#795: VR Artist Amelia Winger-Bearskin: Designing with Metaphors & Indigenous Perspectives on Time & Individuality

amelia-winger-bearskinAmelia Winger-Bearskin is a VR director & performance artist who is building communities for artists, creators, and technologies working in emerging technology. She uses metaphor as her primary method for exploring emerging technologies like virtual reality by asking questions like, “What kind of analogy does it have in the real world?” She sees that all stories are metaphors, and that stories are the primary currency that humans have used for thousands of year in order to efficiently communicate with others.

I had a chance to talk with Winger-Bearskin about her creative process at VRTO in Toronto, Canada in July 2019. She shared her journey into VR through her background in opera and performance art, her hands-on and project-based approach to teaching emerging technologies, why she sees VR on a continuum of communications mediums that’s not exalted above and beyond other ways of telling stories, the value of critique and theoretical frameworks for people learning about new mediums, and her indigenous perspectives of not believing in time and not believing in individuality. (Note: There is an excerpt that is taken from Douglas Rushkoff’s Team Human episode #134 recorded live at VRTO.)


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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[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. So continuing on, on my series of talking to VR artists about their process, this is a conversation with Emilia Winger-Behrsken, who's an emerging media artist, a VR director, a performance artist, and someone who's been involved with emerging technologies for a long time. And so she talks a bit about her generalized process for how she approaches new technologies. She also talks a bit about her indigenous perspectives on time and individuality and the collective and also just generally about stories and metaphors and the roles of stories to be able to communicate and how VR is just a continuation of many other different modalities that we use to be able to tell stories and explore the human experience through the process of metaphor. So we'll be covering all that and more on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Amelia happened on Sunday, July 2nd, 2019 at VRTO in Toronto, Canada. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:13.441] Amelia Winger Bearskin: Hi, my name is Amelia Winger-Bearskin, and I'm a virtual reality director, and I've also worked at building communities for artists and creators and technologists working in emerging technology, including XR and AR and VR.

[00:01:28.460] Kent Bye: Great. So maybe you could give me a bit more context as to your background and your journey into VR.

[00:01:34.058] Amelia Winger Bearskin: Sure, I actually started out in the world of opera. I was an opera singer and I started creating immersive experiences with opera using, at the time we had slide projectors on robotic arms, very rudimentary types of what now you would call projection mapping, but with very basic projectors and kind of hacking anything from CD players to different types of computers or mangling together terrible old supercomputers to do graphics for live performance. And as I was writing and directing and starring in a lot of these operas, the venues and spaces that were sort of interested in new opera or new types of performance began to expand and I started doing a lot more performances with galleries and museums and I was labeled performance artist for a very long time. a title which I totally embrace. I love being a performance artist. But it was kind of something that was more in between. And I ended up working with a lot of people in the field of motion graphics in the early 2000s and experimenting with early virtual reality in museum settings and in gallery settings, working a lot with live musicians. And I became a professor of time-based media arts and performance art at Vanderbilt University, where I continued to create works at performance festivals and museums, primarily in some galleries and also festivals. The first time I re-experienced virtual reality in sort of the modern sense was becoming part of the New Frontier Story Lab at Sundance and getting to re-meet a lot of people I already knew from the early 2000s, which was really funny. We're like, oh, we have a new title now. We're not like new media artists or performance artists or whatever the hell we were being called.

[00:03:08.878] Kent Bye: Transmedia, thank goodness.

[00:03:10.098] Amelia Winger Bearskin: Transmedia artists, you know, like now we have like a new title, I'm a VR director, you know. So that was kind of fun. I got to meet like literally people I'd known since I was 12 again, but in a new context with new titles, same work, same people, same interesting exploratory hearts and minds, which was really exciting. And so since then I've been directing virtual reality pieces, augmented reality pieces with incredible collaborators. I also founded Idea New Rochelle, which was a space in New Rochelle, New York, which is in the Bronx, which was a space for immersive technology creatives, LiveWork Loft, and also a program to create an AR VR toolkit for cities to help citizens co-design their cities with city planners. And for that project, we actually won the Bloomberg Mayor's Challenge of 2018, which was for a million dollar prize. So I'm really interested in building the community around emerging technology as well as being someone who creates my own VR titles and collaborates as either a director or producer on other projects as well. So it's been a fun ride.

[00:04:14.045] Kent Bye: Great. And yeah, so we're here at VRTO and you gave a talk here. So what were some of the main points that you were trying to get across to the VR community here in Toronto?

