This year’s DocLab opened with a video message from the Commander in Chief of the United States, but not the current one; speaking from his desk at the White House in 1969, President Richard Nixon held forth about the state of the arts and the future of technology.
Not that long ago, this would have been a technological miracle, if not witchcraft. But in today’s world, “deep fakes” are becoming part of the new norm—and it’s this normality that’s being pursued by 2019’s slate of DocLab projects, which include such titles as “Artificial: Room One,” an installation that lets visitors talk to chatbots; “Year of the Robot,” a film that sees hospital patients interacting with automatons; and the video piece “Vast Body 22,” in which viewers can physically interact with the dancers they see pop up onscreen.
“The theme is ‘Domesticating Reality,’” explains Sonnen. “In short, it’s about exploring how the technologies we create then shape us, which is an idea we borrowed from our friend [visual artist] Jonathan Harris when he was here a couple of years ago.” This is the third year, Sonnen explains, of a kind of triptych, one that’s looking at the nexus of human behavior and digital technology. “We started to explore that theme,” he continues. “Like, how is digital technology, and the digital revolution, been affecting not just our digital realities and our digital everyday lives but also the fabric of our physical reality as well?”
As the DocLab team were exploring this, they stumbled upon a concept known as domestication theory—an alternate theory to explore how humans adapt to technology. “Instead of just looking at the amount of devices sold,” he says, “which is the traditional way of measuring the success of technology, domestication theory looks more at how the technology is used, by observing the way that people interact with it. And, roughly speaking, it has three stages. It sounds super-simple, but the first stage is wonder: the stage where new technology is magical. It’s weird. It’s marvelous. And then, when we grow a little bit more accustomed to it, phase two is not just utopian, it’s actually utopian and dystopian at the same time. Now, we tend to think that those two things always happen one after the other, because that’s the way our brains work, but just look at social media.” He cites the love-hate relationship with Twitter, which has the capacity to both unite and divide individuals at the same time. “So then we go to phase three, which is transparency. That’s the moment where we’ve grown so accustomed to the technology that we don’t talk about it anymore.”
To avoid getting too blasé about technology, DocLab has made some seismic changes of its own this year, leaving its traditional home at Brakke Grond. “As you might have seen in the last couple of years,” explains Sonnen, “there’s been a shift. Digital experiences have become increasingly more physical. Now, this has been the case for a while, starting when things moved from screens and browsers into headsets and room-scale installations, and that’s a trend we can see continuing. Some of the works this year are still completely digital, but many of the works are much more physical, and the location where we used to be was just too tight to be able to show all the works that we wanted to show.”
This led to the search for a new home. “We had to start looking for a bigger location,” he says, “and as we started to look at different types of locations, we realized that there’s not one specific exhibition context that fits the extreme variety of types of experiences that you see in the interactive and immersive field. They range from an interactive audio walk in public spaces, to an installation in someone’s living room, to a film in a cinema. Some works require a very museum-like context, but others require a more playful context. That’s where the idea caught on to maybe not just look for the ideal location, but see if we could have one main exhibition location, and then, for other projects and events, expand into different types of locations. So as a result, we moved the main new media hub to Tolhuistuin, [an arts and culture venue] that is right across from Central Station, has a bigger exhibition space, where we present 30 works this year, and it’s a starting point for some of the audio walks outside.”
Aside from Tolhuistuin, IDFA expanded in two interesting directions this year, the first being with the Artis Planetarium, which hosted several nights of DocLab events, including a special “dome” version of Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund’s parallel-history installation “In Event of Moon Disaster.” Sonnen explains that the decision was triggered by a desire to invite new audiences into DocLab’s world by creating new experiences outside traditional spaces.
“The interactive and immersive field is one of the most exciting spaces right now in the arts,” he says, “but it’s still largely happens within the fragmented, niche context of places like IDFA and Sundance or Tribeca. I think a lot of the questions that we have about exhibiting these works—like, how to exhibit VR, how to exhibit installations—are informed by the audiences that we normally see in front of it. But in most cases these are fairly niche audiences: it’s people coming from the media and it’s not the wider audience in many cases. Connecting with those people is a very crucial step that we need to take to further the field. It’s not necessarily about the revenue, it’s about opening up the field and having it be questioned by a wider variety of audiences.”
As a result, perhaps the most unusual aspect of this year’s DocLab is the decision to take over several units at Central Station, in a hallway underneath the railroad tracks. “It’s not the kind of place where people are looking to experience art,” says Sonnen. “They’re more likely looking for a way to avoid all the advertising that’s there. So it was quite a challenge: like, which works should we display here? What should we do here? Because we do like the idea that there is a large audience there that doesn’t know what to expect, that potentially can be surprised by something they’ve never experienced before.”
Happily, many artists were open to the idea. “For instance, the National Film Board of Canada, who were premiering “Far Away From Far Away” at IDFA, were willing to embrace the challenge of presenting that work in a public space. They’re testing it here, with the hope that—if it works—they could maybe present it in airports and other spaces as well. Another example, which I think is a really beautiful fit, is a piece called “Through the Wardrobe,” which is a very sweet Augmented Reality installation that has these different clothing racks with clothes from gender-fluid people. It’s in audio and visual layers: you hear their stories as you are invited to try on their clothes. Rob Eagle who created that work, actually intended that work to be shown in public spaces, in shopping centers, so that was a really good fit, and Rob instantly said, ‘Yes—I’d actually much prefer that kind of space to a sterile gallery.’”
How is it going? “The results so far have been great,” beams Sonnen. “Like, people walk in, some of them thinking they can buy the clothes, and suddenly they’re getting a whole new experience. To create that sense of discovery and playfulness and surprise with a wider audience, rather than a normal film festival crowd or a new media professional crowd, is a huge joy.”