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_Interview with Oscar Raby

Oscar Raby discusses his interactive VR project Assent and the implications and potential of VR.

Deniz Tortum conducted this interview with Oscar Raby via Skype a few days after experiencing Assent. What follows is a slightly edited and abridged discussion of Assent, Oscar Raby’s interactive VR project about his father’s traumatic memories of a mass execution in Chile around the time of the overthrow and aftermath of Salvador Allende in 1973.

DT: When people talk about VR and Oculus Rift, and the possibility of this medium, they always mention empathy and “putting yourself into someone else’s shoes”. It is also very interesting that your dad is going to his past but only through your interpretation. Where do you think empathy stands in Assent? The viewer is forming this empathy with your father but the piece is more about your memory of the event. It is different than other pieces trying to create empathy. What is your approach?

Oscar Raby: People working in VR think about empathy a lot. The commercial way to describe empathy is “to put user in someone else’s shoes” or to “put user in the center of the story”. However, my version of empathy has to do with finding something in yourself, not putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. For me, empathy is always an abstraction, kind of a retroprojection. What I’m feeling right now by donning this mask is something making me feel open to what someone is telling me. I’m still myself, you never breach the gap to the other. That thing is triggering something in myself. Have you seen this breathing exercise by which you can trigger the same components and reactions you get from LSD? You can trigger the same reaction by doing breathing exercises. You don’t have to ingest any external ingredient. You just get it all from your body. You put your body in a configuration, in a state, that takes your brain and whole body and puts you in a state that’s really close to simulation. What I’m saying is, with VR, we’re depriving ourselves from contact with other people just to find in ourselves the exercise of empathy. It is similar to when you train for a sports event you do a lot of practice on your own. Before going to the actual event, you prepare your body for the event, in the real place. You train for a soccer game in a soccer field. I think VR has somehow that capacity– training us for that empathetic contact. It is not putting myself in someone else’s story, it is just putting myself in the mood to be open, to be accepting, to be tolerant.

DT: Have you experienced this type of practice of VR with any other work you have seen so far?

Oscar Raby: I’ve been able to practice contemplation. You stare at a flower, not because it means love or beauty but because it is. I find myself in that mood when trying Strangers with Patrick Watson by Felix and Paul. You are in a space in which you don’t have to do anything. You are being idle. There’s a great value in being idle. Similar to what film does, you are idle for almost 2 hours. There’s a value to not doing much, to stop being productive. That’s an exercise that should be pushed, just like a physical exercise.

DT: Do you think VR provides that idleness? Or do you have to design for that idleness? There’s definite idleness in Assent.

Oscar Raby: In Assent, it is coded in the story; you are taken by hand on an experience that you cannot conduct. You are just moving forward. You are tied to the story and the actual events; you are not going to resist, walk away or look away. You’re going to be part of this experience all the way through. By the time you reach the end, you are part of it. That’s exactly what happened to my father. By being part of the people that went up the hill and looked at what happened. He didn’t do anything else but he was entangled in the story.

DT: Is it why you used movement in the end of Assent? In the last scene, the viewer is forced to move away from Oscar Raby’s body towards the victims and perpetrators as if she is a ghost. Godard says something in the line of “every camera movement is a moral decision”. That moment in Assent is so loaded and meaningful. What were you thinking when you designed that scene?

Oscar Raby: You are totally right. Every camera movement is a conscious decision in saying and not saying, in framing and not framing. The thing with VR is that you can have two separate camera movements that are split. You have the tracking and the framing (panning and tilting). In Assent, the tracking is controlled but not the framing. That framing is given to the user. I’m outsourcing the camera movement there. At all times, you can look away, you can stare at the sun and you would be mentally safe. But it seems to me that by tricks of visual attention, it is hard to do that. The moment you populate the virtual place, the moment you put something in virtual space that captures your attention right away. But the viewer has the chance to be idle forever.

DT: There’s an added responsibility there and that’s where VR is ontologically different than film. In VR, you can look away but you choose to look.

Oscar Raby: If it was film, I would be choosing what to show you, the frame. I could show the eyes and faces of perpetrators and victims. But in VR, I am only suggesting it. In film, you say, this is what it is. But in VR this is a constellation of what things can be. A complex system of meaning, not just one thing. In that regard, it has a lot to do with theater design and architecture. These are the fields that are useful for VR experience.

It’s hard to identify, unless you are highly literate in specific ways, “what is the moral meaning of a door?” A door that you can go through, it is different than the poster of a fist in the air. There is clear information attached to that sign. But, a door, unless let’s say you surround that door with light on the other side and lots of spider webs on this side, doesn’t have a clear meaning. The tone is quite a different tone, in terms of its morals. We need to bring in more architecture and theater design people in order to understand the potential of VR.

