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Shaun Gladwell is challenging real-world prejudice through virtual reality

Written by
Stephen A Russell

Artist, filmmaker, virtual reality proponent and prolific (former pro) skateboarder Shaun Gladwell sees the Cronulla Riots as some of the darkest days in Australia’s recent history.

“Australians are very optimistic,” he says. “We like to think of our culture as really hospitable, liberal and democratic, that we embrace multiculturalism. But the reality is we had the Cronulla riots and it starts looking pretty terrifying, you know? It’s one of the great shadows that hangs over this country.”

A chance encounter in his current home of South East London with two young, Muslim, skateboarding women – Chadnee Shah and Farhana Hussain – brought him back to his hometown of Sydney, to Bondi Beach, and a healing of sorts. Engrossed in some nifty board work in a public park, he was surprised when a hijab-wearing Shah approached him asking for tips.

“I was sort of shocked,” Gladwell acknowledges as we grab a coffee across the road from Sydney Town Hall, he in a snazzy tux jacket with a dogtooth lapel, bristling big beard and basketball cap. “I’d never been approached about my skating by a woman from that background. Chadnee was really confident but also sweet, wasn’t too assuming. She just asked me for advice and I could see that she was genuinely interested in skateboarding.”

Fascinated by the basketball-loving personal trainer’s story, they formed a fast friendship and she introduced him to the similarly cool Hussain. “My preconceptions were getting smashed,” Gladwell notes. He decided to make a documentary about their lives using the VR technology introduced to him by regular collaborator Leo Faber, with the pair going by the art collective name BADFAITH.

Shaun Gladwell on Bondi Beach
Photograph: Supplied

Storm Riders, an immersive, 360-degree virtual reality film is, in part, a re-envisioning of his earlier video artwork Storm Sequence (2000) that saw him skateboarding down on Bondi Beach, this time placing the young Londoners at its heart. Screened as part of a VR program Gladwell curated for the Sydney Film Festival, you can experience it at Melbourne’s ACMI through October, with a headset-free version available on the SBS VR app.

An engrossing, immersive look at life in both cities, the 30-minute film is about way more than just updating Gladwell’s work. VR has come a long way from the military tech Gladwell encountered while Australia’s official war artist in Afghanistan in 2009, a role art schoolmate Ben Quilty also took on. The cameras used aren’t much bigger than a ping-pong ball, so it was really easy for Shah and Hussain to document their skateboarding and show Gladwell round their neighbourhood. “It’s this tiny little thing and it’s very unassuming, unintimidating, and Chadnee and Farhana both started to use it as a diary,” he says.

The brunt of the doco is, therefore, about their lives. Discussing religion, identity and feminism, the co-directors also had to confront a spike in Islamophobic hate crime in the British capital following the terrorist attacks of 2017, which occurred in the middle of filming.

Storm Riders shows a very different side of Muslim youth culture than the one usually portrayed in a negative light on the news. “I just saw that Islamophobia was based on misreading, misunderstanding, misconceptions and preconceptions,” Gladwell says. “All of that stuff where people are demonising Muslims is because they don’t know the stories of actual Muslim people. Chadnee and Farhana are incredible, and their interest in contemporary culture doesn’t compromise their faith. It’s a very beautiful balance.”

After enjoying their generosity of spirit, sharing their lives and their favourite skating haunts, Gladwell felt it only right he returned the favour, bringing Shah and Hussain to Sydney, showing them around and ultimately recreating Storm Sequence more or less in the same spot.

“I’m from the western suburbs, but as soon as I was able to move, I moved to Bondi, so it was such a joy and a privilege to invite my friends back to that after living in London for eight years,” Gladwell says. “I miss the beach, and it was great to show them this beautiful skateboarding spot and update my own work together with them, as co-directors, and to make it about friendship.”

In this way, Gladwell hopes they’ve created something special that, through the magic of VR, can be experienced intimately and viscerally; something bright that can counter the darkness of events like the London attacks or the Cronulla Riots.

“The beach becomes this real open space, just these little gestures of celebrating difference.”

Storm Riders is at ACMI until October 28.

See more of the best art in Melbourne this month.

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