, and a world of hidden shame, stigma and taboo” around menstruation. This is chapter one that sets the broader context, and the second chapter will be diving more explicitly into transforming this shame, stigma and taboo into a superhero power.
Maya: The Birth (Chapter 1) picked up a special jury mention in the Tribeca Immersive category of New Voices. The jury statement says, “An imaginative way to tell an everyday story in a vivid world. Presenting a shift in perspective, the project opens new imaginaries with under-told narratives. This project left us on a hook and the jury is excited to see its next steps and continued development.”
Basu and Clarke are certainly pushing the boundaries of spatial storytelling with this unique blend of dream logic and magical realism fused with more traditionally staged scenes. Clarke says, “It’s playing with these layers and levels of perception, these levels of reality, these kind of layers and shades and nuance to make you kind of look beyond and make you feel this transportation and this journey from real, magical, and actually make you look at your reality differently.”
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[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 potentials of immersive storytelling and the future of spatial computing. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. So continuing on my series of looking at different immersive stories from Tribeca Immersive, today's episode is with a piece called Maya, The Birth, Chapter 1. So this is the first part of a longer exploration of looking at the issue of menstrual exile and the taboos around menstruation from some cultures. Poulmy Basu is from India, and so she's talking about her own experiences of menstrual taboos, but she's also exploring it at a broader context in Western cultures. So this is a Quill piece that she did in collaboration with CJ Clark and the piece uses a lot of the medium of VR to create this dream-like experience where everything's not always explicitly explained. It uses a lot of metaphoric and archetypal and mythic imagery and has a structure where it takes you on a whole spatial journey to tell this story. So they're trying to evoke a certain emotion from their experience, which ends up being quite powerful use as the medium. In a previous interview that I did with Curtis Hickman, we're talking about the differences between mimesis and diegesis, where mimesis is really trying to show and more about the embodied actions, whereas the diegesis is more of using language to be able to tell what's happening. And this is very much in the vein of the memetic side of things where it's trying to give a lot of embodied metaphors exploring these topics in a way that creates this kind of dream-like magical realism quality to it all. This piece actually picked up the special mention in the new voices competition at Tribeca Immersive and I'm just going to read the jury comment to give an additional flavor. an imaginative way to tell an everyday story in a vivid world. Presenting a shift in perspective, the project opens new imaginaries with under-told narratives. This project left us on the hook, and the jury is excited to see its next steps and continued development." So, I had a chance to talk to both Paul Mee and CJ to be able to unpack both their process and where they're going to be taking it in the future in the second episode, which is going to be exploring much more of the hero side, kind of the antidote to the taboos around menstruation that they're introducing here in the first chapter. So we're covering all that and more on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Polomi and CJ happened on Saturday, June 10th, 2023 at Tribeca Immersive in New York City, New York. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:02:42.621] Poulomi Basu: Hi, I'm Polumi Basu. I'm an Indian artist and activist. I work across contemporary art, so that kind of opens up different mediums for me, and I work across photography, book formats, installation, movement, sculpture, time-based media, as well as immersive.
[00:02:59.069] CJ Clarke: Hi, I'm CJ. I'm a British artist and film director and photographer. I work in between film, photography, virtual reality, and everything in between.
[00:03:11.697] Kent Bye: Awesome. Yeah, maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into working with VR as a medium.
[00:03:17.762] Poulomi Basu: So I was born and raised in India in Kolkata. Both my mother and my grandmother were like child brides and then became very young widows. I left home after the death of my father at a very young age and it propelled me into this world where my mother said I would be able to have more opportunities and live my dream and be in the world that she and my grandmother and other women of her generation couldn't do because we came from a very patriarchal, misogynistic family. So that kind of have inspired all the work I've ever made in my life. So my practice is quite personal and political. So most of the work I do are very long-term, in-depth projects and long-term investigations. how women's bodies are these sites of political warfare and how that becomes in this intersectional sort of movement and ideas around, you know, environmental justice, women's rights, rights of mostly people from the Global South. So that really is my forte and my practice and then it spills through different mediums and work I make.
[00:04:16.871] Kent Bye: And how did you come across VR as a medium?
