Dissecting Conventions; When Space Becomes a Character

by paradoxig

The Venice Biennale 2023 – XR section. Beside the experiences from the competition, it also had an out-of-the competition section, and invited country representatives involved in immersive production. Definitely the stand of TAICCA – Taiwan Creative Content Agency – was one of the highlights where we loved spending time and reviewing XR creators. And one of the interesting experiences discovered was “Over the Rainbow”, directed by Craig Quintero.

“Over the Rainbow” is definitely an atypical experience – without a linear story or “moral,” but a constant experience, where the creator plays with the spaces and with the concept of anti-space and atemporality, that constantly transform themselves, bringing to light different scenarios, and provoking you with different emotions.

What captivated us about the experience was the fascinating multimodal exploration of different possibilities of expression – by how the space was altered by adding and juxtaposing different elements. The play of light and shadow offered potential transformations, while visual and auditory architectures were continuously explored and developed in an atemporal crescendo play.

The de-segmentation of the frames in the puzzle of scenic expressiveness allowed individual or collective exercises, with the aim of creating new ways and techniques crucial for studying the evolution of VR as an artistic form of expression, but also ways of introducing interaction from the viewer. In addition, these exercises/experiences facilitated a deeper understanding of how the different components interact and contribute to the overall expressiveness of VR pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved and experienced in virtual environments, even with 360 video.
This understanding is necessary for the study of techniques that lead to transmitting messages, emotions, and information which can advance breakthroughs in the development of VR as a form of artistic expression, allowing its evolution as art.

The expressions of gestures, gazes, breaths, inspirations and expiration, silence of sound, harmony and disharmony intertwined in shades that give the rainbow its colors while still keeping curiosity open about what is ‘Over the Rainbow’.

Eager to unravel the backstory of this enthralling experience, TechvangArt sought to unearth more details about the story behind it

Director Craig Quintero travels and works between the USA and Taipei. He studied theater at Tufts University in Boston as an undergraduate, and in his junior year he went abroad to mainland China. There, he became captivated by the highly stylized form of Chinese opera performance. He decided to study it, and with a scholarship went to Taiwan in 1992. While he was there, he discovered the experimental theatre scene, and ended up writing his dissertation at Northwestern University about the Taiwanese experimental theater movement.
He formed Riverbed Theatre in 1998 and eventually decided to do a performance which led to over 50 different productions in 25 years.

In 2011, Riverbed Theatre started staging its ‘Just for You’ series of ten large-scale, immersive performances for one audience member at a time in hotels, tea houses, galleries, and museums across Taiwan. These productions break down the barrier separating spectator from spectacle and immerse the audience in the immediacy of the sensory exchange. The audience does not just “see” the performance; they “experience” it, becoming active participants in the event. But, faced with the financial challenges of mounting these large-scale immersive performances for an audience of one, Riverbed Theatre pivoted toward VR, and produced, “All That Remains”, in 2022. “Over the Rainbow” is the second instalment in “Just for You” Trilogy.

TechvangArt discussed with Director Craig Quintero about his vision for making the experiences, and the challenges he faced in curating and directing in VR, but also about his time in Taipei, his next project, and… with whom he would not want to be compared to 😀

TVA: You stayed and worked quite a lot of time in Taiwan, and Asia is a totally different cultural experience, as a whole, and then Taipei is also different in its own way, so what were those cultural differences that attracted you and made you start exploring?

Craig Quintero: I went to Taiwan for the first time in 1992 to study Chinese Opera. I was interested in learning this highly stylized structure of theater that was radically different than what I’d learned in my acting classes in the United States that focused more on the psychology of the character. Chinese opera did not address a character’s objectives or motivations; instead, it was like: “here’s the tradition, here’s this form, and then you embodied it”. In Chinese Opera, we started with the movements and then arrived at the psychology of the character. We were working from the outside to the inside, from the physical to the mental.

