Listening to the preamble for VR, AR or whatever pixelated reality you call it—is like having someone describe a dream to you. 

It’s an “immersive video” a polite attendant explains to you, holding up pristine white headsets that cost more than your rent—you’re a child’s imaginary friend, you’re a fungus’ life cycle, you’re a witness to Ukraine, Iran, a holocaust survivor, a Black girl fighting segregation laws in 1950s America, childhood, music itself. You listen politely as the explanations for each trip you’re about to jump into fail to wash over you—before that dopamine rush hits as the queue takes one step closer to a locked door. Because unlike listening to dreams—those fading, first-person panoramic sequences that verge on the uncanny—these are scenes you can step inside.

Audience members using the Oculus Quest

***

Running since 2020, the London Film Festival’s Expanded Edition began as an all-digital experience: a metaverse gallery exhibit screened at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic. There’s a solidarity in connecting over that year of isolation, and the project’s aim, in the words of the founder Ulrich Schrauth, is to create new avenues for creatives to express themselves outside of traditional cinema. “The technology is a means to an end,” he tells me with a light German accent, “there’s a new visual language appearing, and it’s there to let artists express their world in a different way.” 

“It’s an exciting time for the medium,” he continues. “The tech gets more democratic and the storytellers more diverse.” 

A little to the west of the BFI’s brutalist concrete spread is the exhibit’s new space: the OXO tower. It’s not quite tucked away, but swallowed by a high-rise of city slicker apartments and hipster’s cafes. Inside the gallery space, I’m greeted by the first of many young LFF attendants, and there’s a visible glee in the press launch crowd. Spread across four stories, some of the 14 exhibits run for as short as five minutes, others, as long as forty-five. There’s a complicated breakdown of each running time in each room, but, I’m told, the best way is to just explore. “You’ll find your favorite ones quickly.” 

It’s apparent what Ulrich was getting at: from Ukraine to India, each exhibit points to a vastly different area of the world. The politics isn’t always lofty, but there’s careful curation to each one. As I walk, my eye is caught by one screen that shifts a tree stump to the left and right as you move past: like peering into a window. Hypnotised, I find myself queuing for Forager—a multi-sensory vault into the life and death of a mushroom. As the headset loads up, an NYU professor apologises for its finicky nature while we wait and I smile. It’s a strange choice for an exhibit, and I ask how he got into it. “Well, my colleague works for the devil—Meta. It was his idea to start with.” A younger man fixing up an Oculus Rift headset smiles gingerly. “The technology moves so fast,” he continues. “It’s the youngest ones, the NYU students now, who take to it natively now. What they do is amazing.”

I sit in the beanbag, and it massages my back rhythmically. A damp smell of mushrooms and forest fills my nose from a machine to the left. I pull on my headset, and headphones are gently slotted over me. It’s dark, then a bright glade appears beneath me. With every sense primed, I zoom deep into the ground, into the spores of a young shroom, and lose myself. The last words I hear from the world are: “Enjoy the trip.” 

A year goes by in five minutes. I couldn’t quite tell you what I’d learnt. When my headset comes off, I look at the same old studio room grinning ear to ear. I shake the young man’s hand and get the earnest opinion of a true geek. “It’s good,” he says, “but I wish we had four more months.” 

I tell him, still grinning, that I might not have left.

Screenshot from Forager

***

A rare side-effect of VR is disorientation. Your body is not quite equipped for ending or beginning a hallucination so strongly. You float, giddy, until the illusion feels real—and then, without your headset, you’re back to normality. It’s not quite The Matrix (not yet) but as you blink and smile, it tests the limits of our little cave and our giddy monkey brains.

What amplifies that effect—what gives it a feeling of nearly speedrunning into schizophrenia—is the sheer contrast of each exhibits Ulrich and his team has carefully laid out. Post mushrooms, I leave the well-decorated studio space and stumble into a bare bricked out room blaring opera music. There are three headsets by spinning bar stools, and behind are chairs lined up between a twin black and white projection. As I take it in, I see an attendant hugging a viewer post-show for comfort. I’m about to watch The Fury—a harrowing portrait by Shirin Neshat of a surreal imprisonment inspired, loosely, by sexual violence and Iran’s long and brutal crackdown on women’s rights. 

A deep breath before the headset comes on. Then—I’m surrounded. There’s a circle of military men peering into me, distorted into dwarves by the panoptic camera, and I physically swivel in my seat to scan around the room. It’s a brightly lit warehouse perfect for a serial killer with art-deco sensibilities. I swirl again and notice the men, looking into me, no, past me, watching: a woman, in a nude-coloured underwear, belly dancing hypnotically in the centre. It’s to the music. The opera music I heard before. Now even more terrifying. 

Five minutes go by like this. The camera—an odd word to use when you are the camera—cuts in and out from different angles, never leaving that intimidating circle of men. They leer and judge. You study their eyes for some kind of recognition. That’s the great strength of the work. I don’t know what I have done, you think often, but I know it feels wrong. You take on the eyes of the dancer as she shimmies by a younger guard, his eyes colder than the rest. When he blows a cigarette into her face, you taste the embers. You want something from him. Then the bruises swell across the dancer: as if it was your skin being hit.   

