These wise words by The Clash frontman Joe Strummer pretty much sums up my weekend, during which I put the books down and headed to London to meet friends for birthdays and farewells, and to sneak in a few cultural activities to feed the thesis inspiration dragon.
I must admit, after being completely spoiled at Sheffield Doc/Fest I was surprised by the modesty of the British Museum’s Sumsung Digital Discovery Centre’s VR set up, even though it was in fact accurately described in the Guardian article which had drawn me to it in the first place (here’s the official spiel). The display was composed of an “fulldome” tent between the main staircases, and off to the side a couple of lengths of tables blocked off by portable walls, with one table for VR headsets and one for tablet displays – all set out within the hot, stuffy and noisy flurry of the BM’s foyer. It really was not the best location for what’s supposed to be a personal and immersive experience (there’s a reason cinemas are dark and soundproofed), but as with all forays into VR looks can be deceiving, and with patience and a little digging I found there was a lot more here than meets the eye.
The BM’s VR showcase began with physical entry into the fulldome, a tent which could hold about 6 people at a time (say a family and a technician), which planetarium-style guided visitors through a reconstructed 3D Bronze Age village and round house for about 5 minutes. The next step was to then ‘walk’ through the same virtual space via the VR headsets. Using a touchpad built into the side of the headset you could direct your speed and pace as you navigated the virtual hut, and also select up to three objects to digitally explore (through rotation and audio description) from the BM’s collection. These artefacts have been accurately 3D scanned for open source replication by the Micropasts team, and including the Beaune dirk (a ceremonial sword), the Woolaston bracelets and the Sussex Loops. The final part of the virtual experience was a Samsung Galaxy 10.1 tablet app with which you could further manipulate the 3D objects and read up about them in greater detail.
The negatives: the reconstructed village and roundhouse aesthetically seemed satisfactory to this VR novice, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some VR buffs found it disappointingly still too video-game like, given the current high standard of competition in VR. Movement was frustrating, especially with the strict 5 minute schedule that was imposed on the day, as it took a little time to learn how to control ones speed and stopping (causing a disorientation described as “the opposite of seasickness” by one visitor beside me). When combined with the buffering delay when you selected objects – watching the “loading” wheel spin is a sure way to kill any sense of being in another reality – the chance of feeling a genuine immersion was undermined. Also the audio descriptions given within the VR space were very slim, kind of like someone had just read a museum label to you, so that felt like a missed opportunity to be creative. The tablet app, too seemed pretty basic, with a page of written description for each object which you could also manipulate in 3D digital form.
At one point I found myself distracted by asking myself why the objects in presented were in their current 21st century aged state, when the roundhouse itself was as-new. Linking the old and new forms of the objects through some interactive transition could have been an interesting exercise. I now understand the overall aim of the project was to reveal the current version of objects within their past context, but I doubt that precious funerary swords and jewellery would have been left lying around on the floor of a mostly bare looking hut. I also understand the whole thing was a trial, a test screening if you will, tailored to children as an educational tool. But this seems a bit odd as most of the audience I saw present were adults, and also seems a bit contradictory as under 13 year olds were not allowed to use the headset (health and safety? seriously?) – but the over 13 year olds (and adults) who could, would probably find the experience a bit too limited, more of a novelty than a challenge. Which is another great pity – why do museums so often assume sensory experiences are best for kids, and not equally powerful ways of learning and knowing for the rest of us?
The positives: Although initially feeling less than blown away, I didn’t want my visit to the BM to be a waste, so I cornered staff member Jennifer Wexler to talk shop. And suddenly my whole experience turned 180˚! Jennifer showed me the actual 3D replicas of the objects from the VR world, in what I would consider the forth component of the exhibit. Now, through touch, I felt I could really know these objects: the subtle colours and surprising size of the beautiful 3D printed dirk, the weightiness and shifting golden sheen of the hand crafted replica loops. Now the VR experience succeeded, now I could indeed mentally situate the objects in my hands in the world that they came from (more or less), having just “been” there. Jennifer’s enthusiasm for the objects and their VR context was infectious – I now found myself hooked and wanted to know more. She invited me to join the curator Dr Neil Wilkin for a short tour of the Bronze Age gallery, the final component of the day. Into the labyrinth of the BM we went and Neil introduced our small group (again, adults and teens) to see two particular objects that represented life and death in Bronze Age Britain, taking his time to weave an accurate and sophisticated vision of the past world in our minds through a friendly, open ended and intimate discussion. Joining us was replica artisan Roland Williamson who had made the replica Sussex Loops, and archaeologist Dr Tessa Machling, who together further explained the fine craftsmanship of the objects and their relevance today. If only this level of testimony and expertise had been included in the VR world through a sort of layering of information from the beginning, we could have taken the conversation even further!