[00:04:19.034] Poulomi Basu: I actually came across VR as a medium in 2016 and 2015 I would say. Those were early days but obviously I didn't have any money, neither did I have any contacts or any leads in this industry or anything. I just knew that for my project Blood Speaks, which was about menstrual exile, that women were going through every day of their life as long as they bleed. It was a good way to sort of use VR as a technology to tell the story because You know, I kind of felt like all the pitfalls of VR for what it's criticized kind of became like a powerful tool for me simply because of its isolating experience and allowing you to have a collective experience and being a claustrophobic tool and those days at least you know people used to say that a lot and for me all of those three things kind of mirrored the exile itself and isolation that women were going through you know so I felt like the technology became the message and the medium so that was a perfect marriage between the medium and the story. So I felt like, okay, maybe if I could just use this medium to put other people into those spaces where women are themselves telling their stories, they're also like reclaiming their own agency in like telling their stories. Those were 360 videos, you know, and you would just like be in the space with the woman as they were interrogating your own gaze on the screen and sort of you're living out the exile with them and I felt like wow this was really powerful because as a person from South Asia I was always told like oh but these things happen to poor people in different parts of the world but I wanted to break that divide between what we perceive as first world space and things happening to women in faraway places which they may not have access to. And I felt like it could really give people this sensorial experience where you kind of feel it in the pit of your stomach, you know, when you go in there and it becomes this sort of visceral environment and space where you're actually slightly confronting them and their gaze, you know, and also in a way where I'm not imposing my own direction so much and like being there so the women have the agency to act out the way they wanted to and tell their story you know so that's how it happened and that project was done with Emblematic and it was three VR films telling the story of three different girls in exile and it was then distributed by Tribeca Film Institute by Xenia BSC and it went to Women Deliver, it went to lots of like places and eventually resulted in a big installation which surrounded photography campaigns, grassroots activism, sculptures, all kinds of things come together and we did some groundswell. We took it back to Nepal into communities where women who were part of this flew and came and engaged in different, the exhibition, the installation, the VR as well as conversations around periods and awakening of women's sexuality and all the violence that starts from that for a woman as soon as she comes of age. And together we changed the law, there was a lot of pressure put and it resulted in a policy change in 2018 when Nepali government criminalized the practice of menstrual exile called Chopadi and started making arrests of finding people who are sending their women into exile. So we saw a bit of a small impact, but this happens in latent different forms and all across South Asia and different forms in other parts of the world as well. Thank you.
[00:07:35.455] Kent Bye: And for UCJ, I'd love to hear a little bit more about your background and journey into working with virtual reality as a medium.
[00:07:41.637] CJ Clarke: So I'm a British working class artist, I guess. And so you learn around the intersectionality of all of these issues that you can't separate race, class, gender, all sorts of things. you can't tackle one without the other and I think that kind of understanding is where we've started that journey on this work together and Polymy and I have been collaborating for a long time. A lot of our work is tackling the intersectionality of all these issues be it identity or environmental or looking at where we are now as a society and seeing how all of these different strands can't be separated. You've got to see the interconnections between them to be able to understand where we are and where we're going. And I guess that's the sort of the root of our collaborative process and working on the Blood Speaks project and producing the first of three live-action films. and creating a meditative space where people can experience another reality. We did it at a time when people were saying, oh, you can't have a virtual reality experience more than five minutes. And we had films that were 12, 13, 15 minutes long, where you're just retuning your perspective to be close to these women going through menstrual exile. In terms of how we come to virtual reality, I think It's a question you get asked a lot but I think that for us it's a natural evolution. I don't think anyone sat down on paper and said well we want to make a virtual reality experience and then worked out what kind of story can we tell. you evolve as artists to kind of use whatever medium suits the message. And I think that's how we came to virtual reality, it's how we came to Maya now, with the experience which allows us to cross boundaries and break taboos and subvert the gaze, reduce that space-time continuum between UK, South Asia, between magic, between the real, between trauma and taboo.
[00:09:44.945] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, I think that sets the context for the piece Maya here, the prior work and how that feeds into what you're exploring here with not explicitly menstrual exile, but still a lot of shaming that is happening throughout the course of this piece around menstruation. And so love to hear how you started to think about the arc of the story, because for me, as I watch it, it feels like a dream that I'm going through and there's being transported into these different spatial contexts and these little interactions that each one of them are mapping out this deeper relational dynamic, which is that there's a lot of misogynistic exile that's happening within the culture, or at least from your own experiences that you're working out through this piece. So I'd love to hear As you've explored this topic in photography as well as in 360 video, now we have this tool like Quill to transport people into these more metaphoric, dream-like spaces, and so I'd love to hear your intention for this journey that you want to take people on in this piece called Maya.
