#822: Dreams & Symbolic Language of VR: Dream Logic, Metaphor, & Cultural Heritage of “Bodyless”

Bodyless was one of my favorite VR experiences that I saw at the Venice International Film Festival. The experience was the most like walking into someone else’s dream that I’ve ever had in VR. The experience alternated between an on-rails guided journey mixed with some open-ended exploration where you could raise your hands and point them in a direction in order to fly around. Director Hsin-Chien Huang is from Taiwan, and he uses the medium of virtual reality in order to metaphorically explore his childhood of growing up during martial law in Taiwan as well as sharing ancestral rituals that are a part of the cultural heritage of Taiwanese culture.

I had a chance to catch up with Hsin-Chien Huang at the Venice International Film Festival where we talked about his journey into VR, and we unpack many of the personal and cultural metaphors that he included within Bodyless. The experience stood on it’s own without having to know about the deeper meaning behind all of the metaphors and symbols that he included, but it also provided an embodied and experiential context in order to connect deeper about his history and culture. There’s also a lot of interesting virtual reality work that is coming out of Taiwan, which was recently summarized by Variety. If you have a chance to see Bodyless, then I highly recommend it as I think that there’s a lot of interesting uses of metaphor, dream logic, and the flying mechanism is particularly effective.


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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So this is the third installment of five looking at dreams, dream logic, and the symbolic storytelling language of virtual reality. So this interview is with Shenzhen Huang. He's a virtual reality director out of Taiwan. He had a couple of pieces at Venice this year, Bodyless as well as To the Moon, which was a collaboration with Laura Anderson. Actually back in 2017, he won Venice with Laura Anderson for a piece they produced together called Chalk. So he created bodiless, which was kind of a continuation of some of the navigation that they started to innovate with chalk and then also explored into the moon, where you kind of like stick out your hands like Superman and you fly around. feels like you're kind of flying through a dream. It works out really, really well. It just gives it a great quality of flying through like a surrealistic dreamlike experience. So Hsinchuang grew up in Taiwan in the early 70s. They had like martial law. And so in this experience, he's not only going back and trying to metaphorically translate some of his personal experiences of growing up in Taiwan, but also trying to give a bit of cultural heritage of talking about different aspects of Taiwanese culture, some of their myths and folktales and their rituals and cultural practices they have around ancestors. And so there's a lot of like dream-like quality imagery within this experience. In fact, of all the different experiences I've ever had in VR, this is the most that I felt like that I was walking through someone else's dream. There's something about the way that he's using these metaphors and some of them are just very personal to his own life. And there's a process of kind of talking to him to figure out what he means by that. But also just like the cultural heritage of Taiwan as a culture and some of the different larger context of what was happening when he was growing up. So in this conversation, we kind of used this art piece that he created to be able to unpack what his life experience was, and also some of the different cultural practices that he wanted to share through the medium of virtual reality. In fact, there was an article that came out that was really highlighting all the different work that Taiwan as a country is doing in terms of all the different creators over the last two or three years, as I've gone to Sundance and Tribeca, South by Southwest, as well as Venice, I've seen Taiwanese creators that are creating some really innovative and cutting-edge work. They're really trying to push forward the medium of storytelling. They've got a lot of support from the government. HTC is based there in Taiwan. And there's just a whole community of people that are really thinking deeply about the future of immersive storytelling and doing it as a process of trying to capture different aspects of Taiwanese culture and to be able to share it out, which I think is fascinating to see how VR can start to do that. So we're covering all that and more on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So this interview with Shen Chen Huang happened on Friday, August 30th, 2019 at the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy. So with that, let's go ahead and Dive right in.

[00:03:09.709] Hsin Chien Huang: My name is Xinquan Huang. I have many disciplines involved. In the beginning, I studied mechanical engineering. Then I went to an art center and studied design. Then after I graduated, I went to Sega and Sony to develop video games as an art director. Then when I came back to Taiwan, I used that skill set to start to work on new media art. Then about four years ago, I started to get in touch with VR and develop work, collaborate with Laurie Anderson. One of our pieces is called the Chakru, which won the best VR experience of the Venice Festival in 2017. Working on VR so far, yeah.

[00:04:03.520] Kent Bye: So what was the moment that you discovered VR or decided to start to work in the medium of VR?

[00:04:10.139] Hsin Chien Huang: Well, actually I brought the headset since 96 or 97. At that time I think with the headset I can start experience with virtual reality. At that time there's no software and no tracking, there's no developing tool. So I started to be very interested in VR in a very early time, but I think until like 2016, I think the tool and the hardware is getting there and allow me to do something.