I think VR has the potential to be a powerful form of archaeological storytelling in future if done right, and ultimately I think the BM’s VR exhibit is a nice example of how this can work in practice, through the combination of cross-platform discovery and in-person expert guidance. Despite the technical quibbles (which are more to do with logistics and technology), and the limited information due to the narrow audience scope (which is part of a broader problematic museum trend of catering chiefly to families and children rather than to mixed audiences), there’s still a lot to be admired and learned from here. I really liked the dedicated attention of the entire VR team who personalised the experience and made it an genuine dialogue, and I also liked the cross-platform nature of the VR world (across the fulldome, VR headset, tablet, and even via Micropasts out of the museum to twitter and the online 3D printing community). Most of all I loved the real-world linking of VR with the tangible replicas and originals back in the gallery. It’s almost like a three act story structure, wherein you set up your world (through VR), you introduce your objects/characters (through replicas), then you develop and explore the complexity of those objects/characters (via the originals/experts). I understand the VR headsets and displays will be used by the BM in school outreach activities and may be set up in the Samsung Digital Discovery Centre under the BM’s foyer, so I look forward to seeing the next stage of this project.
Before there was VR there was film, and sometimes you have to remember where you came from in order to know where you’re going. This July the BFI re-released a digitally restored version of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek’s kinoapparatom) (1929), and I was fortunate enough to catch it on the big screen (at BFI Southbank) before it inevitably gets shelved again. With a frenetic new soundtrack composed by the Alloy Orchestra (following the original instructions by Vertov), you could be forgiven for mistaking this film as a recent creation – Vertov was certainly a man ahead of his time. Tragically so in fact – he was widely dismissed and ridiculed during his life by film figureheads Grierson and Eisenstein, the latter even labelled his work “cinehooliganism”. It was not until the 1970s through the efforts of historian Georges Sadoul and the acknowledgement of verité master Rouch, that Vertov was recognised for his contribution to film and to documentary.
Working in a “Council of Three” with editor Yelizaveta Svilova (Vertov’s wife) and cameraman Mikhail Kaufman (his brother), Vertov uses film to its maximum cinematic potential in this city symphonic portrait of Soviet Russia. Through observational filming he captures and remixes Russia’s real poverty, leisure, work, marriage, divorce, death, even a live birth (!) against the backdrop of the technological, social and political machinery of post-revolution Russia. He and Mikhail wade out into the ocean with tripod in hand, scale nimbly up bridges, chase ambulances, firetrucks and fellow motorists from the back of a convertible and dive beneath trains as they rumble literally a foot overhead, winding the bulky camera all the while. Vertov uses special effects as political, social and artistic metaphor, including split screens, dissolves, superimposition, freeze frames, fast and slow-motion, extreme close ups, stop-motion animation, reversals, jump-cuts and hand-held footage. He even captures the film crew themselves, editing, filming, in reflections, in the lens itself – as if in a fit of hyper-reflexivity – always reminding the audience that what they are seeing is at once both reality and a deliberately constructed reality.
“Our eyes see very poorly and very little […] the movie camera was invented to penetrate more deeply into the visible world.” – Vertov.
But the power of the film medium for Vertov was not simply one of observation and presentation, rather it was an the entry into a much deeper conversation about the potential to use film almost like a scientific and cultural experiment, to explore and test “cinema truth” (kino-pravda, the cinema eye) as a revolutionary tool and (dangerous) critique of Leninist Russia. As Brian Winston put it nicely:
“A ‘kino-eye’ seeing below the surface realities offers a crucial lifeline as modern technology undercuts and wounds mainstream realist documentary’s essential observationalist assumptions, perhaps fatally. Vertov’s agenda in Man with a Movie Camera signposts nothing less than how documentary can survive the digital destruction of photographic image integrity and yet still, as Vertov wanted, ‘show us life’. Vertov is in fact the key to documentary’s future.” (in Sight and Sound, Sept 2014).
I hope it’s clear why I am including Vertov’s work in the same blog entry as a review of a VR exhibit in archaeology. As I’ve said before, I believe archaeologists are storytellers and I believe documentary – whether through film, TV, VR, online or in combination of these – is the ideal medium to communicate and explore archaeological stories and ideas. But we must tread carefully when experimenting with new technologies, and although VR has been around for a couple of decades now, it’s only recently taken off as a popular medium so our understanding of it is still developing. As Vertov refused to rest on convention and instead situated his filmmaking practice firmly and fiercely within his own political and artistic philosophy, we archaeologists and museum curators too must be critical of our use of VR, so we don’t trap ourselves and get stuck simply using technology as an easy audience hook in place of meaningful and deliberate storytelling and genuine human connection, whether with the present or with the past. As the use of VR in archaeology becomes more common, we must enter into a deeper conversation about how, why and for whom we go about constructing past “reality” (or even the “reality” of current archaeological practice). Fortunately documentary theory and practice have already done a lot of the groundwork for us – the works of Vertov, Rouch and Winston are a great place to start. Medium matters of course, but it matters only if the storytelling stays true.