[00:10:40.417] Poulomi Basu: So I guess because my background is as an artist so I wanted something that felt kind of organic as an experience rather than something way too polished or way too like gamey aesthetic. That's where Quill came into being for me. I wanted something that felt like they were literally paintings moving so a lot of the work that you see in the piece are a very magical realist way of telling the story so where you feel you're in the real world, but then there's something dystopian, something twisted, something magical happening within that. And then there's also these dream-like worlds, you know, where you enter Maya's own, like, dreams when she's sleeping and she gets the visions. So, I guess every single artwork that you see in the work has been created from, like, actual line drawings and actual art stuff you know I mean like artistic sort of drawings and things and then we decided to bring Amore in and let him play it out and quill but every single thing we made and we created we felt like we wanted to run the tightrope between what felt like a poetry and a novel you know something that felt like I was trying to tell an art poem but also trying to Tell the story which was more a novel like so that's the line we wanted to walk on and it was a tricky line because Most people in VR I felt like the people conversations I was having people were very risk of us and they were like their reference points were like always other VR films and other things rather than Trying to have more original sort of way of thinking and creating so everything felt like okay Is this too much of a risk will people not get it like I guess the problem I felt like that everybody thinks to talk about the audience a lot before actually seeing what the audience is going to respond the piece to. So I felt like that was actually the tricky point for us, where we felt like, is this becoming way too abstract? Are we telling the story? Is the person going to actually engage, stay in the headset? So in the end, we decided if we make something that walks the line of poetry and novel, then it becomes something that is slightly emotionally moving, it's engaging you in artistic levels but also then on the storytelling level and I felt like you know having the flow and the free-flowing aesthetic of Quill was like the right way to do it with a little bit of VFX and then that matched exactly the style of the quill as well because we had to be super careful of that it had to match the hand drawing style as well you know it just couldn't be something that completely comes out of the aesthetic the world that I was trying to make and also then that should again mirror in the installation you know everything is like almost in dialogue with each other so it's like a whole experience all together.
[00:13:12.775] CJ Clarke: I think because we come from a more artistic perspective, we wanted to be mainstream mass entertainment that's accessible, but I think that we filled the audience, you know, teenagers and beyond. have a fantastic capacity to appreciate all sorts of different references and magic and not have to be prescribed like what is happening exactly at this moment exactly where the superhero comes from exactly where you are at this moment in time that you are given enough information to be able to tell the story but at the same time people can bring their own histories to bear on the story and their own experiences like as you would in any film or novel, whatever, there's always gaps. Gaps that you, as the audience, fill in to kind of develop, expand, whatever. And that's the thing, is that we didn't want to be able to have to, like, explain to the audience every moment what is happening, but at the same time they should emotionally feel it, experience, as you say, these different little magical moments that you're moving through, that it should feel like a dream. But is it a dream? Is it reality? Is it this? Is it that? That's not for us to say. We might have our own ideas as writers and directors about what it is or where you are, but we have to leave space for the audience to bring their own self to the experience. Otherwise, you get no magic.
[00:14:41.290] Kent Bye: I'd love to hear you break down a little bit of the title Maya and the reference to illusion, but also there's this aspect of menstruation where originally that's used as a tool for shaming, but now you're in some ways using this immersive experience to transform that into a superpower. So there's this invoking of these other deity type energies and powers that is carrying you through to create a new context for something that is normally been around a lot of oppression and shame. So I'd love to hear both around the Maya and around this transmutation of this experience from something that is shaming into something that is a superpower.
[00:15:19.402] Poulomi Basu: Yeah, so Maya, my desire for Maya came out of this subliminal desire to sort of evoke the power that resists in our womb area between our sort of perineum and our vagina. You know, in yogic tantric philosophy that's called the kundalini and that's like the highest awakening of your powers and your energy and your creative energy. that's where all the magic happens so that kind of inspired me and felt like wow maybe in pre-patriarchal times people were really scared of women's energy and women's sexuality and with periods like the single most thing that moves human race forward awakens this woman's sexuality you know which it becomes this thing that the world fears you know that's when you transition from a girl to a womanhood you know and all the violence all the taboos and all the problems a girl faces in her life when she becomes a woman kind of happens. So although it is about menstruation, but it's much bigger than that. It's actually addressing, it could be abortion rights, it could be rights about miscarriage, it could be like blood politics in general and like sexual identity and so many different things we wanted this period to become this sort of starting point of this journey and this imagination that unfolds everything you know and that's where Maya comes and also we focused a lot on the piece if you look at a lot of energy that comes from the spirit mother and everything from her vagina the womb the sort of the place for this sort of brown erotica this brown magic this brown power like the power that is also In a way, I use it as a dig because people think, what is power these days? Turning to switch on lights, switch off lights, you know, this, that, superhero type stuff. But that's not what we're trying to do here. We're talking about a power that is very subliminal, that is very deep, and that's in the area below your stomach, in your gut, you know? And when you awaken that, that unleashes your actual inner strength and power of creativity, you know? And that's really what the story is about. And that's the journey that we want everyone to feel. Because in older days you would see snakes and serpents, you know, ancient art will be depicted as snakes and serpents awakening, you know. So it has existed from Greek mythology to Indian, South Asian mythology to everywhere, you know. Every country and society in the world has recognized this spirit force that we all have and it goes beyond gender. Because, you know, it's not just about women, it also exists within men and so We wanted people to awaken that, you know, when they've seen the piece and they finish it because it's about that sort of journey from shame to empowerment. What is that empowerment? It's the empowerment of your own sort of creative energy and journey and hidden powers and strength, strength really, your inner strength and your inner hero. Yeah.
