I interviewed Borderline Visible creator Ant Hampton at IDFA DocLab 2023. See more context in the rough transcript below.
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[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR podcast. It's a podcast that looks at the structures and forms of immersive storytelling and the future of spatial computing. You can support the podcast at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. So this is episode number 17 of 19 of my coverage from IFFA DocLab 2023. Today's episode is with a piece called Borderline Visible by Ant Hampton. I actually won the IFFA DocLab Special Jury Award for Creative Technology for Digital Storytelling. So this piece is actually like an interactive book, like a photo book with a time-based edition, meaning that there's a audio narration that you're listening to the author, Anne Hampton, who's guiding you and directing you to flip through and experience this book. So I'm just going to read this description to give you a little bit more flavor. Borderline Visible is a book of photos and text fragments with an audio track that combines narration, a soundtrack, and instructions to guide you through it along a non-linear path. The experience sparks a miraculous process of human pattern recognition through a moving and troubled psychogeography. The audio and visuals are separate elements, altogether in the present through your physical participation, turning, flipping, and comparing pages, diving into a here and now of the page. So I was really struck by this piece and I really quite enjoyed it just because the idea that you could take a book, a photo book, and add like an immersive time-based dimension to it. So a kind of guided tour through this book in a way that isn't just like flipping the page from one to the next. It's actually like having you jump around all throughout the book and come back to pages. And so there's like a nonlinear component to this as well, but also it's reflecting like this road trip that and originally started on this road trip with a friend and then that friend has to leave. And then I'll just read this last sentence of the synopsis. As the other continues towards Turkey, suddenly alone, the narration grows into a fervent piecing together of value and meaning from the human ruins of aspiration, history and language. So Yeah, just a really provocative integration of this road trip into this book and adding these other immersive and embodied interactions with the book through this audio narration. So that's what we're coming on today's episode of the WSYS VR podcast. So this interview with Ant happened on Saturday, November 11th, 2023 at IFFA DocLab in Amsterdam, Netherlands. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:02:27.607] Ant Hampton: Hello, I'm Ant Hampton and I come from a theatre background basically. And pretty soon that turned into, I would say, non-representational theatre, as in the tradition of performance, let's say, that is kind of interested in what's happening in the here and now. not so interested in pretending to be elsewhere or somebody else. I'm more interested in all the contingencies of dealing with the now, with something unfolding in time in front of an audience. So, you know, I guess falling into a little bit the history or the tradition of performance art and what we know here in Europe as post-dramatic theatre, that kind of thing. thing. But I sort of fell into it through my own experiments and then realized that I was in that tradition. I think a lot of people in performance actually come from more of a visual arts training and I never had that. So it was an interesting route in that I've got to say was in many ways inspired by forced entertainment and specifically the work of Tim Murchill, the director, with whom I've had the luck to have collaborated with over the years now. We did three pieces together, all of which were participatory works for two people at a time, and all in some ways involving a kind of mix of audio with something happening on the page in front of you. And the first piece that we made was specifically for library reading rooms, so you'd be there with your partner sitting next to each other, surrounded by people who are using the reading room as it normally is to be used. So doing their work and reading, writing. They're not aware that there's a performance happening, which happens over headphones. So you're both wearing headphones and it's two synchronized audio tracks that give instructions for doing things that to begin with are separate and then with time start to overlap. So you may point your finger at something that the other person is then going to read And what they read maybe is like ever so slightly different from what they hear at the same time. So there's a kind of slippage of the internal voice and then what you see on the page. That sounds like a sort of very kind of cold experimental reading of it, but of course there's a dramaturgy and a pretty strong flow that takes you over, I think it's like an hour or so, that piece. And then the second piece we did was more of a site-specific thing that happened in five European cities and engaged very heavily with archive photography of certain places. So you'd be sitting behind glass, usually in a cafe or something, looking out onto the street and with a bunch of photographs that were either in an album or just turned face down on the table. And after an audio track that you're listening to takes you through a certain reflective journey of thinking about the here and now, what you're looking at outside, you turn over one of those images and it's of the same place where you are, but in black and white, from let's say 1920s or even earlier. Broadly using the history of photography as the time span and then just going through the layers in this, what is basically quite a safe space behind the glass there. And it's a very pleasurable, privileged, framed gaze, in a way, out onto life, in a sort of warm, safe space behind that glass. And at a certain point, the audio tells you to get up and go outside. And actually, the headphones are attached to a portable stereo, like a boom box, that you're asked to hold to your chest. And when you go outside, you find a position, a set position, And then there's a kind of an illusion, an audio illusion that's very strong, that sounds like the boombox is making noise, like the voice that you hear speaking, which starts to speak about the future. It tries to imagine a future, which is a much more difficult task than talking about the past. It's speaking out loud and it's as though everybody can hear it. So you're holding it and it's a little bit like you're responsible for this voice that seems to be speaking out loud in order to think actually. So it's a voice that needs to speak in order to think. And I was very interested in that process and also the history of thoughts around that. idea, specifically this text by Kleist that was written in the early 19th century, I think, about the manufacture of thoughts through speech, yeah. So the illusion is created through binaural sound, so I'm sure that many of your listeners would probably know what that is, but in case not, it's when you record with either a dummy head or your own head, but where the microphones are, where your ears are. So when you put headphones on, you have this very realistic reconstruction of what your own head's architecture would produce as sound. So it's spatially kind of exactly the same. So the sound of the boombox on your chest is kind of positioned like that, together with all the echoes that would produce in that particular spot, because the binaural recording was made in that