Hera Immersive Area is a space within Resilienze 2020 festival dedicated to new technologies in relation to art and scientific research and aimed at exploring environmental issues through innovation. The festival, curated by Kilowatt, will take place in the spaces of Serre in the Giardini Margherita between the 10th and the 13th of September, and will focus on global transformations illustrated through interactions and connections between the environment, society, economy and culture and by examining the languages of New Media Art, a field that presents alternative points of view on the matter.

The festival will also concentrate on exploring new dynamics of virtual and expanded storytelling by presenting two immersive installations in the lion’s cage of the Serre: the VR Pavilion curated by Sara Tirelli (with 4 stations and 4 virtual reality works) and an augmented reality work L’albero di Glutine created by the collective BEPART.

This interview is dedicated to the VR Pavilion and the reasons for that are both my infinite respect for Sara Tirelli and her artistic journey and research that are very well-known both in Italy and abroad, and the quality of her recent research dedicated to the potential of virtual reality. The Pavilion is meant to show and illustrate this area of research, considering also the fact that Tirelli belongs to a wider context of experimentation (expressive, linguistic, aesthetic and technical) that includes a variety of artists and projects.

VR Pavilion is an itinerary and independent curatorial project aimed at mapping and presenting the immersive works created by artists who experiment with the expressive potential of Virtual Reality outside of the logic of the market. In the works, selected by Tirelli and Jonathan Habib Entqvist, the artists address, through a variety of poetics and languages, the subject of altered nature and create immersive worlds that can help us imagine new perspectives on the near future of the planet. Following the fluctuating opening in the canals of Venice on the occasion of the 58th Venice Biennale of Art, the VR Pavilion is now part of the Resilienze festival and so I couldn’t help but discuss with the curator the topics and goals of the project.

Marco Mancuso: Could you please tell us how the project VR Pavilion has been conceived? Where does the idea come from? Who are the curators? Where has it been presented and what curatorial form will it take during the Resilienze festival?

 Sara Tirelli: Resilienze Festival will host a second edition of VR Pavilion, an independent curatorial project that was presented for the first time in May 2019 in the pre-opening days of the 58th Venice Biennale of Art. Both events were born out of intuitions that then took form thanks to the cooperation and enthusiasm of everyone involved in the project. VR Pavilion is an itinerary project that establishes relations with the context in which it takes place. The project is an expression of a necessity to present in Italy the VR works, produced with an intention and willingness to experiment freely with the potential of this medium outside of the logic of the market.

The idea was born during a conversation with a Swedish curator Jonathan Habib Engqvist together with whom we designed a show Medusa. A VR Exhibition in two acts which took place at Borås Art Museum between January and August 2019. One month before the Biennale opening I made a sarcastic comment on the approaching invasion of Venice (the city I live in) by the contemporary art world jet set. In my remark I was basically comparing that particular influx of visitors to the cruise passengers who invade the lagoon without establishing any kind of relationship with it: the real world and the virtual one in this case do not meet, they co-exist but never engage with each other. Jokingly, I said that after two years of working on Medusa, the Virtual Real Experience in two acts, I would like to design a Venice Real Experience, a sort of a performance against the commodification of Venice, the city that is doomed to be a location for events as opposed to a living city (civitas).

No sooner said than done. Thanks to the support of the Nordic Art Association and local participation, the first edition of the VR Pavilion was held in the historic headquarters of the ex-Communist Party in Venice. In this location, open to everyone, the visitors could immerse themselves in the first act of Medusa thanks to the 3 Stand-up VR stations and, in addition to that, a typical Venetian transport boat would go around the canals near the exhibition sites of the Biennale. The itinerary was designed in a way that was meant to create an overlapping between the virtual context of the work and the real one of the international art festival, to cause a psychological condition of disorientation in a viewer and create space for a critical reflection. This sentiment was well received by Matthew McLean, the senior editor of Frieze, who made the following comment about VR Pavilion: “When the VR video finished, ten minutes of the barge trip remained, sailing past yachts and collectors and critics and locals, their stares ranging from confusion to derision. Shivering in my lifejacket and blanket, I never felt so conspicuous, so foolish, so displaced. It was the most ‘immersive’ experience I’ve had all year.”

The second edition was born spontaneously as well. Soon after the end of the lockdown I participated in an improvised gathering between close old friend who live all over the place. I haven’t seen some of them in years. We got together in order to visit some remote areas of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines looking for a property that we could buy together: a shelter in nature, a place where we could reflect, share new outlooks on life, as a response to the modern challenge of the post-lockdown society.

It is in that context of complete isolation and immersion into nature that Lorenzo Burlando and Massimo Tiburli, the founders of Kilowatt, invited me to become part of the new edition of Resilienze, which at that point was still at risk of being cancelled because of the health emergency. No sooner said than done. I accepted the challenge and the result is the second edition of the VR Pavilion.