DT: Assent has this glitchy aesthetic. Even though you mentioned the computer’s limitations, I’m assuming that this is still a very conscious decision. If you had a lot of funding and unlimited computational power, would you create a seamless environment or the glitchy aesthetic, and is pushing away the photorealism is important to you?

Oscar Raby: Definitely. I treat this as a painting. There are a lot of artifacts coming from playing with the medium. If I had more resources, I’d try to pursue the same but make it more complex. Make it bigger and full of glitches. I understand what photorealism gives to the users and the producers but there is a particularity in the way that 3d modeling works which can be quite rewarding artistically. It’s not like you’re being tricked to something else, you’re being presented in front of an art piece. If you’re in front of a great painting let’s say, there’s an important connection that shouldn’t be missed. I’m not making you feel, oh you’re in the actual desert. I’m making you feel, you’re here. Put the desert at the background of your mind.

DT: If a work is using photorealism, the work is trying to create empathy. But your method of incorporating artifacts turn it into an empathy practice machine.

Oscar Raby: If you see a painting if you get close to the painting, you see the cracks and the paint, the physical materials that you cannot see in a reproduction. Your brain is telling you that you are there. That’s a similar thing I want to see in my pieces.

DT: If you think about documentary film, there is always this indexicality of the photographic image. It’s proof that someone was there. That’s how you achieve the realism/reality. With 3D modeled environments and simulations, where does the documentary and reality aspect come into play? Can you have the documentary without the photographic image? Can you have it with 3D scans and 3D models?

Oscar Raby: That’s exactly the same question I’m dealing with. That’s the question I want to push. You have indexicality of photography. The camera was there to record the event unfolding in front of the machine. With 3D scanning, that could be a trick and constructed. Of course it is constructed, that is not the issue here. The indexicality in VR is your body feeling as though it is in front of this event, right now. So, it is kind of an actualization of the recording of the event. That event is unfolding right here, right now, in front of me. It is triggering muscle memory and oral tradition. So you would feel you are in a space. I was looking up and I remember my neck getting a bit stiff because I was staring for 45 seconds looking up to the sky. Seeing this beautiful sun shining through the leaves. I cannot tell you how it is, you have to see it yourself. But I remember it because my neck got a bit stiff. That thing I just told you is a combination of my muscle memory and the oral tradition of letting you know what I saw. I think VR is working on that. It is a different indexicality.

DT: That’s the indexicality of someone’s experience. But there’s also the indexicality of you posing for 3d scannings.

Oscar Raby: Yes, they are two different things.

DT: I’m not sure whether 3d scanning is any different than digital photography. Because you can much more easily manipulate a digital photograph in a realistic way.

Oscar Raby: It’s just the same as digital photography. It only has more planes. It has multitude of planes but it is basically digital photography. That indexicality is about the object, the body on the ground or myself in my own studio. That’s a photographic indexicality. Then you have the VR indexicality which is another thing, which has to do with how your body registers it.

DT: So a VR documentary is a documentary not about events that happened but about events that are happening.

Oscar Raby: Yes, it is bringing it to present time instead of saying “this is what happened”. It is making the viewer experience a change. In the change, there’s a thought process being triggered in you. The tricky thing about VR is that change has a lot of registers. One is a narrative one. But it also has a very tiny register. When you move your head… Its a very minute change you’re controlling. You’re activating that change. Have you heard of this Chilean biologist Varela? Francisco Varela, a neuroscientist from Chile wrote about experience and consciousness as changes at a cellular level. So when the cell is aging, changing from one stage to another, it undergoes a series of small changes. Those small changes are something we are aware of. I realize that my hair is growing, my fingernails are growing. I can see that my wrinkles are growing and multiplying. But I can also feel those things, hour by hour, minute by minute, second by second. And I don’t know how exactly it happens. That cellular changes give us the comprehension of time. How else are you going to understand time? Varela’s way of understanding time is: I’m sitting here, and even though I don’t understand it, there’s something going on. He says that it is time. Time is change. Change, when you rationalize it, is experience and consciousness.. When you move your head around, that’s a very tiny change, but that’s a change. That’s the miniscule atom of narrativity!

DT: I’m curious about how you designed for the realism? What is your method of creating that reality as an experience?