[00:04:23.170] Amelia Winger Bearskin: Well, you know, Karim had called me up about VR Toronto and said, we all encounter the same issue when we meet a new technology for the first time. And we first we fall in love with it. And then it's like, now what? What do I do with this thing? And he said he opened up Unreal Engine for the first time was like, Oh, this is really fun. Okay, now what do I do? And he's like, How do you approach that? Amelia and I said, oh yeah, that's a good topic for a talk. I don't know if I can contain it all in one, but like, I would love to just give that talk many, many times, you know, in different iterations. And so I started thinking about how I do it and really untangling my process. Cause there's been, I don't know how many new technologies I've met in my career. I mean, it just feels like hundreds and hundreds. And I think it has been, whether it's programming languages or different AI stacks or looking at how we've used AI since the nineties to today is so different. And like, I would have died to use TensorFlow in like the 2000s. It's just like really cool to see all these meeting for the first time, all these technologies. And so I started trying to think about how I do it. And what I usually do is I take a technology and I try to immediately take it to an analog place. So rather than say like, oh, you know, Unity reminds me of Flash, which it does. But like rather than saying that, like looking at what does this remind me of in the analog world? Like in an tangible, like the real world. What is that like? And so I thought about every time I've met a new technology, whether it was a wearable or it was VR or it was a specific software or it was specific programming language, what kind of analogy does it have in the real world? Is it like playing with your dog or is it like playing toys with your best friend and trying to navigate a story world together with an open framework? Or is it like playing tennis? Or is it like having a conversation with a stranger at a nightclub? Or is it more like having a conversation with a relative that I sort of know? Kind of like bringing it back to something that I can feel in my body so that then I start to be able to play. And a couple of the ways that I play is I make something that's stupid, or I make something that is playful, or I make something that's dreamy. But I try to get back to the way I would encounter things for the first time as a kid. I mean, we all have had that experience where children are able to say something about the world that is just so true. Even though you know it, you're seeing the world through their eyes for the first time. And I think it's important when we meet a new technology to not just say, yeah, I mean, I did VR in the 2000s, which I did. I did PR in like 1998 and it was really different and weird and fun and a power glove and you know all this awesome stuff and it's really important to even if you have thought you've met this at a different place in time to meet it again and have the kind of expectations you might have that can connect it to something real because I think that's how you make something that's very inviting to a lot of people from different diverse backgrounds. But it's also how you get at the heart of it. Like, okay, everyone says that it's this device that can do X, Y, and Z, but what is really happening here? What actually happens when I pick up this device in my hand, like I have a supercomputer in my pocket, which is my phone, but what actually is happening on the subway as I look around and everyone has their body hunched over this little glowing thing in their lap. So like, that's actually what's happening. Even if it is a portal to this incredible, connected universe, what's actually happening is I'm watching everybody's body like kind of collapse around this tiny little thing, which is weird. It's so powerful, right?

[00:07:46.464] Kent Bye: And I'm wondering if you could tell me about either some of your first VR experiences that you created in this modern resurgence of VR or maybe some of your favorite, just to give a sense of how you took this process that you're doing and exploring this interaction and fun and play and what that actually looked like and some of the experiences that you've been creating.

[00:08:05.312] Amelia Winger Bearskin: Yeah, sure. I created a piece with Sarah Rothberg called Your Hands Are Feet, which was a piece where we took metaphors, like, I started thinking about metaphors where when you tell someone about a feeling you might have, you might say, I walked into the room and my stomach just dropped, or the music was so loud, my ears are bleeding. And these, obviously, everyone knows are metaphors, but you can kind of feel it in your body. interesting thing about VR is I don't have to just say that metaphor to you I could actually put you inside of it and you could see a world where your eyeballs fell out or you could see a world where you're a tiny person shaving a giant's legs you have this like crazy task in front of you and you can kind of feel that rather than just telling a story to someone to have them understand the feeling of your body you could kind of put them in a story world where it's Just a zany insane one minute of your life, but then multiple people can experience that at the same time So you've technically had the same feeling as each of these people not quite the same feeling but you've had maybe the same feeling space I think it's like dreams Oftentimes when I was play-testing your hands or feet I would talk to people a couple weeks later and they'd be like cats if when I had this really weird dream the other day and Oh wait, no, you were in the dream. Wait, no, that was in your VR experience. And I thought that's really interesting that they would replace the memory of having been in my VR experience with a memory that they dreamed with me or that they dreamed. And I thought that's an interesting way of thinking about VR as a dream. You're walking without walking, you're touching without touching, you're moving without moving. It's very similar to a dream and that's really powerful. And I think we have metaphors in our dreams that help us process the real world. It would be a really beautiful thing to share your dream space with other people. So that's a little bit about that piece. I also created a piece of one of my best friends, Ro Haber, called Dickmatized. And it was an AR app where you could create, we were really thinking about like consent and dick pics and like digital consent and all these things. And so we created this thing called Dickmatized where you could like take fantastical dick pics like unicorn horns, wifi, routers, sriracha bottles.

