I’m staring down through a storm of pixels at my open palms. My perspective is distinctly low-res, but I can see that my fingers are smaller than I remember. My wedding ring is gone, and something else is missing.
“Remember, you don’t have tattoos,” a voice whispers into my ear.
A pair of hands reach into my field of vision, grab my wrists, and bring them up to my eyes. The voice is right. My matching Dutch East and West India Company tattoos have disappeared.
“Wow,” I say.
I hear laughter around me. The hands guide me to a mirror and I see myself for the first time. I am wearing a pair of virtual reality goggles. My green button-down has been replaced by a grey pullover. Also, I am a woman.
“Oh my god,” I say.
There’s more laughter.
BeAnotherLab is a tight-knit creative community that defies definition. The group is based in Barcelona, except when it’s not. It either consists of six equal partners, or of an ever-expanding international network of conceptual artists, coders, dancers and scientists. This willful resistance to easy categorization reflects the content of BeAnotherLab’s work, which can variously be described as art, sociological experimentation and/or therapy.
DocLab is not a place to choose favorites. Great projects are everywhere, and it feels unfair to pit such diverse expressions of creativity against each other. So while I can’t in good conscience call BeAnotherLab’s Machine To Be Another: Gender Swap my “favorite” piece on display at De Brakke Grond this year, I can say that the experience has had a profound impact on me that I’m still feeling 24 hours later. The project, simply put, is stunning. Somehow its makers have managed to slam together DIY culture, queer theory, neural science, performance and a whole host of other methodologies and philosophies into something that is more than the sum of its parts.
The setup is simple, at least as VR projects go: Two people (let’s call them A and B) wear specially designed Oculus Rift headsets outfitted with outward-facing stereoscopic cameras.
Person A receives a feed of Person B’s cameras — and thus their point of view — directly into their headset, while Person B receives the same from Person A. The rest is up to Persons A and B, and to the guides who help the pair synchronize their movements. If all goes well, Person A and Person B start to merge into a third entity that we’ll call Person C.
“I don’t want to offend you,” I say to my reflection in the mirror, “But I really have to touch my breasts.”
There’s more laughter and the voice in my ear tells me to go ahead.
My reflection mimics my movements perfectly as I run my hands up and down my body. The curves are mine but not mine — my sense of touch is too confused to form a clear textural map of what my fingertips are doing, so I default to believing my eyes, and believing that I am not who I was just a few minutes before the experiment began.
The voice tells me to approach my reflection. The pair of hands slide the mirror away, revealing a black velvet curtain. The curtain parts and I see a man in a green button down shirt who is also wearing a pair of virtual reality goggles.
I know that man because I see him every morning in the mirror when I am brushing my teeth.
That man’s name is Kel O’Neill. I am at a distance from myself, while also within myself. I am my female partner in this experience, and I am me.
The voice tells me to lift up my hands, and to place my palms against the man’s palms. I do. Or he does. We do.
“If you’re thinking conflict resolution, or violence against women, or any other kind of issue, if you just put yourself in the shoes of the other, the decisions that you make and the actions that you take will be completely different.”
These words come from Philippe Bertrand, who is one of BeAnotherLab’s core members.
Phillipe is also the owner of the voice that guided me through my gender swap experience. Like almost all of his colleagues at BeAnotherLab, Philippe comes from a mixed-culture background (French father, grew up in Brazil and now lives in Spain). I believe this is one of the keys to the project — it is the creation of people who fall outside the clearly defined cultural definitions of “insider” and “outsider.”
In an age of increasing migration, more and more young people find themselves in this position: They are from mixed backgrounds, move to countries where they weren’t born, and fall in love with people who they do not look like.
Philippe and the rest of BeAnotherLab have created a piece of art that carpet bombs the concept of fixed identity, and obliterates the divide between the other and the self. It is of this time, and it is for this time. It is extremely cheap to build and easy to replicate, and the crew hope that others will jump in to build on their invention.
“It’s a low-budget Creative Commons hack of neuroscience procedures that you can do by yourself,” explains Philippe. “The Oculus and the rest that is coming opens up a great opportunity [for this kind of experience] to become much more massive and much more accessible.”
If we take Philippe at his word — and I personally do — it is impossible not to see the Machine To Be Another as the first step on a path to the creation of a totally new medium, consisting of a direct exchange of experiences between humans.
Their empathy machine is a prototype. Over time, the image resolution and sound quality will become exponentially better. The headsets will become smaller, then disappear. We will live each other’s lives, and, in turn, understand each other’s pleasure and pain.
I pull off my Oculus rig and face my partner. The feeling of intimacy and connection is still present, and is now mingled with a sense of embarrassment. Wasn’t I just you? Didn’t we just merge to create something bigger than our individual identities?
I feel like a man in the early 20th century after my first ride in a Model T. Yes, there were bumps along the road, and yes, the technology wasn’t perfect. But I see the future.
Read Kel O’Neill’s conversation with IDFA DocLab creator Caspar Sonnen and his thoughts on research and development at DocLab.
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