spot. And then furthermore, we also put a bass speaker inside the boombox that you have against your chest, that was like another channel that was synchronized to what you have in your headphones, so it's vibrating against your chest in the same way that a boombox would. creates that kind of body confirmation that this thing is producing sound but in fact no one can hear those bass tones and if you move your headphones aside you can verify that it is indeed just an illusion but it creates this fantasy of being responsible for a voice that's thinking out loud so it's a There's a philosopher called Mladen Dolar who has been a big inspiration for me and I think a lot of other performance makers who work consciously with both thematics of voice and also as a kind of medium. Mladen Dolar, he writes a lot about the voice from a psychoanalytical perspective. He's part of the Ljubljana school of thinkers that leans on psychoanalysts quite heavily. Zizek being the obvious example and he and Dolar are kind of co-figures in a lot of these things and I had the pleasure of meeting him and we ended up having quite a long dialogue about things and he when I told him about this idea of the voice on the chest and the illusion he said well maybe you should think about it as a prosthetic voice as in if you're missing a leg and you take a prosthetic leg to walk here it's like if you're missing something that you need in order to think about for example the future that's really difficult and maybe you borrow a voice in order to think. So it's a great way of thinking about theatre in a way or about your sort of empathy or engagement with somebody taking you through thought in the moment. So anyway, that was the second piece that we made together, that was like five years after the first. And the third piece that Tim and I made was more recently during the pandemic and it was again for two people, again on headphones. Headphones giving you a guided narration slash instruction series of little instructions to do things on paper. So it's a very minimal piece with just a piece of paper, a pencil and an eraser for each person. and again it sort of starts with you on your own doing these things and slowly the two sides start to kind of melt together and so you know you end up drawing bits of pencil marks and very crude doodles of stick figures appearing and all sorts of different things but again grows with I think quite careful dramaturgy of an hour, slowly start to kind of erase each other's work and so on. That's called not to scale. And so we have this three different works that we're all kind of really, if you put them together there's a lot of different moves there. which have all somehow found, not all of them, but I guess a lot of that work has sort of informed what I'm doing now, which I'm presenting here in DocLab, which is a book, mostly of photos, with bits of text in there as well, but it's mostly a photo book. It describes a journey that I made last year between here, Europe as in, well, starting in Lausanne, Switzerland, and ending in Izmir, so just outside the borders of Europe. in Turkey and it describes this journey which did not go according to plan all sorts of problems happened along the way and where I also encountered a certain kind of I would say like a sort of ruin of humanity as well like I mean this I think you got halfway right?
[00:11:46.582] Kent Bye: So I saw the whole thing by myself And then I did the collective experience, but then I had something at startup one. So I sort of left at that point, since I had had the whole journey by myself. And then I had to run out. So yeah.
[00:11:59.217] Ant Hampton: You know how it ends.
[00:12:00.578] Kent Bye: Yeah. I had seen the whole arc, and then I just wanted to see what the collective experience of it was as well.
[00:12:05.213] Ant Hampton: Yeah, no, sure. Well, as you'll see, I mean, the material in the end is quite a journey, let's say, and where I ended up, where we end up here on the journey together is not at all something that you could have anticipated at the start, perhaps. And I feel like the kind of material that it is, which, I mean, you know, without too many spoilers, you know, deals with the atrocities happening on the Greek border with Turkey, funded by the European taxpayer through the Frontex agency, the European border guard agency. and the absolute devastation of life that's happening as a result. Cemeteries so-called nameless with endless numbers of people who have been thrown into the sea literally and who have drowned. that kind of imagery, that kind of story. Yeah, you can do it on your own. That's also totally part of the plan is to engage with this book like this. I haven't really explained the format, but just to say that, yeah, to do it collectively is obviously about bearing witness together and to be able to lean on the presence of other people at the same time. It was pretty simple in a way, in that sense. But yeah, it's a book that if you buy the book in a bookshop, it has a QR code on it. You flash that, you get the audio, and the audio takes you through the book over a given time. So we call this Time-Based Editions. It's the first in this series that we are imagining. Myself and the co-director David Berger, who's based in Athens, and who has a history in publishing and making books. It's a kind of new world for me in terms of the format. Very interesting one, but in terms of this idea of the audio track taking you through it, following this other work that I've done, I would say that It felt like a really good time to explore what else a book could be. Specifically because, I would say like for me personally, like pre-pandemic, there's something kind of uncomfortable about the assumption that everybody would have headphones and a smartphone. I think maybe in the US and most of Europe you could have assumed that, but it felt slightly kind of pretentious or slightly problematic even to assume that. Whereas now it's really basically okay to assume that everybody can do that and everybody knows what a QR code is and it just has a huge implication, I think, for what a book can be as an object. That it is no longer this self-contained thing that has its own, where you bring the time you're going to take to the book. Instead, in what we're doing with the audio, we're saying, okay, this is basically like a time-based medium, just like a movie or a theater piece. that has a given time, and then which can exist as a book afterwards in its own right, an object which contains this charge, this trace of memory, trace of what you've been through. And if you go into it afterwards, I think it resonates in a really interesting way. It's a very rich experience. It's got a lot of layers to it, both visually on the page and in terms of all the connections that I'm making in a rather Sebaldian way, I would say. I don't know if you know the work of WG Sebald. He's an amazing writer who was killed in a car crash, tragically, after writing, I think, four or five books that really changed how we think about travel writing and about psychogeography and bringing history and personal things all into this kind of flowing narrative. I was very inspired by that for this piece. And I mean, he has a certain austere German tone to his writing that some people found a little boring. I mean, I have a different tone to the narration. I would say it's kind of, I don't know how you found that. Like a lot of people said in the live thing, they were looking to see where I was. They thought I would be speaking it live. And I try and make it seem like there's a certain degree of, well, I guess thinking through speaking while also being precise about it.