[00:04:45.926] Kent Bye: Well, I was not here at Venice in 2017 to see the Chalk Room. So what happens in the Chalk Room?

[00:04:53.123] Hsin Chien Huang: Okay, the Chakrun is a 15-minute VR experience. It's developing from me and Lori's personal experience. I think at that time, her husband, Lurie, just passed away, and also my father also passed away because of cancer. So we started being very interested in Bardo, which is Tibetan belief that after a human death, in seven days, the process that his memory and consciousness dissolve into nothingness. So we felt that it's very interesting because I think to experience that is probably something that VR should do. Because no other media could give you that. So we started to look into how to represent or maybe from an artist's expression, how to express that. So one thing we did is that we created a world that's only black and white and it's a huge world with a lot of chalkboard. So you will be able to fly in this world by anti-gravity or freely. And what we think is that this world, because it's created of chalkboard, the chalkboard is a metaphor of human memory. Because like our memory, the chalkboard, you can constantly erase it and overwritten on it. But the thing that got erased never being erased completely. It's just like human memory. So we use that as a metaphor. And when the visitor goes into this VR experience, it's like he's going to somebody's mind and then looking at his memory symbols and about his past life.

[00:06:52.880] Kent Bye: And then it sounds like you did another collaboration with Laurie Anderson, To the Moon. So maybe talk about how that project came about.

[00:07:00.644] Hsin Chien Huang: Well, I think the project started with Glorious thinking that because this year is the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. And the moon, I think, is a very special topic. Both of us think that's a very unique opportunity to explore the landing of the moon. Because I think it's too often that new technology, like space exploration, is often owned by military or political purpose. But I think with VR we got a chance that artists can invite the audience to landing on the moon for the first time. So I think that has a significant meaning for it. So the artists can claim that what if we can have this like a trillion dollars space exploration, but the artist can let the audience to know that if less artists do it, then what happens. So I think that's the background or how we want to do it. So the experience is kind of like we look at this moon at different angles, like from the political point of view, or like in the literature point of view, or artistic point of view, or even like religious point of view, and scientific point of view. So we create several things that let's see moon landing from different aspects. So I think that's what we did.

[00:08:36.738] Kent Bye: Yeah, the thing that I noticed from watching to the moon and then watching bodyless was that it's a very similar Navigation method where you stick out your hands and kind of fly around and so that's something that Developed originally and to the moon and then you sort of maybe change or adapt it for bodyless. So

[00:08:54.138] Hsin Chien Huang: Yeah, I think that actually it's developed from the chakram. Because we think that VR is the closest thing to have a dream. Then what will you do in the dream? So I think that's flying. And it's not only flying, but use your body to fly. Because I think too often we see the VR, the flying mechanism, it's kind of like you are controlling a machine. you're not using your body, or we want to give the audience the ability to fly. So we started to think about how could we make the user or the audience to fly quickly. So I think everybody knows, like when we say, okay, Superman fly, everyone suddenly get it. So we think, okay, Superman fly is a very easy notion to understand. So basically is that you just hold the two controllers and then put it together and then point to wherever you want to fly and you fly. And another thing is that because we want the audience to believe they really have the ability to fly. So when they stretch their arm away from their body, they will be flying faster. And also, when they're almost hitting something, I think the natural reaction is that they will brace themselves, which is a mechanism to stop. So I think this is a very simple and a very intuitive way for people to fly in five seconds. They learn to fly.

[00:10:35.664] Kent Bye: Yeah, and saying that virtual reality is like a dream is something that I've been talking and thinking about a lot lately as well. And I feel like Bodyless, of all the different experiences that I saw, is probably the closest to what I would call like a dream-like experience because it's sort of like cryptic and lots of imagery and symbolism. But as I go through it, it feels like there's a lot of things that are kind of not quite intuitive or rational or I can't figure it out or I don't understand and that feels like a dream a lot of times and so maybe talk a bit about your relationship to dreams and dreaming and how that influenced how you created Bodyless.

