“The Power of ‘Presence’”
Dirk Eitzen (Franklin & Marshall College)
One cannot easily describe The Book of Distance by Canadian artist and filmmaker Randall Okita. For one thing, each experience of this interactive piece is a little bit different, depending upon where you look and how much time you spend interacting with objects, like historical photographs and letters. For another, the impact of the piece stems largely from its painterly, presentational, semi-abstract visual style. The Book of Distance is presentational in its structure, too. Each scene is like a staged vignette. An overhead spotlight illuminates selected elements. Occasionally, the artist’s animated avatar appears in the scene to move props around like a stagehand.
It is the distinctive rhetorical and emotional impact of the interactive, quasi-theatrical viewing experience of The Book of Distance that I wish to briefly explore here. Two things are clear. First, the game-like qualities of the experience are essential to viewer engagement. If the piece were presented as a linear movie, it would not hold our attention very well, in spite of its impressive artistry. Second, the game-like qualities of the VR experience often have the effect of focusing our attention more on our own experience, as an observer of or participant in an artistic event, than on the experiences of the ostensible subject of the piece, the filmmaker’s grandfather, Yoneza, who immigrated from Japan to Canada just before World War II.
One of the main values of social documentaries, generally, is that they can help us to engage with and understand the experiences of other people, especially people whose circumstances are different from our own. Unfortunately, VR documentaries aren’t very good at this, as a general rule. This is because VR is intrinsically geared toward self-centered viewing “experiences.” In the case of cinematic or 360o VR, you are constantly invited to look around—to visually explore the virtual environment. In interactive VR, you manipulate a controller to move about and handle objects, as well. In both forms of VR, you are encouraged to notice sensations like immersion in space, vertigo, and movement. All of these VR experiences can be engaging and worthwhile in their own right, of course, but in VR documentaries they have the almost inevitable side-effect of interfering with viewers’ emotional engagement with the people shown in the piece. That may be okay for video games and artistic experiments, but if the goal of a work is to help viewers genuinely understand the experiences of real people, then this is an aesthetic problem that is baked into the medium, as I’ve argued elsewhere. It’s also a potential ethical problem, as documentary scholar Kate Nash has observed.
The Book of Distance is no different from other VR documentaries in this regard. In fact, the presentational style of the piece, by calling attention to itself, may go even further to distract viewers from the thoughts and feelings of its subject, Yonezo Okita, who moved from Japan to Canada in 1935, started a farm, was sent to an internment camp during World War II, had his farm confiscated, and had to piece together a new life after the war.
One of the most aesthetically striking moments in The Book of Distance is when Yonezo learns of the loss of his farm. This is presented as a snow flurry of government letters and documents, some of which you can pick up to look at. They are written in confusing bureaucratese, and snippets are read in overlapping voice-overs. A row of ghost-like giants appears on both sides of the scene, clacking away on typewriters. In the middle of the scene, in drab color, Yonezo and his wife toil on their hands and knees in somebody else’s field. This mirrors a colorful scene, earlier in the piece, showing Yonezo and his wife planting strawberries on their own farm. The purpose of this whole vignette is to metaphorically convey the demoralizing and dehumanizing effects of the Canadian government’s treatment of its Japanese citizens, during and after the war. It does that quite effectively. And yet, the impact is conceptual and metaphoric, not particularly emotional, or empathic.
The most emotionally moving moment of The Book of Distance comes right after, when Yoneza learns from a letter that his little sister, who he had not seen since leaving Japan, lost her life in the bombing of Hiroshima. This loss is evoked poetically: we see the little girl dancing to happy music, as Yoneza remembered her; then, the scene explodes into fragments and we see Yoneza, alone in the dark, looking at the letter. We are not told how he felt or what he experienced; instead, we are invited to fill in those emotions ourselves. And yet, we are also invited to move around in the scene, to appreciate its visual artistry, and only then (if we are so inclined) to try to understand what actual impact her death must have had on Yoneza.
Both of these scenes illustrate the inherent tension between focusing on one’s own experiences and focusing on somebody else’s. In VR, the emphasis tends to be on the former. But in The Book of Distance, artist and filmmaker Randall Okita discovers an interesting and very effective work-around: he makes the piece autobiographical.