[00:18:00.702] Kent Bye: I love how you start the piece with mixed reality pass-through with black and white and you can see your hands but your hands are replaced by this Mindy art style that is on the hands and then you close your fist to aggregate power and then you open your palm to shoot out these red fireballs which is invoking this aspect of the blood but then the whole world has this tint of red and then you go into this immersive space. I thought that was really a powerful way of starting the piece because you have your hands throughout the course of the piece and there's another opportunity for you to express this power that you're gaining in these virtual spaces. From there you go into other aesthetic styles that are grounded in pragmatic reality with these different scenes with your classmates at school or with your mother, but then into this more archetypal, dream-like world that you're getting to more of the symbolic representations of the story. you're kind of switching between the dreamlike and pragmatic real. But I love how the piece starts with grounded in reality, seeing your body, but seeing this Mindy art representation of your hands and that you're invoking this power and really engaging people with their body with a story that then continues to fold through these different genres, I guess, as you're telling the story. But yeah, I'd love to hear that process of deciding to start there and also that hand tracking component, because I thought that worked particularly well.
[00:19:18.733] CJ Clarke: I mean, it was just an idea we had. I suppose we wanted the piece to have layers of immersion, you know, like the same way in which the installation, you know, how you come to view the piece in the first place, you're being gradually and slowly transported to a different reality. But you should still, you know, understand this is an artwork which is connected to the real, connected to the real world, connected to the reality that you should live. I mean, part of the story is about A South Asian superhero comes to the West, comes to London, and through that understanding, you get to see all of these taboos and this idea of shame, which people like to think, oh, how can these things happen here? These things don't happen here. We are so evolved. But actually, they're here. They're just kind of hidden in plain sight. So it's playing with these layers and levels of perception, these levels of reality, these kind of layers and shades and nuance to make you kind of look beyond and make you feel this transportation and this journey from real, magical, and actually make you look at your reality differently, maybe wonder is there any boundaries really, you know? It's just a matter of perspective and a matter of feeling and emotion and looking, you know? So I think that's how we wanted to deal with it. Technically, yeah. Technically, it's a hard thing to get right. And we've spent a lot of time working on how the piece transitions, how the scenes transition, how you move from one quite complex scene to another. There's no loading screens, there's no nothing. It's smooth, it's seamless, and it's just trying to evoke this mantra of magic So you never notice the seamless layers of immersion that you're going through to get closer to the core of the piece and the core of the story.
[00:21:04.982] Poulomi Basu: I just want to say that there are loads of references, a lot of the visuals, so the mehendi have different elements on the fingertips, the mother spirit, there are different artistic references, so I feel like it's nice to let the audience transcend a little bit, have them add their own layers to the story and because then that makes the personal political, you know, as I'm coming back to the core of my practice, you know, like everyone should be able to take away their own meaning and story and transcend with a piece because if you tell them everything and spell everything out then you're actually killing that you know the merit of every story is that every person should be able to connect with at some level so you need to leave that place need to leave that space where anything is possible you know so yeah.
[00:21:50.064] CJ Clarke: There's a thousand different references in the piece, like little ideas, little games, little thought processes, references to pre-patriarchal society. There were matrilineal societies because the first time was the time of the menstrual time, because the link between the moon and the monthly cycle of menstruation. There's all sorts of things that we could tell you about. There's this reference or that reference. Maybe the audience gets all of them, maybe it gets none of them. It doesn't matter. It's about having this different layers and this depth to this experience that different people can respond to in their own way. And if they catch a reference, it just enhances it. If they don't, we hope it's a fun and thrilling ride.
[00:22:32.715] Kent Bye: Yeah, we really see it as this dialectic between the shame that is coming from the culture around the experience of having a period in administration and the minstrel exile, both from classmates and family, but also this polarity of this liberation and empowerment that you're exploring throughout this piece. I'd love to have you expand a little bit on that context of the shaming because you said there was this law that had just passed in 2018 that was banning menstrual exile and so I was not aware of what was happening with this and so maybe you could elaborate on this because you have a scene from a mother character speaking to you as the experiencer that something that seems very natural to be happening, but yet when you go through having a period, then there's a lot of upset that's happening, a part of this larger patriarchal oppression that's part of what this piece is trying to shine a light on. So I'd love to hear a little bit more about that as you're exploring these themes.