[00:11:12.689] Hsin Chien Huang: Well probably the core experience is coming from my childhood experience and also a little bit about my family history. Because my mom, she's kind of like a historian of my family. She will tell us about the story, what happened in my family. And at that time, it's the Taiwanese martial law government period. So the government, at that time, they are in really tense relationship with the mainland China. So they are afraid, like, the mainland China will send a spy or attack in Taiwan. So every day, we all hear that, just beware of spy. They could be anybody. And when in, I think it's 1965 or 66, at that time it's the Cultural Revolution in China, and my grandfather, he's still in mainland China, and he's, at that time it's like everybody's starving, so he write a letter to my family, says, could you send me some money, and we are about to perish here. So my mom sent money to my grandfather, but that has been intercepted by the National Security Council of Taiwan. And then they start to follow my mother and then interrogate her friend and the family and just say, why you want to communicate with hostile country? Do you want to do something bad? So this is what happened at that time and my mother told me those stories. But later I found out that actually my mother, just like everybody, when she told those stories she put a lot of personal feelings and opinions about it. So that made me start to be interested about what the personal history is. And also like for the recent years, my mother got the Alzheimer's disease. So her mind start to fading away. So I think maybe I can construct a VR piece with those stories and my childhood memory. And then when it's finished, I can show it to her. It's my version of the family history. So that's kind of the background of the bodiless. So in that piece, I think you will see something could be very small, but when you approach it, it's very big. It's like my childhood. We are living in a very, very tiny space. But at that time, I think with my imagination, I think it's such a huge world. And I can stay in like a square meter place, and I feel that's like a huge maze. And I want to convey this kind of feeling, and I think that's very interesting, not only for me, but I think for the, especially for the Western civilizations. I think, for example, like Americans, they live in a very big space, but I think the VR will give them the chance that, what if you're living in a very tiny space, but that could be very interesting.

[00:14:42.750] Kent Bye: Well, as I'm flying through this dream, there's a scene that has all these like newspaper clippings and photos with red lines. It felt like this is some sort of political conspiracy or some sort of like this is the power structure of what's happening or trying to sort of connect the dots between what's happening in the public and who's involved. So you said this was during the 1970s and martial law in Taiwan. Maybe you could give me a little bit more context as to what was happening and what your experience was and how you tried to communicate that.

[00:15:16.375] Hsin Chien Huang: So, I think at that time, a lot of people just vanished for very small reasons. For example, an artist could be captured because they used the color red, which is the color of the mainland China's flag. Just like that. And my mother told me this very sarcastic but real story is that because my mother is a painter and she's graduated from a painting school, and her classmate is being captured by some small reasons and then put to jail. And then those high officials, those governors, they want somebody to paint a portrait of themselves. So as this artist in jail, Do you want to paint my portrait? Who is the guy responsible for putting him in jail? Of course, the artist says, no, I will not do it. And then they say, OK, if you not do it, then you will be here to rot. But we will give you alcohol if you paint my portrait. So the artist said, OK, with some alcohol, probably I will feel better. So he started painting the portrait in exchange for the alcohol. And with more alcohol, he felt better. But without the alcohol, he felt sad. So he became in this kind of cycle. painting a portrait, exchange with the alcohol, and then drink more, and then paint more portraits. And after like 20 years, when he's released, he's become an alcoholic and then died very soon after he's released. And this is, a lot of stories like this happens in that period of time. So, BODILESS, I tried to make this kind of abstract but also kind of like a surreal story which probably based on my imagination of what happened at that time. But the BODILESS is not only to describe what happened at that time from my point of view, it's also talking about our new digital technology. For example, we have the new technology like the big data or artificial intelligence that will be able to surveillance a lot more people than the old government can do. And now I start to think like, although we have those new technology, but we can communicate in the instance, and we can communicate with a lot of people. But for some reason, those technology doesn't let us to understand human quality more truly. On the contrary, I think with those technologies, we start to simplify human quality. For example, like American President Trump, he used 144 words to describe his opinion about his country. And this is so oversimplified. And also like the drone flying in Iraq or Iran. The pilot of the drone is located in Nevada. And they watch the screen and then they look at it like those couple pixels. And they had to use that information to decide if this guy is a terrorist or not. And is he worth to live or he had to kill him. So with those new technology, I think we are now becoming more willing to understand others more. But instead we use it to simplify others. So in the bodyless you start to see like the human body being reduced to a simple geometry shape. That's what I feel about the new technology. So what I feel is that there's a convergence from the old ruling government and the new technology. They're forming this convergence and it's all against humanity.

[00:19:38.453] Kent Bye: Yeah, when I went to China and I didn't get a VPN, and so I'm sort of on the other side of the Chinese firewall. And so I have all this censorship where I can't get to Twitter or Facebook or Instagram or YouTube or Gmail. I feel like I was cut off from a lot of the technologies I use every day. And then also just hearing people born in America but have lived in China, they said, well, there's the three Ts in China. There's Tibet, Tiananmen Square, and Taiwan. And so there seemed to be like this weird censorship around Taiwan and its relationship to China. And then I asked somebody, I was like, what's happening with China and Taiwan? They're like, well, I came here on a Taiwanese passport, if that tells you anything. And it's like, OK, well, it's not China, but it's like, what is the relationship between China and Taiwan? I don't know if I quite understand it.