[00:16:11.774] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'd seen the version where you just listen to yourself. So when I was in the collective version, I recognized that it was pretty much the same version, except for you had a little bit more lighting effects in the collective version that I think added to being in a theatrical setting and on stage. It was a little bit different experience, especially being in a group with other people. And if your attention wanders and you figure out what page, because what was striking about this is that it's a book. 233 pages which at the beginning it's like how are we ever gonna like make our way through this in like 78 minutes, but then You sort of lay out that there's like four different threads at the beginning where there's like a poetry Fred there's a dimension of Alzheimer's and there's these other aspects of your journey as you go through this piece different themes that are being woven in and out but what was striking to me was sort of the non-linear nature of it like you're having the audience flip forward and flip backwards and you're not really going like just flip the page to the next you're jumping around a lot with the page numbers in a way that also symbolically allowed you to say we're about halfway through the journey and now we're halfway through the book and you're kind of like jumping around in a way where you could just take the book and read it straight through linearly but as you take us through this audio journey it felt like listening to a audio podcast like a story from a podcast as you would listen to just the story but the book was there and it was augmenting the ability to see both the photos but also to read and so there's this multi-channel experience of like listening to the story, but also having the freedom to kind of read along with additional text. And as I was going through it, there's always more text that could be read than the moment. But I feel like because it's a time-based medium, you're taking us through this dramatic arc of the story. But it's kind of jumping around. But the story also is kind of jumping around in the sense that it's many different cycles and many different layers. And so I felt like by using the book as a metaphor, but also the way that the story is told, you're able to take us from point A to Z. But it's kind of jumping around in a way that reflects the fragmented or nonlinear nature to how the story actually unfolded, which I thought was also a very interesting metaphor for how you're actually telling the story and how I was receiving it.
[00:18:23.652] Ant Hampton: Yeah, that's it. I mean, I think how we get from A to Z is, for me, having worked on it, like, non-stop for a year, I think this is the only way to do it. Like, I feel like the dramaturgical kind of work has been done. But it's funny because, indeed, it was always a plan to be going forward and back, jumping around in the book, for many reasons, mainly because I wanted to involve the body. I wanted it to be like an embodied relationship with this object and for it not to be just sort of handed to you on a plate in this kind of linear way. It's an audio-visual experience where the audio and the visual is unstuck from each other. Like, you know, the film is handed to you on a plate. With most time-based media it is like that. And what's interesting to me is to have the two elements separate and it's through your basic participation of trying to keep up with the guide that it stays together and so you're constantly reminded of that by this work that you have to do and for me it's interesting because there's a lot of emotions in the piece I mean it is I think for a lot of people it's quite a big deal to be faced with these things and yet the instructions to like to turn the page to turn it upside down to put your finger somewhere to close your eyes In a way, it cools it down in a useful way, I think. Basically, in a Brechtian way, you're not just shown the nuts and bolts, you are the nuts and bolts. And you become very aware of your role in making the thing happen. actually very often what happens there is that in some ways it kind of increases the emotional impact of what you're committing to and revealing in your participation, I think. But it's a delicate thing to handle and I think that for the future books we'll be looking also to people who have some kind of an understanding of performance and embodied practices, that it's not going to be just any old writers who can engage with this format, I think, meaningfully. But I think the jumping back and forth is also because, I mean, what's nice is that once you finish the book and the book is with you, like I say, it would resonate on your table. You go back to it, you'll find other material there. Each image will remind you of something of the journey. But that journey has gone. Like, once you finish the audio, the path is vanished. It's no longer there. and you're left with just the pieces again. And I think that's true of most journeys. The idea of a journey is that once you've done it, it sort of has gone. Maybe you've got a scrollable timeline of photos in your phone or something that helps. In fact, precisely because of that, that's mostly our way of marking how we've moved through life now. I think it's precisely for that reason I wanted to disrupt it and not have that easy recourse to that particular way of structuring memory that we had, that we've got used to now. So sort of not have that taken for granted and to rather look at each moment by moment, like one page with one image with a background of the poem that is very often referred to, which is The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot. Almost a cliche in a way of 20th century literature at this point, but used in this piece from a very personal angle, almost kind of deliberately decontextualized, you know, not very kind of respectfully dealt with. as it's usually revered by academics or whatever. So there's constantly a background, both in the narration and the design sense, on the page. And if you go back to that, I think most people will find it interesting how specific lines that are there resonate with those images. As you say, you don't have enough time to really get all that detail while you're in the flow of the time-based version. So it's nice to go back to it later.
