As one of the continent’s longest-running programmes exploring new media and interactivity, IDFA Doclab has steadily grown in size and scope, parallel to much of the technology integral to its presentations.
In 2022, IDFA Doclab presented a wide-ranging offering of immersive non-fiction across various stages of development under the wider «Nervous Systems» theme. They included the Virtual Reality gallery, IDFA Forum Doclab project pitches, and its expansive exhibition, of which some highlights will be discussed here.
However, we will start with the Doclab winning projects, of which Darren Emerson’s grand In Pursuit of Repetitive Beats received its DocLab Award for Immersive Non-Fiction. The BFI funded VR installation offers a multi-sensory experience, taking users back to the late 80s when UK raves were found through a series of cryptic messages, parking lot meetups, and, of course, the ever-present eye of the police. The project, which was held in Amsterdam’s Arti et Amicitiae, and world-premiere in the city during October’s Amsterdam Dance Event, may have been the most ambitious personally-experienced within the Virtual Reality space, obviously utilizing a high budget for its vast colour and audio palettes.
Further IDFA Doclab winners were, person ally-speaking, well-deserved, with Special Jury Awards in Creative Storytelling going to Miri Chekhanovich, Edith Jorisch’s Plastisapiens and Eline Jongsma, Kel O’Neill’s His Name Is My Name. Originally introduced to me via their Dutch colonial legacy-focused 2012 project, Empire, His Name Is My Name is an animated, Instagram-based series much more personal than Empire. As a project that can stand alone as individual episodes or as a kaleidoscopic whole, His Name Is My Name proves that no secret can stay buried forever with the right motivations and mediums. Plastisapiens, on the other hand, is a project living on the fringes of VR eco-fiction, where users experience the gradual evolution from microbe to plastisapien, a breathing hybrid creature, all too frequently ending up in the food we eat. In addition to its 15-minute VR journey, Plastisapiens had its own in-house chef, preparing edible bioplastics on the spot.
Finally, IDFA’s Doclab’s only 18+ project, Taylor McCue’s He Fucked the Girl Out of Me, a hybrid retro-style game/graphic novel, looks at the impact of skyrocketing transition costs, frequently sending a trans person into sex work, all too often with traumatizing consequences. The interactive experience harkens back to old 8-bit graphic games of Nintendo, where users use simple directional keys to navigate a world of pixelated two-dimensional figures as the gamut of emotions is unleashed.
Aside from the winners, there were many interesting projects across the Doclab exhibition and Virtual Reality Gallery. Personally, the exhibition’s Dancing with Dead Animals (Maarten Isaäk de Heer) and Border Birds were of immediate interest, with the former screened at Amsterdam’s Artis Planetarium. Both with a foundation in ecology, Border Birds looks at the flight patterns of birds across the world’s disputed borders through crowdfunded content, raising half of the proceeds via NFT for the European Network for Migrant Women and the Red Cross. Dancing with Dead Animals is a dome-screened 3D animation where de Heer records the astonishingly high amount of dead creatures encountered throughout a single spring and summer, bringing them back to life in a paradisical landscape of twigs, leaves, bark and other dead organic materials. Further projects of personal impact specifically from the IDFA Doclab VR gallery were the Missing 10 Hours, where user choices are very impactful in this interactive story about date rape, and the 30+ minute The Man Who Couldn’t Leave, welcoming users into the barracks of 1949’s Green Island Penal Colony, off the southeast coast of Taiwan. /p>
But IDFA Doclab is not just its exhibited projects. Also hosting an R&D Program in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and its co-financing focused Doclab Forum. The R&D Forum is a program aimed at the international ecosystem of artists, developers, scientists and entrepreneurs working in interactive and immersive content. The theme of its 2022 edition was future media habits where I was invited on a talk around opening up audience interest in new media, «Immerse in Criticisms – An Inventory».
The Doclab Forum then took place across two days at the new IDFA venue, the canalside Felix Meritsis, where several international projects were pitched. Much like the final project exhibition and competition pieces, projects featured at the pitch stage existed across developmental stages and mediums; however, VR was the primary technology. Of these projects, the Czech Republic/Ukrainian Fresh Memories, asking what would you do if war showed up in your living room, powerfully utilizes its technology in recreating a personal and immediate sense of danger. Then, the UK-produced The Pathogens of War looks at the world’s most antibiotic-resistant bacteria through science, pop culture, and personal history. Other projects of interest all included strong elements of animation. Of these, the meditative Project Leaves, and inspiring Anticipation of Rain and Plunge were primaries.
All in all, the IDFA Doclab seemed to offer itself as, despite its technical and scientific requirements, a more accessible and playful arm of the broader IDFA programme. From its carefully thought presentations, for example, utilising old video game systems for He Fucked the Life Out of Me, or the 90s retro desk setup of Annie Mar’s investigative Labyrinth, or the full-on izakaya recreation of Okawari (complete with required reservations), it is evident that no artistic detail or theme was disregarded. And with a technology that seems to be getting closer to serving genuinely comprehensive and immersive non-fiction narratives, the new media-sphere feels to be at a turning point. Now, all there is left is finding a way to minimise the more predatorial aspects of the corporate tech on which so much of this scene ultimately relies.