Being (T)here: Experiencing Place and Presence in Augmented and Virtual Reality Documentary Projects

Annie BermanSarah Nelson WrightSamara Smith

Being (T)here: Experiencing Place & Presence in Augmented and Virtual Reality Documentary Projects

Three documentary artists working in new media will contextualize recent augmented and virtual reality projects that engage place as their central concern. The artists will discuss the potential unleashed by VR and AR platforms to transform interactive documentary participants’ experience and understanding of place, along with questions about the limitations of these media. The artists will focus on the following projects but will touch upon other site-specific and interactive doc projects to illustrate how these projects fit into a larger body of work about place.


• Annie Berman’s Oculus Rift documentary ‘Utopia 1.0: Post-Neo-Futurist-Capitalism in 3D!’ explores the remnants of Second Life, a formerly thriving virtual 3D world, and investigates its susceptibility to the same economic pitfalls that plague our ‘real’ world. The expedition travels through a largely abandoned virtual 3D world in search of utopia, a place (literally defined as “no place”) that represented a perfect society. Yet, despite its existence, our very notion of progress depends on our ability to imagine utopia, to imagine a better world. Berman utilizes the Oculus to transport us to a place that was once declared ‘the next big thing’ to understand the future ‘through the rearview mirror’ -as McLuhan once posited.

• Samara Smith’s ‘On Hamburger Square’ is an augmented reality audio documentary exploring the history and character of Hamburger Square, Greensboro, NC’s first town square. Participants explore the square with an map guiding them to objects such as monuments, public art and signs. They then frame each objects with their mobile screen to trigger community interview montages. In this way, the project mixes scavenger hunt play and documentary inquiry, to invite the audience to explore the plaza while thinking about the history and communities that intersect there.

• Sarah Nelson Wright’s ‘Over the River’ is a virtual reality experience of a unique landscape that recently vanished from New York City’s waterfront. Hunter’s Point South is a large, formerly industrial site built on layers of landfill that was left fallow for 40 years and grew into a verdant forest with robust ecology. Visitors to this liminal space experienced the magic of being alone in a forest atop a cliff across from the Manhattan skyline, hidden in plain site. In fall 2015, the city removed the forest to make way for high- rise condominiums and an official public park. This virtual reality documentary transports users to this uncanny urban space, allowing them to exist in a place that no longer exists.