And at that time in Taiwan, the theater and arts scene were very dynamic. A lot of people that were doing theater were also involved with political and social movements. Martial law had ended in 1987 in Taiwan, and it was a creative moment in which artists were not just interested in aesthetic experimentation but were actively engaged in promoting social change. The theater was really alive. It wasn’t “just a show.” There was a lot more at stake.

Also I was fascinated by the integration of religion into everyday life in Taiwan. In the United States, most of our religious ceremonies or expressions of our faiths occur in churches or temples that are separate from everyday life, but in Taiwan, there are Temple festivals on the streets and people setting up roadside altars. There’s this dynamic conflation of the sacred and the profane.

Another aspect of Taiwan that drew me back is the amazing generosity and friendliness of people in Taiwan. You arrive one day, and by the evening, you have 20 lifelong friends. And as an artist, compared to my experiences in the United States in which a lot of artists are very territorial about their resources and creative space, in Taiwan, there’s a strong sense of community, that ‘we’re all in this together,’ that as an artistic community we’re all asking questions and experimenting together’. It’s a very supportive and welcoming place to work. And so even though the arts community isn’t very big, it’s very dynamic, active and collaborative.

TVA: “Over the Rainbow” is the second part of a trilogy. The first part was called “All That Remains”, which was a 360 video that showed at Venice Immersive 2022.
Why did you choose to make a trilogy?

Craig Quintero: It just seemed structurally that just creating one stand-alone 11-minute VR experience was not enough. The work needed a larger structure or scaffolding. I am not sure how Francis Bacon would answer the question why he painted so many triptychs, but in considering his work, one painting by itself seems lonely and naked. And I think that his triptychs create a relationship that broadens the experience. Likewise, for us, we believe that the trilogy intensifies the immersive experience.

We could have made the first piece, and made it to 30 minutes and we would not have had to make three pieces, but I think that these works are more like a poem rather than a novel.
I think 11 minutes is a good length of time to be in this world, and if the experience was 30 minutes, we’d probably need to change the structure to accommodate the length, that our pacing and transitions were designed for a short, intense encounter.
We discussed whether we want the audience to watch all three sections of the trilogy in a row in a single headset, and the answer is ‘no’. Because after each piece, we want the audience to step back, to have a chance to catch their breath or think before leaping into the next section.

TVA: You propose an intriguing experience, which is not based on a very concrete storyline. You put the viewer in different spaces that transform themselves – the space transforms itself, and as such you transform yourself. For me each space was kind of a new transformation of the character, of a dream, of a desire… Why did you choose this type of experience?

Craig Quintero: Going back to your previous question about the trilogy, there’s not a linear narrative that connects the three episodes. It’s more like they are parallel universes. We’re seeing the same people, Ollie and Amber – the two main actors – in different contexts. The trilogy does not present a straightforward storyline (they meet, fall in love, get married, etc.); instead there are a series of events. Something happens, and then something else happens. It’s about removing a larger moral message or larger thematic structure. The reality is our life is made up of these things random occurrences. There’s not a reason for them; they just happen.

So I think that even though our work is not “realistic,” in the sense that we don’t attempt to mimetically recreate everyday life, but I’d say that our experiences are more “real” than most realistic narratives. We are expressing the music of chance, the absurdity of our human condition.
In terms of the evolution, going back to “All That Remains”, both pieces are really exploring the structure of VR, as a 360 experience, and what the medium allow us to do that extends beyond the limitations of live performance.
Since 2011 we have been staging a series of ten live performances for an audience of one. In these intimate productions, we can explore smell and taste and touch as new guide we guide the audience through our world. In 360VR, the camera needs to be stationary, so instead of the audience moving through our work, the work moves around the audience.
In the first scene of “All That Remains”, two men are dragging a carpet behind them on ropes as they approach the camera/audience. For the audience, they see them coming, coming, coming and then they pass as the audience and they’re like, “oh now they’re behind me, and something else is coming towards me”. They are in it, and it’s folding it around them. And then as the woman approaches the audience, these two men are also watching you watch her – so you’re being observed as you’re observing. We are trying to heighten the sense of being in the work, of being immersed.
In the next sequence when the space collapses around the audience, shifting from a big open space to a compressed one, this physical shift also changes the mental or emotional state of the audience. As we are experimenting with how to enable the space to breathe and move in relation to the audience, the space becomes a character in the work.

