How did you come to be interested in the world of XR and immersive art? What do you think these kinds of works offer us that’s distinct from other forms of storytelling? 

My professional background is performing arts and theatre (both as a performer and a programmer), but I have always been very interested in all kinds of immersive art. A movie, a painting, a concert or a theatre play can be immersive at best, but it was only when I saw my first virtual reality experience that I understood the huge potential for all artistic genres in this medium. 

Virtual reality art puts the viewer in the middle of the experience. He/she becomes the centre of the piece. The visual potential is limitless and the possibility to tell stories differently and change the viewers’ perspective gives way to the birth of a new art form.

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I was so fascinated by this potential and the artists from all genres (film, dance, theatre, visual art etc) working in this field that I decided to establish a festival that focuses solely on this new art form (VRHAM! Festival in Hamburg). It was the first of its kind and has just had its third edition, this year as a mainly digital event due to the effects of the COVID-19 crisis. 

Now I’m very excited to be part of the LFF and explore together with the amazing programming team what the new strand to the festival can look like. 

There has been a ‘VR is coming’ sentiment for some years now. While some festivals (Tribeca, Sheffield Doc/Fest) have been leaders in presenting XR work, for most the way to present these kinds of work presents lots of challenges. What are some of the main opportunities and limitations?

Yes, there are quite some challenges in presenting these immersive art works. Of course, capacity and visitor guidance are always a big issue; also the installations attached to the art works have become more and more complex over the last few years. But I find this highly interesting, and I always try to present each piece of the programme framed by a set design or an installation that contextualises the experience.

Proper Motion (2020)

Also I am very interested in the mixture between live performances and extended realities (VR/AR/MR), which can lead to incredible live experiences for the visitors. Like with any other emerging art form, we learn with every event and we get better and better in overcoming those challenges.

The technology develops rapidly and becomes more and more mainstream, which makes a lot of the initial problems disappear. But with the effects of the ongoing pandemic, all major XR festivals will have to adjust their physical presentations and implement the highest level of hygiene standards to ensure they comply with the rules and guidelines from the government. 

What were your main aims with this new XR and immersive strand at first, and how have they changed in the past few months due to COVID-19?

In all of our conversations with the LFF programming team, we have always dreamed of a physical installation at a major location here in London where visitors can experience this new strand of the programme. For us it’s most important to give easy access to everyone interested in this new strand of the festival, especially to people with little or no prior experience in XR.

But like all live events grappling with the challenges of the COVID pandemic, we have had to modify our festival plans in 2020. The heart of this festival will be a digital first XR programme for this new strand, which will give audiences remote access through a virtual platform and also a portal to access this platform at BFI Southbank for people who do not have VR equipment at home. 

BFI London Film Festival Expanded

Additionally, we will host an audience award, an opening event and various panels and showcases around immersive art in both the public and industry programmes of the LFF.  

In 2021 we will then look forward to returning to our fullest ambitions, including installations using all kinds of immersive technologies: virtual/augmented/mixed reality, projection mapping, live performances, awards shows, industry events etc.

Could you break down the term ‘immersive’ and let people know what kind of immersive work they might expect to experience at the festival?

‘Immersion’ basically means that the viewer or participant is immersed in a surrounding or an environment. Technically speaking, the level of immersion is judged by the ability of the viewer to distinguish between a ‘real’ or a computer-generated environment. Factors like interactivity, sound and haptic feedback increase the feeling of immersion. But with immersive art, the aim is not to simulate or pretend that the digital environment is actually real, but to play with different states and expressions of reality.

Virtual (Black) Reality - Bella (2020)

Those art works can change the viewers’ perspectives and play with our senses in how we perceive the world. At best, we are confronted with our own beliefs and imaginations and get the chance to look at our world differently. With the new XR programme at LFF, we want to use cinema and linear storytelling as a starting point, but we want to explore how XR as a medium changes the way people perceive these stories and how adjacent genres like fine art, performance, design and fashion influence the art form itself.

We will showcase the most outstanding pieces from creators from all over the world, but also have a focus on UK talent, especially on new and emerging creatives. We want to give a platform to a variety of talents and are particularly interested in pieces which question our current global, political and social situation, seeking for change on a personal level. 

Are there any particular creatives, collectives or companies putting out XR or immersive work that you are particularly inspired by recently?

As I said, I am very interested in the convergence of live performance and immersive technologies. There has been a rapid development of these works over the last couple of years, with companies like Punchdrunk, Satore Studio or ScanLAB Projects being at the forefront. But also the National Theatre has its own lab for immersive performances using new technologies, and they are developing the most amazing projects. 

Which works are you looking forward to in this year’s LFF Expanded programme?

Coming from a theatre and performing arts background, I’m very interested in the convergence between moving image and theatre/dance. We have a few projects in our programme that push the boundaries of how to experience these art forms in immersive media, which I find absolutely fascinating. Also I see a very strong push of creators looking at themes like social injustice and a shared sense of community. I personally feel that immersive art forms like VR, AR and MR are able to shift the perspective and give viewers a new insight into social topics.