Benoit Baume and Victoire Thevenin
Benoit Baume is the founder of the photo magazine Fisheye and the VR Arles festival. Victoire Thevenin is art director of the VR Arles festival. Together, they discuss the development of the event, which becomes “Les Ailleurs” (The New Horizons) and will take up residence at the Gaîté Lyrique in Paris, as well as their new project, the “Palais Augmenté” (Augmented Palace).
Victoire Thevenin (VT) and Benoit Baume (BB): How did you meet? Which worlds brought you together and led you to work together?
VT: When I was working for mk2, I had connections to events and cultural places that showcased virtual reality. I was immediately intrigued by the VR Arles Festival. To my knowledge, it was the only event that had taken up the challenge to share the best virtual creations with a wide audience. As Benoît had founded the VR Arles Festival, I naturally met him and we considered how it could develop.
It was immersive cultures that brought us together. Fisheye supported these new creations thanks to a production studio, a festival, a writing residency, an incubator. Benoît had already collaborated in this area with the Palais de Tokyo, among others. I came from cinema and had assisted mk2’s immersive project development. We were both interested in exploring new forms of artistic expression related to image.
BB: In 2016, in partnership with the Arles Rencontres de la photographie, you started the VR Arles festival which proposed to present the best of contemporary immersive creation. What is its DNA? Why did you turn towards the medium of virtual reality?
Virtual reality technology dates back to the 1950s with the American Morton Heilig. It came back in the 1980s with the rise of video games, then with smartphones which enabled development of virtual reality headsets. At Fisheye from 2014, I produced immersive experiences with 360 video. Very quickly I wanted to show all that could be created around this medium. Coming from photography, I suggested the Rencontres d'Arles festival include video. This is how I initiated VR Arles, to mix very different universes around film.
VT: You joined the VR Arles festival as artistic director in January 2019. This festival defines itself as “Immersive media’s panorama of possibilities”. : What does it entail? What perspectives does immersive media open? How is this exploration of virtual reality’s artistic and cultural potential interpreted?
Today we see very productive exchanges between diverse creative fields that take on, use and often divert new immersive digital tools. There is not “one” but “several” immersive media: this is for example virtual reality through the headset, augmented reality on screens and soon with glasses, binaural immersive sound (which recreates the feeling of sounds in space through earphones).
Artists invent new transcriptions that immerse the public in multi-sensory virtual worlds, interactive spaces; they create new stories with strong potential to transform. These experiences are often the fruit of collaborations between artists, authors and technology experts. There’s a real creative buzz and that results in virtual works being exhibited more and more in prestigious art institutions for example. These virtual worlds are a little like a playground for practicing creating a “thicker present”.
BB and VT: For its 2021 edition, the VR Arles festival has morphed into “Les Ailleurs” (The New Horizons) and will be held in Paris from April to June 2021, at the Gaîté Lyrique. Does this change in city and name mark wanting to give the festival a new direction?
It is not a festival that is relocating but a “label” that is changing and developing, “Les Ailleurs” demonstrates a desire to open up. The “VR” (virtual reality) tag became too restrictive. We wanted to open “Les Ailleurs” to other technologies and forms of expression in the immersive field. We talk of “Mixed reality”. Mixed reality is the fusion of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments within with physical and digital objects coexist and interact in real time.
At the Gaité Lyrique, we explore the virtual journey through three themed circuits: Wild Journeys, Intimate Transport, Parallel Dimensions. If, with the confinement, we have learnt to travel and lose ourselves with virtual in all its forms, the new economy of attention often throws us off track and makes us forget the question of destination: where should we go? What are the near or far virtual journeys that we’ll make or leave?
BB: In Arles, in partnership with the Institut Français you have co-organised a writing residency dedicated to organised immersive storytelling, VR Arles. What is it based on?
The common theme of VR Arles is to decompartmentalise artistic fields. Today, in virtual reality, we have documentary, fictional, performance experiences, with projects by transdisciplinary authors from live performance and visual arts. The aim of the residency is to welcome these artists to Arles to have them benefit from the festival’s infrastructure and experience. It also offers the possibility to invite contributors to themed days which will give them inroads to allow them to move forward in writing and developing their projects, which are mostly collaborative. We have developed this residency with the Institut français since the beginning. The Institut français is highly involved and our teams work in perfect harmony. The residency is now also supported by the Region Sud which sees a real opportunity to bring together the local creative and digital ecosystem, around these new creations.
BB and VT: What actions do you feel have priority in supporting new authors and innovative projects in the VR field?
Our priorities are supporting authors in designing immersive projects, facilitating removing barriers in artistic fields, enabling these works to be shared with varied audiences and taking educational actions.
BB and VT: You are both working on a new event: the “Palais Augmenté” (Augmented Palace), the first festival dedicated to augmented reality, organised in coproduction with the Grand Palais. What is this project?
At present it is only possible to use augmented reality (AR) on our telephone screens. It’s less immersive than a headset, but more accessible. This festival highlights artistic creation in AR, which allows intertwined hybrid and multiple realities to be shown. What interested us was to imagine works that will occupy a space as monumental as that of the Grand Palais Éphémère. We have invited six artists working in virtual reality who have created AR works specifically for the festival. The intention is to question the way we perceive space and interact with it. The artistic proposals are really fascinating. One work questions the sense of the space, materialised in a giant creature interacting with the audience, while another reveals the invisible world of inter-species relationships by transforming the Grand Palais space into a huge conservatory!
With Digital Crossroads the Institut français is a partner of "Les Ailleurs", which is going to take place from 22 May to 11 July 2021.
Digital Crossroads constitutes an invitation to discover the richness of the French digital creation ecosystem by participating in major French events and professional meetings online.
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