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The UBIK performance art space at WORM in Rotterdam is the venue to four VR works at International Film Festival Rotterdam, two of which have been created by novices to the medium.

Featured in the festival’s Art Directions program, which aims to unite art and cinema, “To Miss the Ending” from U.K. duo Anna West and David Callanan explores a future that is immediately relatable to audiences living in a pandemic-struck world.

Originally conceived as a theater project five years ago, the experience takes users into a virtual world where five characters have escaped climate change, political chaos, disease and famine by uploading themselves.

In this Minecraft-style universe they start to build their own universe block-by-block, based on their existing memories – but when the code starts to rot memories become intertwined before slowly disintegrating.

“We wanted to ask the questions: ‘If you remove yourself from reality what makes you yourself?’ ‘Are you a sum of your memories or is there something intangible beyond that which makes up human life?,” says Callanan.

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David Callanan and Anna West’s “To Miss the Ending” features in Rotterdam’s Art Directions program Courtesy of IFFR

West recalls that even as a piece of theater she saw how it could “naturally lend itself well to VR” although when the piece was finally commissioned by the BBC and the Arts Council England at the beginning of 2020, she hadn’t banked on exactly how virtual the production of it would need to become.

“There are actors whom we still haven’t met. They all had to record themselves in these self-made sound booths and everything was done by sending drafts to each other with direction given over Zoom,” she recalls.

The artists hope that their piece – which made its U.S. debut at Sundance this year and won the Immersive Prize at last year’s London Film Festival – will allow more practitioners to make the leap from live performance to screen-based work.

Making its world premiere at IFFR, meanwhile, is “The Subterranean Imprint Archive” by South African duo Francois Knoetze and Amy Louise Wilson in collaboration with Congolese historian Joe-Yves Salankang Sa-Ngol.

According to Wilson, the VR element is part of a broader research project which seeks to explore “the intersection between technology, politics and power.”

The VR experience enables users to literally dig deeper into African history by entering a Congolese mine – the source of the uranium used in the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Once underground, users can experience a mix of archive material, 3D assets of stolen African artefacts and personal histories from various African countries that question the true toll of progress.

Neither creator has previously worked with VR and they stress that the emphasis is on the research and the experimentation with the medium “rather than creating something super slick and polished.”

Wilson, who is also an actress (“Troy: Fall of a City”), also has her own personal connection to the subject material: her grandmother was a goldminer.

“Uranium and gold are pretty much found in the same rock. Everyone knows that Johannesburg’s wealth was built on gold, but the story of uranium and the story of South Africa’s dark history with the secret nuclear program has been hidden. We wanted to further this conversation and would also love for our work to screen on our continent as well as in festivals throughout Europe,” she says.