At Tribeca Immersive 2022, entrants advanced virtual and extended realities from a shiny new storytelling toy to a powerful tool for forging connection, elevating untold stories and driving real change. Read on for a roundup of key themes from this year’s Tribeca Immersive projects.

Embodied realities

VR is typically touted as being aphysical; it takes the viewer outside of their physical body and allows them to travel beyond the bounds of their physical form. But these activations turn that transportive power inward, making the experience a hyper-physical one, allowing the wearer to dive into their body in new anatomical meditations.

In fact, the power of virtual and extended realities lies in its physicality. “What XR tech allows us to do is reconnect to our bodies by engaging the senses,” visual and crypto artist Nancy Baker Cahill, creator of the Tribeca Immersive AR experience Mushroom Cloud NYC / RISE, said in a closed-door session titled Tribeca Talks: Can Immersive Art Help To Revise Our Relationship With Nature? “It’s an embodied experience.”

WEB Plastisapiens
From the Plastisapiens exhibit.

Plastisapiens is a virtual meditation on the intimate effect of climate change on the human body. The virtual reality medium “allows you to go through a transformative experience,” cocreator Miri Chekhanovich tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. “This project is about human evolution, our transition. As your hair and hands morph, you’re breathing and becoming your environment.”

The EVOLVER experience, produced by Marshmallow Laser Feast, transports audiences into a meditative experience within a virtual body. Gliding through the veins, the heart, the lungs with interactive air, blood, and water, the audience is transported into the performance’s single “breathing” cell via a transcendental virtual journey narrated by Cate Blanchette. The audience uses VR headsets and headphones to wander through the “body,” stepping into blood streams and reconfiguring rivers of particles using the digital interactive tech.

The experience turns virtual reality into a “meditative ritual,” Marshmallow Laser Feast cofounder Barney Steel said in Tribeca Talks: Can Immersive Art Help To Revise Our Relationship With Nature?, letting viewers “interact with and explore their bodies” in new ways.

Social meditation

ReachYou is a fictional augmented reality transmission from an imagined future when the earth is no longer habitable. Participants are asked to verbally contribute their own stories of grief and gratitude, which are logged as part of the “Human Record”—a collection of brief audio messages that is one part anthology on the heartache and beauty of the human experience, and one part collective meditation.

The project was inspired by a desire to explore how technology can connect rather than isolate, creators Katrina and Jonah Goldsaito tell Wunderman Thompson Intelligence, by “integrating [individual participants] into a larger, ever-evolving Human Record.”

The experience reflects a cultural shift towards the communal processing of emotion. Mental health and emotional wellness, which have traditionally been discussed behind closed doors, are making their way into the collective spotlight, encouraging connection. Augmented and extended realities can help foster connectedness, Cahill explained. “In a moment of such extreme polarization, we have to figure out how we can connect to something essential.”

WEB Emerging Radiance Photo of Tani and Tom Ikeda
The Emerging Radiance mural. Pictured: Tani and Tom Ikeda.

Elevating voices

Filmmaker Tani Ikeda and artist Michelle Kumata shared the untold stories of three Japanese-American farmers who survived the World War II incarceration camps in America in Emerging Radiance. By scanning a QR code embedded in a colorful, street-art inspired mural, viewers can watch and listen to first-hand accounts from the farmers’ experiences before, during, and after the war. The playful colors and delicate caricatures give a warmth to their intense stories, and the intricate animation affects convey each survivor’s unique mannerisms. Ikeda’s father, Tom, spent most of her childhood collecting stories from friends, family, and neighbors. He felt it was important to record and save their experiences and to preserve their memories. The project is a heartfelt cumulation inspired by her father’s work.

LaJuné McMillian created the Black Movement Library: Movement Portraits using motion capture and Unreal Engine to translate archives of movement data from Black dancers and performers into segmented moving portraits. McMillian interviewed dancers and performers from her community to tell their stories and record their movement digitally. The final production – a 3D film experience that can be viewed on double screens or via VR headsets, combines the performances and recreates their movements digitally, in tandem with their words of inspiration, history, dedication and expression.

WEB Missing Pictures Oh Debu starring Naomi Kawase
From the Missing Pictures series: "Oh Debu" starring Naomi Kawase.

Missing Pictures, a collection of short movies, gave voice to the filmmakers who never saw these full, formal films come to life. Instead, this production sequence features the filmmakers filmed using volumetric cameras narrating key points of the movie and explaining why it was never made inside a 4D virtual reality animation. The lifelike animation gives each movie an authentic and personalized touch, bringing the viewer closer to the filmmaker than a typical film would allow.

The LGBTQ + VR Museum, the world’s first virtual reality museum dedicated to sharing the art and life of the LGBTQ community, contains 3D scans of personal items chosen by members of the community to accompany their stories, told in their own words. Viewers are enthralled in a biometric experience that elicits a range of emotions in real time.


Activism augmented

Creator Liam Young uses immersive worldbuilding as a form of activism in his experience Planet City VR. Planet City is an imaginary city built for 10 billion people, as a thought experiment to envision what future life could look like if we took drastic steps to prevent climate disaster. “I was trying to make a work that would engage the realities of climate change in a form that would be not dystopian and nihilist, but rather would present possibilities and possible solutions,” Young tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence.

The power of fiction in activism, Young tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence, is in its ability to provoke and drive viewers to action. “We don’t escape into [science fiction stories], but rather we’re confronted by them.”

He describes Planet City as both a work of science fiction and a call to activism. “It has to be both,” he says. “Great science fiction either operates as a cautionary tale, a warning sign, or an aspirational future. The great power of science fiction is that it can draw us into a possible future, confront us with it and force us to ask questions like, ‘is this a world that we want to live in?’ or ‘is it a world we want to run away from, kicking and screaming?’ If it’s a world we want to live in, how do we enact that world? What are the decisions we might have to make in order to bring it about? If it’s a dystopia, and we want to prevent that world, what do we need to do today to make sure that future doesn’t come to pass?,” Young explains. “Any science fiction has embedded within it the necessity to act. In many ways, science fiction is not about prediction…science fiction is about promoting action today.”

As Young explained, “fictional worlds can help us understand our own world in new ways.”

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