[00:22:19.643] Kent Bye: Yeah, my experience was that I did it one and a half times now, all the way through once, and then halfway through with the collective experience, and it was interesting to have gone through the whole thing and be doing it again, because you have a skip of pages a lot, and sometimes I would flip through and just see, knowing the full arc of the story, and then kind of know how there's this way that the book is containing all the puzzle pieces, but they're kind of jumbled around in the way that is not in a linear order because you're jumping around. But the other experience that I had, which was a very visceral part of these ideas of embodied cognition, where you use your body to actually help understand how the story is being told. And so you are guiding us to point at a certain picture or to trace the lines through these different steps in a journey, reflecting on different newspaper articles that are reflecting some of the themes that we're talking about earlier that's discussed, but also covering up a picture, you know, and shutting your eyes and then like opening your eyes and instructing the audience to like how they're looking at it, you know, just look at it for a brief second and then shut your eyes again. Now open your eyes and move your hands. So you have these instructions that are allowing people to have much more of a visceral embodied experience of the book that I feel like is also an interesting component that feels elements of theater, but also in terms of XR, this full embodiment of your own direct embodied experience and helping guide the audience members for how they're engaging with the story to metaphorically represent different aspects of how you're going to amplify different moments in the story by using the audience's body because they have the ability to interact with the book. So love to hear any reflections on how you think about the body in the theatrical sense, but also in this specific experience of giving people a first-person perspective of this embodiment as you're telling the story?
[00:24:10.510] Ant Hampton: Yeah, I mean, there's an awful lot to say about that. I mean, I guess from just a very basic level, it was a challenge to me to think, OK, I'm choosing the book form for this piece. I'm used to doing things in performance where this is probably the most reduced format I've ever worked with. And it kind of feels a bit silly to be told to put your finger on an image of a marble floor of a cathedral in Thessaloniki and to imagine what the marble feels like. I see from the back a lot of people not doing that. but then you're told that the marble floor is actually kind of Jewish gravestones that have been desecrated and used for reconstructing the city and not just a few but like half a million Jewish gravestones from the 500 year history and that if you turn those stones over you can find Hebrew inscriptions and then you turn the page and you you see a piece of this marble that we found in a wasteland behind the cathedral and again you're told to put your finger on it and this time most people do and run your finger over the words and then the same line again try to imagine what the marble feels like which is you know like a deliberate play on words as in what would you feel like if that was done to you but also is there something that you could feel by putting your hands on that stone if you were there in real space probably not actually I mean it's meaningless So it's as kind of pointless to do it there in that place as it is to do it on an image in a book. And yet we do it and we imagine and something happens and the meaning of those images shifts somewhere. Yeah, I'm interested in these humble gestures. I like it. I feel like just that thing of saying, yeah, OK, you have taken me with you just enough for me to be able to put my finger on the page here. And these little shifts in the contract between me and the listener slash participant, you get from A to B just a little distance. And then that allows you to go a little bit further, a little bit further. And it's a different kind of journey embedded within another travelogue, in a way. Otherwise, I mean, other things to do with the body, my God, it's like it's a lot to do with different kinds of bodies, different kinds of privileges in the story, especially when it comes to the Greek island of Samos, which is a place which is basically entirely about Hosting different people who are not from that island, but the ones who come from the west broadly speaking a kind of welcome and Put up in bed and breakfast or whatever and the other ones who coming from the east Beaten up and thrown in the sea they do everything they can and to not welcome them. And then once they arrived, because of international law, they're duty-bound to give them asylum. And there's like these camps where they hide them away up in the mountains. Huge mental health problems. It's just fascinating to me to see how it's just such a kind of explicit and crystal clear vision of two different kinds of treatments of human beings that are not from there. in a place which has been this crucible of human movement, forced movement for so long. So it's really trying to also work with the patterns of round numbers, like what was happening a hundred years ago, all these different coincidences of history that I tried to kind of pull together.
