#1272: Kickoff of Venice Immersive 2023 Coverage with Winner “Songs by a Passerby” and Atmospheric Storytelling

This is the kickoff of my Venice Immersive 2023 coverage that totals 35 episodes and over 30 hours worth of deep dive interviews with leading experiential designers who are breaking down their latest insights and innovations with the grammar of immersive storytelling. It is one of my most in-depth series yet, and there’s a lot of keen insights and amazing stories spread throughout this series. You can the graphic below for an overview of all of the podcasts in the series, and also links to each of the episodes in the series.

The series is kicking off with the winner of the top prize from Venice Immersive Songs for a Passerby director Celine Daemen, and you can also see more context in the rough transcript below.

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 immersive storytelling, experiential design, and the future of spatial computing. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash voices of VR. So I am really excited to start publishing these 34 new interviews from Venice Immersive, totaling 35 total interviews from Venice Immersive for well over 30 hours worth of coverage. So this is going to be a deep dive into many of the different projects that are featured there. And I had a chance to do 30 interviews on site and another four interviews afterwards totaling a 34 interviews about Venice and then the 35th is the Introduction if you want to go back and listen to episode 1270 That's the sneak preview that I did with the curators of blister Rosenthal and Michelle react So this series I had a chance to be on site I saw all 43 of the different projects there at Venice immersive I had a chance to see 14 ahead of time 14 on the first day 15 on the second day Did this epic binge watching and then for five days I did 30 different interviews with different creators there and then four more afterwards including a three and a half hour Deep dive critics roundtable breaking down each of the 43 different projects and giving up to four different takes on each of the different projects there That's going to be in episode 1305 if you want to skip down to the bottom and get a sense of the program But I'm going to be diving into each of these different projects. And I think it's worth maybe to explain a little bit of my process here, just so you get a little bit more context for what I'm doing with this epic series. So I feel like some of the biggest innovations for the grammar of immersive storytelling are happening at these festivals like South by Southwest, Tribeca, Venice Immersive, Ifadak Lab, 5Rs, you know, each of these different festivals are featuring lots of different immersive storytellers. So in my podcast, I try to focus on three different braids. First of all, I'm trying to understand the people that are creating these different projects, so having a little bit more of their context, their background. The stories that they're telling is the second braid, and then the third braid is the process by which they're telling those stories. So by weaving together those three different braids of, like, who are these different creators, what are the stories that they're telling, and how are they telling those stories, then I think I get a good sense of how they're tying together all these different technologies. So when I go to Venice Immersive, and I try to see all the different experiences, I'm first of all, doing the first pass of looking at the mechanics of how they're using the medium, what kind of embodied environmental presence and emotional presence and active presence and mental and social presence, all these different mechanics of these different qualities of presence. And each of the different experiences are going to have some center of gravity of what they're really focusing on. Is it really more about the environment? Is it more about embodiment? Is it more about agency and interactivity? More game-like experiences? Is it more like a cinematic linear narrative and emotional presence that they're trying to cultivate? Or is it trying to cultivate different dimensions of social presence or communicating different ideas or solving puzzles and to cultivate this sense of mental and social presence? And so, For any really, really good experience, it's trying to explore each of these different dimensions and qualities of presence. And sometimes you'll have experiences that actually are trying to integrate all these different aspects of presence, or some of the experiences will just be focusing onto one center of gravity of what they're doing a deep dive into this one thing. So my first pass when I go through and see all the different experiences, it's just to kind of cluster them together into what center of gravity of the presence. So if people are looking for more game-like experiences or if they're looking more for environmental design or embodiment or the real strong stories that are being told or more game-like and interactivity types of experiences. But when I have a chance to reflect on then there is usually Experiences that have like a primary center of gravity of the presence the secondary third and maybe fourth and so I'll be Introducing each of these projects talking about which of the different qualities of presence that I really highlighted and something that I'll be experimenting a bit with here and the way that I'm structuring the order of these different interviews is also trying to look at the different contextual domains and so For each of the different projects, there'll be a certain context in which they're exploring. Is it about identity? Is it about communication, or place or home, or entertainment, sex? Is it about context of war, or death, or ideas, or workplace, or community, or exile? Usually, any project will usually have a number of these different contextual domains that they're exploring. So it'll be some spatial context that's, say, exploring different dimensions of the Holocaust, as an example. or different issues of identity and LGBTQ plus IA identities. So there'll be like a center of gravity of what the central theme of the experience will be exploring, but there'll be other secondary, other different aspects of context. And so I'll be splitting up this series into the different contextual domains so that as you listen to the order of these different series, you kind of cluster together different themes that may emerge as you listen to like different clusters of these podcasts. All right, so that's a little bit of a context of this series that I'll be diving into. Again, there's 34 new interviews, and so this is actually the second out of the 35 of the total of the series, and it's the first of four of pieces that I'm going to be looking at the contextual domain of identity and self. So I'm going to be starting off this series with the piece that actually took home the grand prize award from this year from Venice Immersive, Songs by a Passerby by Selim Dehma. So this is a piece that is exploring these different liminal aspects of reality where her piece last year, Eurydice, the Descent into Affinity, you end up kind of walking into circles into this really repetitive and infinite descent into affinity. But in this time, they're using the same type of large space where you're walking through these spaces. But instead of this kind of repetitive descent into affinity, songs by passerby is more about using these different aspects of redirected walking to take you into these different impossible spaces. So every time you turn a corner, you're in a new special context. And so Selene calls this atmospheric storytelling where she's trying to create this sense of a vibe and take you into these liminal spaces. And she's really diving deep into the context of melancholy. So it's in the context of self and body, and there's different aspects of these liminal spaces. And then the center of gravity of this piece is really about this environmental and embodied sense of presence with different aspects of a Kinect camera. There's a musical quality here, a lot of ambient sound design and inspirations from opera with this sense of emotional presence for, you know, really meditating on these aspects of melancholy. There's the sense of interactivity as you move around, you can start to see different reflections of yourself in this experience and start to interact with that in different, interesting ways. And there is a sense of a mental and social presence where you're seeing yourself in the context of these other people. And there's also these different text prompts that you're able to literally read other people's thoughts as you're walking through this experience as well. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Celine happened on Sunday, September 3rd, 2023 at the Venice Immersive in Venice, Italy. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:07:20.208] Celine Daemen: My name is Celine Dame. I'm a director and transdisciplinary artist. I'm here in the selection this year with a piece called Songs for a Passerby. Last year I was in the selection with a piece called Eurydice, a Descendant to Infinity. So this is my second big VR work, I would say. And they are both virtual reality operas. So that's also a bit in the idea of transdisciplinary art, that I combine different disciplines into a whole experience that the audience can discover.

