From September 23 to 27, the 3rd edition of NewImages Festival took place at the Forum des Images in Paris.
NewImages Festival is unique to the XR event landscape as it is more than just a tech conference, it uses its platform, funding, and reputation to promote values that are often all too absent in the current XR ecosystem, and to promote the medium itself, and the artists pushing its boundaries.
This year, taking the necessary quarantine measures, I was able to attend the event in person in Paris to witness a gathering of some of the best creatives and producers the industry has to offer. Despite the restrictions of COVID-19, over 250 projects were sent to the festival, including 130 from creators, producers, and broadcasters, to take part in the XR Competition; 30% more than in 2019.
For those who think the Experience Economy is dead, the NewImages Festival has proven that with hard work and by following strict guidelines, live events are entirely feasible in today’s climate.
During the event I spoke with Michaël Swierczynski, NewImages Festival Director and Digital Development of the Forum des Images, about the challenges he faced in putting the event together, and his vision of the industry moving forward.
A Live Event During COVID-19
Taking place just a short walk away from the Louvre in Paris, the NewImages Festival occupies the Forum des Images, a 6000m² state of the art multimedia center which has become a central point for Paris’s tech and art scene.
As a part of the new normal, attendees wore sanitary masks, stations were equipped with a Cleanbox machine and antibacterial wipes to disinfect headsets, stations were spaced out, and hand sanitizer was plentiful throughout the venue.
“A festival is a meeting of people, but like most festivals this year, we had to adapt to invite people from other countries, and explore new ways to make events,” said Swierczynski, emphasizing the importance of events such as the NewImages Festival in connecting all parts of the XR industry.
Despite the added logistical and financial complexity of pulling off a citywide experience in the current climate, NewImages delivered a very well executed event, with high quality curation and artist showcases that they have become known for.
Unlike many festivals, there was very little waiting in line, yet the effective programming ensured that the stations were almost always booked and busy— something I hope to see at all future XR events.
Spaced Out, an aquatic VR piece covered by VRScout at Sundance, was even accessible at a municipal pool.
Democratization of Emerging Technologies
Swierczynski spoke passionately about the importance of the democratisation of the medium, and the work NewImages Festival is doing to create opportunities for artists.
“It’s the only way for democratization of the medium to start,” says Swierczynski.
Echoing Liz Rosenthal and Michel Reilhac, curators of Venice VR Expanded, Swierczynski feels that we are moving towards hybrid events that exist in both the virtual and physical world at the same time, and that those experiences must both be of the highest quality.
“You need to take risks technologically and artistically,” says Swierczynski, pointing to the festival’s opening night performance, where elements such as live motion capture and real-time rendered visuals had to work perfectly for the event.
Swierczynski’s vision for democratising the medium reaches beyond the artists and investors— with experiences being placed in busy public intersections across Paris, as a part of NewImages Festival’s commitment to reaching new audiences and bringing the best content directly to the public.
“Democratisation to access is expensive, but very important for our culture and institutions,” says Swierczynski, indicating that the interest and excitement of the general public is vital for the health of the industry and the medium as a whole.
The Vision of NewImages
France has a long history of state supported art institutions and initiatives with subsidized events such as NewImages Festival helping to create cultural projects and develop public works. While the budgets in question are nothing like the Hollywood blockbuster production scales, the impact these initiatives have on the creative arts in France and internationally is considerable.
“The key to tomorrow is to find a balance between public and private investment. We need a lot of private investment to keep control, which is difficult, but not impossible,” says Swierczynski.
Already the NewImages Festivals is a hub for international collaborations. Each year Swierczynski develops relationships with festivals and private international universities that have funding, looking for new ways to create opportunities for co-production . “If you want to achieve your vision, you must go where others don’t, and collaborate with countries with a similar vision,” he says, forming relationships with institutions as far as Taiwan, Johannesburg, and Quito.
Why We Need Culturally Significant Art
In the 1960s, Canadian journalist Marshall McLuhan said, “I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.”
Artist and creative projects are not only a window into what the medium will become, but make the vital first steps to take new and complex tools and ideas, turning them into something that becomes a part of mass culture.
Therefore, it’s events like NewImages Festival and thought leaders like Swierczynski that provide the vital exposure and funding that will make genuine progress for XR, both creatively and commercially.
This year it is even more clear that funding, and the hard work of teams like that of NewImages who worked overtime to make this event a success, is even more critical than before as a foundation for the growth of a community that is rarely found on the corporate side of this industry.
As we saw at SXSW, when it becomes inconvenient for massive sponsors to continue their support, the voices of artists and innovators who share our vision of the future are cut out of the picture. Suddenly, we are agreeing to our data being sold, participating in the dehumanization of people on corporate social platforms, and consuming fake news instead of social significant content. This simply reduces the medium to another advertising and data mining economy, where important and ethical work gets drowned out in a sea of commercials and fake news
Culturally significant art tells us otherwise. The voice of the artist reflects our concerns and unrest, acting as a warning for what the future may hold. Will events like NewImages Festival and the approach of Swierczynski be enough to create a healthy and vibrant XR ecosystem? Only time will tell, but NewImages are leading us towards a socially inclusive and accessible XR future.
Image Credit: NewImages Festival