Frequently, when I see 360 VR projects, I am distracted by all of the things occurring around me. And the question is how do we, as directors, help curate the experience where we’re really helping the audience focus and look in the direction we want? And just as galleries illuminate an artwork and structure the experience, how do we do the same in 360 VR? Our VR films are exploring the structural possibilities of 360 VR. Instead of communicating an intellectual idea, we are building a mental or emotional state.

TVA: Yes, actually, this is what I liked, the experience side, that is not that story that communicates a certain message- very specific to experiences that are linked to storylines in movies or theater, but it is one experience after another, I felt it like an experience of the transformations. And actually, I liked what you said about the ‘space as a character’.
Because I wanted to ask you about the topic of “space and play’ – for me it was like you played with the space – you are changing the space, and then you kind of force me to change my emotional state. And then you’re also changing the scenario, because as a spatial creator, each time it requires a different mini-scenario. I wanted to ask, did you somehow measure or did you think about all these spatial transformation factors and how they impact the public, the viewer?

Craig Quintero: I love the idea of playing with the space and making it interactive. In some VR works, interactivity means that you are directed to pick up a pencil and then put it down. Then you are directed to pick up a cup and put it down. Why? I feel like a kid playing a game of Simon Says. There is no pay off for these interactions.
In our work, we are trying to create meaningful or essential interactivity. For example, in the second scene in “All That Remains,” we immersed the audience in a rotating cylinder that has a small frame through which they can see the scene. If they don’t turn, they can’t see the performance. It’s a subtle interaction, and it’s also a functional one: you turn because you want to see the image. Or in “Over the Rainbow” when there’s a woman in the third scene with the little house, and then she looks over your shoulder, and then you turn to see the big house coming. You’re interacting. You’re changing your physical relationship to the work, but it’s a motivated interaction, it’s essential.

Even though I don’t formally believe in animism, I like the idea that every tree or stone or space has a spirit, that the world is breathing. It’s alive. And so often, we don’t really notice that until there’s like a tornado, a flood, or an earthquake. We often don’t notice that the world is constantly shifting and impacting us.

In “Over the Rainbow”, in the first sequence where the paintings fall, or in “All that Remains” when the space compresses around you- we’re not moving, but the world is moving in relationship to us. The world is changing. And I think that we can heighten that experience in which the evolution of the space is similar to the evolution of a character in a traditional play, that the space is alive. We are in this world, which is living!

TVA: VR is a new space or a new form?
Craig Quintero: I think it’s both. Every time I go to Venice, Tribeca or other festivals, I can’t help but be amazed. As a theatre artist, I often feel so overwhelmed by the weight of history, that we are still so bound to the dramatic structures of plays from 2,000 years ago.

Theatre has not being able to free itself from the limitations of its past in the same that contemporary art has. As a painter, you don’t have to paint a still life of oranges and apples or landscapes anymore, but in theater, I’d say still 90% of the work is landscapes and apples, we haven’t shaken the structure yet.

In VR, we are experimenting with this medium that’s so new that every work is a prototype. We are defining the medium instead of being bound to its traditions. We’re defining the tradition as it’s happening.

TechvangArt Note:

Often the paradox of the theatrical box or studio lies in finding solutions to get rid of it. With the disappearance of the fourth wall, infinite possibilities open up for the discovery of new worlds, universes beyond space and time, beyond meaning, beyond emptiness and conventions

The dissection of existing systems to create new conventions, abstract concepts, algorithms using perceptual and imaginative range, the creation of new mechanisms for transmitting real emotions and conceptual messages, the transformation of physical space into a canvas for the unlimited Imaginarium and the exploration of unconventional language in art is not only a means of liberation, but a vital process in opening up new dimensions and possibilities for artistic creation.

