Report: Sheffield Doc/Fest's Alternate Realities Strand

Claudia Paterson writes from one of the most progressive New Media programmes of the moment

19 June 2019

Over the past few years, panellists, programmers and artists have frequently invoked the emergent field of ‘New Media’ in reverential tones, as the future of storytelling. For newcomers to New Media, this field includes Virtual Reality (VR), 360 videos and interactive AI projects among others, all of which generate huge excitement among artists and audiences alike but don’t yet enjoy the same level of support or representation as other more established forms.

Sheffield’s renowned annual Doc/Fest has been a pioneer of immersive and interactive projects since the inception of its Alternate Realities programme. This year, the festival welcomed 26 exciting new projects to exhibit, with the programme divided into three strands: an exhibition entitled Subconscious Sensibilities, a free VR-dedicated cinema called Converging Sensibilities and Incomputable Sensibilities, an Alternate Realities Summit.

Every year, artists and creators from across these fields apply for the coveted Alternate Realities Commission, supported by Site Gallery, the British Council and Arts Council England. The winning project is awarded £20,000 to realise their project, which is exhibited during the festival, and the creator(s) are invited to present at the Alternate Realities Summit.

This year’s commission was awarded to Spectre, “an interactive installation which subverts the power of the digital influence industry”, designed by artists Barnaby Francis (aka Bill Posters) and Daniel Howe. The piece comprises six 2.5 metre high black monoliths, each featuring touch screen technology which, in the artists’ words, “invite audiences to surrender their personal information in order to access the power to influence others, from the public to high profile celebrities.”

The experience feels deceptively normal until the final phase, in which the algorithm demonstrates how avatars of famous people could be manipulated to deliver targeted information such as corporate messaging or even political propaganda.

Visitors to the Subconscious Sensibilities exhibition were greeted at the door by a series of colourful pillows, suspended from the ceiling by wires, upholstered in unusual, glitchy patterns.  These ‘cybertwee’ textiles were designed by Zoyander Street as part of his work, Interactive Portraits: Trans People in Japan, which plays upon the visual style of early gaming in order to present a culturally sensitive idea in an approachable way. The high-ceilinged gallery beyond was filled with slatted wooden booths in which screens and VR headsets were elegantly presented, encircling the imposing monoliths of Spectre.

Joe Cutts, who programmed and produced this year’s series, and curator Dan Tucker, designed the wooden booths with a team of carpenters, using recycled wood reclaimed during the renovation of the gallery space. Cognisant of the challenge of presenting such a varied selection of projects alongside one another, Cutts was keen to use the wooden structures to “create a harmony between the pieces and the space that felt savvy and could exist for a few days or six months”. Following its debut during Doc/Fest, this autumn the Alternate Realities programme will embark on its second national tour.

Other highlights from the Subconscious Sensibilities exhibition were Darren Emerson’s Common Grounda 30 minute VR documentary centring on the demolition of the Aylesbury Estate, formerly Europe’s biggest and home to a uniquely diverse community of international residents; Frederik Duerinck's Algorithmic Perfumeryan ingenious marriage of mechanics and AI to create authentically personal fragrances for users; and Kelsey Boncato and Daniel Oldham’s Forest a lyrical VR experience in which users move through minimal, ink-drawn landscapes to the accompaniment of Oldham’s techno compositions. Forest marks the duo’s first foray into VR, and Oldham commented that the work has only ever been exhibited alongside other VR pieces, whereas “here, alongside these other tactile objects and programs, it really balances it out. It’s not all one thing.” Duerinck remarked that the high attendance and free entrance of the festival set it apart from others that he has taken part in, as well as “their use of the self-built wood structures, which create an atmosphere that is contained but half natural, and opens you up to the high-tech concepts on display.”

In the Hallam Performance Lab, a series of impressive 360 films were exhibited on a loop, curated into playlists with socially-minded themes such as ‘Injustice & Courage’ and ‘Climate & Care’. As suggested by the title Converging Sensibilities, the cinema space was communal and viewers were encouraged to “join in our forum for critical discourse and creative reflection”, exchanging their insights with one another after each film. The concept was successful, and films such as Maria Belen Poncio’s 4 Feet: Blind Date, about a young woman in a wheelchair who ventures out to pursue romance, inspired particularly hearty discussion about the realities of dating for disabled people and the terror of vulnerability.

The winners of the Alternate Realities programme were announced on Tuesday night, with Algorithmic Perfumery winning the Audience Award, voted for by the thousands of local visitors that took part over the festival’s duration.