[00:10:04.568] Kent Bye: So these are replacing what would normally be a dick is now these other objects.

[00:10:10.092] Amelia Winger Bearskin: yeah because like say you don't have a dick or you have a dick but it's not a unicorn horn wow now anyway democratizing the d you know like we just thought why not and then every time you take a pic and you would go to send it to someone it would have like this kind of little blurb about like what digital consent is, how it can be fun and playful, like what it is to share like expressions, like placing these crazy objects in AR. So it was a really fun piece I made with Ro. And then I also most recently made a piece that is up at Newark Museum with one of my best friends, Wendy Red Star. And we got, we were part of the Google Jump creator program where we got their research camera, the Yee Halo. which is a 17 camera rig for 360 video. And we took it to Montana to the Red Star Ranch, which is her family's ranch on her reservation, on her traditional land. And we wanted to do a story about native monsters. In her cultural tradition, they have monsters known as the little people. And in my cultural tradition, I'm Haudenosaunee, Seneca Cayuga Nation, Deer Clan, which is like from around this area in Toronto, which is kind of cool. So I'm here in my traditional land. We also have monsters known as the Little People, so we thought that was kind of cool. We wanted to do like a documentary telling the story, kind of digging in deep to that. But through this process of talking to the people who knew the stories of the Little People, we started realizing that the people who kept the stories were the same as people were really keeping the land and keeping the protection of the culture and the sacred spaces of the land. And the name, the little people in Crow actually translates to keepers of the land. So I thought it was really interesting to maybe make a video where you got to choose whether are you like with the monsters and are a keeper of the land or maybe are you the monster, right? And so we created that as a immersive installation so it's actually a sweat lodge that you walk into the museum and from the outside it looks like a traditional sweat lodge and then when you get inside you actually see the outside and you get to sit in that space of contemplation and kind of feel like you are in an intimate space but you're actually in a kind of vast unknown in the beautiful landscape of Montana.

[00:12:24.327] Kent Bye: So you're like in a projection dome experience where what are you seeing then because you go into what looks like the sweat lodge and then what do you see when you get in there?

[00:12:32.632] Amelia Winger Bearskin: Yeah, exactly. It feels like a fantasy blanket fort, TBH. So it's like, wow, I'm going in this blanket fort. Because not everyone knows what a sweat lodge looks like. So some people will be in there, and I have no idea that that's a sweat lodge. It just looks like a blanket fort to them, which is also totally fine and awesome. And you open the door, and you get inside, and you're outside. You see this projection all the way around you, all the way down to the floor that is a dome. But it's a small dome. It maybe can fit nine people. It's not huge. And it feels really intimate. It feels like the kind of blanket fort you always imagined really existed. But then if you went back in time and saw your eight-year-old self inside of a blanket fort, you'd be like, what are you talking about? This is not a spaceship. And you're like, yes, it is. So it feels like that. That's what my blanket fort looked like in my head when I was eight years old. I went inside, and it was the whole universe was inside there. And so we kind of made that happen, though.

[00:13:22.396] Kent Bye: It's a little bit Doctor Who and the TARDIS, where they go inside, and it's actually bigger than the outside.

[00:13:26.410] Amelia Winger Bearskin: Yeah, totally. It feels really fun.

[00:13:29.352] Kent Bye: Well, I want to go back to this concept of the dreams and metaphors because it feels like that's a theme that's coming up especially at Tribeca. There's a number of different experiences where Celine Tricart is a lucid dreamer and she was using a lot of dream-like metaphors and dream logic within this experience and then you get this unpacking and unlocking of what those metaphors mean. It also reminds me of what Jordan Peele has been doing with his work of both Get Out as well as Us, where, you know, there's a movie that's playing out, but it's also very deeply symbolic of these metaphors of what's happening in race in America. So it feels like there's this poetic nature of the language of virtual reality where you're able to give these spatial metaphors and maybe to tap into Something that maybe it's experiences. We've already had or maybe there's like the new languages or new spatial orientations that defy gravity that we were never able to actually experience before but have this as a palette of communication where we can start to express things that we've never been able to express before. And so just curious what you've found with this exploration of metaphor and this kind of more poetic side of communication in VR.

