Every film festival has felt the cold hand of the pandemic on its shoulder this year, but IDFA’s head of new media, Caspar Sonnen, may have felt it more keenly. While others might have felt that taking their event either partly or fully online was in some way a step forward, for Sonnen it was always a step back.

“We started DocLab in 2007 with a fairly specific goal,” he explains, “which was basically to take these ephemeral, non-tangible, undefined things that we found on the internet and, for 10 days, put them into a physical collective festival experience. That was the whole idea behind DocLab, initially. Back then, we built a little website to collect the program and made it possible to see some of these projects in their natural habitat, the browser. But, over the years, we went further and further into physicality, and collectiveness, and festivalness, with VR, with immersive installations and live performances, et cetera. So, six months ago, [when the global lockdown showed no sign of letting up], the idea of moving completely online felt somehow like going back to where we started.”

The DocLab team, says Sonnen, did briefly consider going completely online, but the unexpected physical iteration of the Venice Film Festival gave them hope. “We felt—as a festival, as a whole—that we should take our chances,” he says. “It would be too much of a shame, if there was a chance that we could do something physical, to not do it. So we kept our options open for as long as possible.”

Fortunately, as you might expect from a cutting-edge enterprise such as DocLab, the artists themselves were already one step ahead. “Looking at what the artists were doing,” says Sonnen, “it was very clear, very quickly that we should go for a hybrid scenario and focus on both online and physical [events], because we had artists that were coming up with amazing solutions to presenting their work in a complete lockdown situation—there were artists who very quickly saw the pending Zoom fatigue that would happen and who started to create works that were disrupting this [situation]: the collapse of the world around us into one screen. But at the same time, we had artists that were really starting to explore physical alternatives, to see what we could do in public spaces outdoors, with physical installations. We need these types of experiences more than ever now, and we thought, ‘If we can present them, we should.’”

Added to that, the field of VR added another dimension yet. Says Sonnen, “We saw artists really being very persistent in exploring what can be done physically, what can be done in virtual reality, and what can be done in online spaces, and we knew that we had to go through those three spaces at the same time instead of focusing on just one. The whole thing of this festival was, we knew that we were going to have to change and adapt until the very last minute, and we knew that, even during the festival, the [rules could be changed].”

In addition to DocLab’s traditional programming, the result of this digital soul-searching was a link-up with IDFA on Stage that produced this year’s concept: called ‘do {not} touch,’ it is divided into three strands: an exhibition component, an immersive XR [Extended Reality] program, and a slate of live performances.

The three core live events in particular give a good indication of this year’s content. The first, titled “Confined Infinity,” features work by David OReilly (with a self-explanatory piece called “Corona Voicemails”), Tamara Shogaolu, and Kitoko Diva. “This event takes immersive media as its point of departure,” says Sonnen, “and really explores it not just from a sort of industry point of view, like the medium of VR and how that’s developing, but from the point of view that—specifically in a year like this—we’re all over-consuming media, because we’re stuck in front of our screens so much. We’re over-consuming more than we’ve ever consumed, in terms of media, just because we’re scrolling through our feeds, trying to figure things out: ‘Is this just the flu? Is Trump going to win?’”

The second key live event is titled “Home Is Where the Art Is,” which invokes a specially adapted version of Lance Weiler’s piece “Where There’s Smoke,” something Sonnen describes as “like an escape room in which you discover the family history of Lance and his father.” Weiler’s piece, Sonnen says, is a good example of an issue he feels is quite pressing for the interactive community. “There are works that don’t have a home yet,” he says. “There’s a community of artists that work so freely between platforms that [their art] doesn’t have a home yet. And maybe it never will, because it’s always moving. So how do you create a museum for that kind of art in a public space? That is actually quite tricky: How do you create a museum for things that happen on your phone or in your browser? And, ever since 2007, artists making works like this have been struggling to get audiences to see them. When they do see them, they love them, but it’s difficult to [make that connection].”

The third live event is called “Symbiotic Bodies,” which looks at human interactions (“It’s easy to see what’s wrong with human communication and human relationships,” quips Sonnen, “if you look at 2020”). The event features work by the Anagram collective and Polymorf, and, representing the interactive sociological survey “Time to Question”—which poses such metaphysical zingers as “Do we need a green dictatorship?”—will be speakers from web-doc company Upian. “They now have had 400,000 respondents [to their questionnaire],” says Sonnen, “which goes deep into some of those key dilemmas that I think, over the last five to 10 years, we’ve all been browsing. And [at that event] they’ll be sharing some of the results from that survey.”

Looking back over the last six, unpredictable months, Sonnen, sees a DocLab that has “taken up the gauntlet” thrown down by the pandemic lockdown, an attitude that is even reflected in the festival’s jaunty online hub, where Zoomed-out visitors and delegates alike can meet in the confines of a boardroom, a disco, or even DocLab’s recently acquired new home in Tolhuistuin. Says Sonnen, “I feel there’s a new openness this year, a willingness to be interdisciplinary and to be truly cross-platform, both from audiences and artists alike. So I guess that was our main ambition for this year: to look under the carpet, open windows and doors, and experiment and explore as much as possible.”