The Possible Worlds of VR Documentary
While nonfiction producers readily embraced Third Wave virtual reality (VR), scholars have been concerned with a tension between the platform and documentary’s critical role in relation to social reality. VR’s immersive quality and privileging of feeling over thought have been seen as at odds with the questioning stance that documentary seeks to engender. However, as VR creative work evolves, the affordances of the platform for criticality become more apparent. This paper explores VR worlds as critical spaces, through case studies of works that conjure temporal imaginaries and more-than-human worlds.
Considering the future as a theme within creative work, Maria de la Bellacasa (2017) suggests that, “Affirming the speculative…presupposes a critical approach to the present. Why would one want other possible worlds, if nothing was wrong with this one?” Futurism has emerged as a recurrent theme in VR with immersive time-travels such as Biidabaan and The Changing Same foregrounding the longue duree of racial & colonial in/justice. Encounters with more-than-human lifeworlds (Umwelten) in projects such as TreeHugger and In the Eyes of the Animals take advantage of media embodiment and interactivity to explore our entanglement with the more-than-human, encouraging, “a fuller understanding of the specificity of human perception (rather than seeing it as universal).“ (Smaill 2016)
While these projects engage the feelings of the immersant, we might more productively think about their operation conceptually in relation to “structures of feeling” (Williams 1961) and consider how they might support the emergence of new formations of consciousness, by allowing, in the words of VR pioneer Char Davies (2004), “a temporary release from our habitual perceptions and culturally-biased assumptions about being in the world, to enable us, however momentarily, to perceive ourselves and the world around us freshly”.
Mandy Rose is Professor of Documentary & Digital Cultures at UWE Bristol. Her research examines the relationship between technology, cultural form and audience experience within evolving documentary. During twenty years at the BBC she oversaw award-winning interactive and participatory media initiatives including BBC 2’s ground-breaking Video Nation project (Prix Iris, CRE Race in the Media Award) and the Capture Wales/Cipolwg ar Gymru (BAFTA Cymru) digital storytelling project.
Mandy is Co-Investigator on the UKRI Strength in Places My World programme. From 2017-2020 she was Co-Investigator on the EPSRC Virtual Realities: Immersive Documentary Encounters project. She is Co-Convenor of i-Docs. Mandy is on the Executive Board of the Pervasive Media Studio and a Member-Director of the community-owned investigative newspaper The Bristol Cable. Mandy is co-editor of i-docs: the evolving practices of interactive documentary – Wallflower Press 2017. Her recent writing appears in Studies in Documentary Film, World Records and Convergence.