[00:07:49.612] Kent Bye: Great. Maybe you could give a bit more context as to your background and your journey into this transdisciplinary fusion.

[00:07:55.876] Celine Daemen: Yeah, sure. I graduated at the Academy of Performative Arts in Maastricht. So I have a theatre background as a director. And then already in my study, I started experimenting with immersion and the relationship between music and immersion, because I believe that music somehow is the oldest and maybe most effective form or discipline that it was already immersive. So I started combining those mostly. I've been very inspired by how direct music is in the sense of like moving an audience. Sometimes when you hear music you can just like be touched or be moved without you even understanding what it really is about. So it's not as much like narrative driven, but it's more experience driven. So that's what I find really inspiring on the idea of music as an immersive medium. And that's what I try to translate also, like combining it with all the immersive images that we create in the VR experience.

[00:08:55.310] Kent Bye: Yeah, and maybe give a bit more context of how you first came into Eurydice and then how it kind of led into Songs for a Passerby.

[00:09:03.872] Celine Daemen: Yeah, I think I graduated in 2018 and then I started doing some research on VR and well then last year I created Eurydice A Descent Into Infinity which was like a big free-roaming piece where the audience walked kind of in circles on the same floor surface and discovered the underworld following the character of the ancient myth Eurydice. And it was already the plan back then to create two pieces, so to create, after Eurydice, another piece that had the same floor surface and the same length. And I think, in the end, they are a bit like sisters, like they have separate, really separate universes, but at the same time, They somehow share some DNA, also in the themes. We're very inspired by the themes of a contrast between the physical and the metaphysical world, or affinity versus infinity. And I think Songs for a Passerby, like Eurydice, also moves around those themes or tries to grasp something around those themes.

[00:10:14.858] Kent Bye: Yeah, there's a lot that you were able to figure out in Eurydice that had redirected walking, or maybe not quite so much, or maybe just playing with a little bit of impossible spaces. Especially at one point, you start to weave around a little bit more. It felt a little less impossible spaces here, but more of like a unique spatial architecture that it felt more vast of an architecture, whereas in Eurydice, I'm like going around in circles, like, and so it wasn't like getting the feeling of exploring a vast space, whereas this was much more about that. And so there's some technical stuff that I imagine that you had figured out with Eurydice. And so, yeah, I'd love to hear you give a little more context as to where you started to map out both technically and the story and the music. There's a lot of different threads that you're weaving together. So where do you begin in an experience like this?

[00:11:02.815] Celine Daemen: I think for us it started with that I really wanted to create something that made you experience like the passing of time or time that keeps like passing you by or maybe like the feeling that life is just passing you by and the question like are you a part of that life or are you just looking at it so it's a very melancholic feeling that I was after and we started building, at least that's how I feel about it now, like we started building on top of Eurydice or all the knowledge that we gained from doing this last project, indeed like using the redirected walking again. but also quite subtle or something. Right now, in Songs for a Passerby, the audience is moving on this floor surface of five to six meters, and you go around the corner every time and discover new scenes. It's much more diverse in terms of scenes than Eurydice was. Eurydice was a bit more conceptual also, like you were following this character down to the abyss in this piece. It's more like you walk through mystical or musical dreamscape. And every time you walk around a corner, you are in the middle of a new scene that is very atmospherical and quite fragmented. It's not really narrative driven, like I said already. It's all these different scenes that intuitively are connected to each other. So, for example, you stand on a corner of a walkway and you see in the vast distance, you see this metro passing by. It's like an infinite metro. that is passing you by all the time. But as soon as you walk around the corner, you're in the middle of this metro. And there you can hear the thoughts of all these people that are sitting in this metro. You can stay there as long as you like. And then when you walk around the next corner, you suddenly stand outside of that metro and see, using 3D live camera footage of the audience, you see yourself walking through that metro. So in terms of like an impossible space, that still is very impossible space, but it feels also at the same time very logic. So that's what we felt like a dream is very surreal because it's somehow also very logically connected or intuitively still that it feels very real and that is what it makes so surreal to walk around in this space.