[00:14:41.048] Amelia Winger Bearskin: Well, I mean, like, let's be perfectly clear here. All stories, since the dawn of time, are metaphors, right? Like, they're all hacking away at this problem that you're describing of like, how do you distill truth into a message that we can understand? And we use stories as that currency. But that's why we think stories are truer than life, because it organizes it in a way that we can understand it. Very frequently when life is happening to you in real time, it doesn't make as much sense as when a week goes by and you tell to a friend what happened. And you'll probably leave out 90% of the details, and you'll probably leave out 90% of the truth. But the fact that you give that 10%, that story is going to be the truth moving forward. And that's how you communicate to that other person. And that's all that matters, actually, from that one day experience, right? That's just how stories work. They cut out information. and then repackage it into a way that is not truth and it isn't fiction and it's metaphor, right? So I would be hesitant to say that virtual reality somehow has tapped into something that like we haven't been able to do as humans since we invented language because I think, or not even language, like story, song, movement, like we have ways of communicating our lived experience in all different types of media. And so I don't like to hand over too much power to any specific medium. you know, but there is something in virtual reality that is unique. And I think it's probably about as powerful as hypnotism, right? Which isn't that much, right? Like it is, but it is, it's interesting. Like you can be hypnotized just enough to have something stick in a different way. You know, like I myself, when I was looking for help quitting smoking, I'm like, I'm going to try hypnotism. Why not? Right. And it helped. a little bit. That's pretty freaking amazing, right? Like any little amount to like change or hack my brain cells to do something that's healthy for my body, why not, right? And I feel like VR is that way where when hypnotism first came out, people were like, oh my god, like you're gonna be able to hypnotize someone and they'll like murder people and we'll have to like, you know, people were freaking out about hypnotism, right? They thought it was like this incredible mind control thing that had been discovered. And what do we think now when we look back at the 1800s hypnotism craze, or mid-1800s hypnotism craze? I mean, it was performers, right? People were lying. People were making shit up. It has a little bit of an effect. It's pretty amazing. Hypnotizing someone can hack their brain a little bit so that they can have a positive impact in their life a little bit. But you can't really hypnotize someone to be a psycho killer. And you can't really put someone in VR and totally rewrite their hardware, right? but it's interesting a little bit and I think that's what we're trying to push up on the edge here with virtual reality is like what is different about this medium that's different than others and I do think that that embodiment of being able to like see my hands in a virtual space, see my body in a virtual space, communicate to you at the depth where you are or the height that you are. It's incredible. And I'm really excited to see all the pieces that explore that and all the ways that we can push and move that. But we as humans have been expressing our humanity through various mediums for a long time. So I'm not quite ready to say that VR is this key that's unlocking something that might be more powerful than my own dream medicine, right?

[00:18:10.230] Kent Bye: Yeah, and you mentioned that you were teaching, and I imagine that a lot of learning for these students comes from project-based creation and actually making stuff, but I'm curious if you've also pulled from any sort of like theoretical background or any sort of critical theories or experiential design frameworks, or if there's other theorists that are out there that you look to to help make sense of immersive technologies, or if it's more about making projects.