[00:20:28.710] Hsin Chien Huang: Yeah, well, mainland China always think that Taiwan is part of China, but the Taiwanese people think that they are the independent state or country. I think it's a very complicated issue. Personally, I would hope that China and Taiwan could resolve and then could be live in peace together because we share the common culture. Like my father, he's from China from 1938. And my mother's whole family is also moving from China probably like a hundred years ago. So we all have root in China. And now we are kind of like a, I think it's kind of like a British and America. It's like they are fighting and then they still be this like really close connection. So I think what I can do is to constantly create my work based on Taiwanese culture and let people feel like what's the Taiwan's culture is and what's different from China. but also you will see that's a close link because we are sharing the same language, sharing the same cultures. But I think eventually I hope that China will have also what they are doing right now is that they will have the good technology and really sophisticated cultures and Taiwan will have that too and we can all be friends and brothers. Yeah, that's what I feel.

[00:22:07.550] Kent Bye: Well from a VR perspective HTC is based out of Taiwan so they're able to have access to the Chinese market but still sort of have some certain level of independence and I was talking to some other Taiwanese VR creators and they were telling me about like things like a Golden Horse Film Festival you know being able to have all these films that don't fall under the same censorship laws of what would be in China but still to be able to like have a little bit more open discussion and It also just reminds me of the kind of weird blending of cultures in Hong Kong between the British colony and China, but that seems a little bit different from British culture, more Western culture, and more Eastern coming together. It seems like more of a difference than Taiwan and China, but still kind of a similar weird connection between the governments and how much sovereignty, how much independence, and what is the relationship. How do you make sense of what is happening in Hong Kong right now with all the protests that are happening from a Taiwanese perspective?

[00:23:04.713] Hsin Chien Huang: Well, because I have friends on both sides. I have a friend that's married to a mainland China woman and also I have a friend that they are protesters. So I think I hear the reason from both sides. I think that makes sense because I think that's a very difficult problem right now. It's not like a clean cut. You say, okay, Hong Kong needs, they should have like free election, or the Hong Kong needs, if they come in the crowd, they had to deported to mainland China. Because Hong Kong is kind of like a mirror or a window to the mainland China. I think China at this moment, I think they still need a lot of education for people to gradually release from the strong ruling. So I think if we say, OK, the mainland China, they should have a free voting, and then the country will collapse. I don't think a lot of Western people understand that. They don't really travel to the deep area of China. And also I think a lot of Western media, they don't really report what's happening, or really want to understand what the Chinese, the overall Chinese population is. They only focus on very few cities like Beijing and Shanghai, and they think that's representing the whole China, which is exactly not the case. So I think that's a lot of lessons to learn and also I think that's a lot of understanding that both sides, the Western and China, had to reveal themselves to each other. And then they will probably understand why China had to be ruling this way and they cannot make progress too rapidly.

[00:25:06.032] Kent Bye: It's helpful to hear your perspective just to hear the different levels of nuance that I may not be getting just from my Western media perspective. I know there's certainly a lot of debates and conflicts and protests that are happening, but also this sort of strange relationship between Hong Kong and China and also Taiwan and China. But it sounds like from the 1970s, what you said is that the Taiwanese martial law sounds like it was from the Taiwanese government, like an authoritarian martial law to prevent people in Taiwan from making any associations with China. So they sort of walked down and then that's kind of the context that you were trying to explore in your VR piece. Is that right?

[00:25:43.431] Hsin Chien Huang: Yeah. Yes, so I think that period is actually long gone. Then Taiwan has the free election and a lot of things changed and the government actually also tried to remedy the damage. made from the old days but I think for me I'm not really want to use this piece to attack what's happening but I think just like I said I want to make a record of the memory of my family And I think that's the most important thing, because I think when we have a new media, for example like VR, like I just said, a lot of time it's used by the industry, used by the big companies, used by the entities with big money. But for example, if I say after we invented photography, how do we change our way to remember our family? I think that's the work for the artists to explore. So I want to know when the VR being invented, how do I remember my family? How do I, or when my child grow up, how do I say, okay, this is, the environment when I was six years old. I think the VR could do that. And to do that, I think, as a creator, we can create a content in VR and then give it to our offspring, just like a photo album.