Oscar Raby: I want you to go through something. You have to be tested or challenged. When you overcome that challenge, when you go through that door, your experience is the real dimension of the piece. It doesn’t have to be photorealistic, it doesn’t have to resemble an external reality. It has to resemble an internal reality, something you comprehend from the inside. So if you’re exposed to a puzzle, something that’s a question to your intellect, when you discover the answer to that puzzle, that’s the real dimension of it. You are here, answering that question. The question from the documentary perspective is: what would you do if you were in a situation? What would you do if you were asked to go to an execution? Would you answer, I would go and see the execution or I would stay and stare at the sun. That’s the documentary question. If you have a physical response to this, then you become part of the question. You become exposed to the reality of this question. You are making an active answer. And that answer is not a verbal answer, it is operational answer, physical answer. So that for me is realism.

DT: How was your father’s experience of seeing Assent? Did he only see it once?

Oscar Raby: Yes, both my parents saw it once. They live in Chile and they visited me in Australia. But their visit was such a prized opportunity, that I waited until the last day to show them Assent. So when my father saw it, we had only a day and a half to talk about it. We only had one small conversation. I’m not sure if the piece changed much of his personality or his outlook on life. It’s been a silent time after that.

DT: What was his initial reaction after seeing Assent?

oscar raby: We were at the beach in a holiday mood. I had my Oculus Rift with me. So, picture us in a tropical beach in the North of Australia, having a really good time. We’re heading back to the house from the beach. He got into the shower to get rid of the sand, he put on the tea. It’s one or two days before he goes back to Chile. And I say, hey Dad, are you ready? Do you want to see the piece? He says, let’s do it. So, he’s in his towel, sitting with his cup of tea, I put the Oculus on him. 15 minutes later he finishes the experience, takes the mask off, looks at me, and goes… you changed the story.

And I say, what did I do wrong? Is there something that didn’t impress him? Is there something not accurate? Or maybe I said something he didn’t expect? Then he looked at me and hugged me. By the look he gave me and what he said afterwards, I realized he meant that I changed the story into a different thing that he didn’t have it in his memory, some other version of that day. It was quite different with my mom. When she finished the piece, she was in tears, she hugged me. I think that the reaction from my dad was very rational. He was content and stoic. If this piece can be seen anywhere else, and there’s a father and a son going through a similar situation, it would be great for me if they can reflect upon it through this piece.

DT: How was your writing experience for interactive and immersive media? Also, your writing style is very conversational and casual and it is very emotional. How did you arrive at that tone and how was the writing experience?

Oscar Raby: I did it all late at night, there was no chance of bumping into anyone. I had to put myself in a very intimate mood. I tried to write as if I was talking to my dad but not my real dad, not as if he’s on the phone. The way I talk to him is very friendly but he is still my father. Whereas, in Assent the tone had to be talking to my father as if he is a friend as well, a very close friend. So, when I found the tone, it was just pouring a lot of things. Things that are tender, fragile and intimate. Things we forget in the male adult culture and in English speaking world. My childhood in Chile – you are very expressive with your emotions. You dance a lot, you share a lot, you vocalize your emotions, you kiss and hug your friends. When you go to friend’s party, you have to kiss them person by person. That could be awkward in the English speaking world but in Latin America that’s a common thing. There are many things that are very openly emotional. There’s no social punishment in expressing emotions publicly. In the adult, male and English speaking world, you can’t do this. I wanted to put myself back into those shoes. I wanted to say, yeah I really like flowers, I like my cat… Without feeling that I was putting myself into an awkward persona. I have my hipster persona still but there should be a way to show that internal world.

DT: And there is this naive tone and sincere honesty. Yes, you are right that we can’t find it in adult world and English speaking world but also it is almost anti-hipster, it is not cynical at all.

Oscar Raby: You’re right. Around 2001, when I started my visual arts practice, it was all about irony. That’s how I learned to do art but I got tired of it. Now I want to go for brutal honesty. You know what, I’m going to show you something really intimate, something very real for me and if you notice it you might notice how real it can be for you. I move from irony and sarcasm to brutal honesty. I think Assent is the peak.

DT: When creating Assent, what were the conscious decisions you took? In film, many directors put constraints on themselves so they can push their creativity. Did you put constraints on yourself while creating Assent?

Oscar Raby: I didn’t have to set many constraints on myself, mostly because the computer presents me with lots of them. I would have loved to keep working on this thing, to keep adding more buildings, details, trees… Only out of vanity though, thinking I can do it better and not letting it go ever. But the computer starts complaining and it doesn’t give you what you want to show. So you have to let it go at some point. That was a natural constraint.

The second constraint had to do with how to tell a story. There were two things I didn’t want to use directly. One was using my father’s appearance; so it would be just me, I would be the representation of my father. The other one was about the victims and the perpetrators: I didn’t want to present them. In Assent, I’m standing in for their characters, their bodies, but not their lives.

