IDFA DocLab 2018: field notes

This week I was fortunate enough to do a two-day, whistle-stop scamper around IDFA DocLab Expo: Humanoid Cookbook. These are my rough notes on some of the experiences I managed to check out:

Tatsuniya — Rahima Gambo — Nigeria — 2018- Interactive

The over-arching theme for this year’s DocLab Expo is Humanoid Cookbook, and true to the theme, I take a seat at a small restaurant table complete with cutlery neatly tucked into a clean, pressed white napkin, single stem flower poised in a vase, and frosted wine glass teetering in the top corner. This is a style of staging that is repeated with small adaptations throughout the expo.

In front of me, multimedia web documentary Tatsuniya is projected onto the wall and as I scroll down, story after story unfurls, revealing the very real and ever-present threat of violence that Boko Haram continue to hold over the young people in schools and universities in parts of Nigeria. Personal stories are told in four chapters including photography, gifs, films and text. The volume of work here is a bit overwhelming for the time you can realistically give to it, and tricky to fully digest in a semi-public setting, but left a strong impression nonetheless.

Leaked Recipes (Leaked Lunch) — Gabriela Ivens — Germany — 2018 — Performance

Artist Gabi warmly welcomes us to join her for a lunch made up of recipes she has discovered within leaked emails from staff at companies such as Enron and Sony. With a bit of gentle guidance, and exquisitely considered staging, she invites us to confront our own opinions and assumptions about data security, privacy and transparency.

Mid-way I was given a secret identity as a hacker and oh my god, I loved the opportunity to be gloves-off-provocative in what became a remarkably nuanced conversation about hacking. Over lovingly sliced crudites and humous, we covered whistleblowing, Hilary Clinton’s emails and whether aggressively exposing flaws in security systems by stealing and publishing people’s personal information is justified if it leads to more awareness of personal and corporate responsibilities. Yum.

Algorithmic Perfumery — Frederik Duerinck — Netherlands — 2018 — Physical

Here are some things that I like:

- Beautiful industrial design
- Ambitious and artistic uses of technology
- smells that evoke precious memories
- those YouTube videos of things moving down conveyor belts
- and quizzes. I mean really, who doesn’t love a quiz?

This has them all. Through a web app I am asked a plethora of questions about the type of person I am, and how I feel about certain smells. My answers are interpreted by a complex neural network and translated into a unique scent that is then created before my eyes on a stunningly created production line. I love that this is part of a documentary festival. My perfume ‘Pongwiffery’ does not just smell wonderful (and it really does) it feels like my own private biopic as told by an apothecary.

[additional: I now understand that as well as an arts project, this is being developed as a commercial endeavour, which is great news in many ways, but has given me pause for thought on the amount of personal data that I willingly handed over in the process of making my scent. I am aware that I am much less thoughtful about this kind of exchange when in an arts festival setting — more about that perhaps another time]

East of the Rockies — Joy Kogawa with Walt Williams — Canada — 2018 — Interactive

Several of us sit around a weather-beaten table and lift incongruously pristine tablets from specially routed notches in the wood. What follows is an intimate and personal story of a Japanese-Canadian family during WW2, their experiences, fears and relationships unfolding through and viewed, almost voyeuristically through the frame of the tablet.

I am a bit of an AR sceptic and have yet to see much of a case made for it as an engaging storytelling medium. It did not completely win me over, however, the story was compelling and the simple but beautifully composed visuals often put me in mind of a magical popup book or an enchanted theatre maquette, and translated well into this form factor. I could have done with fewer ‘tap the object, unlock a fact’ moments. From the blurb I understand that this mechanic is designed to allow us to dwell, reflect, and progress at our own pace, but for me, these moments felt like they were often withholding, more than progressing the narrative. It was a wee bit too ‘point-and-click-y’ for my taste given that I do not, and should not have any agency to alter or ‘solve’ the unfolding tragic events.

[note: Unfortunately, due to a prior booking, I did not reach the end of this piece and have only been able to comment on the first 50% or so]

Pilgrim — Lauren Hutchinson — United States, United Kingdom — 2018 — Physical, Immersive

Something you need to know about me: I break technology.

Creative technologist and wonderful human David Haylock calls me a ‘Faraday Cage’, because as soon as I stand next to a piece of tech, all of its electrical signals are miraculously redirected elsewhere. Unfortunately, Pilgrim fell foul of my influence, and the very cool glasses with speakers in the legs, repeatedly failed to couple to the shiny phone in my pocket. Presumably fatigued by the ordeal, the phone eventually gave up the ghost and conked out somewhere north of Dam Square.

In between glitches, I did get a glimpse of the full experience; in which I could walk in and out of step with a series of unseen characters as I walked the city block around the main DocLab building. For the game fans amongst you, it feels a lot like playing early Assassins Creed, where you can blend into the crowd by moving as they move to evade detection. In this case, the only way to find the crowd is by listening carefully as you walk, and turning your head to work out where the owners of myriad voices might be in relation to you, attempting to follow them as they pass.

