Future Landscapes is an intensive four-week, full-time workshop created in conjunction with the School of Machines, Making and Make-Believe and Galway 2020. This is the second in a series of posts by participants who reflect on their experience with the programme.
Conn Holohan is Course Director of the BA in Film & Digital Media and a lecturer in film and media studies at the Huston School of Film and Digital Media, NUI Galway.
How might we harness Mixed Reality immersive environments to provoke critical engagement with the physical and social spaces in which we live our lives? This is the question that animates the four-week Future Landscapes workshop being run by the Berlin based School of Machines under the auspices of the Moore Institute. The workshop has brought together participants from the worlds of art practice and academia, leading to stimulating debate on how we delineate between those two spheres both personally and institutionally. However, as the workshop has progressed, such distinctions have gradually dissolved into a shared experience of collaboration and, occasionally, confusion as we grapple with the demands of coding and attempt to wrestle imaginary worlds into existence.
My own interest in these technologies has emerged from a scholarly concern with the cinematic construction of space and place, and more particularly with the ways in which the home functions as a narrative and emotional space onscreen. Whilst not myself a filmmaker, I have led a number of community filmmaking projects in recent years that worked with groups who had experienced homelessness or domestic violence to develop short films that expressed their own experience and understanding of home as a place. The ideas of home that these films gave expression to were often quite at odds with the dominant images of home as a space of security and comfort that emerge from Hollywood cinema. This led me to consider how immersive filmmaking and VR/AR technologies might offer even more powerful tools to place us in the shoes of those who do not have access to secure housing, to allow us share their experience of home with all its potential for exclusion as well as belonging, anxiety as well as joy.
It is fair to say that the past two and a half weeks have been a steep learning curve, yet the tools through which Virtual and Augmented realities might be created are gradually coming into view. One of the challenges for many of the participants, myself included, has been coming to terms with the language and logic of coding, through the mastery of which the gaming engine Unity can be used to develop a seemingly infinite range of scenarios. As someone who has determinedly refrained from looking under the hood of technology throughout my life, this has been one of the revelations of the workshop far: the idea that a computer might be made to do my bidding. Of course technology is only as valuable as the uses to which it is put and one of the real privileges of these last weeks has been bearing witness to the creativity and imagination of my classmates, who range from theatre makers to art directors and whose visual inventiveness has been inspiring.
It is hard at this point to say exactly what the legacy of Future Landscapes will be for my own practice. I do not see myself as a future designer of Mixed Reality experiences, but my goal for this workshop was not to become a practitioner, but rather understand the technology so that I might better work with those who are. As we grapple with the societal challenges of homelessness and climate change the need for new ways of seeing and understanding our environments has never been clearer. It is in this context that Virtual and Augmented Reality technologies offer powerful tools for critical engagement.