[00:23:24.561] Poulomi Basu: Yeah, so the mother scene is actually a direct lift from what happened in my life. Like I wasn't allowed to enter the kitchen, I wasn't allowed to go to festivities, you know, tampons were not allowed because it was assumed that it would break your hymen and virginity. So a lot of that came directly from my own experiences in my life and everyone I spoke to also had the same thing. Girls around us, we would always joke and laugh about it, like our families said the same things and did the same things, you know, so. I mean that's where it all comes from you know so it's like kind of latent in different layers yes I wasn't sent into an exile but I was had restrictions laid upon me on several points where I was isolated I felt isolated and I was cut away from being a part of larger community celebrations but also it's just in general of your bodily change and the pain and the trauma women go through like in Blood Speaks I filmed The 360 VR has women you know a 16 year old girl who gave birth and with her baby you know she was put into exile like she was only like 16 and living with postpartum depression which I assume because she was having breakdowns and it's extreme you know the brutality of it like the softer elements and you have the really hard ones you know where Girls are getting raped and killed, abducted, you know. The superhero story actually was inspired from this real-life woman called Parvati Parial who died in Nepal with her babies, the entire hut lit fire because she was trying to keep herself warm, you know. but people were saying maybe she got raped, somebody did that, you know, so it inspired me to take action, you know, but I wanted to take action because I knew the law had changed, but still this happened, so I was like, you know, that's like, what does this mean? People's hearts and minds don't change that easily, you know, so I was like, I'm gonna make something which is, I wanted it to resurrect her, like, and create something really powerful that comes almost like a Batman through trauma and anger, but also it creates something and moves an audience towards a place of healing, you know? So that's how Maya came into being, you know? And I wanted everyone to see it because I knew if I fictionalize it and do it this way, people are going to engage, you know? And if I bring it to modern-day London, where a lot is happening in inner-city communities and Tower Hamlets, specifically where it's placed, you know, which is the largest South Asian community there, and tell the story this way, you know, I felt like it was a great entry point to have this conversation but also talk about I mean I'm actually surprised it's taken this long to think of a menstrual vigilante superhero like think about that like you know so yeah that's where Maya is.
[00:25:57.992] Kent Bye: So you talked about the scenes with your mother, but maybe you could elaborate on the scenes with the other students because the students are Caucasian or more of a European background. And so is that also something from your own experience or maybe you could give a broader context for why these students are also participating in this shaming process?
[00:26:14.905] Poulomi Basu: Yeah, so I guess children are in many ways masochists, you know, and children bully a lot because we wanted to show a diverse community of Tower Hamlets what it really is and also at the same time say that this kind of taboo and shame also exists through different races and cultures, you know, even today. even a brown girl might shame another brown girl, you know, another black person might shame another black person and you know, or even a white girl which becomes even more clear in the second part when you see it actually because the story of the main bully who's Geely comes across in the second part and tells her story. So yeah.
[00:26:50.655] CJ Clarke: The weaponization of kind of shame and fear that you might In another era, you know, 30 years ago you might have heard, well maybe even 10 years ago, maybe even now, you hear like racial slurs abandoned around by kids as a way of attacking other kids without necessarily understanding the full context of where they come from and I think that's what we were driving at. that certain things are used, certain things are said, certain things are used as forms of bullying, without really thinking about the shame, the stigma, the taboo that's attached to them. Because the idea of the shame and taboo is so hidden, the ideas behind them is so latent, that no one stood back to question them. You know, why is period blood in adverse blue? Why do period products have names like Whisper, as if you can't speak about them loudly and proudly?
[00:27:39.218] Poulomi Basu: Also the thing that one of our writers you know that chapter came from her because she grew up in a council estate you know and she was British Indian and that's the kind of thing she experienced when she was growing up so we tried to fill the gaps you know in every way by creating a really diverse team where everybody was bringing their own sort of experiences into it and You know, it's really mean, you know, and rank. Words like rank and stuff, it starts really mean, you know, and we wanted to say that, that this really happens, you know, you need to see the meanness of it, but at the same time confront the audience right from the beginning by holding a tampon and like, be provocative that way, like, without touching that, you can now actually move your journey forward. So, yeah, yeah.