The true subject of the work is not the artist’s grandfather; rather, it is the artist himself, as he attempts to imagine what his grandfather must have felt. The reason he must do this, as he says several times in the piece, is that his grandfather was so close-lipped about his past. Even the artist’s father, whose voice we hear in the piece, is evidently a man of few words. So, the artist is left to his own devices to try to figure out what his grandfather must have experienced. That figuring-out process is what the work is really about. Partly, we see this process as historical. In the first of the two scenes described above, for example, we can pick up and look at actual government letters. But the figuring-out process is also artistic. All the artist knows about his aunt’s death in the bombing of Hiroshima is that Yoneza learned about it in a letter. Randall must imagine the impact of this on Yoneza. We are invited along in these scenes not merely as observers, as with cinematic documentaries, but as virtual partners. So, there is an unusual congruence in The Book of Distance between the exploratory documentary project and the interactive qualities of the VR medium.
We never really “identify with” or “relate to” or “empathize with” either the artist or his grandfather in the way we often do with the subjects of conventional cinematic documentaries. The very qualities that make The Book of Distance so aesthetically and intellectually compelling—its theatricality, its animations, its invitations to explore and move about and pick things up—have the effect of shifting our focus from the human subjects of the piece to our own aesthetic experiences. Nevertheless, in terms of the documentary impact of the work, there is a different kind of emotional payoff, which is especially evident in the last scene.
At numerous points in The Book of Distance, we are presented with a camera on a tripod and invited to “click” its shutter to capture an animated tableau. The picture is then delivered to the foreground of the scene as an actual historical photograph. At the very end of The Book of Distance, we are presented with a whole array of Okita’s family photographs, hanging before us in the air. In a typical documentary, such photographs might function mainly as B-roll, illustrating things that are described in voice over. Here, in contrast, partly because we have seen and thought about where photographs like this come from, and partly because they contrast so strongly with the artist’s semi-abstract renderings of historical events, the photographs pack a stronger emotional punch. Even though we do not know who or what many of the pictures show, we encounter them much like we would the photos of unknown ancestors in our own family albums. They have a kind of “presence” (a word often used to describe the impression of objects in the virtual space of VR) that goes beyond the fact that they appear to hang before us in space and we can pick them up and turn them over. It is in this kind of emotional presence that the true power of the VR medium for documentary storytelling resides. But it is hard to achieve since viewers tend to be so preoccupied with looking around and interacting with things. The greatest achievement of The Book of Distance is not its artistry, as impressive as that is. It is its demonstration of the distinctive emotional impact that a documentary using VR as its medium can achieve.
“The Myth of Virtual Reality”
Jonathan Cohn (University of Alberta)
The Book of Distance presents the evocative story of Yonezo Okita, who in 1935 left Hiroshima, Japan to start a family in Western Canada. It briefly illustrates Okita’s contented efforts to start a new life as a farmer until WWII begins and he – like 21,000 other Japanese Canadians in the West – was separated from his family and put into a concentration camp, where he learned of the bombing of his hometown and the death of many loved ones.
If The Book of Distance were to simply show these events in order to remind Canadians and the world that such atrocities did indeed happen on their soil, that would have been enough. But what makes this piece special is how it considers whether people from one time and space can ever fully understand or even occupy the lived experiences of someone from another. Can VR, with its specific kinesthetic affordances, make this possible? The answer is, of course, no, but The Book of Distance makes clear that there is an ethic in the attempt and much to be learned from failing.
While the events in The Book of Distance follow Yonezo, the protagonist is actually Randall Okita, his grandson and the piece’s creator. In the form of a first-person memoir, Randall walks us through his efforts to reconstruct his grandfather’s traumatic life through interviews and the amassing of a small collection of photos, newspapers, and bureaucratic forms. Like many other memoir-style documentaries, The Book of Distance is guided by the question of what different types of documents and media can help us better understand and experience the past and its relationship to our personal and embodied present.
Early on, the player looks at a few photographs in an ornate family album, including one of Randall as a child playing horseshoes with his grandfather. The player is then invited to toss a horseshoe at a stake to their left. After the first toss (which for me, was more of a thud), Randall explains and illustrates a proper toss technique and encourages the player to try again. While I halfheartedly attempted to follow Randall’s directions, the horseshoe again fell gracelessly from my virtual hand. The implicit question here is whether the kinesthetic qualities of VR might allow us as players, as well as Randall himself, to not just understand but fully inhabit Yonezo’s lived experiences and traumas.