[00:18:36.775] Amelia Winger Bearskin: I mean, when I teach, I'm very hands-on, so it is about making projects, and usually what I do is I show them a lot of work, as much work as I can, whether it's, you know, video of work that precedes it, whether it's taking them to shows or putting them in VR and having them have experiences. The great thing as a teacher is you can reach out to other universities and say, like, can I share work with you? You can write, you know, any artists that makes VR usually and say like, I know this isn't even out on any kind of store, but can I just have an exe file of this? And most people are really generous. I'm the same way. Like I will be like, yeah, check this thing out. There's not a ton of us in this field. And if you want to show your students this, like go for it, put them in VR and try this out. So I think seeing as much as possible is really helpful. And looking at the history of people who've made in this area, which is very huge. It's a very large area. And so it's people in fine art, it's people who are in media arts, it's people who are in theater. Because I have a performance art background, I do end up teaching a lot of performance art. I think it's very relevant for VR because when you walk into a gallery and someone's doing performance art, It solves a lot of the questions that people ask me in VR. They're like, well, if you have a script, how do you know exactly where the audience member or the viewer in VR is going to look? And it's like, well, in theater, we have ways that you do that in theater. You have ways that you do that in opera. Like if you're sitting at the Met, you don't have to stare at the person who's the soloist. You can stare at one of the extras. And they're going to be moving around and doing things, right? Like we have these models where you can say, well, there are things going on. They're just not as exciting as the soloist and the spotlight is on the soloist and all the music is like aimed at the soloist. So most of the people are looking at the soloist and if one person isn't, that's okay. There's something there for them to look at too, right? So those kinds of models help people think about VR, but performance art is unique. because it's usually in 360, it's usually people are walking all the way around the performer, it's usually accepting and understanding that people are not going to be interacting in a specific way. Sometimes people walk right through the performance, you know, like all those things are kind of a given in performance art. So that's really helpful, I think, to my students to understand performance art and to actually do it. Like if they say, this is what's going to happen in VR, I'm like, can you just act that out for me? You know, like very simple things like that. And they're like, oh yeah, actually that doesn't work. Like if they acted out and the entire time I'm just staring straight at them and they're talking straight at me, I'm like, why does this have to be in VR? You know, and so you can kind of suss out a lot of those problems pretty quickly by just saying, hey, here we are in the classroom, let's get five people to stand up, put these five people where you say things are going to happen, tell these people to do those things, and then stand in the middle and look. is this interesting to look at? No? Well then what are you doing in VR? Like let's you know change it and change the frame and I think that's really important. Mocking things up in Unity is really fun and easy to do and you can kind of put your camera in different locations and see how it looks even if it's just very crude kind of blocks. But that can be really really helpful since Making VR takes a good amount of time. You know, it depends on what tools you're using. There's obviously a lot of really fun prototyping tools you can use to try things out that are pretty fast, like tilt brush and medium or blocks and all these fun things. But I really try to encourage my students to do that so that I say mock up the most important scene or the most important interaction. And if it isn't fun, then like you're going to be spending weeks and weeks and weeks going to a destination and there's nothing there. But yeah, we have a really diverse field and I try to encourage them to look at and I mean this is kind of an old-fashioned approach to really just do a close read of the work and look at what it's doing and rather than listening and reading theorists about what they think is happening in the piece, to like experience the piece and try to talk about what they think is happening and why it's successful. That's my approach because I have definitely read a lot of incredible essays about work that I thought sucked. So I'm like, you know, that's an amazing thing for someone who's going to be a writer to read that. But that's kind of not very important for someone who's going to create the work because they're going to know how to read about something that's really amazing and then see something that's like pretty terrible. So it's like maybe

[00:22:35.592] Kent Bye: I guess the reason why I ask is that there's been a lot of discussion within the different immersive cinematic virtual reality experiences that are at Sundance and Tribeca and the Venice Film Festival, South by Southwest. I think there's creators that are in some ways wanting a certain level of critical discourse about the work to be able to critique it or to understand it. and to see if it's working, what the artist's intention is, match that up with what the experience is. And so in some ways, there's a bit of an open question for how exactly to do that. And I feel like I've been exploring that on the podcast, and my personal approach is to take a very phenomenological approach to try to see the experience, to then talk to the creator, get a lot more context as to the intention, And then through that process of seeing lots of work and talking to lots of people, trying to come up with a generalized experiential design framework that can then help me understand my own direct phenomenological experience, but also have the language to be able to talk about it, but also to have some system or framework for the creators to be able to push against because there's the emergent intuition as you're creating something, but then there's the top-down theoretical framework that helps you make sense of all the different trade-offs because sometimes you have things that are in the same class of experience that you can kind of turn the dials in different ways and modulate the human consciousness. And so I feel like because of that there's a bit of open question for what exactly that looks like in that process. And so it's on the one hand it's from a just creating a culture of critique, but on the other one it's like creating tools for the creators to be able to help Brainstorm and to find out ways of creating specific experiences and how to actually architect all the different dimensions of that What do you think the greatest?

[00:24:22.593] Amelia Winger Bearskin: Benefit to our community will be when we have an agreed-upon framework for critique

[00:24:28.807] Kent Bye: Well, I don't know if there's ever going to be an agreed upon framework. I think actually the framework is going to be dependent on whatever your philosophy is. So I actually hope that there's a diversity of philosophies and a diversity of approaches. And also there's a diversity of people and temperaments. Like I have a very similar experience where I'll see something that I don't like, but I think the importance of having a good framework is to be able to articulate why. like if I see something that sucks then I should be able to like articulate it and say. Then it's up to the creator to then see if there's something about how they're designing it that could be changed because I feel like there's this gap sometimes between the artistic intention and what I experience. And I feel like it's like closing the gap where we want you to experience something but yet there's all this sort of personal symbolism in a story that is only unique to that individual and it just doesn't land, then you go through it and you're like, what is even happening here? So I feel like just trying to close the gap between what the artist intends and what people experience, I think that would be the ultimate outcome.