[00:13:29.984] Kent Bye: Yeah, and so you have elements of opera and music and inspired by a Rilke poem. And then you also have this technical innovation of having a spatial camera that's capturing you and projecting you into the experience in real time. So you see this like third person out of body experience where you're looking at yourself, which is quite surreal, I have to say. And where do you start to begin with tech demos to ensure that you're able to pull off some of these different tricks and techniques that feel quite magical when you're in the piece, but also making sure that it is in some sort of larger context of an arc of an experience. You don't say there's a narrative, but there's certainly a structure to the piece that you're putting together. And there's also a musical component. So talk about how do you start to weave all these elements together.

[00:14:15.025] Celine Daemen: Yeah, it's a good question. I think it's maybe a bit similar to sculpting or something. We really started together with the whole core team, being our director Aaron Fels, the writer Olivier Hertha, and the composer Asa Horvitz. And with the four of us together, we started brainstorming and testing some stuff. Like we knew that we wanted to do something with the Kinect, because we've been experimenting with it for a long time. Thinking like this could be interesting in terms of like relationship to the physical world so let's see what we can do with this body of the audience and Doing these tests really with the four of us. There were just certain things that kind of came up Yeah that we thought were interesting and then we just started sculpting together. So it's just a lot of making stuff Reflecting on it experiencing it together in a space. I really believe that that's for example something that is very helpful to the process and that is maybe also a bit coming from my theatre background just to believe that you have to be in a space and a time together with your team to be experiencing the piece together and just reacting on what you experienced there. Saying like, oh but what I experienced here in your music It might be very interesting to use some of Aaron's techniques there. Combining all those things is really helpful, I think. And it's also what makes this piece this interesting whole experience where you cannot even start to untangle the disciplines at one point. That's what I mean by transdisciplinary. It's something else that all these disciplines just are there, but they are so connected to each other at some point because the team just worked so intensively together that there is no way to untangle it at one point.

[00:16:00.583] Kent Bye: So would you say that you started with the world building of the actual space that you're going to be walking through and then started to add other elements of the music after that? So starting with the spatial context from a theater background, trying to get the place that you're going to be in?

[00:16:15.847] Celine Daemen: Yeah. And at the same time, we were already very inspired, I think, also by, for example, the worlds that the composer and the writer, they bring with them because they have this whole signature of their own work that I already loved. In choosing the team together, it's already so inspiring to have all these different signatures that we're going to bring together in the piece. And then indeed, the spatial component, I think, is the most important one. But already in the spatial component, there is so much for the concept, for example, that also is about music and is about language. So, for example, in this metro scene that you walk through, you have these murmuring thoughts of these people in the metro that you can listen to. That's a very spatial component. Like, if you stand next to someone, you can hear their thoughts. And if you walk past them more quickly, you will hear something completely different, which really influences also the composition. There is not really even a division there between, is that a musical piece, this murmuring of these thoughts? Is it a text? Is it a visual scene, a spatial scene? So that's what I find really interesting about it.

[00:17:25.593] Kent Bye: So you're saying that as you walk through on the train, you walk by the people, but if you walk slow, you may hear something, but if you walk faster, you may hear something else?

[00:17:34.104] Celine Daemen: Yeah, yeah, yeah. They're not going to say something else, like their texts stay the same, but I think the way that you perceive the scene is very different for everyone. The behavior of the audience is of big influence to how they experience it, what they see, what they don't see. I think in theatre there is this saying that there is always more than you can see. That's just a rule in theatre. You have this big stage and if you look to the left to this tiny detail, you'll miss what is happening at the other side of the stage. And I think in VR in general, but also in this piece, that's very extreme. There are certain things you focus on in this very rich and big world where a lot of things are happening, but you focus on certain things. Yeah, direct your attention to those things which really influences your experience.

[00:18:22.729] Kent Bye: Yeah, so the songs for Passerby, you've got, I think you said in your video, somewhere on the order of like 400 or 500 different volumetric scans of people walking by. And so maybe you could talk about that process of populating this experience with a lot of transient folks that are walking by.

[00:18:39.505] Celine Daemen: Yeah, that was a really interesting process also. We chose to work with just one sensor setup for all the recordings that we did. We used the Kinect cameras to do all the volumetric captures. And of course you have the option to do like a multi-sensor setup, but we just liked to keep it simple but do it as good as possible by using the Kinect cameras just like it's a kind of spotlight that we directed on people so it's fine if they only have their one side of the face because the other side will just be like it's in the shadow you just see them appear from darkness which I really like from the visual style that Aaron created and we decided that to find this melancholy feel to the world there must be something that is just like lively. We tried to record it with only people that we just let the camera pass by in a studio. We tried to record people walking past you in the streets in a studio, but it felt not lively enough. So then we decided that we might just take our camera, go into the streets of Amsterdam and just record the people that passed by there. Which also was just very handy, because otherwise we would have we would need to get all those 500 people in costumes in the experience. So it's a combination really of people that we recorded just in the streets and people that we recorded in the studio because they had to do some very specific rhythm of walking or they had to do something more specific than just walk by. So it's a combination that we made and I think you really feel in the piece that there are some people that don't, like you always see if someone acts when they walk and you can feel in the people that pass by in the scenes that they are very natural, that they're actually documentary like footage.