Marco Mancuso: Could you describe the artists and projects involved? It seems to me that the environment in relation to the human impact on the planet, is at the center of all of the works presented at Resilienze. Is that the main subject of the VR Pavilion in general or are the projects selected for each edition supposed to adapt to the context, the city, the subject etc.?

 Sara Tirelli: From the curatorial point of view, the aim of the VR Pavilion is to intercept the virtual reality works that contribute to the research of new aesthetics and languages. In accordance with the philosophy of Kilowatt and the topic of the 2020 Resilienze Festival “Legami Invisibili” (Invisible Bonds), I researched and selected VR works that would be relevant both to the theme of the environment and to the artistic and productive practice that VR Pavilion is meant to promote. The four selected VR Experiences, characterized by different approaches to immersive narration, narrate the delicate balance of our ecosystem and imagine new prospects on the near future of our planet.

Animalia Sum is a fourth collaboration between Bianca Kennedy and The Swan Collective (aka Felix Kraus), a young couple of artists from Berlin, who create immersive works using an artisanal approach (DIY). Using the photogrammetry technique as well as programming in Unity, Felix animates Bianca’s illustrations and watercolors in the immersive environment. I have had the pleasure of visiting them in their apartment/studio and I can guarantee that a drawing board and a computer is all they use in their work. Animalia Sum is a work through which the artists ironically imagine a near future in which the insects become the primary source of nutrition for the humans. This VR experience, characterized by a surreal aesthetics and a style that alludes to that of traditional educational documentaries, addresses the issue of the alimentary economy in the world threatened by environmental disasters. Animalia Sum was presented to public for the first time in 2020 during the official selection of Sundance.

In his work Re-animated Jakob Kudsks Stenseen brings back to life (revives) the voice of a bird that has gone extinct, creating a sophistic immersive experience aimed at exploring the human impact on the evolutionary history of nature. The work, the winner of the Future Generation Art Prize in 2019, is a result of collecting and 3D scanning of flora and fauna, a research carried out by the artist in collaboration with the Natural History Museum in London and an ornithologist Douglas H. Pratt. The virtual landscape is a scientific lab where Jakob Kudsk Stenseen recreates an ecosystem full of plants, fish and insects. Thanks to the programming based on algorithms, this ecosystem interacts with the breath of the spectator, an interaction that results in a poetic virtual landscape that is unique to every experience.

In a young world of resplendent glitter is an immersive work that presents a reflection of the condition of contemporary human beings who have lost contact with nature. For Simon Speiser our mind represents a primordial ecosystem where one can hide from the frenzy of the modern life. Our mind is the place where reconnecting with the wild nature takes place. In a young world of resplendent glitter is an introspective VR experience based on the narrative techniques of meditation.

Submerge is a dystopian virtual experience, a narration from the point of view of a fish of a near future in which global warming has caused the flooding of most of the surface of the planet. The ruins of abandoned cities, garbage and technological remains on the bottom of the sea are a proof of a former presence of a civilization that once existed but could not avoid the ecologic disaster. The work is a result of a workshop held by 52hz Intermediate Beings – Cenk Guzelis & Uwe Brunner at the Institute of experimental architecture and hosted by the university of Innsbruck. For a semester the students had worked on simulating non-human visions in order to imagine differing perspectives on the world through the points of view of different animal species.

Marco Mancuso: Since you are first of all an artist, I am wondering what you think about this new role of a curator. As a curator, what are your criteria? How do you select the works? What are the research sources and expressive languages you use?

 Sara Tirelli: My approach to curating is quite similar to my artistic practice. In fact, I believe that the VR Pavilion project is comparable to producing a work, a process made of relations and exchange with the scene (context). It is especially true for a new media artist who experiments with the potential of emerging technology in an independent manner. The creative process in this case goes hand in hand with technical aspects and the experience of sharing knowledge and practices with one another.

I have used multiple sources that are all products of research of numerous institutes that work on new Media Art, artistic residencies, shows and festivals. One of those platforms is Radiancevr, a German project that for some years now has been mapping the VR productions created by artists. Together we are going to present a work by Simon Speiser as well as the one coordinated by 52hz Intermediate Beings. At the center of the VR Pavilion are the virtual reality experiences that are not merely escapist entertainment, but are also an instrument for creating awareness among the spectators that assume an active position. The selected immersive works are aimed at engaging us critically in the chosen subjects, as opposed to the interaction offered by the gaming experiences that often cause apathy rather than empathy.

Another important goal is to give visibility to the immersive works that otherwise would remain unknown in Italy.

Marco Mancuso: The selected works are very clearly experimental works that have nothing to do with the logic of the market. Could you tell us what kind of market exists today for the virtual reality works? What kind of impact does it have on the expression, the technologies that are available as well as on the fruition and exhibiting of those works?