[00:25:29.692] Amelia Winger Bearskin: It's interesting because when you're with students, specifically like maybe undergrad students, but also I think it pertains to graduate students as well, you're in a very unique moment in their life. And I hear this almost every semester. Someone would say, I don't want to talk about it. I just want to show you it. And I don't even want to know what you think about it. Which is fine. And then there would be other people who would say, I liked your piece better before you explained it. Right? Both of these things would happen. This is like every semester, like clockwork, which one of the kids is going to say, I don't want to talk about it. Which one of the kids is going to say, I liked it better before you explained it. Right? Every semester, right? So it's a unique moment in time where you get that feedback loop. And I would always say to them, I would say, this is a unique moment in your life where you get to see the feedback. You know the person. Hopefully, you trust them a little bit more than a random stranger because you've been in a class with them. They've used the same tool as you. So hopefully, they're not totally talking out of their ass. They know something. They have some kind of basis. Hopefully, you have camaraderie with them. This is someone who cares a little bit more about you than maybe another person. But after this moment in your life, you are not going to have this again. You are going to go out into the world and anything you give to the world does not belong to you. And you do not get to tell people what to think about it. And I just think that's really real. And so when you're in that moment in school, I think it is very important, all these things that you're talking about. But it's also important to know that once you make work, and you put it out in the world, people are going to interpret it however they want. And that is exactly how it should be, unless you would just like to make work for yourself, and then please keep it to yourself, right? Because I do believe that when we show work and we try to be part of a cultural conversation, possibly an international conversation, possibly a medium-specific conversation like VR, we do not get to own the meaning anymore. We're part of a collective. We're part of a collective unconscious. We do not get to even say, like, oh, I'm the first person who ever thought of, like, putting feet in VR. Sorry, no, you're not. Like, you know, we do not get to carve out your piece in this social unconscious and say it's mine, mine, mine, mine, mine. I don't believe in that. So, you know, but it is a unique space when you're learning and you get to have that beautiful feedback, that painful feedback loop, you know? It's really painful to hear people say things about your work that you don't like or even if it's positive, even if they're like, oh, I love it because it's like this, you're like, damn it, it's not like that. You know, all that stuff's really painful and it's a really beautiful place and as a Teacher, I totally agree with you that having frameworks and being able to articulate those things are incredibly powerful when you're first learning because your language can be a reflection of your thought process. But there does come to be a point when you start having to just show your work and the work has to stand on its own. And I don't believe that the artist's intention matters after that. It's like, look, are you a professional or not? If your work doesn't show what you intended, I don't care.

[00:28:29.520] Kent Bye: Yeah, I guess part of it for me is, as a journalist, I may see a piece like The Collider, which maybe 300 of the people in the world were able to see it, IDFA, DocLab, and Tribeca, and that's it. And I got to see it twice from the two perspectives, and so in some ways, I'm seeing it and then talking to the creators, and then for some people, a lot of people, that's going to be their only access to that experience at all. And so it's, in some ways, a form of documentation. But for you, when you create work, are you the type that doesn't want to talk about it and have people have their own experience? Or do you like to explain your deeper intention for what you were intending?

[00:29:04.051] Amelia Winger Bearskin: I'm pretty, like, game to the community. You know, like, if people want to write about a work of mine and they never care to interview me about it, and when I give talks, no one ever asks me about it and just lives out in the world, I'm fine with that. I don't feel like I need to make my point known. I need to like write a breath statement because people got this wrong. Like I don't, you know, I really do believe that I make things because I'm part of a social unconscious. And if it's absorbed by that social unconscious, then that's really awesome. I feel like I made something that was part of my body. I'm part of a larger body, which is my social cultural group. Right. But then people like yourself will interview me and ask me questions. And I'm really happy to talk about my stuff as well. But my language is my work, not my words about my work. Does that make sense?

[00:29:47.860] Kent Bye: Yeah, totally. So for you, what are some of the either biggest open questions you're trying to answer or open problems you're trying to solve?