[00:27:25.162] Kent Bye: Yeah, so really here that trying to explore VR not only as dreams but VR as memory. So you're kind of recreating an impression of the memory of this time and you start off in a prison and then you kind of go down into a sewer and then you end up into like the room with all the political red lines connecting the dots between the individuals that may have been disappeared. But then there's like this sort of tree structure that's in that room and then you go down into a big tunnel with lots of different looks almost like an apartment complex but with lots of different windows with like trees growing so what's what's the relationship between the trees growing in to the buildings and what you were trying to communicate with that

[00:28:02.336] Hsin Chien Huang: I think that's also my... Oh, by the way, the clue room, you see a lot of photographs and news clippings. Those photographs are my childhood photos. So you can see my... I'm in many of those photos. But go back to your question is that... I think in my childhood, because we are so poor, so the house is not very well constructed. So you will see like all kinds of plants, insects, animals, they are living inside the house with us. And I think that's wonderful. I think with modern technology we start to repel everything living outside of our line, except our pet and the mouse and the flies and mosquitoes and the cockroaches. I think before that, when our house is not like a completely sheltered us from the nature, I think we are connected to the nature. So I think that the scene building is trying to represent that kind of feeling. So like the tree root that will grow into our house and also we will see the ants, the dragonflies or even the fireflies will fly in the night and also the termites. I think that's very important because I think what we did right now is that we have air-conditioned, we have those really high-tech buildings. We show the nature from our everyday life, so we don't feel the nature. So if the weather becomes hotter, then so what? We didn't feel it. I think that's the reason we have the global warming and now we call it climate change, just to make everybody feel better. But those things, when we neglect them, then the damage starts to accumulate. And also, I think in my childhood, I think a lot of, like in the VR, you will see I use the newspaper as a metaphor. Because in my childhood, the newspaper is the most abundant resource for everybody. So people will use it to glue on the wall as a wallpaper. And also we will use newspaper to build our toys, which means that we recycle everything. We don't throw away what we did right now. So we don't have a plastic island at that time. But now, because we think everything, when it's no use, it's trash, we have to throw it away. But at that time, I think a lot of things we can start to reuse and they are not trash. So that's also the hidden meaning from that.

[00:30:56.489] Kent Bye: Well at some point you go into this whole scene with what you call like the seventh lunar month as like an opportunity to connect to ancestors and so kind of flying through with these big tall statue in motion and then people that are smaller and then they're starting to burn and over time or the course of the scene they all end up burning and then at the end there's a ship and so maybe could talk a bit about like the seventh lunar month and like what this visualization of this either time period or ritual that you were trying to communicate there.

[00:31:24.857] Hsin Chien Huang: Well, that's a very traditional Taiwanese folk ceremony. So in the seventh month of the lunar calendar, it's kind of like Mexico's Day of the Dead. So people believe that the gate of hell will open and all the ghosts will have a chance to go back to the living world and maybe visit their family and the family will have the offering so they can eat and then when they are full they can go back to the underworld. So those giant statues is called the General Seven and General Eight. They are used to be brought. That's a story telling about like how they become the god. And also the burning ship is also a ceremony for Taiwan. to give the offering to a god which is governing the plague because at that time like the seven months is the hottest time of the year so by burning the ship means that the god will be happy and also they will not have so many diseases

[00:32:40.295] Kent Bye: And then when you're flying up you have these shelter structures that then when you have grass growing and then you go into them and then the grass goes away and there's like this dance that starts to happen and unfold and that there's this kind of replicated all through space up and down that you kind of fly into and see and so what what was that dance?

[00:32:58.256] Hsin Chien Huang: Oh, the theatre you see looks like a mirror theatre. That's also a very traditional Taiwanese architecture. So now we have something, a TV we call a home theatre. And at that time they actually have a theatre for those really high-ranking officers to have at their home. And that's a physical theatre. So when you're flying to the theater, the grass will contract and reveal the dancing paper god. That part actually is inspiration from the, I forgot what's the name, it's like a fairy tale or children's story about a girl. She's like standing in the matches, but she's very cold so she's like lighting up the match and she will see the dream or she's a dream in this fire but in the end she's like frozen to die so that part is coming from that so when you enter a theater it's like that's a dream or a memory that enclosed on that deserted theater so you can go to each theater and listen to the music or the sound to regain that memory back

[00:34:18.922] Kent Bye: And then there's a couple more scenes that I remember. One that really stuck out was almost like these iceberg rocks that were floating that were like islands that had like these maybe two or three story houses on top of and that I really tried to get into the houses at first and I couldn't get in. But then I think I went down and then there was like these big kind of like mechanical fish looking things that I kind of swam with for a little bit. And so like what was happening with that? Were there like these floating structures either underwater or floating in space with like these fish that were swimming around as well?

