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IDFA DocLab’s Caspar Sonnen: ‘We Can No Longer Just Blame Technology For Everything’

Standfirst: As the online world faces calls to make itself more accountable, DocLab reflects on the more innocent pleasures of interactive art

Amsterdam, 19 november 2009.IDFA 2009.Caspar Sonnen.Foto Corinne de Korver
Corinne de Korver / Felix Kalkman

AMSTERDAM — The most noticeable aspect of this year’s DocLab is that, although it still has a presence, Virtual Reality finally seems to have settled down – turn a corner, go through a corridor of film posters, and there’s a bespoke VR cinema, with twin seating arrangements to make the process just a little more social. It’s very matter of fact: VR doesn’t seem to be trying so hard to be noticed this year.

Caspar Sonnen, IDFA’s head of new media, downplays that suggestion, citing instead the finite space at DocLab’s home at the Brakke Grond arts center, but it does seem that the technology once deemed the future of film is, well, no longer so futuristic.

“I think last year was peak VR,” said Sonnen. “Even though only a third of the projects were VR, it’s just the thing that everybody sees or looks for –even the people who hate the hype around it.”

But DocLab has never been about a single format or a single technology, Sonnen contends.

“So that was something that, for two years, we felt a little bit awkward about, because everybody is struggling with how to exhibit VR. It’s an amazing medium but it kind of sucks a lot of attention away from projects that might be just as interesting but are in a different format: a project on an iPad, or a 3D printed sculpture just doesn’t have the same attention-sucking power in an exhibition setting that a VR project has.”

To illustrate his point, Sonnen refers to an artwork by Brent Hoff, called “The Emotional Arcade”, which debuted at DocLab in 2013. In it, the artist invited members of the public to show extreme emotion, then used their brain scans to inflate a balloon. Noted Sonnen, “Hoff said, ‘The trick to this project is that a human being can’t take their eyes off a balloon as it inflates.’ And I think, over the last two years, in the new media space, we have been slightly unable to keep our eyes off VR as well. Both, in terms of the industry – like, is this balloon going to grow? Will it pop? Or is it already too late, have we missed the boat? – but also in terms of audience behaviour, in an exhibition context.” Sonnen added: “People wearing a headset, looking at something that you cannot see, kind of has the same fascinating quality that a balloon has – you can look at somebody without them seeing you, and we’re programmed to find that interesting. That’s the dynamic of cinema.”

This brings us to the real themes of this year’s DocLab, which goes under the umbrella title “Uncharted Ritual” and takes its cue from guest curator Jonathan Harris, whose provocative 2013 piece “Data Will Help Us” – which starts with the words “Data will help us remember, but will it let us forget?” – hangs from the ceiling. Harris’s work, a representative but not comprehensive retrospective, has its own room at DocLab, and what seems at first sight to be a celebration of the online world and its possibilities soon shows a more ambivalent view of how we use the web to present ourselves. In 2006’s piece “I Feel Fine”, for instance, the top three things that its millions of subjects are feeling are “better”, “bad” and “good”, in that order. At the very bottom is “clever.”

Said Sonnen, “Most of the great new media artists, none of them are tech gurus or prophets of technology. They usually hate technology much more than the next guy.”

He went on: “However, I think the interesting thing with Jonathan is, he’s not just a digital artist. He started out as a young person with two trades. On one side, he was this romantic artist, painting, writing and taking photography, and the other side of him was a person studying computer science. And, at some point, those two identities merged. And he’s been making amazing digital work since then. But in recent years his work has taken a darker view of the internet.”

This is not happening in a vacuum, he said. “Digital artists [everywhere] are currently reflecting on where we are,” Sonnen continues. “And I think it’s also where we – as a society, as a whole – are. We’re reflecting on the question: what does the Internet actually mean? We’ve got to a point where we can no longer just blame technology for everything. It’s part of us, it has shaped us. And now it’s up to us. I mean, in the end, as addictive as our gadgets are, we’re still the ones holding them in our hands, while our kids are playing in front of us. It’s a conscious deed, just like smoking. And we need help!”

For that reason, it seems only right that DocLab’s most popular exhibit this year is a wooden church built, un-signposted, in the courtyard outside. Visitors who venture inside will be asked to leave their cellphones in little red metal box and offered tea in a bone china cup. It is both digital detox and cultural Easter egg.

“It’s so nice when you discover something,” explains Sonnen. “When you explore a city, you can take a guided tour, and it will take you on a linear path through the city’s narrative. Which is great, because you get all the high emotional points, and hear all the right information, and you arrive at the right destination. But you could also just wander the streets. It might mean that you walk for half an hour on a really boring busy street, but then hopefully you stumble upon something by yourself, and it’s wonderful. And interactive work is designed, if it’s done well, to do that – make you discover things by yourself, and have those things be real discoveries.”

“Obviously,” he laughs, “there is always the risk you might not discover it…” But with DocLab, that’s always been the risk – and it’s risk that’s definitely worth taking.