Are you an archaeologist? Are you an artist? Are you a bit of both? TAG 2016 Needs You! I am absolutely delighted to share a very special call for contributors to this December’s UK Theoretical Archaeology Group conference. Instead of papers we want your paintings. And your pastels. Your pencils and papers and printed works. Your pottery. Your pixels especially. Perhaps even your performance art.
I’m very excited and honored to be collaborating with fellow PhD students and archaeologists Joana Valdez-Tullett, Helen Chittock, Grant Cox and Eleonora Gandolfi to bring to the UK archaeology community the inaugural Sightations gallery – an art/digital/film showcase running as part of this year’s TAG. In keeping with this year’s overall conference theme of ‘visualisation’, this gallery seeks to unpack what it means to represent archaeology visually in 2016. By juxtaposing traditional art forms (such as drawings, photography, painting, sculpture, textiles, ceramic, and more) with digital approaches to representation (digital media, CGI, film, video, gaming, virtual reality, cross- or multi-platform works), Sightations takes aim at archaeological visual conventions and strives to reveal new links between different disciplines, industries and sectors of archaeology, drawing connections between ideas with an eye towards future directions for archaeological visualizations.
We’re also planning to run a more traditional conference session or two tied in with the exhibition, so if you’re interested in presenting your ideas formally, as well as exhibiting your work, please stay tuned!
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.
The British Museum Virtual Reality Weekend
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.
So it turns out there’s more to this Virtual Reality shindig than meets the eye – and I’m not the only one to see the potential here for archaeology.
The Virtual Reality Arcade, which was co-curated with Sheffield’s Site Gallery, seems to be a new addition to the Doc/Fest (or at least, I can’t find any references to it in prior years) – and I hope they make it a permanent fixture synched with the Crossover Summit because there is so much to be inspired by here. Exhibiting a variety of immersive projects from experimental media to fully formed documentary storytelling, one can’t help but wonder if that big dark cinema will soon be replaced by these daggy goggles and headphones. It’s also refreshing to see not only game-like pixelated worlds featured, but observational filming out in the real world. Here’s a selection of my favourite works:
Oscillate, created by UK engineer Brendan Walker, is an immersive art experience that fuses the classic playground swing with Oculus Rift technology. In short: as you swing so too does the virtual world you find yourself in – it moves with you. And it’s a funky world: M.C Escher meets minecraft in space is the best description I can give it. I kept expecting Labyrinth-style David Bowie to appear through the crumbing wall before me, if only I could swing a little bit further to peer around that distant edge. Be warned though: swinging high when blind and deaf to the real world is kind of alarming – it’s easy to forget that there are people around you and a hard floor below. Especially when that floor is replaced by swirling star-filled space. Oh, and did I mention you have no body? You look down and there’s noting there – no you, no swing – it’s like an out of body experience – in fact that was the case in all the VR projects I saw. Psychedelic much?
Clouds Over Sidra was easily my favourite VR project and I was pleased to see it win the Interactive Award at the festival. Co-created by Chris Milk and Gabo Arora and a whole team of “artists, technicians, thinkers and innovators,” this project combines traditional short-form documentary filmmaking with 360’ filming and Oculus VR technology. Commissioned by the United Nations and Samsung as part of an advocacy exhibit at the World Economic Forum in Davos 2015, Clouds Over Sidra tells the story of a 12 year Syrian refugee Sidra who lives in the Za’atari camp in Jordan, along with 84 000 other refugees. She narrates and shares her day with us in her own words, introducing us to her home, having breakfast with her family, going to school, playing with the other kids, and tells us how she wishes to return to where the clouds come from: her home in Syria. Interestingly she is dubbed into English (although you can hear her own voice beneath) – which makes me wonder how subtitles might fare in this new technology. That’s a technicality though. Ultimately, Clouds Over Sidra’s simplicity makes it a powerful piece – Sidra’s world is brought to life in a thoughtful, gentle and emotionally affecting way – demonstrating the real potential for using VR as an immersive storytelling device to drive social and political change. The VR technology here is serving the story, not the other way around. Check out Milk’s TED Talk for a taste of the film and the philosophy behind it, and the Creators Project for an interview with Arora for the more on the making-of this inspiring work.
But what does this mean for archaeology documentaries? Well, Clouds Over Sidra certainly gave me ideas for filming archaeological stories – but damnit Bikini Atoll beat me to the punch. Directed by Phil Harper, Bikini Atoll is a short 360’ film depicting the archaeological and environmental research conducted at the WW2 shipwrecks of Bikini Atoll (in the Marshall Islands), which later became a US nuclear test site. Thus the film takes us to two place we might never get to visit otherwise: underwater wrecks in the heart of the Pacific Ocean, and a nuclear test site (is that even safe?). There’s no scientific description of the research here – nor a clear documentary story driven by character development or change – rather its more of a poetic portrait of the site: you can all but feel the tug of the current as you twist and turn to watch the divers at work. But ultimately it feels like a promise of more to come, rather than a final finished product.
“We’re on the brink of a simply enormous change in visual communication.” – Sir David Attenborough
To me it VR also seems to be a promise: even though the technology has been with us for several decades now, it seems only recently to have begun pushing into fields other than gaming. Now there are stories here that it feels like only VR can tell, and other mediums – particularly the flat-screen of the television or cinema with its distant stereo speakers – will soon be unable to compete in the documentary quest for capturing actuality. And with pocket 360’ cameras and VR headsets now entering the consumer market, perhaps VR stories soon be cheaper and easier to make as well. Will the coder replace the editor? Will that shared communal experience of the cinema become a distant memory, traded in for personal immersive experiences (if that hasn’t happened already)? What are the ethical implications for our audience if such immersive stories become difficult to discern from reality? Will documentary modes change to suit the new vision? And most importantly, how can we eat a choc-top if we can’t see our hands?
Well, that’s a wrap on Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 for this blogger. I came, I saw, I spilled some vodka. And now it’s time to get back to my dusty dell at uni and a ever-growing pile of readings, paperwork and chapter drafts. But please share your thoughts on what you’ve read here – comment is free – and stay tuned for more musings, informal reviews and news on the constantly changing but always inspiring world of archaeology docs!