[00:20:30.529] Kent Bye: Yeah. Yeah. It's certainly a piece that's populated with a lot of transient commuters as they're walking by and in the entirety of the piece feels like in this kind of liminal space, you know, liminality being that the spaces in between when you're going from one location to the next, you're going through a train, you're going through these different streets. And so it's like you're on one place to the next, but you're also in these impossible spaces that also, like you said, there's this dream logic that's there that puts you in this kind of like you don't always know what to expect as you go around the next corner it's a completely different scene where sometimes you're at the same level sometimes you're up high overlooking and what I was really struck by I think probably one of the deeper awe-inspiring moments was to consistently walk around the corner and then not always notice myself at first but having my body be captured and reproducted in the scene where I'm able to witness myself and then I was wearing a very flamboyant shirt so it was kind of easy to find myself a lot of times and wearing a headset so I'm sort of like doing this pantomime and just kind of dancing and noticing myself but really paying attention to like this is like a mirrored effect but it's a different than looking at a mirror it's like looking at What I know is my body and it felt like more like I'm puppeteering my body it felt like the closest that I've had to this digital out-of-body experience where I'm disconnected from my Representation of my body in this environment. So yeah, I'd love to hear a little bit about that liminality those in-between spaces But also this sort of out-of-body element that you were going for in that liminality

[00:22:05.060] Celine Daemen: Yeah, I think that what you described is exactly what also inspired me to work with this is that I was reading this philosophy article on seeing the contours of your own body, which just kind of rips you out of, drags you out of the world. So you feel outside of it a bit. And I think that to me was very emotional, very interesting. theme to work around to be able to see yourself in a world is a very interesting like you're both a spectator and an experiencer which is very much in the medium but also I think very fundamental to to life or to at least my experience of like human existence somehow we feel maybe a bit trapped between being in the world and being outside of it because we are both a body and the mind and somehow in this contrast we feel a bit lost sometimes because in the mind we can travel through our memories. We are not always in the here and the now. We are not always in this immediate moment, but we are also sometimes like reflecting on it or traveling in our memory to a very different moment in time. So I think we are both this body and this mind that is looking at that body and that's something that I really tried to like it might sound like quite abstract or something, but I tried to make it very Concrete in this piece that is something that you can experience in a very direct sense And how do you conceive of the liminality as a concept but also that you're trying to cultivate here within this piece? I'm very fascinated by luminal spaces and in-between spaces. And I think that's, to me, also what is, to me, attractive about VR, that it's this space where people are both there and not there. That's also when you walk around here on the festival, you see people being at two places at the same time, but they are both really there and both really not there. It's this very contradictive space that I really find very interesting because then something is contradictive there is also a lot of space or something to think about and I really For me this luminal space is this contrast I think mostly between the body and the mind having This experience of being in your body and having this experience of looking at your body. So it's yeah, it's very inspiring to

[00:24:44.413] Kent Bye: Yeah. And you also, I think in your book that you had handed out, which I think is maybe a part of the theatrical tradition is to have a little associated book with the piece that as you go through the piece, there's a lot of passerby thoughts that you're going through and you know, there's music and there's sort of a rough narrative, but I, you know, like you said, it's not really narrative driven. It's more of these ephemeral things that are happening, but also trying to really create this, this vibe and a feeling. And you said you were really trying to focus on, Melancholy and so I'm wondering if you can maybe elaborate on why melancholy is a topic of exploration

[00:25:17.050] Celine Daemen: I think to me melancholy is a word that can mean a lot of things. Also for a lot of people it has very personal associations for everyone and that to me makes it a very interesting theme to also address with this piece because it's something where people can really sink into their own associations and reflections and thoughts. And I think to me melancholy is really an interesting concept also to look at what we are as human beings like are we a part of this world in which time is just passing us by all the time or are we looking at this world are we standing outside of it are we something else than just our body that is also going to pass by in a little while so to me it's such a fundamental theme in life and in being human and I think that's something that I mostly want to address in my work. It's just, who are we? And what are we doing here? It's like super broad, but to me, very inspiring. And I think you can feel from the audience reactions that they are all very touched. And they also feel that it's something very fundamental, although they might not be able to put it into words always. And to me, that's the most beautiful reaction that you can get on an art piece, that it's not covering something that we can also just write about, or we can also just talk about together. It's covering something that cannot really be described in words. And that's where it gets interesting, that we can cover something with VR that we cannot cover any other way. Because in some more narrative-driven things, I think, well, Maybe just write a book about it. Or if you can write it down, it might be better to write it down. Because words can be very helpful to describe some stuff. But describing melancholy is incredibly impossible. And making VR about it is quite possible. So it's really interesting. I felt like some people coming out of the experience in tears, I just feel like hugging them. Because the experience says it all. I don't know sometimes what to say to them. I just kind of want to hug them because we shared something very fundamental and we cannot really find the words for it there.