[00:28:23.323] CJ Clarke: Kids are mean. Teenage is a meme, you know? I mean, this is sort of like, we know that to be real and we know that to be a well-covered topic in drama, in teen drama or otherwise, you know? So that's, yeah, we just wanted to bring it up to date, you know, bring it in the context of taboo and shame and all of those kind of ideas that we're exploring in the piece.
[00:28:44.100] Kent Bye: Yeah, as you were co-directing this piece together, I'm wondering how you split up the different responsibilities or collaborated with each other on this piece.
[00:28:53.391] Poulomi Basu: Oh, that's a really... I don't know. I feel like I come more into the artistic elements into the piece and artistic direction of the piece and the colour and every single character and every single moment, how it's drawn, how it's created. That's more like my elements and from the VFX direction to everything. I feel like it's more of my forte, whereas CJ is more sort of transitions, direction a little bit. Why don't you say?
[00:29:23.990] CJ Clarke: Um, transitions.
[00:29:27.932] Poulomi Basu: The movement of the flow and the piece, like a lot of that has come from you.
[00:29:31.514] CJ Clarke: I mean, I guess like the cinematic elements and all of that, you know, the film directing, thinking about it from a directing and actively perspective where you're moving and how you're moving and how you want it to flow. Yeah, I guess we have different perspectives that we bring to bear on it in terms of like the visual or the kinetic elements But I don't know really we our collaboration runs deep and it has run for a long time So we're although we work across maybe different elements of it. We're always on the same page I think I'm philosophically and we think kind of the same thing that might express itself in slightly different ways but essentially it's less like two halves of the same directorial voice working together.
[00:30:16.939] Kent Bye: Yeah, I do feel like this is a piece that took me on a journey and it's a spatial journey that feels like it's really using the medium of VR to explore these concepts of a way that is doing these symbolic metaphoric translations and that there's also a coherent narrative that is being said throughout the piece as this voice of God coming down and narrating it in some ways. I saw the piece twice because I felt like I saw the piece and it was really powerful and impactful but I also want to go back and hear all the narration parts because I feel like sometimes the visuals can dominate and I won't always pick up on all the things that were said and I just wanted to go back and also just remember the sequence of things because it is like an associative non-sequitur structure in some ways because it is taking you from one scene to the next to the next and so I had a feeling by the end of it but I wouldn't necessarily been able to like recount every beat in the story because it is the linear piece but it does have a non-linearity in a way that felt like it put me into a bit of an altered state of consciousness which I think is actually really the power of VR but also creates this tension between making sure that you are walking away with the gist of the story and Yeah, I think our minds have an ability to have a certain threshold of cognitive load, and I feel like this piece is taking you right up to that threshold in a good way, because it does have these really vast worlds that you're taking on, too. Like I said, it's like a spatial journey as you go through these worlds and putting them into sequence. And as I watched it the second time, then I was able to pick up the themes of, okay, we're exploring, okay, here's another way of exploring shame. Okay, now she's in a forest, and now these creatures are coming up, and it's like the feeling of exile. But the first time watching it, I got the overall arc of what the story was, and the second time, then I could trace it a little bit more. So I feel like it's an interesting aspect of the medium of VR, because there's creating a piece, but there's also the audience receiving the piece, and having an ability to decode the dream-like symbolic logic that's being used to communicate these things. because you're taking us into these really viscerally vivid worlds that are very expansive and also have this immersive quality to it that as you sequence these together then you're taking people through this journey. So anyway, I just wanted to have this unpacking of my own journey of that.
[00:32:29.766] Poulomi Basu: I feel like, hey, like, something I was about to say when you said that, like, you know, they say what's a great book, the ones you keep coming back to, so... That's what I was saying about all these different layers we want to put in the piece.
[00:32:41.078] CJ Clarke: I mean, it's like you want all these layers to exist. We want you to come back. We want you to watch it again. I mean, you know, it's like watching a Tarkovsky film or whatever. I mean, you know, it is like a dream. be difficult to explain necessarily what is happening you know after you've watched it once but you have this kind of feeling and ultimately that's what it's about it's not like oh I watched this piece and I can recount the narrative step by step no I mean that's a bad experience if you're asking me but actually what you want to finish it is that you want to have this kind of feeling about where it's taking you and the journey that it's taking you on and this feeling should be in your head and it should be in your heart and in your gut Yeah, you watch it again, take it deeper, go deeper, pick out more references. The overall thing is that you need to have this, like all of this art that we work in, you know, it's about mood and feeling, you know, it's not about knowing exactly where you are all the time.
[00:33:35.236] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, yeah, so this is chapter one. What can we expect from chapter two?
[00:33:40.293] Poulomi Basu: I mean it's actually an entire piece but we just wanted to show it in Freiburg so it felt like break it into like the first chapter because we kind of felt like we weren't ready to show the whole piece out yet so we're still kind of wrapping it up but the whole piece is called Maya the birth of a superhero.
