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

Courtesy of DocLab

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 Sonnen, IDFA’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.”