[00:34:47.768] Hsin Chien Huang: Yeah, that's full of obscure symbols. Yeah, well, when you are descending from those water lanterns, you will see it turn into this giant lotus flower. And underneath, there's a whole bunch of apartments that's been trapped in its root. And that part is actually constructed from my childhood memory of how we lived in this old apartment building. Actually, there's three apartments you can get into, but you have to find them. So I think that meaning is that, for me, sometimes I feel the apartment is alive. So the mechanical fish you see actually is a fish built from those apartment concrete. So for me, I think those apartments are very alive. They can grow, and when it rains, you will hear a very special smell from its concrete. So I feel the apartment is living with those insects and creatures, and they are living with us.

[00:35:55.232] Kent Bye: And another scene that just popped in my mind was like this Matrix-like city with different numbers that were changing and then I go to this area where there's these giant men in these like gas mask like suits spraying these numbers into the city. So what does that represent for you?

[00:36:13.143] Hsin Chien Huang: Those are representations of the ruling classes that they have the power to simplify everything. And in the beginning, when you are in the jail or in the cell, when you go out the jail door, you can see those masked people standing on both sides of the hallway. So it's kind of like a precursor to what happens in the end. And if you look at those textures really carefully, sometimes there will pop up some keywords like insignificant or ignore or something from those texts.

[00:36:52.332] Kent Bye: Wow. Well, the overall takeaway that I'm getting from this experience is that first of all, I loved it. I really love the mystery of it. Really, like I said, it felt like a dream. there's a certain element of these symbols that you're using that I think for a Taiwanese audience that may be familiar with all of the cultural heritage and history like I feel like they may be able to see some of those but for not being aware of all the sort of cultural context it's difficult for me to know what it what these mean but there's also just a lot of very personal things like a personal dream that you have and that you have an association for what it means but it's like difficult for me to know what it means and so I feel like we're in this phase where as VR as a language it's like trying to navigate the personal symbols and the cultural symbols with the symbols that'll sort of be transcendent and to be able to get this universal feeling. I feel like I got a feeling of it without necessarily needing to know all the personal details. But as part of the future of the grammar of trying to use symbols as a form of language, it's sort of like this negotiation of these meanings and these symbols and what we now see online as memes that get created in a specific cultural context that there may be memes that mean something very much to this very niche community. But then when you show it outside of that community, you're like, what does this mean? And so part of the tricky evolution of the language and the grammar of symbolism in VR is like this tension between the personal symbol and the collective symbol and how to, as an artist, know how to create something, even if it's very personal, but it maybe still has this kind of transcendent quality.

[00:38:27.795] Hsin Chien Huang: Yeah, I think also because Taiwan is a very small island and a lot of its culture is not known by the international cultures or audience. And I think what I want to do is that in this VR I just want to get people to be interested. And when I'm interested, I think they will have the intention to dig more into Taiwan's culture and then they will find out what those symbols are. So I think I want to keep it a mystery and also I think that's intentional. But I think once people think, oh, that looks interesting, and they want to know more about what's a burning ship, then they will find out that's Taiwan's burning king's junk in the Taiwan's ceremony. And they will find this really rich and wonderful ceremony, and they will start to relate to more of those. And that's my hope.

[00:39:34.047] Kent Bye: Well, if that was your intention, that's what got me curious to have this conversation we just had. It sounds like we kind of explored a lot of that. But for you, I'm wondering what type of experiences in VR do you want to have?

[00:39:45.418] Hsin Chien Huang: Well, I'm not quite sure yet. I think that... I'm the person that I need to see and feel this new media and then I will make my next step. So I think after going to the VR world, I think every day I'm making new experiment and know, oh, okay, this media can do this or do that. I think what we Right now in the VR, it's very similar to when the movies just started invented in 1900s. I think in 1896, the French pioneer shoot this movie like a train going to the station. I heard that at that time, when people saw that, it's like everybody jumped out of the sea and they're running away because they think the train's going to hit them. But after so many years, after 100 years, the director developed the film language, like the montage or all those things. And not only that, but audience share the common language with the director or creators. So when I see the director doing this, I say, oh, OK, I understand. That's his intention. That's what he tried to say. But now, a lot of times I see the VR piece, I can see that the director want the audience to look this way, the audience look that way. I think that's because they don't share a common language. And I think that takes time to build, to establish, and that's a wonderful thing. All the creators for the VR, we are exploring a new way to use this media. Just like we go to the Venice, this small island, we see all sorts of experiments. And I think some of them will, if that works, they will last. And some will, maybe we'll call, like this will be the VR montage. So I think this is just a process. We're just in the beginning of this media and we need to develop and the audience need to be familiar with it and start knowing what the language is.

