×

IDFA DocLab’s Caspar Sonnen: ‘We’re Losing the Internet That We Fell in Love With’

In its 10th edition, IDFA’s avant-garde wing looks to an uncertain future while trying to salvage the past

AMSTERDAM — It says something about the fast-moving world of digital technology that, while celebrating its tenth edition, IDFA’s DocLab is already dealing with the subject of restoration – as part of this year’s programme Canadian “web experience” “Bear 71,” a study of a female grizzly bear living in the Rocky mountains originally created just four years ago, has been reworked for VR to preserve its existence.

At the same time, VR itself – which accounted for quite a few works presented over the last two years – seems to be the subject of much less talk this year.

Caspar SonnenIDFA’s head of new media and DocLab’s irrepressible figurehead, suggests that enthusiasm for the medium may be on hold for now. “VR is definitely still a big thing,” he says, “but I think, at this stage, everybody is getting a little bit tired of the hype. Last year there were a lot of different reactions – some were saying, ‘It’s all just hype,’ and others said, ‘Oh, but it’s amazing.’ But right now, I’m sensing, especially from the artists that I admire, that people are thinking, ‘Can we move on and just make art?’ It could be an AI project. It could be some sort of installation. It could be biometric technology. It could be something playing with physical and digital. It could be a VR piece, and maybe all of these things at once. It’s becoming just one of the things in the digital palette.”

Interestingly, this year’s scaled-back VR presentations represent the concept of moving forward very clearly. As part of its opening weekend, DocLab hosted an project called “Orchestrating Individuals,” a group event staged by theatre company Bombina Bombast in association with tech companies Makropol and Diversion. The night saw an audience of 50 people seeing themselves from the point of view of the performers, after a 30-second delay (“You could literally wave and then, a little later, see yourself wave at yourself,” smiles Sonnen).

Though presented very much as an experiment, the concept of shared VR is a good example of how DocLab constantly reassesses its function. Says Sonnen: “A lot of people say, ‘Isn’t it bad that VR makes people so isolated?” Like, ‘We’re already on our phones all day and now we’re actually sticking them to our heads.’ I must say, I kind of agree. In a way, the fact that’s it’s becoming multi-user, or that it’s close getting to get there, is maybe even more scary. Maybe the fact that VR is such an isolated experience – maybe we can see that as a good thing. Just like reading a book, it’s something where you have to force yourself to sit down and have a quiet moment, like a feature film does. But the same time, if we’re doing [DocLab] as a collective experience, the potential for informative, theatrical, collective communal experiences at the same time is really exciting and should be explored.

“Doing collective multi-user interactive and participatory experiences is something that’s been part of DocLab for the last ten years,” he continues. “That’s been one of the key things of our festival, of our program – to explore how we can take these usually very individual interactive experiences and turn them into a communal experience.”

He went on: “After all, we’re a festival. We’re not just a website pointing people to projects. That for us has always been key, not just because we happen to bring large groups of people together, but also because that has been one of the key ways that DocLab has been able to grow. And digital artists, just like any other artists, need to see their work in front of large groups of people.”

Looking back, Sonnen sees two key moments that affected DocLab. “On one side,” he says, “ten years ago when we started the program, the iPhone hadn’t come out yet. And on the net, MySpace was starting to make people familiar with what the social network could be. Facebook was something people hadn’t heard of, outside of American colleges. Google had just bought YouTube, and nobody, probably Google included, were completely sure what to do with it.”

The internet, he notes, “was a very different place from now. It was an open, much more chaotic place where, every day, people were building their own blogs, sharing secrets online. Twitter wasn’t there yet. People were creating their own places to share their thoughts, their secrets. A lot of people were very vulnerable. Ten years later, we’ve lost a large part of that internet. Thanks to the efficiency of a handful of large corporations, we’ve colonized the web. We’ve channelled our activities and our interactions into a handful of platforms.”