[00:27:40.282] Kent Bye: Certainly thinking about the piece in terms of melancholic lens and there are some intense moments in the piece where you encounter this horse that's dying and you know being in Venice this year and I was in Venice last year and went to the Art Bain Alley and there was a piece where there was like this part human part horse that was like dead and because I'm in Venice again I immediately thought of that. I don't know if that's something that you'd saw and was inspired by, but I'm curious to hear a little bit more context as to the dying horse in this piece.

[00:28:10.950] Celine Daemen: Yeah, well, maybe it was like subconsciously inspiring me. I've seen the piece on the Biennale and I was really struck by that. It's such a, like, I'm not a horse girl, but I like the power of this huge animal that is lying there. It's like so impressive just because it's so big and it's so strong. And I felt that this image of this horse dying could be a very impressive moment if we would make it as subtle as possible, like it's this big horse that is lying there in a relatively small space that you have to pass by and you stand there next to this horse that is just, it's only breathing, like it's breathing its last breath or at least like it's just lying there and sometimes it's like Making these small sounds is not at all very dramatic, but because it's such a big horse and it's an animal that you expect to be strong, it's maybe the most vulnerable image there in the whole piece. And to me it was just in sculpting the whole piece it was important that death had a part somewhere in the piece because there is also these very daily moments like people passing by in the streets. It's also about this temporality of meeting these people in the streets and they go from one way to the other. That's a very daily experience of time passing or moments passing by. But to have also this strong image of death in there was somehow important to me and just felt right. It was one of the first things I think that we came up with, seeing like at least there should be animals in it, that was also a very important thing I think. But this image of the dying horse just kind of stuck around on our mood boards and it kept feeling right in the piece. A lot of images also didn't stay in the final cut, but this one did and it feels very right somehow that it's there.

[00:30:20.540] Kent Bye: Can you talk a bit about the creation of that image, if you actually found a dying horse, or if this is something that's like part of the movie magic that you're able to appear just from the sound design that this horse was dying? Yeah, I'd love to hear about the capturing of this shot.

[00:30:35.248] Celine Daemen: It was a really interesting process. It was also one of the first things that we recorded actually, because we felt like we cannot work on this scene as long as we don't have the specific horse. So we started looking. I honestly didn't know that horses never lie down or only sometimes when they are very relaxed. But then through the internet I found this amazing woman who trains horses, horses for films. She trained a lot of horses before, but this horse she didn't train yet, so she started training him, specifically for our piece, to be able to lie down for us as long as possible, because we don't know how long the audience is going to stay in this space, so we needed this horse to lie on the ground for quite a long time. And she trained him, I think even in a few months, she did a really good job. And we went to their place, to their farm in the south of the Netherlands with all her 3D cameras. It was raining, it was horrible. The horse didn't want to lie down at first because the ground was just soaking wet and the horse looked at the ground and thought, not today. So we had to come back another time to record it again because the horse needed a bit more training and we just needed better weather. And we also didn't practice in the beginning with the spotlights. And the horse didn't like the spotlight because it blinded him. And if the horse didn't feel entirely safe, it was just never going to happen. And we didn't want to push the horse as well. It's like a whole different ballgame to work with animals in front of 3D cameras. At one point, the horse almost ran into the 3D camera. It was all very exciting. But in the end, the second recording went very well. The horse just laid down and we had to kind of run around him to position the camera exactly right because we were working with this one sensor setup. So we needed the sensor to be at a very specific side of the horse's head to capture most of its body because it's also such a big animal to capture with just this one tiny Kinect camera. But I'm very very happy with the recording. It was the last take that we had was perfect and then also really late at night. So we thought well we have some good takes there and then we thought we'll do it just one more time. And she asked the horse to lie down and it was like a perfect shot, perfect angle. And he laid down for a long time, that we were able to also loop in the end. So I think the horse lied down for 30 seconds or something. We had to loop it to make it look like it was just infinitely lying there. And then indeed, there is the very good trick of the sound design and a very good composer that you need for that. to give the horse really the impact that it needed. And we used just like the lips of the horse that was actually just like getting a cookie because he did a good job. We used those like movements of the lips to just be like breathing and being quiet and in pain. So it was a really interesting process there.

[00:33:43.300] Kent Bye: Yeah, as I'm going through the piece, I'm in the dual realm of my body reaction, my mind reaction, sort of like feeling the empathy for the horse, but then like, is this real? Is this really happening? And then also remembering the art biennale piece that like I felt like really impacted me, like in a way that I saw this sculptural installation piece that was part of the biennale last year, that was really quite striking and alluring. So as you're designing all this throughput through this piece, as I entered into this piece, I was given the instruction, just follow the light. And so there's a certain cadence under which that you go to a new scene and you're kind of stuck there for a bit. Like you can't really progress. You don't know which way to go. You could go backwards, I suppose, but I didn't feel like that this was a piece that I really needed to go backwards. I felt like there was a forward progression that I needed to wait for. And so there was sort of a dance that I had with feeling like I had seen everything I wanted to see, but then it not being time for me to press. So then I was sort of like stuck until the gate opened up, so to speak, for the light in the trail for allow me to progress. So, you know, I was given the instruction, I could spend as much time as I wanted, but then at the same time it was like, unless we are preventing you from doing it, then you have to wait a little longer. So that was kind of like the little dance that I had as I was going through the piece. And so I'd love to hear a little bit more about the design decision to how long you had for people. Sometimes people could stay for even longer than you had like the next chapter open. So yeah, just talk a bit about that process of the pacing of the piece.