[00:33:58.423] CJ Clarke: So it's about that journey of awakening, that journey of realisation to understand that you have the powers to be a superhero within you. And I think that the second part or the continuation is just about you going on that journey to understand your powers and understanding what are the responsibilities of having those powers and how are you going to use them and actually where they come from, you know. It's really about the awakening. I mean, if the first part is a lot abstract and associational, I think, you know, maybe some of the dots are joined up in part two.
[00:34:35.302] Poulomi Basu: Yeah. The first part is the origin story, really. Second part is the awakening. Yeah.
[00:34:41.356] Kent Bye: Alright, well I look forward to seeing the full piece and like I said it's got this dreamlike quality so I think each time I watch it there's new things that I pick up on. I actually wanted to give you an opportunity to share any of the other deities or entities that are being represented in here if that's from existing mythological lineages or if this is also something that you're sort of generating your own mythological creatures, so yeah.
[00:35:03.858] Poulomi Basu: So I'm combining existing mythological themes with futuristic mythology characters. I'm creating sort of a South Asian futuristic mood, which is tapping onto older mythology, but it also has its own futuristic representation and metaphors and mood. And that will become more clear. So we are constantly straddling the past, but also the present, which you are in, but also the future. So yeah, we use references, but I mean, the mother spirit comes from the great cosmic mother sort of references. A lot of them are from eco-feminist artists who in the past were part of this movement and created that. You know, how feminism is rooted in nature and goes back to that. You know, a lot of erotica references from Audre Lorde and other black feminist writers that I picked from. I'm obviously channeling a lot of references there but also combining them with these sort of abstract futuristic figurines to make it more sort of suspended in time and future. Speculative in a way, yeah.
[00:36:08.225] CJ Clarke: Yeah, so I think it's about taking these kind of symbols from different mythologies, different histories. We're just taking these very powerful feminine symbols from different mythologies, different histories and appropriating their, in a good way, their power and their energies to feed in to the inner strength and the inner power that comes from your menstrual blood.
[00:36:31.870] Kent Bye: OK, yeah, I definitely picked up on a lot of the symbolic references, mythological references, and couldn't identify all of them. But it sounds like you're taking it from a large range of existing inspirations, but also creating some of your own that are new.
[00:36:42.827] Poulomi Basu: I would love an art historian to then dig into it and write a paper on it or some academic person can do that.
[00:36:50.233] CJ Clarke: Someone said what they like about the piece is that we combine different mythologies, different histories, different cultures and we don't give a shit about any of them. We're happy to take a stand and point out. Nothing is off the table in terms of trying to show where it's
[00:37:08.289] Poulomi Basu: And we've had a young man who cried after seeing the piece. The reactions from a lot of the men have been incredible and amazing and they all felt like they felt it too in their gut. So that's incredible.
[00:37:19.421] CJ Clarke: Nothing is sacred apart from the power of Maya and feminine power.
[00:37:26.992] Poulomi Basu: And that divine feminine can come through any gender, you know, it doesn't have to be in the gender of a woman. It can be a man, it could be a non-binary person, you know. The divine feminine sits within all genders, you know, so I wanted that portal to be opened and explored.
[00:37:43.023] Kent Bye: Yeah, I did want to follow up on this idea of bringing in all these different mythological backgrounds. And you said in the panel discussion there that you're a decolonial artist. And so how do you balance the decolonization impulses versus potentially being in a space of appropriating other things that are in this colonial history of taking and appropriating things and mixing together? So yeah, I'm just wondering if you have any comments on that.
[00:38:06.563] Poulomi Basu: Well, I don't think I ended up appropriating anything or anything as such. I think every culture where I take from, I show them in their best and their strength, you know, so that's how I would think I have done that. But I am a post-colonial artist, which means I've never had the desire to tell other people's stories. I've never been to Africa in my life, you know, I've never been to like places where I feel I am the right, you know, what's my place here and why should I be telling this story? You know, so I feel the root of it comes from where I am and then it pulls and connects it and universalizes it with other cultures, you know, so without appropriating it or like subverting it and putting my own gaze on it in such an extent that it becomes problematic.
[00:38:50.911] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, love to hear from each of you what you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality and immersive storytelling might be and what it might be able to enable.
