Computational Arts Research & Theory Blog

Post 9 - Dec 6th, 2018
From a Distance

This week in our Theory and Research class, the topic was witnessing from a distance. We read Digital Narratives and Witnessing: The Ethics of Engaging with Places at a Distance by Nishat Awan and watched Liquid Traces - The Left-to-Die Boat Case directed by Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani. Our class discussion centered on the question, “what does it mean to witness events through a camera as opposed to first-hand?”

We began the class with an exercise called “at the border of self and other” where two unfamiliar people stand and face each other. We touched the tips of our fingers together for 3 minutes. For the first 1.5 minutes both of us kept our eyes closed and for the next 1.5 minutes, we opened our eyes and maintained eye contact with one another. In the exercise notes it was explained that “the point of this exercise is to encourage you to observe your feelings and bodily reactions. Keep your awareness on the bodily contact. Be prepared to initially feel a bit shy or embarrassed.” After the exercise we spent 10 minutes to writing down our feelings and bodily reactions.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed this exercise. I was initially very uncomfortable about the idea of doing this. I also definitely wanted to be paired with a woman. I supposed I feel more comfortable with my own gender and when I looked around the room, I noticed most people felt the same except for one pair. Maybe it’s because I heard that prolonged eye contact of around 2 minutes could make a person fall in love with you!

I partnered with Lola from Minorca who I didn’t know very well. I thought I would have weird feelings of internalized criticism and that I would do something to disrupt the exercise but I felt strangely safe once we started. I noticed that we both swayed slightly. Once our eyes opened we giggled a little. I thought about how people don’t touch each other much anymore. I also realized that I don’t think I’ve ever had 1.5 minutes of direct sustained eye contact with anyone.

Next we did an exercise called Contact Zone at a Distance. We repeated the first exercise but this time we put distance between us by adding a camera. I used the camera on my mobile phone to observe Lola. Afterwards, we took 10 minutes to write down our feelings and reflections on our bodily reactions within the digital “contact zone”. The exercise was ran for 3 minutes just as the first exercise but time felt as if it dragged on. I could feel the distance between Lola and myself. I noticed that I didn’t feel engaged like I did in the first exercise and Lola almost became an object instead of a person.

Both of these exercises were inspired by Nina Lykke from her book, Writing Academic Texts Differently: Intersectional Feminist Methodologies and the Playful Art of Writing. I have added her book in Amazon wish list. I’d order it now but I have enough to read – or not read as I am currently doing.

Liquid Traces is a terrible story in “which 72 passengers who left the Libyan coast heading in the direction of the island of Lampedusa on board a small rubber boat were left to drift for 14 days in NATO’s maritime surveillance area, despite several distress signals relaying their location, as well as repeated interactions, including at least one military helicopter visit and an encounter with a military ship. As a result, only 9 people survived.” This film is difficult to talk about – not only because of the subject matter but because of the politics involved. At the heart of the film lies the truth that no country wants to accept these refugees and that their deaths are somehow someone else’s responsibility. No images of the refuges are shown – the film relies on voice-over and an animated map and simulated radar graphics. The voice-over is a little strange – not done by a professional and not recorded very well. I’m not sure if that adds or detracts from the content…possibly the latter which is unfortunate. I wonder if there was a different way to tell this story and if it could have been more affecting. We did not discuss the film in class so I’m left with my own sort of narrow experience of it.

We did discuss the reading which was great because these discussions always help the reading become more accessible to me. There is a lot to unpack in this paper. We separated into groups to tackle a relevant section to the theme of witnesses from a distance. My group focused on the parts about the 2015 virtual reality film Clouds over Sidra which recounts a day in the life of a Syrian refugee living in a camp.

Clouds over Sidra was created by Gabo Arora and director Chris Milk in partnership with the United Nations and Samsung. It features a twelve year old in the Za'atari camp in Jordan, home to 84,000 Syrian refugees. It follows her throughout the day from her family's tent, to school, to a bakery, to a computer lab and the camp football pitch. It is the first film shot in virtual reality for the United Nations and shown at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in January 2015.

As it is a VR experience, the film is shot with a point of view camera and is narrated by the protagonist, Sidra. Awan writes, “the simple and rather cynical answer that Clouds over Sidra provides us with is yourself and yourself alone. Virtual reality transports us to the refugee camp, where we can see “firsthand” the traumatic conditions and hear the personal stories of refugees who seem to be addressing us alone. As one of the filmmakers, Chris Milk, claimed, “Virtual reality, fundamentally, is a technology that removes borders. ... Anything can be local to you”. The primacy of vision embedded within such statements is only one in a line of problematic assumptions. This work places the burden of proof on the refugee, in this case a twelve-year-old girl, who has to show us her destitution and her will in the face of it; she has to perform it.” There no well researched article or newscast, it’s all on Sidra to convince us of her plight. Clouds over Sidra is a crafted narrative. Without context and research, we are experiencing half a story.

One theme our group kept coming back to is the idea of VR as the “ultimate empathy machine” Chris Milk proposes in his 2015 TED talk. Milk states, “virtual reality… connects humans to other humans in a profound way that I've never seen before in any other form of media. And it can change people's perception of each other. And that's how I think virtual reality has the potential to actually change the world. So, it's a machine, but through this machine we become more compassionate, we become more empathetic, and we become more connected. And ultimately, we become more human.”

But many people disagree. Lucie Heath describes what I felt when watching Clouds over Sidra in her 2017 Medium post, "while the technology may be pretty damn cool, I still feel a million miles away from the people in these documentaries. In none of journalistic videos I watched does the subject interact with me as the viewer, nor did my presence ever impact on the action.”

Compounding this distance between viewer and subject is the voiceover in Clouds over Sidra which is performed in accented English by an actress which confuses the tone and breaks the illusion of reality. The film feels empty… and more like entertainment than educational or meaningful. I might be in the minority though as Clouds over Sidra “has been widely used to advance the UN’s advocacy for the Syrian crisis. It was screened at a high level donor meeting prior to the Third International Humanitarian Appeal for Syria in Kuwait in March 2015, which eventually raised 3.8 billion US dollars….It has been translated it into 15 different languages and it is currently screening in 40 different countries by UNICEF face-to-face fundraisers.”

Maybe these dignitaries are just used to distance.
Responsive Figure

Sources & Links

United Nations Virtual Reality (UNVR)

WITHIN - Chris Milk's VR company that's lists many titles including Clouds over Sidra

More backlash against VR as Empathy Machine
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