Sonnen points to the unexpected election of Donald Trump as U.S. president as a reflection of this new “colonized” internet. “We hadn’t expected the outcome of [the election], as nobody did. It’s a fitting metaphor. One of the things we wanted to say was, ‘Wait a minute, we’re losing the internet that we fell in love with.’ [The election] made that painfully clear. I mean, let’s forget about VR. [When Trump was elected], the social media headset was removed from our heads. It was removed from our heads and we saw that the real world was much more complex and messy than the filter bubble we inhabit.”

This, he says, is in stark contrast to the internet of old. “It used to be an open, level playing field, where I could indulge my strange passions and fears. I could find people all over the world who shared them, and it really became a deeply moving communal thing. That has become so efficiently managed that we’re now all in our little filter bubbles. We’re back in silos. We used to be in geographical silos. Now, we’re in silos based on tastes and how algorithms see us.”

It’s no coincidence, then, that this year’s Doc Lab is presented under the banner of “Elastic Reality,” reflecting the recent phenomenon of “post-truth” politics and manufactured “Fakebook” news. Says Sonnen, “The internet has disrupted our physical reality in the same way that it stretched our notions of what it means to be a community, something that used to be mostly geographical. Nowadays, I’m part of a community. You’re part of a community. We’re all part of our own little community bubbles that we created ourselves. That’s quite far removed from where we were ten years ago. But at the same time, it’s been becoming more rigid. That’s something, for our ten-year anniversary, that we wanted to explore. Looking back at the last ten years, what did we gain? What did we lose? How do we move on for the next ten years? What do we keep? The election of Donald Trump has made that question a lot more urgent than I had wished.”

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Inside an Inox Leisure multiplex in

    India's Inox Multiplex Chain Reveals Ambitious Growth Plans

    Indian multiplex chain Inox Leisure has revealed ambitious plans to more than double its existing screen capacity of 600. The company is planning to add 900 more screens across the country over the next decade. “That’s the realistic answer, but my desire is to do it over the next five years,” Siddharth Jain, director, Inox [...]

  • Joker

    Why 'Joker' Is About All of Us (Column)

    Take a look at the photo above. It’s the most poetic image to have emerged from Todd Phillips’ “Joker,” and the reason I say “poetic” isn’t just because the shot has that caught-in-action indelible vibe of a quintessential movie poster: graphic, hauntingly composed, a bit shocking (at least, the first time you see it). It’s [...]

  • Angelina Jolie is Maleficent in Disney’s

    'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil' Rules International Box Office With $117 Million

    Though Disney’s “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” stumbled at the domestic box office, the Angelina Jolie-led sequel enjoyed a far stronger start overseas. The follow-up to 2014’s fantasy adventure inspired by the “Sleeping Beauty” villain took off with $117 million from 56 international markets. In North America, “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” debuted with a meager $36 [...]

  • Angelina Jolie is Maleficent in Disney’s

    Box Office: 'Maleficent: Mistress of Evil' Dominates With Soft $36 Million

    Five years after Angelina Jolie’s “Maleficent” cast a spell over the box office, the villainous enchantress has returned to the top of domestic charts. Disney’s “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil,” a sequel to 2014’s fantasy adventure based on the “Sleeping Beauty” sorceress, flew lower than the original and debuted to a disappointing $36 million from 2,790 [...]

  • MIA Wrap

    Rome MIA Market Wraps With Stronger U.S. Presence, Boosts Italy's Industry Standing

    Rome’s MIA market for TV series, feature films and documentaries wrapped positively Sunday with organizers boasting a bump in attendance just as some 2,500 executives departed in an upbeat mood after four days of dealmaking and presentations of mostly European fresh product, which elevated Italy’s global standing in the industry, especially within the TV sector. [...]

  • Film Republic Adds Further Sales for

    Film Republic Inks Further Deals for 'God of the Piano' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Sales agent Film Republic has closed further territory sales on “God of the Piano.” Film Movement previously picked up North American rights to the film, as reported exclusively by Variety. Mont Blanc Cinema has taken the rights for Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay. Limelight Distribution is looking after the Australian and New Zealand releases, Hualu [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content