Venice VR Expanded at the 77th LA BIENNALE DI VENEZIA is coming to a close today, having accomplished extraordinary feats in creative innovation.
With satellite pop-ups around the world, in Venice, and online across multiple platforms, the event brings artists, industry, and a global audience together to celebrate in a way that will redefine Venice VR and the broader community in the years to come.
Here, Liz Rosenthal and Michel Reilhac, curators of Venice VR Expanded, offer a glimpse into the creation and discoveries of this year’s festival.
THE PLATFORM: ALL FUTURE EVENTS WILL BY HYBRID
“We are promoting the idea that every live event designed in the future will be a hybrid event, fully physical, and fully online,” said Reilhac.
In 2019, they were already planning for a hybrid event, and 2020 was only an acceleration of the process. They launched events in March on their own platform, and spent months investigating available platforms that could accommodate the virtual event itself. In the end, they chose VRChat to become the epicenter of the production.
“We made a choice that the social world we chose needed to be accessible through Quest headsets,” said Rosenthal, “they are the core VR gamers and we know a lot of people who are exploring VR with Quest are also first time users.”
Rosenthal and Reilhac also acknowledged that there is no platform that can do everything. To make this possible, there needed to be cross-platform support and accessibility.
COLLABORATION: AN ECOSYSTEM IN THE WORKS
“This is the most complex project we have ever worked on, everyone is doing a first,” said Rosenthal. It was a great effort from many people to bring the festival to life.
The team at VRrOOm developed the worlds and functionalities in VRChat, working 24/7 to ensure that every artist’s work was correctly uploaded and accessible. Antony Vitillo shared an epic writeup of their efforts that can be viewed here.
Viveport pushed over 25 titles for the Venice VR Festival, and Oculus engineered a first of its kind key that enabled several projects to jump the Q&A process, something that has never been done before. These next four projects are those on the absolute cutting edge of what is possible.
ON THE CUTTING EDGE: CINEMA, GAMING, THE PERFORMING ARTS & MORE
A selection inspired by Kiira Benzing’s Lovseat in 2019 that combines live performance, theatre, and virtual reality, the following four pieces brought together multidisciplinary talent with emerging technology: DOUBLE, La Comedie Virtuelle, The MetaMovie Presents: Alien Rescue, and Benzing’s own Finding Pandora X.
“The agency that you have as a participant is multiplied in a considerable way from anything else that is experienced in VR. Everything is in realtime, it’s slick, fluid, and you are playing with performers who are physically spread all over the world, and with you there in their avatars,” said Reilhac, speaking of MetaMovie Presents: Alien Rescue.
On DOUBLE, he said: ”Including a piece like this in our selection is something new. This year in particular we have included more game like, or game driven story worlds. Traditionally cinema has not been interested in learning about the game world, but in VR the two worlds are very close. We are seeing now in storytelling, that a lot of those games become a lot more narrative driven, and we thought we needed to reflect this in our selection.”
COMMUNITY BUILDING: ONE PIXEL AT A TIME
“We’re exploring all aspects of this new ecosystem, creatively, and with how new audiences are interacting,” said Rosenthal.
While some attendees began their festival experience on content platforms such as VIVEPORT and Oculus, many began to make their way to VRChat as the festival progressed, creating organic, spur of the moment encounters that one would experience at an IRL event. The virtual worlds of Venice VR Expanded became a forum for discovery of the virtual world and the people who are in them.
“There is a side to this that is quite troubling, it’s scary when you start enjoying your time in the virtual world more than you enjoy your time in the physical world,” said Reilhac, adding that neither him nor Rosenthal are disconnected people, but they both experienced new things this week that shifted their perception of virtual reality and reality.
“Having so many contacts in the virtual world, and then stepping outside and people are wearing masks and keeping their distance, it’s an amazing contrast. You can see how you can be closer in the VR platform rather than in the physical world,” he said.
“For me,” said Rosenthal, “because it’s grim- I’ve been in a basement in London- what’s been exciting is being in virtual worlds, the beauty of meeting my friends from Taiwan to LA. That has been incredible: the inventiveness, the excitement people have of choosing their avatars, that’s been the real fun.”
“It’s like immersive theatre on acid,” said Rosenthal, “You can do things that you can’t do in the physical world, you can fly, you can be any avatar you like, you can go on quests, it’s really extraordinary.”
“The community is inventing ways to be together in these worlds,” said Reilhac.
IMPACT: CURATING A VISION OF THE FUTURE
With these learnings, and global collaboration, the curators of Venice have set their sights on a future that is far beyond the expanse of La Biennale di Venezia.
“How can we optimize the impact our festival has on the world, on VR as a medium, how can we aggregate the curatorial work we do that facilitates identifying quality works for the public?” said Reilhac.
“Platforms like steam have artistic and creative work. We think now that the market is ready to have a place, where people go for quality VR content that is not mainstream gaming. We are working on a concept with a festival collection, it’s something we are working on far beyond the scope of Venice VR Expanded. We have to stop thinking within our own limited confines of our project, and think how we can collaborate in a way that works for the industry and the creatives,” he said.
SHARING WHAT WE LEARNED
On that note, I asked Rosenthal and Reilhac for advice from what they learned from their first global hybrid event.
“You need hosts, and really good hosts to bring people through. Don’t underestimate the amount of people who you will need, and the quality of the hosts,” said Rosenthal.
The in-game staff helped guide attendees through the platform, assisting them with controls, helping them navigate different worlds, view content, and understand the interactive dynamics of VRChat. It’s like being born for the first time, with new limbs in an alien world; thankfully, there are a few familiar faces that are there to help guide you through their journey.
As for the platform itself, “Define your objectives, be prepared for bugs, and be with a team that is available with you for the whole event to react to fix the bugs, because there will be many,” said Reilhac.
From supporting the people in the world to supporting the world itself, Venice VR Expanded is an absolutely incredible accomplishment for the team. Congratulations to Rosenthal and Reilhac, the creatives, VRrOOm, the teams at VIVEPORT and Oculus, and to all those supporting the pop-ups around the world, creating hubs for us to gather and celebrate safely against all odds.
The full selection of works for Venice VR Expanded can be viewed online here.
Image Credit: Venice International Film Festival