This moment of playing horseshoes not only illustrates the desire for such an unmediated experience, but also the impossibility of ever attaining it. With its relatively minimal spatial and physical movement requirements, horseshoes might appear to be an ideal activity to replicate within a VR environment. Yet, in practice, with even the newest VR equipment (in my case an Oculus Quest 2), this moment in the game ends up highlighting the distance between the virtual and the real. How can you make a graceful throw in a cramped room with a USB cord (which is not and will never be long enough) connected from your head to a computer? Trying to avoid whiplash, and/or stepping on or hitting random objects makes virtual horseshoes a deeply anxiety-inducing experience. And how can the player judge the strength and trajectory of their throw without being able to feel the heft of the metal and the oddness of the shoe’s dimensions?
VR is, at least as yet, a reality without heft. However, while it may not be able to provide a lived experience or the kinesthetic knowledge that such an experience might be based on, it does create an opportunity to reflect on why we would even want such a thing. In “The Myth of Interactivity” in The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich describes how
before, we would read a sentence of a story or a line of a poem and think of other lines, images, memories. Now interactive media asks us to click on a highlighted sentence to go to another sentence. In short, we are asked to follow pre-programmed, objectively existing associations. Put differently, in what can be read as an updated version of French philosopher Louis Althusser’s concept of ‘interpellation,’ we are asked to mistake the structure of somebody else’s mind for our own.
For Manovich, the desire to use media to adopt another’s life is not only misleading, but fascistic. As we pick up rocks, hammer stakes into the ground, take pictures, and receive mail in an effort to more thoroughly learn about what it was like to be Yonezo, this interpellative form of interactivity is in full effect. Yet, VR is nowhere near as totalizing as this would suggest: the player does follow along, but that doesn’t mean they feel like they are the ones watching their families get taken away or sitting aimlessly in a concentration camp. Just because the player clicks along does not mean they agree with or even understand the depicted events; there is always room for dissent, distraction, and the germination of new ideas.
After looking at advertising for VR equipment and content—including press releases for The Book of Distance—one may be forgiven for imagining that VR can lift us out of one time and place and put us into another: this is the myth of Virtual Reality. But in trying to occupy another time and space, one always ends up stumbling through and banging into the here and now. In the process, the player does not take on another subjectivity. Rather, they can reflect, as Donna Haraway might suggest, on their own situated knowledges and how they are affected by these brutal historical events. This reality of VR is so much more interesting than the myth.
In not providing heft, The Book of Distance, like all VR, emphasizes the difference between the virtual and the real. The player doesn’t just miss the weight of the horseshoe but is inspired to reflect on its absence. There are moments like this throughout The Book of Distance. Depending on their previous knowledge, players might miss the motorized haptic response from an SLR camera, the feel of a paint brush against high quality paper, or the difficulty of clipping a letter to a clothesline.
One might imagine that VR would be a great way to give players a more immersive understanding of racism and sexism in Canadian history. This is true, but not for the advertised reasons. VR is typically represented as a space of all-empowering control and agency, but the reality of contemporary VR bears a stronger resemblance to a prison cell. VR-users have extremely limited mobility, with a cage that materializes if they try to leave their “guardian” area. They are subjected to harsh lighting, are isolated and alone, and are otherwise sensorily deprived (while the tech industry panopticon led by Facebook figures out how to monetize all the data it collects from them). This isolation and deprivation are felt strongly in The Book of Distance, as the player is centrally located but distanced from much of the action. It is not the player’s story, and they cannot affect what happens: the immersivity only underscores the player’s passivity. Even the game’s limited mobility demands – asking the user to reach for things, stand up, and turn around – are extremely challenging when jacked into a computer. There is nothing empowering about this situation.
VR is enslaving, but not enslaving in the way a concentration camp is enslaving. Sure, you can’t move your body very much, but limited physical interactivity is not interchangeable with the lived experience of unjustified imprisonment. VR cannot show you what it is like to have the police take your family from you in the middle of the night for no reason. Nor can it automatically teach you how to care for or about others; it is not an empathy machine. Yet, VR is fascinating not in spite of this, but because of it and the various opportunities and forms of distanciation, rupture, and critique that it makes possible. How powerful and interesting the games and stories that could be told through VR if, instead of trying to pretend away the distance between the virtual and the real, this was presented as its raison d’etre.