Sara Tirelli: The market is definitely evolving: until very recently gaming completely dominated the scene, while currently such areas as educational, medical and wellness are gaining an important position. As for the contemporary art world, it is still the old dynamic in which Acute Art (Daniel Birnbaum’s project) commissions and funds VR works by the artists of the star-system, such as Marina Abramović, Olafur Eliasson, Anish Kapoor. In most of these cases the artists wouldn’t have ever approached this medium if it weren’t for the commission.

However, I really appreciate the project Virtual Reality Room developed by Zabludowicz Collection, a first exhibition space that a gallery chooses to dedicate to the VR works. It is still quite difficult to distribute the works within the entertainment field, since the VR headsets are necessary for that. The technology is evolving constantly and that creates significant problems regarding technological compatibility when it comes to the works fruition, dissemination and exhibiting.

During the last couple of days, I have followed the pitch sessions for the VR projects selected by VR Financing Gap Market for the Venice Film Festival. Compared to the selection for the first editions, I noticed, to my great pleasure, that the topics and narrative techniques have changed and are pushing immersive language towards an independent expression form. The idea that the VR can be an instrument that could help improve our society and its perception seems more and more accepted.

Marco Mancuso: Recently you have engaged with the virtual reality in your own artistic practice, combining it with the more traditional language of video art. What are the differences in approach and method? Could you tell us what stimulates you in this practice and how you dealt with this evolution, especially from a technical and technological points of view?

 Sara Tirelli: The relation between perception, technology and culture is central in my artistic research. I have always been interested in exploring and reflecting on the ways in which technology defines and conditions our experience of the world. My artistic practice is situated somewhere between Cinema, Art and New Technologies. It is largely influenced by Expanded Cinema; audiovisual art (lens- and time-based art) has always been for me the main means of expression. The interest towards the use of emerging technologies, which allow me to experiment with new languages and explore their aesthetic, cultural and political potential, has always defined my work and is a common thread in my creative process.

For me technology has always represented an area of research rather than merely an instrument for the works production. This is why I have always addressed all of the technical and productive aspects through a DIY and self-taught approach. In my work I examine the invisible, the line between the real and the perceived, between Reality and Fiction and explore the unlimited capacity of the brain to adapt to changes. Approaching Virtual Reality has been spontaneous. It has allowed me to elaborate my research and develop my artistic practice.

Clearly, virtual reality in not a recent technology but only now it has become accessible to everyone. In a way we are witnessing a moment that is very similar to the birth of cinema or the invention of Portapack, the first portable camera, which opened new horizons of audiovisual experimentation and marked the beginning of video art. My approach to VR is very critical: rather than the possibility of creating the worlds that don’t exist, I am fascinated by the idea of expanding the dimension that we inhabit. What is interesting for me in VR as a medium is the poetic, or even metaphysical, dimension as well as the possibility to create narrative and sensorial architectures that require active and conscious fruition of immersive worlds.

Currently I am developing a new VR work, inspired by narrative techniques that have been developed in the field of psychiatry with the purpose of treating post-traumatic disorders. This VR work, developed in collaboration with a neuroscientist and a psychiatrist, is aimed at creating an active and conscious immersive experience, by means of interacting in real time with the biometric data of the spectator through a biofeedback wearable sensor. The topic I would like to address with this work is the relation between Humans and Nature, while on the aesthetic level I am experimenting with the potential of a volumetric video when applied to a traditional technique of stop-motion miniature.

Marco Mancuso: What does it mean for you and for the artists involved in the VR Pavilion to work with virtual environments? Is it the sensorial immersion you find stimulating, the dialogue (taken to the extreme) between the physical and virtual bodies? Or maybe it is the way those vision technologies enter our lives? Or narrative and expressive potential of this medium? Is any of the above (or maybe all of it) relevant for you?

Sara Tirelli: Each artist approaches the medium in a different way. I would say that sensorial immersion and the possibility to create a narration that speaks to the perception are the most interesting aspects. VR is a medium that has brought a radical change of technological paradigm and revolutionized traditional visual representation based on perspective. It embodies our everyday life in which presence and experience are no longer associated with physical space only.

Narrative and expressive potential of immersive technology allows us to represent our experience of the world in a hyper-connected society. The contemporary VR scene is a vast area that is constantly evolving. Fervent exploration and experimentation the artists put in place in this field allow for producing a variety of approaches to and uses of the medium. The technology and the languages are in constant evolution and are extremely promising in terms of surprising scenarios they can offer.

Marco Mancuso: Which are the next stages of the project and what are the ways in which you would like for it to evolve?

 Sara Tirelli: The next step of the project requires new circumstances in which the intuition would be supported by the enthusiasm of people involved in the following editions of the VR Pavilion. For the moment, the intention is to create an edition during the Venice Biennale 2022. It could become a sort of a regular appointment that would grow over time. Together with the co-founder of the project Jonatan Habib Engqvist we are currently working on this.

Cover image: still from VR Video, Re-Animated, Jakob Kudsk Stenseen, 2018