[00:35:11.387] Celine Daemen: Yeah, that's true. I think you describe it well that you have to just hang around in a moment before the light opens up the next chapter or the next scene that you can walk to. And that's a decision I made because I did feel like a lot of scenes also do need some duration. And to me it feels also right that in this theme of the piece You have to stick around at some moments before. It's not as much about walking, it's more about hanging out in those moments and then going on to the next moments when the time is right. So there is of course some immersive audience. They really want to make their own decisions there. They want to leave at their own pace. And I do really like that there is a part of it that is directed by the pace of the audience. But I also think that it's good that there is a part of the piece that is directed by the pace of the piece. That some scenes, for example this horse, that you're just also really stuck with for a moment. takes away your choice of being there, which to me also artistically plays with this role of the audience. Do I have some kind of agency in this piece or do I not? And then after a while seeing yourself in this scene, I think it exaggerates that feeling of, do I have agency in this scene? I can't help this horse. I can't do anything here. The only thing I can do is just watch. And that addresses somehow the role of the spectator or the feeling of being a spectator to the scenes. So taking away the possibility sometimes for the audience to choose is somehow to me within the theme of the piece also.

[00:36:56.195] Kent Bye: I think a part of the context of me watching it was in a timed show where when I went up there, I think the docent said, oh, don't worry. If they're not done, we're going to go get them, which then when I was going in, then I was like, oh no, like there could be a possibility for me not making it to the end. Which then was like, okay, I definitely want to see the whole thing. So there was a sort of urgency that I wanted to rush through and not miss anything. But then, yeah, so I guess there was a sort of dance of location-based entertainment context where there's timed starts where you have to start by a certain time. So yeah, I'm curious to hear if there's a range of like what's the fastest someone could see it and what's like the longest that people could take and finish it.

[00:37:38.279] Celine Daemen: I think the range is somewhere between 18 minutes and 25 minutes. If people really were to sit down at some point, they would be infinitely in there. The piece really needs that people at some point decide to continue. to the next phase. But in general, I think if people really feel like they're taking a lot of time, then they have the right pace to me. Like I think, especially I think here on the festival, the pace of a lot of experience is just much higher. So you can feel when the audience enters that they are programmed at this certain pace already and we kind of in the first scenes kind of have to slow them down saying like okay this piece is gonna work a little different I'm so sorry but take your time. So it really depends also where we present the piece I think with what pace people just enter the experience and we try to set the pace in the first few scenes so people kind of can sink into it and to me it's most important that they don't feel rushed and I think We've never had, we're running now for a few days and no one I think took too long for the experience to finish. I don't agree with the host saying that they would take you out. They've had instructions not to, even if someone were to. to be in there for a few minutes more, I honestly wouldn't mind. And I'm sure if someone else is a bit faster, they'll catch up to their schedule. So to me, it's most important that people just take their time to really also sink into it or to let the scenes wash over them a bit. Like I said, it's not as much about walking or going from scene to scene. It's more about being there, being in the moment and experiencing it.

[00:39:31.815] Kent Bye: I definitely had some moments where I was kind of rushing through and gated and stopped, and then I had to go back and I actually discovered things that I wouldn't have noticed. And so, yeah, I think I sort of eased into it as I got near the end and more confident that I was going to finish. But there is a sort of moment of confusion, which is that, like, I can tell that it's supposed to continue this way, but I'm not quite sure. Is the experience broken? Or if there's other sound signal that would indicate that, OK, now I can move on if I want, like I had to kind of visually see it. Yeah, I definitely felt like there was some scenes, especially when I'm up high overlooking and there's at least two or three different instances where I can see myself in a distance, like in a more of a alleyway or liminal space and like from different perspectives. And so, yeah, just that experience of being in the in-between space, having the experience of people watching where you just sit and watch people walk by. There's an element of that in here but also having myself in the distance and watching myself as well. So yeah, there's a sort of a number of different techniques that you're using to see yourself and I think by the end you kind of like encounter yourself in a way that's much more You've seen yourself in a distance and you're a mirrored reality that you're coming up and meeting your doppelganger in some sense and I just really appreciated the spatial journey of that encounter that you were able to cultivate throughout because you see yourself throughout the piece in these different contexts but then by the end you kind of have this moment to share a space with yourself.

[00:40:59.597] Celine Daemen: Yeah, that's true. In the whole piece we use different kinds of mirroring of your mirror image. I think in a lot of them you end up chasing yourself a bit because you always walk away from yourself in the way that we position the mirror or the doppelganger. The way we position it, it's always different. And in the last scene, it's not really like a mirror mirror, but you really approach yourself for the first time. So indeed, there is more a moment of stillness there than a moment of infinitely chasing yourself. which I think is really... There are a lot of people that feel like hugging themselves as well. It's a moment that kind of brings you together with yourself, which I think is interesting. And as a little mirror to that, we also conclude the piece with there is this dog that is leading you from scene to scene. So in the first scene, it's the first thing you see. There is this dog going around the corner and you can follow it. And that continues throughout the piece from scene to scene. Sometimes you see the dog just saying like, Come on, come on, walk with me. So in Solitude, together with this dog, you walk from scene to scene. And then when you meet yourself in the last scene, when you approach your mirror image, there is also a second dog that is exactly similar to the dog that you've been following. They were two brother dogs that were also really fun to record, I have to say. But there is this scene where you can see the two dogs playing together. So it's to me really an image of joy and being in the moment and just finding a kind of immediateness or being here in the now, in the here and now, together with your body and these two dogs that are just having fun in the moment, which I think is a really beautiful conclusion.