Sometimes the act of doing this in a bustling capital city (Amsterdam) made me feel a bit exposed, especially when coupled with a repeated need to check and reconnect the phone. It felt very similar to the way a tourist behaves when they have no idea where they are going, a wallet stuffed with freshly minted currency and an unaccustomed lungful of Amsterdam’s finest. I became aware of others observing my stilted, confused demeanour and repeated course corrections and did not feel particularly safe. This dilemma rather distracted me from the core mechanic and after a while, I just starting walked wherever I wanted, attempting to look as though I was doing so with purpose. If I encountered voices from beyond the veil, great. If not. Fine.

Overall, I think that this is a distinctive, ambitious and intriguing piece, suggesting some great potential for navigating public space using spatialised sound to weave unseen histories into the fabric of the everyday. There are clear threads to draw between this, and some of the fantastic work produced by Duncan Speakman, Martin Green and others. However, in my opinion, the structure and format of this piece was fighting against its environment, leaving me somewhat discombobulated.

10 Mississippi — Karina Popp — United States — 2018 — Interactive

A simple and effective push-button, stop-motion sequence of events from a day in the life of the author, Karina Popp. By bashing the relevant buttons on a 90s keyboard, I prompt her to wake up, shave her legs, bypass the fridge, button up a shirt, scroll social media whilst on the toilet and so on and so on throughout a day of small but familiar personal rituals. It feels simultaneously intimate and perfunctory to be instigating her progress in this way, reminding me a little of Florence by Mountains, one of my favourite app games/stories from earlier this year. I particularly like the act of tippy-tap-tapping away randomly on any key on the keyboard and seeing a bog-standard email of the type you may write a thousand times emerging on the page in front of me: ‘Hello Sam, I hope you are well’. You can check this one out yourself now at knarniapop.itch.io/10-mississippi

I’ve Always Been Jealous of Other People’s Families — Shirin Anlen — United States, France, Canada — 2018 — Interactive, Immersive

Four of us take a seat at a sort of stretched out family dining table, laid with large white plates, and crowned by what think was an Amazon Echo. On the wall is a a depth sensing camera and flat screen. We hear some reflections on the idealised ‘nuclear family’ and mainstream culture, and then are playfully cast in the roles of the same. I am ‘Mom’, and, ‘Dad’, ‘brother’, ‘sister’ and I act out a scripted conversation that appeared projected onto each of our plates, seemingly generated by Alexa in response to what we say. As always, Alexa struggles with my accent/tendency to mumble, but the hilarity of having to repeat/shout/adopt an American accent rather enhances the familial nature of the group experience, and the giggle-worthy absurdity of having a home assistant attempting to steward a family dinner is, I’m sure, part of the design process for Anlen. This was a fascinating piece and my only criticism really is that it was too short, summing up almost as soon as it got going. More please Shirin!

The Collider: Chapter One — Anagram — United Kingdom — 2018 — Physical

Let’s just say this up front: I adore Anagram. From the moment I started working with them at the Pervasive Media Studio in around 2013-ish, I have appreciated their thoughtful, textured and nuanced approach to telling stories in a way that connects mind to body, and body to world. They care deeply about how diverse audience members might experience their work, and manage to find ways to push each participant beyond their everyday comfy places, without ever making them feel exposed, uncomfortable, or like they might be doing it wrong.

Virtual Reality is often (and sometimes quite rightly) accused of isolating participants, creating encounters that transport you away from yourself and cut you off from social contact. In The Collider, Anagram seem to be addressing this head on. I’m avoiding spoilers here, but can share that two people enter the Collider at a time. We flip a coin and my friend Duncan will wear the VR headset. I will hold the corresponding hand controllers and we each enter through a different door. Once inside we progress through a series of beautifully lit and staged rooms evoking childhood memory and testing our responses, and re-find one another in a central space. Here, my movements are translated into imagery that Duncan can see and I cannot. We both wear headphones, and the languid and searching narratives that play out for each of us suggest a sense of connection, and elicit magical moments as the moves we make in our separate virtual and physical spaces occasionally map together perfectly, as if we are locked in an accidental pas de deux.

The experience introduces ideas of power, control, assistance, manipulation and shared but decoupled experience that can only be knitted back together over a biscuit (provided) and a chat (recommended) once the experience is officially over. Our interpretations of what had happened were starkly different, and so dependent on what we each brought with us in terms of expectations, assumption and prior experience, that I am certain this is a piece that will never be experienced the same way twice.

The Collider, along with the whole DocLab programme is free and available to the public until Friday 23 November and I would heartily urge you to pop along if you are in the area. Some experiences require booking on the day.