[00:27:39.576] Kent Bye: Yeah, I was really struck by how in the piece, as you're going through the book, there's certain pages that you have us visit multiple times, sometimes two or three times. And so there's different elements where there's a story that's progressing, but then you kind of revisit that part and recontextualize it. And it reminds me of how in space we have different stories and many different stories of people who have associations to locations and, you know, just the whole idea of psychogeography, the connection between the, Human experiences and the world around us. And so yeah, I'd love to hear any reflections on this kind of cyclical or repeating nature But also the psycho geographic aspect of this inspiration for how you're moving yourself in your bodies through space and time but also how other people have also been in those same places and how you're telling the story of these places and through archival photos, but also bringing it into the present, but connecting the audience from an augmented reality perspective, how you're able to tune into different channels of stories based upon specific locations. So site-specific stories, but able to tell different layers of the story and revisiting those same locations and tell different aspects of those stories. So yeah, I'd love to hear any reflections on that and that concept of psychogeography.
[00:28:55.202] Ant Hampton: Yeah, I mean that side of things I've got to say was really, I was drawing a lot on the piece that I made with Tim, the second one, the site-specific one with the archive photos, where we would do that a lot. We would try and reduce the number of photos we were using to a minimum each time. So we would end up quite often going back to an image or seeing it again. And with this one, I guess the image that you come back to the most is this one of a telescope on this kind of elevator in Izmir, which is a sort of tourist attraction. And when I took the photo, I mean, and I looked at it afterwards, it was clearly not a very good photo. On the other hand, it has a lot of information that you see the bay, you see the water, you see the other side of the bay, the hills on the other side. And it's just crazy how much that image started linking out to all the different aspects of the book. So that even if it wasn't a very interesting photo at first sight, it started to have this kind of viewpoint onto the future of the book, like where I would end up on the other side of the bay, up in the hills, in this kind of cemetery of the so-called nameless. that I had no idea when I was taking that photo. And yet, indeed, if you were to look through that telescope, you could probably see it, and I had no idea at the time. And similarly, if you were to look through the telescope, as I say at a certain point in the book, the telescope potentially having been there in 1922 when the fire of Smirna was happening, Izmir at the time, Izmir used to be called Smirna, and there was this enormous fire that happened which was the key moment where the Turkish Republic was started and all the violence of the population separations and so on happened. But this point, this geographic point, that perspective through the telescope Theoretically would have been there at that moment and you could see from there all that stuff happening So it's this way of accessing the punctum I guess of the photographic image like trying to sort of imagine that this exact geographic spot this I Across time and if you're looking at something like water, of course, it's exactly the same no matter what year you're talking about it would just been water then water now and as we see, you know, there would have been a history of bodies being thrown into the water then, just as there are nowadays, just different kinds of bodies for different reasons. And all this kind of spoken like this sounds a bit pat, potentially kind of just, well, yeah, okay. But I think, like, when accessed within a narrative like that, it can become pretty charged. You need frames like that, you need fixed points as you move through time and space. So yeah, I think that was That was an important one to come back to and I guess it was also just really the throwaway quality of that image I'm very glad I did take the image at the time because I found so much of it afterwards It was so often the case with the journey that I was taking photos without really knowing why or if there was any value in doing it in the moment and I sometimes also as a means of defense because it was a very tough journey a lot of things I was very confronted by what I experienced and how things went wrong and how things fell apart and a lot of the time I was taking photos as a way of just throwing affect into the future as a time when I would be better equipped to deal with it and so the writing was a forensic process of going over that material and trying to glean value and meaning from the pieces.
[00:32:39.711] Kent Bye: I think about the piece, I feel like the T.S. Eliot poem of the Wasteland ends up being sprinkled throughout both how many times you visit it throughout the course of the piece, but also it's a theme that keeps repeating throughout the piece and sprinkling different quotes from it. Love to hear any reflections on the modality of poetry and how I feel like adds this other quality that is metaphoric and also can tap into emotions in a way that is different than how other forms of literature can be more analytical or informational based and not so much emotional. So love to hear this decision to weave this poem throughout the course of this.
[00:33:19.482] Ant Hampton: Yeah well I mean without wanting to spoil it too much like obviously in some senses it was the poem that chose me and not the other way around because of the coincidences involved. The fact that T.S. Eliot had written the poem in Lausanne our starting point exactly 100 years before and that there was this very strong connection with what was happening at that moment 100 years ago in Izmir. He even mentions Smyrna at a certain point and all his worries about the East and so there's a lot of geopolitics involved, there's a lot of, as I say in the piece, I used it almost as a kind of I Ching, I want to say also oblique strategies in a way, I would just sometimes just open the poem randomly and things would jump out. And I think it was that especially that I like. I mean this is the case for most poetry that in being lyrical it's a lot about the voice and this voice embedded in it and so there's an audio aspect to it let's say. I mean even in just silent reading it's a very spoken acoustic vocal experience and especially with Elliot because he's sampling all the time either other people's poems or just overheard voices, very often we have that. And that's anyway what I'm doing throughout the piece, the snippets of voice through the whole thing. The piece starts off with a, I mean my book starts off with a description of the project I had done previously with Rita, my collaborator and journey partner for the first half of this. And that was all about voice as well, hitchhiking and recording people's voices that we would then learn off by heart as a way of learning German. It's like a very unconventional approach to it, but that we created a performance out of. yeah like embedded voices of all kinds and the poem was has always been there in the background in my life and was linked for me very strongly with the idea of like mental distress or Alzheimer's and you know through the personal histories that I have with my family. So that all needed to be weaved in there somehow and as well as the poem just as a survival tool as this thing which in its terror actually brought solace to somebody who knew the poem and who was in a difficult moment. by going back to the poem and reading it, rather than just amplifying the terror that she was experiencing, actually gave solace, which I thought was fascinating and actually stands for so much of why I ended up writing this piece, why I made it as a survival tool for myself, really.