As I pull off the headset, I’m shaken. I shuffle to the chairs and projections and watch two movies play at once on either side of my gaze: it continues the VR as a black and white projection with different cuts that expand on the gristly warehouse scene; a cinema that shows, with the left and right screen ever so slight different in scope, her capture, the dancing again, and then a surreal protest as she escapes.

Suddenly, there’s a tap on my shoulder. I’m asked if I would like to talk with Shirin by another attendant. I look at a diminuette artist with eye-shadow-like hieroglyphics and a soft-spoken producer standing to her right. It feels like another trip. 

So when you produced the VR, did you two work together?

Producer: We came from Copenhagen and brought all the 360 equipment. Shirin was already shooting the two channel film and we added one extra day on to the shooting plan to shoot specifically in the warehouse for VR.

Was it a spontaneous decision?

Shirin: When they approached me about the VR, I thought it may be perfect for this particular piece: for the brutality and the way the VR technology brings you so close to that particular moment.  If you see it, just seated, it’s very different than if you’re in it. It brings out the gaze of the men.

The movie really expands on that brilliantly. 

Shirin: That was my insistence that we showed that after to give it context as to where the scene was coming from. To conclude it. 

How did you two work together?

Shirin: We communicated it over distance, remotely. It was one take for the VR. It’s fascinating to watch. 

Producer: It shows [Shirin’s] talent that we’re able to do something so new and different with it. We did a lot of exploring, you know, asking what is the medium good for? What are the limitations of it? 

We wanted to treat the viewer as the camera. Placing that camera at key moments that you had already planned with the story, but was using this technology for really what it’s good for. It’s that perspective shift: sometimes you’re her; sometimes you’re a guard; sometimes an onlooker. And other times, you’re just yourself.

Shirin: One of the things if you notice, even with this video, and that’s the way I usually work in video installations, is to really engage the audience in a way that is very physical. That you really have to edit the video yourself in a way like which side you turn to. It’s to give you the choice: here is the point of view of that person, or a point of view of another person. 

It’s a kind of cinematic intervention, but in a way that you’re not passively sitting on a seat, and you really need to put the dots together.

So going into VR is a step further for me, because by placing the audience in that very tough, emotional and physical place where you become her. 

The violence is projected at you, you’re not just a witness—you feel under threat. 

So that the whole thing is used as a way to heighten the emotions. Not as a spectacle, that’s always the danger of technology, it’s not just used in a way that just to make it interesting. For me, it’s about heightened emotions.

And what were these emotions you were trying to capture here?

Shirin: Brutality.

What was it like when you put the headset on for the first time?

Shirin: I felt taken aback. First of all the people are very small! [Because of the perspective of the camera].

They’re like imps. 

Shirin: You feel as if you’ve entered another universe. It’s funny because often when I’m doing filming, even for my video, sometimes I wish that the audience would be in the set: because what you saw when you were creating the film is much more powerful than when you film it and edit it. 

This is the closest I’ve got when you can actually share with the audience what it’s like to be in the middle of it. I remember my video Rapture from 1999 when women were walking on the beach with a black veil and it was so magical, this scene—it was the strangest, most unnatural scene. 

And I kept saying this should have been a live performance. Once you edit it, it’s nice,  but it’s not that. 

With this, you give the audience that opportunity. They can be in the story. They can actually be a character. 

Still from The Fury

***

As I wander around the four stories in the OXO tower block, the comment by Shirin feels most fitting. I’m told, as I try and desperately fit a lifetime into an evening, that there’s over 4 hours worth of footage to inhabit. Beyond the queue—with people passing their time discussing their favourite exhibits—there’s no real limit. In Colored, you enter a room with a pair of augmented reality glasses and a room carefully arranged with chairs to the exact dimensions of a virtual courthouse and bus. You’re told, confidently, by the essayist Tania De Montaigne, that you are a black woman under apartheid. You move, sit, marvel as the glasses produce a holographic flicker of grass, trees, butterflies in the space—chromatic ghosts that move into a portrait of political unrest and quiet resistance. 

There’s a soft glow to these images; a motion-captured stillness brought out by brilliant actors and authentic attention to history. Perfectly arranged, these flickering holograms sit and stand around the real furniture of the room. By the essay’s close, you’re left with a bittersweet message of change from a young forgotten activist . 

A kind old lady keeps an eye on your jackets, beaming as you stumble out. “Isn’t it just fascinating?” she asks.

What to make of it? You almost have no time to think. But you feel shifted. From Murals—a panoramic Bansky-inspired destruction of Ukraine—to Letters from Drancy—a VR exhibit of a Holocaust survivor’s journey—you’re swept into one vista to the next. 

It will take some time for the messages to settle. Blinking into the sunset as I walk out, I know, of course, this is the real world. But I don’t feel quite myself anymore. 

It’s the best kind of come-down cinema can give you: the knock-out blow. And when you come to your senses, when you rationalize it over coffee, ice-cream or a drink, life feels just a little bit larger than before. 

Photo from Elsewhere in India‘s AR concert