[00:42:53.462] Kent Bye: It felt like a gathering of twins type of vibe that I had. It was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed where it ended up in that sense. And maybe we should dive deep into a little bit of the sound design and the music because like you said, it's a mix of opera. And so maybe you could talk about how you've translated those elements of opera. But like when I hear it, I don't like identify this as an opera genre. It feels like more like environmental design and other stuff that's a little bit more subtle. There's a lot of chanting, so there's this invoking of this walking meditation, as it were, kind of like you're repeating these different affirmations or chants as people are walking. But there's also a musical quality to the experience that is, I'd say, a little bit more subtle than more Eurydice, explicit opera, where this felt like some sort of modified opera. So I'd love to hear about how you're mixing and mashing some of the opera genre into this piece.

[00:43:45.619] Celine Daemen: Yeah, I hear from a lot of people that get out of the experience that they think like, oh, I expected like an opera opera, like a real opera. And I think that's funny because people don't think of opera or think that word, that opera word is they expect something more expressive or something, something like boo, like these big voices that are really like reaching to the end of the opera hall. They think of something like very epic or very Just expressive might be the right word and somehow the composer Esa, he looked for something much more subtle and much more like it's something that moves through the singers more than something that they really want to express or really want to communicate to the audience. Because it's so subtle and so nuanced, what he does, it does give much more, I think, space and freedom to the audience to have their own thoughts and own imaginations within the piece, which to me, in the end, does make it an opera again, because it has this other way of addressing this audience that we talked about before, that there is space for you to feel your own emotions and to hear your own thoughts in it. So I think the music really helps with that, with building this dramaturgical structure that is giving you space to explore and giving you space to experience yourself, very literally this time experiencing yourself because you meet yourself in there, but also more on an emotional level, that there is space for you to feel your own yeah, feel out your own emotions and thoughts in there. And I think Eissa did a very good job and indeed there is this like chanting quality to the music. It's very direct also in that sense. Some opera, like more classical opera, can have something more distant than I would like the music to be. So that's something that Eissa and me really agreed on, that it should be something that is very human and very maybe also spiritual or something. There is something in these chants that is just very moving and meditative that I really like, yeah. And there is not really a division, I think, in the composition. Ace has not only the composer for the music, but also for the sound, because there is not really a division in the piece between music and sound. So if you have like a more songy part in the opening, there is also this dog that is already singing along with the singers and the breath of this horse is also like a rhythmical. It's the breath of the horse is composed by Esa. It's not something that just like happened in the recording of the horse. It's something that has been composed in the rhythms that it creates in the way that it makes you feel. So we try to look at all the sounds and all the things that are happening around you as musical elements that we try to bring together to sculpt the experience there.

[00:46:54.231] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I'd love it if you could expand a bit on the Rilke poem that you have in your book and how that was influencing this piece.

[00:47:02.825] Celine Daemen: It's a beautiful poem called The Eighth Allergy of Rilke, which is a very melancholic poem of Rilke that I really loved, and especially this sentence that is in there, saying that we are always opposite to ourselves, and nothing but that, but always opposite. It's a really beautiful way of putting it, I think, that we are both the body and the mind looking at it. We are both in the middle of life and both just spectators of our life seeing it pass by. It's for me really an expression of this contradiction or ambivalence that is there in the melancholy that I think is very fundamental to life somehow.

[00:47:45.883] Kent Bye: Yeah, and what have been some of the reactions you've had here so far?

[00:47:50.816] Celine Daemen: I think it's really beautiful to see people get out of the experience and I can feel and see in their eyes that it touched something very special. in their stomach somewhere and they look for words that they don't really know how to put it, what they just experienced and they stumble something about like memories and time and life and I think that's, like I said before, the most important to me about art or what I want to do with my work is to address something that we cannot really put into words, but we can put it into these transdisciplinary experiences. I love that it's really communicating that. After working on it for a year, I could have only hoped that it would have communicated this well. I'm very happy with that.

[00:48:45.673] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I wanted to also comment on the difference of the floor that you had from Eurydice, A Descent Into Infinity, versus the songs for a Passerby, because in Eurydice you had more of like rocks and gravel, more of a rough texture, and this is much more fabric and soft and maybe a little bit logistically easier than having all those rocks that you brought onto an island in Venice. So I'd love to hear about the design of what people were walking through in this piece.