[00:36:02.279] Kent Bye: Yeah, because there is an individual and a collective experience to this piece, I'd love to hear any reflections on what you see as the differences between the two, you know, from having gone through it for me. In the drop-in version, I just did it when two other people were doing it, but we weren't synchronized in any way, and so by doing it in a group collective experience, it was almost like When you meditate with other people, there's a collective group experience, but we're all reading and paying attention to this book object, which is, you know, I've never done synchronized book reading before in any other context. And so this is the closest to that that I've had, but I felt like that on top of the lighting and the other theatrical elements where you're asking people to shut their eyes or you're asking people to imagine And so having these opportunities to do that in a collective context, I feel like also is much more focusing and powerful to have a bunch of people doing that. So I'd love to hear any other reflections for you to decide to do this as an individual and also a collective experience.
[00:37:00.943] Ant Hampton: Yeah, it's interesting. I mean, I guess the one other context that would probably naturally spring to mind is church. I mean, I stopped going to church as soon as I was allowed to make my own decisions about things. But I think, you know, like synchronized page turning for me is that and And in some ways, everyone with their eyes closed praying or, you know, sort of concentrating in that way. I've always wished that there was a more, for me personally, a more sort of resonant version of that. So there's something of that in this. It's definitely not a churchy vibe that I try and set up in the collective experiences of this. pretty much everything we've talked about is just amplified by the collective experience. Like, you know, any embodied physical aspect, you know, you turn your page on your own, you're not gonna think about it, but if everybody turns the page at the same time and you have that lovely choreographed sense of, like a wave of pages turning at the same time, and the sound of it in the room, that creates a, yeah, a sense of being part of something bigger than your own, yourself. which becomes important when you start bearing witness to these things collectively, that you can lean on each other's presence in a sense. I think there's some moments in the piece where, in the collective version, you might almost wish you were on your own, and then it comes back to being glad that those other people are there. And I find that interesting as well. And actually, that finds its corollary in most theatre experiences. You sort of come and go with your... Sometimes you're sort of reluctant to acknowledge people around you, and other times you're very glad for their laughter that makes you realize that something is... funny or you wouldn't have otherwise noticed perhaps or you know, there's always that sort of negotiation of the others around you that is as interesting as it can be awkward and Yeah, I think otherwise I mean god there's a lot of different reasons I think that it it works very well on its own as a book I believe I mean, you know, you can totally buy in a bookshop take it home and have a pretty radical experience with a book that it's gonna be different to what you're used to and it's something that you can then pass to someone else, gift it, you can host a little thing with, if you have like more than one book, you can do it with a partner, you can do it with noise cancelling headphones on a train or a plane or whatever and so it has this incredible portability that as a theatre maker, you know, I find quite miraculous in a way that you can sort of create an embodied live moment like that. But in the end, even doing it on its own, it's an amplification of this presence conjuring that can happen in any good book on and over the pages. When you commit to reading and commit to decoding that stuff, turning the page to read more, there's a bunch of inherent instructions anyway in any kind of reading experience, I think, that conjures presence, that makes things happen, whether it's an event happening, but I think when you fix it in time, you say, okay, this is a time-based thing, when you actually hear the audio rather than just your own voice decoding those words, yeah, it's a step towards the captive audience that I'm used to in a theatre, and so the collective experience just makes that more explicit in a way, as well as amplifying the impacts.
[00:40:24.333] Kent Bye: And with the time-based component of the book, there's moments where you have us flip through and there's a kind of flip book quality where you're able to recreate different aspects of early aspects of cinema where you're able to see images like in sequence and Guess as you start to think about this as a form. I see it as like you're taking Storytelling from audio storytelling and podcasts you're taking books but you're also having these embodied components as people are interacting with this kind of immersive quality to Interact in with the guided narration that you have and the time-based remix of these things together So is there a name for this that you've come to you know, all these things together you mentioned like time-based Remix of a book or how do you sort of describe what this is? I
[00:41:08.192] Ant Hampton: Well, as I say, we're thinking of it as, I mean, it's an imprint, it's a publishing imprint that we call Time-Based Editions. And so this is the first book in that series. And my collaborator, co-director for Time-Based Editions is David Berger, and he will produce the second book. And then we're now talking about the third and fourth ones, like seeing how the format draws in interest from other artists and also from other potential partners who will help us to commission work and find the money necessary to produce that. So yeah, of course, within the field that I'm in, I can already think of plenty of people who I want to talk to about it and who I am talking to about it. As well as that, within the documentary film world, it's fascinating how much of what I'm seeing here in IDFA generally could lend itself to being adapted to book form in this way. We're really at the beginning of that journey.