[00:29:57.984] Amelia Winger Bearskin: Well, I say this a lot, two things that I say a lot that people laugh at, which is totally fair because I'm very funny and most of the things I say you can definitely laugh at because I intend usually it to be funny. And even if I don't, I never am offended, but I don't believe in time. That's not a joke. And I also don't believe in individuals. Like I do believe that we're a collective, like, you know, cells of a body. And that's always going to be difficult to reconcile in the society that we live in, especially as an artist, where we still have a lot of these tropes around a solo genius. It's got to be like a white male or something and like has to be a solo genius and all this you know which is like the more we work in this industry it's like you know we're a collective no one makes anything totally by themselves and if they do no one ever sees it you know so that's always my big things to reconcile is like how to be part of this collective and be healthy right? Like, how do I be a cell in this body when the body is sick, you know, and like be a healthy cell and like be a part of a solution and be part of the positivity in this world that I truly believe in. And especially I think as a woman where if I ever collaborate like with a guy it's just I get like immediately erased and I'm a person who doesn't believe in individualism so I'm kind of like always reconciling that like how do I stay with my voice that's active but without allowing myself to be erased and especially since I come from a a culture that has withstood erasure for so long as a native woman, right? That it's kind of like, I'm always at that creative tension of like, I believe in the power of the collective, but I don't want to be erased. So that's an interesting and fun tension. And then not believing in time. That's a fun tension too. I think that's probably the most transgressive thing we could do is to just stand against the speed at which we demand ourselves to move.

[00:31:50.028] Kent Bye: Beautiful. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality is and what it might be able to enable?

[00:31:59.742] Amelia Winger Bearskin: I think that as human beings, everything that we make has the potential to be a perfect reflection of us. And I think the most powerful thing that virtual reality could do would be to help us become more empathetic and whole human beings. But that's not just for virtual reality. That's for everything we make has that potential. And it's almost like a requirement.

[00:32:22.496] Kent Bye: Great. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the immersive community?

[00:32:26.838] Amelia Winger Bearskin: Well, thank you so much for interviewing me and letting me be part of your community.

[00:32:31.317] Kent Bye: Awesome. Great. Well, thank you so much. Thank you. So that was Amelia Winger at Bearskin. She's a VR director, performance artist, and she's been building communities for artists, creators, and technologists working in emerging technologies. Well, before I dive in into all my other takeaways, there was a thing at the very end of this conversation that was super striking. And had I not been running out of time, I would have unpacked it. It's ironically the fact that Amelia says she doesn't believe in time. But she was about to go onto stage to talk to Douglas Rushkoff as part of a live taping of the team human podcast. So I had just a short amount of time to be able to talk to her. So I wasn't able to kind of unpack a lot of what she meant by that. She doesn't believe in time. So I'm just going to play this short little excerpt from a conversation that immediately followed my conversation with Amelia that she had with Douglas Rushkoff. And I just want to have her response talking about time to allow her to kind of unpack her perspective on that a little bit more. And do you get concerned that time is running out?

[00:33:33.073] Amelia Winger Bearskin: See, I don't believe in time. Even units? No, and the reason why I think it's important for us, and I don't, it's fine if no one else here, I mean, we kind of chatted about that, but it's fine if no one else agrees with me, but it is, I think, a fun experiment to try for a small amount of your day to say, I'm gonna stand in the face of time, and I'm gonna say it doesn't exist, and if it doesn't exist, what's possible? What is possible? We have time to change climate change. We have time to heal past wounds. We have to, if there is no such thing as time, the impact that I can make within my small life could heal in a deeper way. And I don't feel the pressure of, if we're constantly at the edge of like apocalypse tomorrow, which we've been at since, you know, I guess like since we were hiding under desks in like nuclear tests in our classroom, like tomorrow, you know? you know, seconds to midnight, right? If we're always there, then we never have time to do all these other things. We don't have time to take care of like, oh, you know, this specific group that has this specific, oh, we don't have time. We have bigger things. We never have time. Oh, indigenous people are only like 0.4% of the population. We don't have time for that. We don't have time for African-American boys. We don't have time for anything if we're always right at the brink of complete and total extinction. Of course, you don't have time for anything, right? But if we can stand in the face of that, I think it's an act of transgression. I think we can say, I don't believe this. I don't believe those milliseconds on the clock. I don't believe that this is how we measure the world, reality, or my life. I think we can find the courage and strength to make deep impact.

