One of the most amazing aspects of digital 3D installation art and exhibition is how you are plunged back or forward into a world that surrounds and immerses. As a part of Innovation Week, Tribeca Film Festival presented its Storyscapes Program. The program included five interactive offerings: Choose Your Own Documentary, Circa 1948, Clouds, On a Human Scale and Use of Force.
The program which particularly interested me because of a personal connection to Vancouver, B.C., Canada was Circa 1948. This immersive 3D installation created by renowned artist Stan Douglas and NFB Digital Studio is centrally an art app that projects you back into two disparate locations of postwar Vancouver, BC. One is the old Hotel Vancouver on the city’s affluent West Side: an aging grand hotel housing homeless veterans, grifters and newlyweds. The second encompasses the shabby streets of Hogan’s Alley on the working-class East Side, where prostitutes, gamblers, immigrant workers and shady politicians and cops conduct their business and attempt to survive and move up the social and economic ladder by any means necessary.
The locations represent a time of transition and change in the city’s history. They are communities struggling through economic recession, corruption and an ever increasing wealth gap. In the locales we see the waning away of the past and the anticipation of the brightness of the future which promises renewal, social upheaval and cultural displacement. Also revealed are the lives of the inhabitants in a city divided along lines of race, ethnicity and income. Today these parts of the East side and West side no longer may be found except in history books, film archives and faded photographs.
The themes, as Douglas points out, are totally modern. For so as it was then in 1948, so is it today, with the same motifs: Detroit, the rust belt of New York State, areas of New Orleans, and in many cities around the world.
What has been captured with this project is the reminder that there will always be a wealth gap in cities–the high end areas and the seemly areas; there will always be the continual migration of people looking for a better life. There will be the perpetual reconstituting of neighborhoods until not even the fragments of their memories are left.
The once grand hotels or tenement buildings deteriorate until they are razed or renovated and developers make their profits, or they will be made into museums and given over to the state. It is the way, and this project is an indelible example of the inexorability of urban transformation.
Though Circa 1948 was part of a film festival, like its brothers and sisters in the Storyscapes Program the project wasn’t and isn’t film. Yet, it is not a game; it is a hybrid and actually the creation of a new genre which is being pioneered thanks to the NFB’s Digital Studio team working in collaboration with Douglas. It’s an interactive and incredibly complex multimedia project using beyond the state of the art digital technology that took 5 years to complete, a fact of which Loc Dao, Executive Producer and Creative Technologist apprised me. The images have been artistically designed with a high level of authenticity. Every image in these worlds is unique and historically accurate. In their digital rendering they are visually lifelike and totally realistic. The experience’s textures were rendered at 2K and then scaled down to 1K for the app. The experience is designed to function optimally on the 64-bit engines of the most recent, as well as next generation iPads.
When Dana Dansereau, one of the producers, walked me through the installation, I was able to see and feel the sights and sounds in a 3D recreation of Hogan’s Alley. I became surrounded and immersed in the time period. I used my body to navigate through a backyard, amidst voices of immigrants making preparations for a meal and hearing gossip and interactions across the other side of a fence in a lower class district that long ago, identified as blighted, was swallowed up by urban renewal. My body was the interface that interacted with that world of Hogan’s Alley, a world which responded to my movements in real-time and allowed me to be both involved yet apart, a watcher from the future dissolving into the past with the ghostly voices and their conversations becoming louder or softer depending upon where I advanced or retreated.
Since my visit, the installation and exhibition have been taken down and are going on tour. However, it can be brought into your home because at the heart of this beautifully detailed storyworld is the iPad and iPhone app. Produced by the National Film Board of Canada, Circa 1948 is also an immersive art app that anyone with an an iOS device can download for free. Don’t expect a game; expect completely unique time-travel. Expect a random, life-like feel; expect the realistic and mysterious; expect a storyland that is of your own making. You may become engaged with investigating a disappearance or a murder mystery; both may or may not be solved; like fog and shadow, the experience is to be pursued; the outcome like all outcomes in life is ongoing and uncertain.
Stan Douglas encourages users to expand their horizons and put aside traditional concepts of linear narrative with its beginning, middle and end. The app allows one to self-guide at one’s pleasure, investigating the myriad possibilities of open ended narrative. With this fluid time-travel to the past while using your in-the-moment senses’ apprehension, you are applying the notion of following paths to wherever they may lead; surprise and discovery are at the fundamental core of your journey. This is made possible because of touch and gyroscopic-based navigation modes that detect where a tablet is being pointed in order to trigger the content and recreate the visuals.
The story threaded experiences are comprised of many happenings on the East and the West side of Vancouver, BC in Hogan’s Alley and at the Hotel Vancouver. If you have never visited the city, one way to begin is by checking out this experiential app, connecting with the city’s past and then viewing the changes in the present on the Vancouver tourism app. Or if you like, start from the present with the current Vancouver tourism app, then go back into time with Circa 1948. The dichotomy startles and draws you in. You will begin to have a real appreciation of what Douglas is exploring with his reminder about the disappearing past of our cities and the currency of our history being shaped every day as we busily go about our lives.