[00:42:04.102] Kent Bye: Is this the world premiere of this piece or has it shown other places as well?
[00:42:07.245] Ant Hampton: Well, the way I produced it, and this is actually how I often make work, is I did a prototype version and I showed that in a festival in Greece actually run by the National Theatre in Thessaloniki. And it had a different title and it was just a ring-bound thing and we produced 30 copies. But it was obviously a hugely helpful process because it meant that by the time we'd gone through that, we were much more confident about what we wanted the actual book to be. And when you're spending €20,000 on making 3,000 copies of a book, you want to be sure that it's the right thing because you can't just sort of tweak it afterwards it's set. So yeah, we produced it. We did this Greek version, the prototype, which will now be updated so that when you flash the QR code you have the option to do it in English or Greek or French, which is already in French because the co-producers are in Brussels and I produced all that. So it's nice also that the book has that capacity to be international as well. I mean, hopefully later on there'll be a lot of different languages that you can do it in. We'll be doing a Dutch version in time for February. We'll be back here in the Brackengrond in February for a festival. And then again in Utrecht in May and then up in Groningen in the north of the Netherlands in August for a summer festival there, Noorderzone.
[00:43:26.662] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, I see this in the realm of immersive media. I think DocLab is got, you know, immersive section here for the competition that this piece is in. And so, yeah, I'd love to hear any reflections of what you think the ultimate potential of immersive storytelling and these types of experimental combinations of these genres and what the ultimate potential of that might be and what it might be able to enable.
[00:43:51.940] Ant Hampton: Yeah, I've been sort of trained over time to be quite critical of the term immersion and immersive media. I guess it's coming from the theatre world. There's a lot of so-called immersive work that I've ended up becoming quite allergic to, I would say, in the sense that some of it seems to me like a sort of very extreme version of theatrical representation, where instead of, like, the fourth wall being in front of you, it's just, like, all around you. And, you know, as I say, I'm interested in the tradition of breaking that wall and for a bunch of different reasons that I think are ever more necessary these days. I feel like that fourth wall is more and more owned by other people and that there are many reasons for them wanting to keep it intact. And so, yeah, I'm constantly looking at ways to cut the strings in a way and to feel the full impact of things come crashing down as a result of cutting those strings. And so far, I must say, I haven't seen that much VR work or XR work that really does that. I'm looking forward to seeing more. I feel like what with Apple being about to come out with its own mask, it's probably really time to be ready with work that helps us navigate that realm and see through the lies, see through the empty promises. and just the kind of vacuous affect. Sure, I'm totally into storytelling. I mean, you know, finding different ways of doing it is wonderful, but let's not just do it for gimmick's sake or for the sake of a new tool. I read this fantastic book by Claire Bishop, The Artificial Hells, which is a history of participation in art and one of the most interesting sections was about what was happening in the 60s where she compares the US with Argentina and in the US there's like all the happenings and everybody's really into that and it's it really felt like as long as there were no rules and There was like nakedness involved and it was okay, whereas in Argentina there was much more critical practices being developed where it was especially around media, like a lot of thinking around what is this TV thing that's suddenly so important? How can we see through it? very antagonistic, bad-tempered work, which in hindsight is just so much more useful and so much more resonant these days. And yeah, I don't know, I highly recommend that chapter in terms of thinking about where we are now with VR and what history might think of the experiments that we're doing right now with VR and what that might point towards in terms of the kind of work that could be possible now. It was interesting, I did a piece here where I was transported to female prisons in Chile and it was really interesting, it was an amazing access and you look around and so on, but every time it shifted from one place to the next, for me the most interesting thing that I was left with was this sense of having without having given my consent, I left one place. I didn't say goodbye. I didn't have a chance to wrap things up. I was just yanked out of that place and put into another one. And it feels a lot like that with VR, that there's these shifts of scene that one can take for granted perhaps in filmmaking a little more. The whole point is that you're bodily present in the scene, and then you're being suddenly shifted somewhere else. I feel like these sort of questions are not being asked. I kind of like asking them. I want to know if you're going to say you're present, then how can we really have that responsibility to be present and feel all the contingencies involved with it.
[00:47:48.808] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, covering the space since 2014, I've covered probably 350 to 400 immersive stories and films, and only probably around 5 to 10% of those are widely available. So, there's been a lot of stuff that's happened at things like Sundance New Frontier, and South by Southwest Immersive, Tribeca Immersive, Venice Immersive, and here at Ifadoc Lab for the last 17 years that I feel like there's a lot of experiments, but they're not widely available. So I've got my own perspective, but I guess to kind of re-center it on your work, and I guess more the theatrical tradition, what do you think the ultimate potential of however you describe this kind of fusion of the type of storytelling that you're doing and what that might be able to enable?