[00:35:10.381] Kent Bye: So that was from the Team Human podcast from Douglas Rushkoff, episode number 134 with Karim Leakey-Sanchez and Emilia Winger-Bearskin. And that idea of not believing in time. And, you know, I talk a lot about how the Greeks had a couple of words for time, the Kronos time and the Kairos time. And I think there is, for me, I think there's a balance of both and there's a value for both. But if you're only looking at the objectification and the quantification of time, then I think you are missing out on the more qualitative aspects of time, but also more polychronic perspectives of time rather than just monochronic. So I think it is a very transgressive move to move away from the linearity of time and to see that if you're always in that perspective of not thinking that you have enough time, then you may be missing out of how there can be the much more indigenous perspective to look at things in terms of all of your relations and to see how you're connected to the larger whole, how you're connected to the earth, how you're connected to the past and the present and the future, how you're connected to many different cycles that are happening at the same time. So I think it also is related to this other big belief that she has in terms of not believing in individuality. Again, I do think that there are individuals, there are collectives, and I like the concept of a whole lawn where you are an individual and you are part of a collective and It's a little bit more of the yang and the yang of trying to come up with some sort of balance. And I think that was a bit of what she was talking about in terms of the struggles that she has in terms of not believing in individuality, but she also doesn't want to be erased. So it is important to have a strong ego and to be able to kind of stand up for yourself and to not be erased but at the same time be willing to go into that more ego disillusionment aspect and to see how you know so much about what we exist in the world today is because of the collective because there's many people out there that are participating in this system and that no man is an island and that this myth of the individual solo genius is always within the larger cultural context of information and knowledge and nurturing that comes from being fundamentally interconnected and interdependent. So definitely appreciated hearing a number of those different perspectives. So just in terms of Amelia's process of looking at any new emerging technology that she kind of just tries to come up with these analogies and metaphors of what's it like? Is it like playing with a dog or playing toys with your best friend or navigating a story world or playing tennis or having a conversation with a stranger in a nightclub. And so it's kind of looking at these experiences that we have that we can identify and seeing what part of the technology is going to be able to elucidate or bring forth some of these unique characteristics of these experiences. What are the things that are going to be unique in terms of trying to amplify and explore these other aspects that may be difficult to explore within a 2D frame? And because she comes from opera and then got into all of this performance art, she has quite a bit of background and training within the context of performance art and seeing how performance art is like this 360 degree medium that the audience kind of comes and goes. And there is a lot of different similarities, uh, similar to what I would say, you know, theater of immersive theater, where you might have some specific insights that come from the practice of performance art. And, you know, I think the big point that Amelia was making both in the conversation that I had with her as well as what she was talking with Douglas Rushkoff and the Team Human podcast was just really pushing forth this perspective about stories and metaphors and that, you know, stories are the currency that we have to be able to kind of reduce our experiences down to the fundamental components to be able to communicate with others, a fundamental part of our human experiences. and that has to cut out a lot of information, that it's not the objective truth, it's just a metaphor. And so we've been able to communicate through metaphor and stories, through language and song and these different communications mediums. And I really got that Amelia didn't want to exalt VR as like this ultimate potential of like, this is the end all and be all of all the ways that we're going to tell stories, but more of a perspective that this is a continuation of a constantly evolving mediums and new ways and innovations throughout the entirety of all of human history and that there are some unique affordances to VR, but it's not something that is in isolation to this continuation of humans being able to tell stories and share experiences for the entirety of all of humanity. And part of the conversations that I've been having within the broader artist and creator community is these discussions about critique and trying to cultivate a culture of critique. I'm actually going to be going to the Venice Film Festival and perhaps talking about that a little bit more at that festival. And I think it's just something that there hasn't been a strong culture of that critique. And I think because this is such a new medium that a lot of those different frameworks and ways of talking about experience, like even just having the language to talk about our phenomenological experiences, and then to be able to point out different aspects within a VR experience. I kind of compare it to wine tasting, where in order to really cultivate your own palate for being able to taste wine, you have to drink a whole lot of wine. And then from there, you're able to maybe notice a little bit of the subtleties of flavors between the different wines. And then once you have enough of these different VR experiences, then you can start to isolate specific things that people are doing that are different than what other people are doing. So Amelia seemed to say that when you're learning, it's very important to have those frameworks. And, you know, especially when you're in school, just being able to have that honest and open, candid feedback from other people who are trained in the same sort of theoretical frameworks, that that's kind of a unique time for people as they're creating things. And I think a lot of people within the VR industry don't have that type of cohort. I think the people that are going to these film festivals, there's a small handful of people that get to see a lot of these different experiences and I think there's generally a lack of honest or authentic, candid, constructive feedback and more critical dialogue. So just in talking to different creators, this is something that is at the very beginning and I expect to see a lot more of that as we move forward and either more just critical discourse or trying to come up with different frameworks and approaches of experiential design. So that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for joining me on the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, leave a review on iTunes, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a list of support of podcast, and so I do rely upon your donations in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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