Edinburgh Reactions: Whist

I’m in Edinburgh for a month, and there’s a fringe festival going on! So let’s talk about some shows…

Whist, by AΦE, has been the highlight of my Fringe experience so far. And by that, I mean that it’s not a Fringe show at all (it closed the day before the Fringe opened).

What it is

Whist is a VR dance piece. Audience members are placed in a space with a number of sculptures, which they briefly explore before donning a Gear VR headset.

While in VR, there are basically 2 modes: search and watch. In search mode, the screen just shows the phone’s camera output with an overlay of a sculpture that you have to find and go to. When you get there, you’re transported into a 360 video, that features dance and Freudian imagery. Once the video ends, you’re given a new sculpture to find.

I definitely should have taken a photo of the setup, and that photo would have gone here, and that could have been really useful for your understanding of the show… whoops

Each person’s journey through Whist is different: your path depends on where you look in each video. At the end, you get given a number corresponding to your path, and you can look up that number on the website to find out what your gaze says about you... according to Freudian psychology I guess?

Can I see it?

Check out http://www.aoiesteban.com/calendar/ for info about upcoming dates (Brighton is coming up? If you’re not in Europe, probably not…).

How I felt about it

Some spoilers here… I’ll try to keep it limited but if you want to go see this, I suggest you just go without knowing more.

This really sold me on VR and 360 video as a performance medium (though it should be noted that I haven’t watched 360 videos using a headset before). The simple fact that the audience’s viewpoint is fixed and defined is kind of magic: performers can actually hold eye contact with every member of an audience, and that eye contact is immediate and powerful.

The flip side, of course, is that it’s often unclear where your gaze should be. Especially in a symbolic piece like this, you’re constantly wondering whether there’s something else to look at behind you. Even when someone was holding my gaze, I was still tempted to look behind me and see what else was happening.

This wasn’t necessarily helped by the gaze ‘mechanic’. I like the idea that where I looked was important, and that this would tell me something about myself. What I didn’t like was that I was told about it before the experience. I ended up trying to consciously choose what I wanted to see more of, or wondering whether there was another choice out there. Or, you know, staring at something for ages out of the hope that there was a video about it down the line. In such an immersive piece, it’s what pulled me out of the moment.

I was, however, pleasantly surprised at how not-vomit-inducing the search part of the piece was. I was totally expecting to feel nauseous, but it turns out that when the user can just stop moving when something feels bad, they tend to not get sick! It was an odd, ethereal feeling to walk around using a different perspective as a guide: I think there’s definitely some potential here in the ‘yer a ghost harry'/outer body experience genre.

You may have noticed that I haven’t really talked about the content… to be honest, I think I was so excited at seeing all this technology used effectively that I wasn’t really thinking about the content’s meaning or how it all came together. I’m not super predisposed to Freudian symbolism, though the subject matter gave the artists license to flex their creative muscles and explore the medium, with generally pretty fantastic results.

Many of the videos featured some sort of visual effects, and while none of them were particularly spectacular in terms of production quality, their effects were often breathtaking. My two favourites:

  • A scene that starts with all but a corner shrouded in darkness, which retreats to reveal the whole space, and then advances once again; and
  • A scene that cuts between two settings, where a character’s movements are matched. At one point, the room starts to rotate with each cut

Final thoughts

I really liked Whist, and I recommend the hell out of it. It’s hard, however, for me to say how much of that recommendation is just my first experience with a well-produced example of an exciting new medium, and how much is for the piece itself. If nothing else, it confirms how VR is for artists and creators (assuming, of course, widespread adoption blahdi blah blah).