[00:39:02.787] Poulomi Basu: I fell in love with VR the first time I ever saw it and you know and I saw a tilt brush or magical tilt brush or something called like that in 2015 in a lab and I knew that day that I wanted to use that. I knew it from day one that I wanted to use it like a painting and like use that to sort of tell the story and I really think virtual reality is very good in sort of having a really deeper experience in terms of where I really feel like my body in many ways is engaged. You know, not always about, say, doing things, but also, like, sensorially I experience it, you know? And I feel if you use it not so much to tell every story, but tie it with the right kind of story that you're trying to tell and find that right marriage, I think it's very powerful. And I think it's a really powerful medium in an installation. You know, I think as an installation, it's really good. You know, I wouldn't necessarily sit in my house and watch VR in my headset. But I would be in an installation, watch all kinds of art and maybe there's a section where you take a deeper dive and explore something even deeper. And I think it's a fantastic piece that way and it works, you know. The only problem is obviously around do you have money, do you have assistance, do you manage? So I feel like the more you're going towards hand tracking without the controllers and stuff and I think the better it becomes. But I want to use it as installation the more and more I go forward.
[00:40:21.472] CJ Clarke: I think the power of art, the power of cinema is at its best when it's associational and abstract and based in a sense of place and emotion. And I think VR does all these things very well. I mean, the potential is boundless, but you know, maybe it needs to be just another medium. You know, why do you paint a picture? Why do you make VR? Why do you write a book? You know, because for a myriad of different reasons, it's just a different form of expression. And I think when we get beyond having to justify why it's VR, then we've taken a huge step as a community forward, you know?
[00:40:57.969] Poulomi Basu: But yeah, I do not want to answer another question why I've used VR to do this thing, because I can't believe that six years ago people were saying then they still say this. It's like so reductive.
[00:41:06.930] CJ Clarke: Maybe one thing we should add, I think, maybe I just thought about, I have to answer questions about how are you going to take this work back to India, back to Nepal, back to South Asia to show it? Maybe, yeah, that's an audience, but maybe the audience we're actually talking to is a Western audience. To look what's hidden in plain sight, you know? Not every South Asian character can only exist in a South Asian context. And I think that's part of what we're trying to do, is take a South Asian character and bring them to the West and show them with agency and power and be the progenitor of the narrative and the perspectives and make us. And I say that as a white Western guide. to look deeply at ourselves, you know? And I think that not very often are majority world characters allowed to do that.
[00:41:53.736] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, I know you have to run off to a dinner, but thanks again for taking the time to chat and break it all down. So thank you.
[00:41:58.659] CJ Clarke: Thank you very much. Thank you.
[00:42:00.160] Poulomi Basu: Thank you so much, Ken. It was greatly appreciated.
[00:42:02.972] Kent Bye: So that was Pallami Basu. She's an Indian artist and activist working across contemporary art, photography, book formats, installation, movement, sculpture, and time-based media, as well as immersive virtual reality experiences. And then CJ Clark is a British artist and film director and photographer working across film, photography, virtual reality, and everything else in between. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Well, I really enjoyed this piece because I felt like it's starting to lean into some of the affordances of the storytelling and virtual reality as a medium. I feel like there's a certain amount of when you move into more of the mimetic as opposed to the diegetic way of telling stories, which is trying to create these show, not tell. And then you create these archetypal representations that have a lot of symbolism and mythological references that are trying to evoke this kind of magical realism and associations that are trying to in some ways not always directly address the question but create these different vignettes and experiences that are poetically trying to evoke these different associations and meanings and at the end of the day leave you with these different emotions from different experiences of taboo and ways that Palomi herself has put a lot of her own experiences of dealing with this type of menstrual taboos that she's had to go through throughout the course of her life and Trying to just elaborate this issue and trying to in the next episode which will be Chapter two getting into a little bit of the antidote and kind of the superhero aspects really enjoy the way that they use hand tracking to ground you into your body at the very beginning with the Mindy India art with the henna on your hands and then you are shooting fireballs and Yeah, it just felt like this piece took me on a bit of a spatial journey and a story and I ended up watching it a couple of times because it was one of those experiences where I was left with an impression and feeling but I couldn't identify all the different beats because there was a lot of symbolic imagery to unpack and to kind of understand the larger picture. Once I saw the overall arc of the story and then going back and being able to unpack it and break down the beats a little bit more and having the conversation with them. But Yeah, both of them really are leaning into this magical realism and the power of virtual reality as a medium and they've worked across a lot of different other media and filmmaking and photography and other time-based media, book formats. So yeah, just well-versed in all the different contemporary art scene and blending together all the different affordances of trying to figure out the grammar and language of storytelling within the context of VR. Definitely some new voices to keep an eye on and I'm excited to see where they take their project in the future So definitely check out Maya the birth chapter 1 and look forward to chapter 2 coming here at some point So, that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast, and if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listless reporter podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. You can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.