„Walk in your own shoes!“

Dismantling the promise of VR non-fiction as the ultimate empathy machine and fathoming the potential of dis-immersion as critical intervention

Dieser Video-Essay „‚Walk in your own shoes‘ Dismantling the promise of VR non-fiction as the ultimate empathy machine and fathoming the potential of dis-immersion as critical intervention“ basiert auf einem Beitrag auf der #IFM conference 2021.

This contribution focuses on ’new narratives‘ dealing with the global issue of migration which however stands only as a paradigm of other forms of systemic injustice and discrimination. Taking paradigmatic projects – Clouds over Sidra (2015) and This Room (2017) – I will set off to look behind the promise of interactive, immersive narratives to let users ‚walk in someone else’s shoes‘.

This article explores in how far the specific affordances of VR affect the engagement with content and the potentially transformative impact the producers are aiming at. Are we dealing with an exploitive gaze, are we drawn into a ‚human rights spectacle‘, or do new forms of narrative enable response-able witnessing?

The theoretical framework brings together recent theories of VR non-fiction, drawing on the tradition of documentary theory and approaches to interactive storytelling, as well as findings in social psychology, especially conceptualizations of immersion, empathy, and presence in VR environments.

Addressing problematic socio-cultural, socio-political and media-ethical constellations (the risk of ‚improper distance‘, of dehistoricizing and depoliticizing complex issues, of reinscribing hegemonic points-of-view and of imposing one’s own truth over the actual experiences of ‚others‘, colonizing their feelings) I suggest a form of critical dis-immersion, arguing that the potential of new narratives does not consist in its amplification of visual illusion and immediate affective response but rather in its ability to model a different concept of subjectivity, questioning established regimes of gaze and perspective of the ’self‘ in relation to others.

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