[00:48:28.990] Ant Hampton: Yeah, I'm not sure where I've got to with this format as the result of all sorts of different things. Also in thinking a lot about resilience, sustainability, degrowth. I don't like big spectacles that show the money. I like a sort of humble approach where, like I say, you can sort of see the nuts and bolts, understand how things are happening. and perhaps also be a part of it as well. And I'm also interested in liveness, which can come about from automated means. things that are scalable, but that trigger live experiences. That's been something I've been busy with for a while. And in my field of live performance, the pandemic was terrifying, of course, because most people were like, oh, how can I survive if I cannot tour, if I cannot travel with the work? And I initiated something called Showing Without Going, which was an online atlas, we called it. It was like a working tool, thinking through all the different formats that were available at this point, like examples of other people's work that could be sent without the artists travelling themselves. Always talking about live work, so performance stuff that, for example, headphones that tell you what to do in a group or audio walks. 3D projections, animatronics, all sorts of many, many different formats and approaches. We tried to gather all those together. This is an international working group. And they then also said, no, no, no, we should also compile also the questions and implications and problems of working in this way. and have that as a second column and what if we added the first column of the formats and approaches with these kind of theoretical considerations to create a third space of thought, of thinking through, of connections. And so people started adding their own combinations of these things. And that website is still open, showing without going .live. And as I say, it's a working tool that you can also contribute to. And so for me, this format of time-based additions kind of sits within that thought process as well as in how can we prepare for another situation where we're not being able to travel like how can we make embodied life work that reaches people in different ways that accesses a different distribution system which has a very low impact both in touring and in production We could go even lower in that impact. One idea is also to create a book without making the book, so using existing books. So, for example, we would perhaps buy 2,000 copies of maybe, I don't know, a shopping catalogue or the Bible or some horrific book by Ayn Rand or something that we don't agree with and that, you know, you just put a new jacket on it and with a QR code, with a soundtrack that completely remixes it with your experience of it, that takes you through a path. that's different or maybe it's a book that we love and we want to boost sales and we take that book and again, like put a jacket on it and create one of the time-based editions like that. I like the idea that it's repurposing existing material. Awesome.
[00:51:45.575] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?
[00:51:49.530] Ant Hampton: I guess one thing I'd like to say is thanks to the people who made this happen. And as this may be a US listening audience, it's definitely the Resonance Foundation in California who helped us out with this first book. It's essential.
[00:52:04.616] Kent Bye: Awesome. Yeah, I really, really enjoyed your piece. And I think it's something that's really quite compelling of taking the book format and adding these other elements on top of it. And I feel like it's got a lot of possibilities that, like you said, you've already got a lot of other projects that are in different levels of production and works. And yeah, I think it's got a bright future as we move forward.
[00:52:22.549] Ant Hampton: Thank you so much for this. It was really good to talk.
[00:52:25.237] Kent Bye: So that was Ant Hampton, who created an experience called Borderline Visible, which is a book with audio narration. And it won the IFFIT Doc Lab Special Jury Award for Creative Technology for Digital Storytelling. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, I really was struck by this piece just because it was completely transforming what I think of as a book and the type of experiences that I can have with the book. because it is adding this time-based edition version of the book where you're listening to Ant take you on this journey, and it's about 78 minutes and 233-page book, and you're not seeing every single page. You're kind of like skipping around, and even on the pages that you're on, there's not enough time in the course of this experience to like read everything, and so you're kind of having to skim. So you're skimming and reading some of the text and captions and the images while also listening to Ant. And so it's taking the artifact of a book which we're all quite familiar with and adding this kind of time dimension and performative element to it. Yeah, they actually at DocLab had this single player version where you could just go through it on your own, just kind of walk up and listen to it, or they also had a social dimension where you could experience it as a group. So everybody is listening to the same narration at the same time. It's on the stage and so they're adding other lighting components because he's having you shut your eyes and Really trying to explore getting in touch with your body imagining different sensory experiences Putting your fingers in specific places in the book or turning the book upside down or you know as you're turning through the different pages So it's giving you this direct embodied experience, but kind of remixing what we normally have in as our experiences of books and giving this real dramatic arc of the story that is nonlinear, winding around kind of like how sometimes road trips happen, but recreating that type of experience in the linearity of a book, jumping around in that linearity, but also the cyclical nature, how you might be coming back to certain points of the book at different times and having new layers of meaning that are building on top of that. So there's a layer of augmentation on top of the book through the audio that's helping guide you through the experience of the book. And something that's like a structured narrative that you're getting the narrative tension kind of like this form that we see within audio podcasts blending that with how we're interacting with books. So there's a lot of reading and going at your own pace and having to listen to what's being said and interpreting it, but also having your own experience and agency to kind of flip around and follow along as well. So the book, when you buy it, you can get ahold of this book, you can order it, and then there's a QR code and the QR code will give you an experience of this as well. And I actually saw a lot of people that were buying this book, I actually picked up a copy myself, just because I thought it was such a unique idea that I hadn't really ever considered before. And it's something that I just wanted to also share with some other people and get some other takes as well. 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 enjoy 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 you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com. Thanks for listening.