[00:42:06.578] Kent Bye: As you talk about the language it makes me think about the difference between English language and the Chinese language or Mandarin or the languages that use the pictograms that have a lot of how things are related to each other and more of like a contextual way to be able to know what the meaning is and I feel like that there may be some aspect for how that language works and the Chinese language that may give certain insights for maybe that's what the spatial language of VR is going to be a little bit more like Chinese language than English language. I'm just curious if you've thought about like the parallels between the Chinese language and the spatial storytelling or film language that may get developed.

[00:42:48.166] Hsin Chien Huang: I think the written language probably is quite different from the visual language. But I think the Asian philosophy probably will give some of the oriental creators some different approach to this media. For example, in China we have this Tai Chi, which is composed by Yin and Yang. And so the Yin sometimes means it's void, or it's virtual, it's emptiness. I think the Western culture doesn't have that concept until very late in the history. For example, like John Cage talk about silence could be part of the music. So, emptiness and nothingness, or something that only resides in your imaginations, but not something you can see or hear. I think that will be a very important part of VR. Because I think, some people told me a story, I think that's very interesting and a very important lesson for VR. It's that, I think it's like a professor, He is doing an experiment. He wants to know, like, when people are reading books or playing video games, which brain activity is more active. So he had two groups of people, one inside reading books and one inside playing video games, but they put the EKG on their head and then measure, like, what the brain activity is. And surprisingly, the people reading books Their brain activity is a lot more active than the people playing video games. And the reason why is that when you're reading books, your brain has to work very hard. You have to translate abstract language into pictures, sound, and movies. But when you're playing video games, you are kind of like you use Kind of like reactive, you just, your eyes see something and then your hand just like react to it. So I think nowadays, I think our movie industry is going to a very strange place or strange direction. We can see, like, in the old days, I forgot which really old sci-fi movie is just using a blinking light to represent a computer, and everybody's saying, oh, that's great. It has so many mysteries to it.

[00:45:23.953] Kent Bye: A 2001 Space Odyssey with Hal?

[00:45:25.916] Hsin Chien Huang: It's even older than that. It's like a black and white film. I think it's a French film, yeah. And now we want to see everything. We want to see the Avenger, we want to see all the effects rendered out crystal clear. I think what it means is that our brain starts to lose the ability to imagine for us. And we want to see everything that's already been prepared for us. I think that's very much like a drug. It's that if you have the drug, then you will be happy. Without the drug, you will feel sad. So I think the development of all those special effects, they gradually take away our imaginations. So I think that's a very important thing for the VR, that we should put those imaginations back in VR, but not taking them away.

[00:46:26.266] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality might be, and what it might be able to enable?

[00:46:36.606] Hsin Chien Huang: Well, I think one of my favorite movies, I think it's 1988 movie, is called Brainstorm. Have you seen that movie? Not yet, no. Okay. It's a movie about, like, they invent this device. They can record people's experience. All the visual, audio, everything, touch, and then they can play back to you. And in that movie is like when that device being invented by the military use that as a brainwash device and the porn industry use that. Of course everybody know what they want to do it. And also people want to record like people riding the roller coaster or men use that to experience what women feel like. So I think this movie is always my imagination of what VR will become. And I think that will be like that. It's like all the different sectors, all the different disciplines will try to see what VR could do for them. But what I care about is what the artists will use them. And I think that will be the most unpredictable feel among all.

[00:47:53.903] Kent Bye: Great. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the immersive community?

[00:47:59.864] Hsin Chien Huang: That's it. Yeah. I'm really happy to have this conversation.

