Review By Lisa Lanzi
EIGHT, a ‘mixed reality work’ and viewed / experienced by one person at a time, is a very different addition to the Adelaide Festival this year. Presented by Netherlands composer and video artist Michel van der Aa featuring Kate Miller-Heidke and others on vocals with their avatars performing in virtual reality. It is a fifteen minute opera with total immersion for the viewer made possible through the wearing of a VR headset and headphones. The timing is apparently optimum for safely navigating a virtual reality experience without too much physical disorientation. EIGHT was built from the ground up in collaboration with the firm The Virtual Dutch Men and premiered last year, first in Amsterdam and then the Aix Festival in July.
Before studying composition, van der Aa trained as a recording engineer at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. In 2002 he broadened his skills with studies in film direction at the New York Film Academy and in 2007 he participated in the Lincoln Center Theater Director’s Lab, an intensive course in stage direction. van der Aa is described by Andrew Clements in The Guardian as “One of the most distinctive of the younger composers in Europe today. His ability to fuse music, text and visual images into a totally organic whole sets him apart from nearly all his contemporaries.” While I definitely enjoyed the music I was also distracted by the fine adventure of ‘existing’ in and exploring an altered reality. This was my first foray into virtual reality, and as a science fiction nerd, I was excited and just a tiny bit awed. Hence the distraction and adventure was quite wonderful but I feel I haven’t retained the deeper experience of the music and meaning. Additionally, I was hyper-aware that not everyone would enjoy or cope with this kind of event therefore, accessibility is always going to be limited. My pondering afterward led me to the question of fairness, equality and equity as applied to Arts experiences and as yet, I have not formulated a comprehensive answer.
In terms of the artistry and narrative, I was a little unsure of what was being conveyed; that may well be because of the first time novelty of VR for me personally. At the entrance to the space I was invited to sit and read through a laminated page with the lyrics printed thereon. There was a sense of reverence in the monochromatic black, white and grey area and the hushed attention of the attendants. When ready I was led to stand at a doorway where the tech was carefully fitted to my head. I was also told by the attendant that if I needed assistance at any time, I was to raise my hands above my head and they would come. Once decked out in the VR headset I listened to calm instructions about what I was to do and that under no circumstances was I to remove the equipment myself. One of the instructions included me inspecting my outstretched hands which were virtually rendered as part of the image I was viewing - a very odd sensation as this was slightly out of sync with my real time movements. I assume this instructional period also assisted my neural pathways to come to terms with what my altered senses were relaying.
As a pathway then an older woman appeared before me I was beckoned to begin a journey of sorts. Carefully stepping out to follow and listen to her song I was a little unsteady but began to acclimatize. We traversed a number of environments including a cave/grotto with pools of water, along a surreal hallway with shadowy figures in the hazy distance, then out onto a deck with a railing that looked down into a broad, lush, idyllic valley - fortunately I don’t suffer from vertigo. As we moved through these areas The older woman morphed into a younger soul and eventually into a pre-teen. The crone, mother and maiden perhaps. At one point we ‘entered’ a seemingly limitless and dark room with wooden floor somewhat reminiscent of the dark place Eleven travelled to in Stranger Things. Again, morphing, we entered a moonlit park-like landscape where household objects (lamp, table, chair) began to populate one area until the woman tossed a blanket and I found myself peering into, then entering, a young girl’s ‘blanket fort’. As the females morphed through the ages, the voices differed but the overall feel was of memorializing a life. Lastly, most everything dissolved and stars turned into tiny dancing lights like fireflies leading me out of the experience until gentle hands were placed on my shoulder and the headset removed.
I am sure that as the years progress this technology will only improve and mature and more interdisciplinary artists will push boundaries aplenty - it will be interesting to follow and I am sure many philosophical debates will ensue. To find out more you can follow Michel van der Aa in his quest to merge art and technology. In 2010 he launched Disquiet Media, an independent multimedia label for his own work, and in 2012 developed Disquiet TV, an online virtual auditorium for contemporary music events.
Congratulations to the Adelaide Festival team for expanding the boundaries of the Arts, provoking debate and continuing to present work that is of international import.