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Virtual Reality’s Political Potential

September 7, 2022

Recently, I have been thinking of changing things up a bit. A different hairstyle, maybe. New or improved teeth would be good. I could get my ears pierced. New clothes, certainly. I want to lose a few kilograms. A few weeks ago, a man in Izmir airport told me he was on his way home after getting teeth implanted and eyes lasered. Turkey is filled with people with new selves; hair and noses all bandaged up or bruised and seeping in the sun. But of all the bodily organs, the self exists in hands more than teeth or hair. Friedrich Engels argued that the transitional moment from apes to humans could be found in the hands. For him, the human hand had a peculiar status with the self and the outside world: ‘the hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour,’ he wrote in 1876. Hands had enormous psychic as well as physiological importance.

For virtual reality (VR), which can immerse us in alternative lives, what to do with the audience’s hands is an important issue. Do the audience keep their hands and navigate the virtual world as a semblance of themselves? Do their hands change, forcing them to navigate the world as somebody else? Or do they lose their hands altogether, leaving no possibility for navigation and only the chance to listen and watch?

The VR films at Sheffield DocFest this June tackled the problem in a few different ways. Child of Empire by Sparsh Ahuja and Erfan Saadati is based on oral histories from the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan. The film invites us to inhabit the world of a seven-year-old boy as he listens to an Indian Hindu and a Pakistani Muslim tell their story of the Partition. The audience takes on the hands of the child. The possible actions are limited to those of a child.

monoliths, created by Lucy Hammond, goes one step further and erases hands altogether. It features three spoken word poems by northern women. Each poem is spoken in places important to the poets: a moor, a double-decker bus, a coastline. Don’t navigate this world, it says; be in it. Shed yourself of yourself. Instead of hands, we are given floating artefacts: little rocks or shells. Turn them over in your non-existent hands. Look at them hover. You haven’t even paws or crab’s pincers; you have nothing, no obligations, no self. One of the poets, Asma Elbadawi, speaks Arabic and ‘doesn’t give a damn about translating it.’

At the festival, the historian David Olusoga unveiled a series of VR and augmented reality (AR) projects. StoryTrails opens this year in cities around the country and uses a mix of personal testimony, archival video, and photographs to uncover hidden histories from places outside the capital. The VR films, which will be available in public libraries, put audiences inside a wall-down bladerunner cityscape. The buildings are composed of archival footage. In these films, the viewer keeps their hands, although they become white and smooth as if you are wearing inspection gloves.

Speaking to Olusoga after the unveiling of StoryTrails, he told me that the audience’s subjectivity is central to the project. ‘AR and VR are a portal into appreciating that we are sharing a space with one another and with other generations. The subjectivity of seeing yourself as part of a bigger story and a bigger struggle is potentially enormously powerful,’ he said. He takes inspiration from EP Thompson and Dorothy Thompson and sees local history as a potentially revolutionary force. ‘AR and VR can bring something new to the self,’ he said.

In these alternative realities, what remains of the audience’s subjectivity? in an articles for this magazine, Adam Stoneman powerfully argues that VR and AR position the audience away from the possibility of dialogue with works of art. The immersive-ness of the medium allows little opportunity for reflection that would place audience subjectivity central to flowering of the work of art—certainly not in the way we would have with a novel, for instance, as we draw a book from our face and stare blankly into space. But there are degrees of difference, as shown in the films at Sheffield. VR is more immersive, but its ability to play with individual subjectivities can be an opportunity for socialists.

The question of subjectivity in socialist art is a welcome one—if activism becomes the entire focus of radical artworks, then we will be missing out somewhat. One thing missing will be the complexity of the world. Richard Seymour’s recent The Disenchanted Earth: Reflections on Ecosocialism and Barbarism is a good counterexample. It is exciting for its political analysis and deep engagement with a world it is attempting to salvage. The exploration of how the author is affected by the world makes for a richer analysis that will be more likely to draw a broader readership than a work which represents the world in a purely objective system. It is the difference between understanding a city through Google Maps and actually spending time in that city, with all of the emotional, political, and cultural meanings that place will inevitably engender.

One of the producers from StoryTrails told me that the technology will be as widely available as podcasting or vlogging in a few years. More power to it all.

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