We live unique moments of attempts to create spaces or imaginarium (non)places instead of recreating, and more and more artists begin to challenge seemingly unbearable norms that begin to free forms and conventions from those constraints that hold us hostage in a space of definitions that limit us.

Art holds the power to transcend the boundaries of time and space, offering a unique possibility of non-limiting creative expressions.

The fascinating experience that we lived watching certain processes in Craig’s creation leaves a trace to find new worlds, universes to non-spatiality and temporality, aiming to explore the infinite possibilities of transformations necessary to translate an imaginative perpetuum into reality.

TVA: If the world collapses, what book would you save?
Craig Quintero: “How to Survive the Collapsing World: The Book”. [He laughs] I don’t know if I’d take a book, if I were only able to take one thing.

TVA: What would you take?
Craig Quintero: Air conditioning! It’s been so hot recently! 🙂

TVA: With whom you would not want to be compared to?
Craig Quintero: Donald Trump

TVA: As VR is an infinite form, why choose only a three-something? 🙂
Craig Quintero: I think it’s a starting point. To be honest, when we started our first VR project “All That Remains” in 2021, I did not realize that there were so many other options. And so last year, when we were screening our work at Venice, I experienced 6DOF for the first time and was amazed at how audience mobility alters the viewer’s experience.

I am interested in exploring the possibility of the audience moving through our worlds in the future, but for our trilogy, I like playing with limited mobility, that there is something just outside of audience’s sightline or just outside of their reach. I like leaving the audience with this sense of wanting more, of them filling the constriction of the medium.

TVA: Is VR like a film?
Craig Quintero: I think 360 VR is like a film, but so much more intimate and personal. The image is so close. The headset is literally on you, you feel the pressure of it. So, there’s a tactile, haptic response. The sound is also so close. It’s like somehow, we’re able to bypass our ears and our eyes, and all the information goes directly into our brain. And I think that proximity, both visually and aurally, is something different compared to what happens when we’re in the theater. Because in the theater, I still have my peripheral vision. If I’m in a proscenium theatre, I can still see the audience’s heads in front of me and the people beside me and the theater around me. In our VR experiences, everything in the world is intentional, We’re not distracted by the other information. I think that there’s something really remarkable about being able to fully curate the totality of the experience.

Often when we go to the theater, the productions just place a few set pieces on the stage, and they don’t attend to the rest of the visual stage picture. So we end up looking at the theatre walls or curtains. If you were a painter, you wouldn’t leave this extraneous stuff on your canvas. The intentionality of what we show in the experience is important. The form is the content.

For our VR experiences, we have built all of the spaces, and so everything that’s in the visual frame is because we want it to be, every sound is intentional. We are curating the totality of the experience.

TVA: Next project?

Craig Quintero: We’re now collaborating with PHI Studio in Montreal on a project that integrates live performance with VR. There is a steep learning curve, but I am really excited to explore the possibilities of immersing the audience in our physical world while also utilizing the magical possibilities of VR.

Director/Author/Scenic Design|Craig Quintero  Producer|Su-Ling Yeh

Marketing and Publicity Lead|Ellen Kuo  VR Post-Prodution|Ming-Yang Yeh

VR Cinematophotograhy|William Chou  VR Editor|Ping-Ying Yen

Music|Yu-Jun Wang

Sound Design Supervisor|Chin-Lun Kao  Scenic Artist|Chang-Chih Chen  Choreographer|Li-Mei Chung  Gaffer|Wen-Tse Chen, Tien-Hung Wang  Costume|Ya-Chi Chen

Cast|Yu-Hsin Yu, Ollie Huang, Yu-Shan Tsai, Mei-  Chun Hsiang, Yen-Yi Liang, Li-Mei Chung, Wei-Cih  Li, Fang-Fang Lin, Yu-Ling Wang, Hsiao-Ching Niu

Sponsored by: Taiwan Ministry of Culture, National Taichung Theater, Hong Foundation, TAICCA

All photos are copyrighted and may be used by the press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage

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