[00:48:04.785] Kent Bye: Awesome. Great. Well, thank you so much. Thank you. So that was Shenzhen Huang. He's the director of Bodyless, which was premiering in competition at Venice, as well as To the Moon, which was out of competition there at Venice as well. So I've got a number of different takeaways about this interview is that, first of all, Well, for me, it was just fascinating to be able to go through this experience. It was one of my favorite experiences that I saw at Venice, because I think that Shenzhen is starting to use the medium of virtual reality to explore deep metaphors, creating these entire scenes that are somewhat mysterious. And it does feel like you're kind of walking through someone else's dream. And this is a process of him trying to symbolically express different aspects of his life. So you can go through the experience and not unpack it. But I think there is an element of, have a shared experience and now you're able to get a deeper sense of what did this mean what did this mean and that's a lot of what i found this process to be and i expect over time that either we just get more sophisticated of being able to understand what that translation is because you could argue that in order to be a good piece of art that you shouldn't have to like sit there with the creator and have them explain everything to you if you don't get it just through the medium of the art then Was it up to the artist to make that clear? But I do think that in any medium, there's room for lots of ambiguity. And at the same time, there's the cultivation of the new language of VR that's still being created and cultivated. And then as an audience member, we have to be able to go into an experience like this and to be able to know how to experience it. And for us to be aware of all these different aspects of cultural heritage and symbols and what people may mean when they have these different associations, when you For example, go into a room that has a tree that's growing out of it and then on the wall is like all these pictures and photos with these red strings pointed to news articles. It feels like jumping into somebody's like lair where they're talking about some deep conspiracy theories. But in this case, trying to connect that there was actually like this martial law where people would just disappear and there's no explanation. And so you're trying to connect to see what their behavior might've been and then to see how that impacted people afterwards. And just to see how he's able to give that aspect of his own childhood where his mother being the historian and being able to track all these different things, but also this whole process of living under martial law under Taiwan. And, you know, I don't think he was necessarily trying to speak specifically around China, which is in the news a lot lately with what's happening in Hong Kong and a lot of the protests that are happening there. From his perspective, he sees people on both sides and sees that it's a much more complicated nuanced story than most people from the Western media may understand and not really recognizing how deep the different cultures are intertwined with each other and how there is this connection between Chinese culture and Taiwan and it's not just a simple thing that you can just say this is what the relationship is. But I would expect the people from Taiwan that they would see this and they would have a completely different experience where if you were to see it and you know nothing about Taiwanese culture, which is pretty much where I was starting when I saw this experience, then there's this ability to be able to have a conversation and kind of unpack things a little bit and to learn a little bit more about this seventh lunar month and the whole ritual of ancestors to see that there's this big ship and it's burning. So there's these images that I guess that are stuck in my body. like I was going through the dream, and then to kind of unpack, okay, this is a part of the Taiwanese culture. So I do think it's super fascinating to see what's happening in Taiwan, especially around the different initiatives from the government, where they've really said, okay, VR, it's going to be our thing to be able to really push forward the storytelling medium. Taiwan's not a big country, not really necessarily known on the world stage for a lot of various different things around culture. This is an opportunity for them to really make some bold innovations. And I have seen the impact of that, of different experiences that have been programmed at Sundance and Tribeca and South by Southwest and Venice that are from this cohort of different virtual reality directors and creators that are coming out of Taiwan and really pushing the medium forward and doing these really interesting experiments. There's an article that came out on August 31st on Variety called Taiwan on the Cutting Edge of Virtual Reality that really unpacks all the different aspects of the Taiwan Creative Content Agency and a lot of different pieces that have been showing at festivals around the world. So bodyless was an experience at Venice that was essentially sold out for the entire time. It's like a half hour long and you have to sign up beforehand. And essentially like it was one of the experiences that was pretty much very difficult to see. I was fortunate enough to see all the different experiences at Venice in the first two days. And. to be able to actually see it and then talk to Shenzhen. One of the really interesting pieces, hopefully it'll be able to make it out there. That's one of the challenges that I've talked about in previous conversations, is that there's not really great distribution platforms for a lot of these more experimental art pieces. It's one of those experiences that is starting to play with this dream logic in a very particular way. Another experience that reminded me of that was called Black Bag that was produced by VR Times, Qin Xiao, It's from China, but also a very interesting, sophisticated way of using dream logic going through these different scenes that feel like these memories are a dream. So I'll be, uh, covering a couple more experiences, uh, in this series, uh, including seven lines, as well as this punch drunk experience that starting to experiment with different aspects of virtual reality. Um, back in 2016, it was showing in Venice as well. And yeah, I'm curious to see how this continues to evolve and grow. And if you do have a chance to see body lists, then I highly recommend it. Cause I think it's. making all these really interesting innovations, especially with the navigation, being able to fly around. 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 enlisted supporter podcast. And so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself. Just $5 a month is a great amount to give and allows me to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash which is a VR. Thanks for listening

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