[00:49:13.605] Celine Daemen: I heard indeed that some people think that I'm making up for last year because some people had to carry all the rocks into the building here, which was just a big hassle for the whole tech team here. And this year we chose these carpets that are just made out of old hospital bed sheets. Actually, they are wrinkled. So it makes a weird structured map kind of on the floor with a lot of... To me it looks a bit like a tree from the inside, like it has all these rings of age or something. There is something very material about it. And still, it's an irregular floor surface that I really like, because it's just a bit more exciting to walk on than a very flat floor surface. And a lot of floor surfaces in the spaces that you experience in VR, they are still also irregular, like rocky pathways or streets that you walk on. So I think it really helps the experience that the floor surface that you walk on is irregular. And somehow when you enter the space, it's nice that it gives a kind of safe and cozy vibe, the carpets. I like that for this piece because I think it gives people also the space to be their most intimate or vulnerable selves, that you have this carpet where you feel at ease somehow. So it's both like something exciting to walk on, but it also makes this very safe space or something. I really like that. And it's visually just also in the colors and the aesthetics of the carpets. It just already drags you in a bit right before you put on the headset.

[00:50:57.766] Kent Bye: With a piece like this, with no real explicit narrative arc, you're using a lot of the spatial medium of VR to be able to communicate either through this dream logic or very much embodied experience that you're modulating people's physical and embodied experiences we just talked about. What they're feeling through the haptics of their feet and seeing a representation of your body projected into the piece. very unique environmental designs and embodiment that you're exploring and so wondering if you have any reflections on the grammar of spatial storytelling that you think is starting to be cultivated and to be developed and how you start to use these elements to communicate maybe some of these more subtle aspects of getting to the essence of things like melancholy that words kind of fail to.

[00:51:44.122] Celine Daemen: I think to me this spatial storytelling is something very interesting and very... I think what I tried to say by explaining that music to me is so direct, that I think spatial storytelling has to do something with atmospheres. You walk into these different atmospheres. I remember that my graduation essay at the Theatre Academy was about atmospherical storytelling, which is like the vaguest term that I made up back then. But I think as soon as you enter a space you enter this vibe that is hanging in this space. It's something spatial that is happening there and it's a combination of all these senses. I remember that in this essay I described this moment where I entered my theatre school and I just immediately felt like something is odd today and I couldn't explain what it was. I just knew that it was odd. And I met one of my classmates in the corridor of my school saying like something is odd right and she said yeah indeed I don't know what it is and then later we heard that one of our teachers died and I thought like what made this moment when I entered the school this odd I don't know maybe I just I probably saw that like the reception person wasn't there. Maybe there was like a weird sweaty smell of tears or something in the hallway. It might be quieter than normal. There was nothing that I could describe as different. Like I couldn't see the difference of the day before, but still I felt that there was this atmosphere in this hallway. And I think that's happening in the combination of all these senses. So your smile, your sight, the fact that it was a bit different than normal because the reception wasn't there. All these little elements of all these senses combined give the experience of atmospheres. And I think I try... to use those ideas of combining all these senses and all the disciplines that are connected to these senses together in these experience of atmospheres.

[00:53:47.924] Kent Bye: Awesome. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of this type of atmospheric storytelling and spatial storytelling and virtual reality might be and what it might be able to enable?

[00:53:59.663] Celine Daemen: That's a really good and a really difficult question to answer, but I think, to me, we can address some themes that we cannot address in other forms of art. Like I said, in books you can write a beautiful narrative. In a lot of disciplines you can address a lot of beautiful themes, and I think in VR, to me, there is something that we can address that touches this idea of consciousness or human and the contrast between the body and the mind that there is something like also in the selection here there is a lot of pieces that cover somehow these themes of the contrast between the physical and the metaphysical. It's fundamental to the medium somehow, so it's going to give us the opportunity to reflect on different themes than other art disciplines, I think. And I think it's an interesting way to suddenly involve our body in artistic experiences. Like in theatre, people have been sitting on chairs for a long time. We have to sit in these theatres and watch the stage. And we forget our bodies, we just experience it with our minds and our eyes and our ears. But suddenly we walk through these experiences and our footsteps, our walks, our pacing are becoming a part of artistic experiences, which I think is going to change Yeah, it's gonna change something. I don't know what exactly, but I'm very excited about that.

[00:55:37.172] Kent Bye: Awesome. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader Immersive community?

[00:55:45.880] Celine Daemen: I think we covered quite a lot. It was really nice to talk to you. Thanks so much.

[00:55:52.712] Kent Bye: Yeah, thank you and I really enjoyed this piece and especially after having a chance to read more about it and also just the things that stick with me over days. There's certain embodied moments and experiences that I think are inside of my body that you're able to kind of use the medium in a way with this kind of atmospheric storytelling that I think is really quite interesting, especially when it's paired with this impossible spaces that you can really start to edit space in a way that makes it really quite compelling to make me feel that I've gone on this really epic spatial journey, but also have these unique moments of interacting and witnessing my body and this omniscient perspective, but also kind of encountering it in a new way. So yeah, really enjoyed this piece and yeah, thanks for joining me today to help break it all down.

[00:56:38.579] Celine Daemen: Thank you so much.

[00:56:40.313] Kent Bye: Thanks for listening to this interview from Fitness Immersive 2023. You can go check out the Critics Roundtable in episode 1305 to get more breakdown in each of these different experiences. And I hope to be posting more information on my Patreon at some point. There's a lot to digest here. I'm going to be giving some presentations here over the next couple of months and tune into my Patreon at patreon.com slash Voices of VR, since there's certainly a lot of digest about the structures and patterns of immersive storytelling, some of the different emerging grammar that we're starting to develop, as well as the underlying patterns of experiential design. So that's all I have for today, and thanks for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And again, 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 listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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