Users tri out experiments in virtual reality

At IDFA DocLab 2014, users try out experiments in virtual reality. (Photo: Kel O’Neill)

Each November, the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) transforms De Brakke Grond Flemish Cultural House into my version of paradise. Curator Caspar Sonnen and the rest of the DocLab crew work 80-to-100-hour weeks in the run up to the festival, stuffing the galleries with computers and tablets presenting a survey of the year’s best interactive work. There are galleries for DocLab-selected virtual reality experiments, and still other galleries featuring video installations courtesy of Paradocs, IDFA’s avant-garde section. It is a venue full of radical documentary experiments, all of which are made available to visitors free of charge.

I returned to paradise today for the first time in two years. The last time I visited was in November 2012, when my co-director Eline Jongsma and I were presenting an in-progress version of our project Empire in the Paradocs section as a set of video installations. DocLab’s show in De Witte Zaal stood only a few meters down the hall from the Empire exhibit, and in our downtime my co-director Eline and I would wander into the gallery to soak in the work on display. While the projects in the DocLab Digital Storytelling Competition brought us up to date on this rapidly evolving medium, that year’s day-long conference on “Documentary Storytelling in the Age of the Interface” hinted that we had only seen the tip of the iceberg in terms of how digital technology would soon transform nonfiction filmmaking.

Empire at IDFA 2012.

That trip to De Brakke Grond two years ago marked the end of one creative period in our lives, and the beginning of another. We began adapting Empire‘s video installations to the web, and folding them into a website. Thanks to POV, that website is freely accessible to audiences around the world. It is also on display in De Brakke Grond this year as part of the DocLab Digital Storytelling Competition. Time is a flat circle.

I spent this morning wandering from computer to computer in the DocLab gallery, taking note of the other work in competition. The slate is humbling. The individual selections are uniformly interesting, but the exhibition is even more impressive when evaluated as a whole. Taken together, it feels less like a competition, and more like a research and development project undertaken by 15 teams of unwitting collaborators, from Youtube musician Kutiman to dark data comedian Owen Mundy. This project is not only about the mechanics of storytelling online, but is about empathy, and simultaneity and participation. The final results of this collective research won’t be available for years, but the initial findings are promising. Slowly but surely, the collaborators seem to be creating a new medium, and finding new methodologies for exploring and illuminating the mystery of life.

Others have taken notice. Two weeks before the festival, friends started sending me and Eline emails with subject lines like “Honda interactive film” and “honda r-type.” These mails would inevitably include a link to Wieden+Kennedy’s new interactive Honda ad, called “The Other Side,” followed by a remark about how the spot shares some conceptual DNA with Cradle, the first section of the Empire site.

If you haven’t seen the “The Other Side,” you really should. I like everything about it, from the style to the concept to the interaction design. I even like the car. It is, as a friend pointed out, “pretty cool for an ad,” and any issues I have with it are motivated by professional longing: our years spent making Empire can be described in many ways—as creatively fulfilling, as challenging and exciting—but neither Eline nor I would not describe them as “financially stable.” While advertising executives circle around us at conferences and send us personal emails praising us for our work, they never take the next step of hiring us to sell cars.

I have no idea which specific interactive works influenced “The Other Side” and ended up on the art director’s mood board (my money’s on something by Upian). Yet I believe with every fiber of my being that the ad would not exist were it not for the lineage of strong, non-commercial works that you find on display at De Brakke Grond each November. The creators who show here are diverse in their approaches, but are united in their commitment to break new ground. Money is rarely if ever the motivator for these artists, which opens up a still unresolved question: If the work on display at DocLab can be seen as a research project for the benefit of all, then who should pick up the bill?

For our neighbors to the North, and our colleagues in France, Australia and the Netherlands, the answer is “the public.” Canada’s National Film Board wholly or partially funded three of the titles in DocLab’s competition. Other projects in the slate received financial support from public bodies like SBS Australia, Arte; and the Dutch Media Fonds. As an independently-produced Dutch-American co-production, Empire was mostly financed with public Dutch funding and our own cash, plus public funds and in-kind development services from the United States courtesy of POV. While there’s a light sprinkling of public funding over some of the other five American productions in the slate, most of them got the largest parts of their budgets from NGOs, brand sponsors, or private investors. Hustle, hustle, hustle. Such is the American way.

On one level, it’s amazing that U.S. productions and co-productions account for the largest national bloc of projects in the DocLab competition. But look a little closer and the data becomes less impressive. Canada, with its four productions or co-productions (one of which is not funded by the NFB, but by Arte) has a population of 35 million people. The United States, with our six productions or co-productions, has a population of 350 million. The American government, and by extension the American tax-paying public, is not paying its proportional share into the research project, and it shows when you look at the numbers. While I’m not advocating for a some kind of Olympian effort to dominate DocLab, I am embarrassed that my country has decided to shift the responsibility for the lion’s share of our cultural funding onto the private sector. I’m split: on one hand I admire the resourcefulness of U.S.-based creators who can find money for their projects through the largesse of fashion labels and rich donors. On the other, I firmly believe that it is our responsibility as a society to publicly support cultural projects that push boundaries, be they conceptual, technological or both.

The creative teams showing work at DocLab are the astronauts of storytelling, and where they’re going now, audiences will soon follow. Wieden+Kennedy know this, which is why they made “The Other Side” an interactive experience rather than a linear commercial. To put it in ultra-capitalist terms, if we want more ads like “The Other Side,” then we’ll need more non-commercial research and development, and more events like DocLab’s yearly takeover of De Brakke Grond. Everyone, from viewers seeking new experiences to ad agencies seeking new customers, benefits from this paradise.

Read Kel O’Neill’s conversation with IDFA DocLab curator Caspar Sonnen »

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Kel O'Neill is one half of Jongsma + O'Neill, an award-winning Dutch-American creative team working at the intersection of documentary, art and technology. Jongsma + O'Neill's latest project, the interactive documentary Empire, can be experienced at Follow Kel at @keloneill.