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Photograph: Courtesy of Marshmallow Laser FeastEvolver

Tribeca Festival is betting big on immersive VR experiences this year

You've got until June 19 to catch them all.

Anna Rahmanan
Written by
Anna Rahmanan

A mere walk through the main competition "aisle" of Tribeca Immersive, the event's relatively new showcase of virtual and augmented reality experiences, will make it clear why organizers have opted to officially change the Tribeca Film Festival's name to Tribeca Festival. There is quite literally nothing about any of the selections that reminds of traditional films.

LGBTQ+ VR Museum
Photograph: Courtesy of LGBTQ+ VR MuseumLGBTQ+ VR Museum

This should come as no surprise: in recent years, any sort of cultural offering—both within New York and outside of it—has come along with an "immersive" option attached to it. People are no longer content simply looking at art, they want to be part of it. Whether that is in reaction to the years we've just spent avoiding being part of anything in an effort to mitigate the consequences of a virus that has upended the we live is a topic that will likely be the subject of discussions for quite some time. 

But if there is one thing that this year's Tribeca Festival has made clear is that not all immersive experiences are created equal and, most certainly, not all are worth being experienced—no matter how much time we've spent cooped up in our tiny apartments. 

That is all an indication of just how much the art form has solidified its position in our art world's canon: just like not all movies are good movies, not all immersive shows are good shows. 

Overall, Tribeca Immersive seems to make the case that we should, perhaps, start considering the form a permanent fixture, especially given the breadth of productions that festival goers can partake in this year.

In "Evolver," for example, participants are given a VR set to enter a virtual version of the human body. Following the flow of oxygen through a person's ecosystem (said person is producer Emma, who happens to be on site and is quite delightful on the outside as well), the narrative is a peaceful one. That might also be due to actor Cate Blanchett's soothing narrating voice. Yes, even celebrities are gladly associating themselves with immersive experiences.

Mushroom Cloud NYC/Rise
Photograph: Courtesy of Mushroom Cloud NYC/RiseMushroom Cloud NYC/Rise

There is also a 10-minute-long holographic experience called "Zanzibar: Trouble in Paradise" that focuses on two women who find financial success in farming seaweed until climate change forces them to start working in sea sponge cultivation until climate change forces them to... you catch the drift and meaning of the piece.

One particular immersive experience within this year's festival presentations most readily illustrates what the form can do successfully. In "LGBTQ+ VR Museum," guests are given a VR set and hand controls in order to enter, well, a virtual museum dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community. Once inside, the controls let the user actually pick up objects in the virtual world and hear about their origin, meaning and significance within the history of the analyzed community and beyond. 

Planet City VR
Photograph: Courtesy of Planet City VRPlanet City VR

"The 'LGBTQ+ VR Museum' was created to offer a glimpse into the historical events and real-life stories of LGBTQ+ community members by rendering 3D content of personal belongings (teddy bears, wedding shoes, etc.) to normalize queer narratives and stop the erasure of LGBTQ+ history," reads an official description of the experience.

Almost paradoxically, although the project is a clear (successful) attempt at shedding light on aspects of the LGBTQ+ world that folks might not be familiar with, the narrative actually offers a glimpse into what the VR and immersive world could potentially offer if properly explored: museums that feel just like the real thing and impart just as much knowledge as a "traditional" institution would, without the need for space and on-site staff. Add to it the ability to immediately reach everyone in the world given the virtual aspect of the effort, and you've got yourself a cultural endeavor that could change the way we see art in general for generations to come.

Has Tribeca Festival suddenly become the emblem of all things immersive in the United States? Absolutely not. Is it now a big player in game? It would absolutely seem so. 

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