High-Tech Works at Tribeca Film Festival Ambitiously Ponder What Makes Us Human

BY SHANTI ESCALANTE-DE MATTEIPlus IconJune 14, 2021 4:46pm

Still of Critical Distance, 2021, directed
Still of Critical Distance, 2021, directed by Chris Campkin and Adam May.COURTESY TRIBECA IMMERSIVE STORYSCAPES, © PASSION PICTURES

In 2018, a study conducted in Japan by a team of researchers led by Ryota Kondo, Maki Sugimoto, Kouta Minamizawa came to a striking conclusion about virtual worlds. All we need to have a sense of self in them, the researchers wrote, is simply a pair of hands and feet. But what would it take to have a sense of a body that isn’t human? A few works at this year’s edition of Tribeca Immersive Storyscapes, a branch of the famed film festival devoted to immersive installations, offer some answers.

The piece Critical Distance (all works 2021), directed by Chris Campkin and Adam May, brings us underwater to the aural landscapes of orcas. The only installation at Storyscapes that isn’t a VR work, it depends on augmented reality technology and holograms to bring to life the J-Pod, a small group of orcas who live off the coast of British Columbia. Its focus is something invisible to us land-dwellers: underwater noise, which orcas and other animals can sense intimately via echolocation.

Rebecca Giggs, whose 2020 book of essays Fathoms centers around the aquatic world of whales, points out that it’s easy for us to ignore what we can’t even sense. But when viewers put on their HoloLens headsets, they’re a step closer to understanding how sound affects the orcas. A narrator introduces us to the J-Pod as they circle viewers, clicking and whooping at each other, ripples of light cascading across their bodies as they feel their interwoven conversation from nose to tail. Then a quiet canoe oar dips into the water, disturbing no one. A small motorboat passes by, the sonar representation wavering just a touch. Finally, more boats come, then a large shipping freight. The lines of sonar that signify the orcas’ full-bodied experience of sound start glitching and spiking until the whales appear to fade into a mass of jagged light, their bodies and sense of the world collapsed by a noise.

This sensitive piece brings us a little closer to understanding what it’s like to be an orca, but its effectiveness is brought to a stuttering halt by its insipid conclusion. It’s not too late, the narrator says—we just have to halt international boat traffic. It is this kind of un-actionable call to action that deafens audiences. When speaking with Amy Zimmerman, the writer of Critical Distance, she noted that in the year of decreased trade that Covid-19 provoked, three healthy baby orcas were born and are leading healthy lives—a rarity which only highlighted the hopelessness of the situation. The installation will appear in an expanded form this fall at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Felix Gaedtke and Gayatri Parameswaran’s Kusunda, which deals with the loss of the titular language native to Nepal, falls into a similar trap. This installation is focused on the language’s latest keepers and seems intended to inspire more to take up Kusunda—a strange ending for an otherwise transportive, touching, and engaging 24-minute journey.

The installation Lovebirds of the Twin Towers, directed by Ari Palitz, centers around a true love story that took place between two elevator operators in the Twin Towers. It is less engaging, with no interaction or movement, but it provides the opportunity to “go back [to the Twin Towers] and be safe,” as Palitz put it.

Two other installations, Inside Goliath by Barry Gene Murphy and May Abdalla and We Are at Home by Michelle and Uri Kranot, are more oriented toward using gameplay to bring viewers into their unique narratives. In Inside Goliath, we hear Goliath narrate his life, with a difficult childhood that gave way to an adulthood ruled by addiction and increasingly difficult episodes of psychosis. Meanwhile, we get the chance to play an arcade game that features Goliath, at times avoiding people, at others, collecting pills and cans of beer. We Are Home allows for the most movement. In it, we explore a gorgeously animated and enigmatic story based on the Carl Sandburg poem “The Hangman at Home.” Opening doors, windows, and cabinets triggers new parts of the narrative, causing tea to stir, a piano to play, and books to burn.

Each installation is completely transportive, taking us to places we’ve never been, or could have never gone, without this cutting edge technology. As the viewer steps out of this three-hour-long experience, the brief feeling of unreality serves as a reminder of how far we’ve come—and, perhaps even more pressing, how far we have to go.

Tribeca Immersive Storyscapes will be on view through June 19. The Tribeca Film Festival runs through June 20.

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