DT: When video games try to document real life events or historical events, people react very badly. Most of the time they’re not done very sensitively but it seems like there’s a negative reaction to video games dealing with sensitive real events. Was this in your mind when creating Assent?

Oscar Raby: Yes. I think you’re thinking of JFK and Columbine game.. When I started working for Assent, I only had the story and I knew that I wanted to make something with interactive media. At the forefront of interactive media, there is video games. I wanted to work with games and have the mass execution as the center of the story. The natural genre to do it would be a first person shooter. I was going towards that but I was also thinking about the backlashes you mentioned. If you’re going for a FPS (first-person shooter), you’re putting the user in the shoes of the perpetrators. So you are already choosing sides. I didn’t want to go there, I wanted to put the user in my father’s shoes, which is the third party, neither perpetrator nor victim. So I got rid of the gun and made it look like a FPS without the gun. In that period, I came across a game called Warco. They never released it, it’s a proof of concept. The user plays as a war correspondent, capturing the events with a camera. That was pretty close to what I wanted to do except without the camera. One day, someone came to the studio with Oculus Rift. I always knew I was using a game design but I also knew that I was doing a game. Bringing the real events to the forefront and game elements to the background would take me to a safer ground. The game elements are so simple and functional that they are not entertaining. The only game element is the moving mechanism. The game mechanisms become invisible. You need to find the right tone when putting in the game elements.

DT: What type of distribution are you planning for Assent?

Oscar Raby: At the moment, this is a matter of time. It might be sorted very soon. But today I’m looking at several ways of distributing this piece: 1-Festivals. 2-An institution that could acquire Assent as a file and the Oculus Rift all together: one box which can be preserved in an institution. 3-Online distribution through platforms Steam or Oculus Store. You put your file on there and it gets distributed.

This might be some advice for people working in the same field. Being able to show Assent in festivals and in cultural institutional environments has given me exposure and credit to pursue commercial projects in the same platform. Yet I’m very aware that this is a sign of times. It’s not going to be like this in two years. In two years the field will be over-crowded. But to me, having this project out when VR is peaking has given me great deal of exposure which is also helping me to be attached to commercial projects.

DT: What are some of the works that inspired you in thinking about this medium and creating Assent?

Oscar Raby: A turning point for me was Waltz With Bashir. I was starting my master’s and I had a year to put this story in an interactive manner but I didn’t know how to move forward in terms of the surface: how do I present real people inside a game. Waltz With Bashir, a rather traditional animation, let me see something in the way that the characters were transformed from real people to animated characters. But they were actually real people who had their lives captured, in a way less to do with a camera but more to do with someone representing and interpreting their lives. Also, subject matter of Waltz with Bashir was a soldier remembering traumatic events in his younger days.

In a very different scale, Dys4ia is a big inspiration. It’s a small flash based game about the author going through hormone replacement therapy. The game is about all the social challenges she went through. Dys4ia has very simple graphics, basic colors, basic blocks. Because of that simplicity the player can connect with the challenges that were put forward in those tiny puzzles. Dys4ia is not “this is my body changing” but “this is you realizing how difficult it is to fit in a context that doesn’t recognize me”. That game was very instrumental in moving through Assent. When I did my first scans, they were very messy and it took me couple of days to authorize that and say “oh it doesn’t look like Call of Duty or GTA but it doesn’t matter, it’s a happy accident”. After all you are after the story which is behind these polygons! Dys4ia, being a very simple example, helped me to overcome that challenge.

DT: What advice would you give to filmmakers coming from a linear film background but approaching immersive and interactive work?

Oscar Raby: I would say if you have background in traditional filmmaking, you already know a lot of things that have to be invited to the VR space. But one thing  I have discovered is that when you are writing and developing your story, the questions you are putting yourself through would be very helpful to put forward to the user. Don’t try to answer all your questions, but put some of them forward to the user and let the user enact those decisions and hesitations. Being doubtful, being hesitant, being fragile, being candid is something VR can provide beyond what the filmic certainty can give. If you want to move from traditional filmmaking, open that creative process for the user to be part of.

DT: So VR is anti-auteur?

Oscar Raby: It’s a tricky question. We have gone through the death of the author. And with the internet we went through a second death. There’s no individual authoring, but collective curation. If you’re doing something you’re curating mostly, you’re not authoring like a genius. But in VR you can still be one on one. Voice of an author talking to presence of a user. As of now VR is a mask on one head in front of one set of eyes. I think there is a second coming for the author.

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