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The virtual reality of Sundance, Day 2: hate is the purest emotion

When the empathy machine works too well

This week marks the first time I've tried a piece by Nonny de la Peña, one of this decade's most influential VR artists. I'd been anxious about it for days.

For the unfamiliar, Nonny de la Peña has been creating virtual reality journalism since before the Oculus Rift — founder Palmer Luckey actually interned for her at USC — and has been generally working in what she calls "immersive journalism" for even longer. Bryan Bishop wrote about Hunger in Los Angeles, which arguably invented modern VR journalism, in 2013, but I'd missed it, along with her later work.

It's strange going into something knowing exactly what you're supposed to feel

Everything I'd read made me nervous. Writeups of de la Peña's work usually emphasize the emotions it produces in very specific terms, trying to convey the sense of digital empathy that she's working toward. Inadvertently, this gives the impression that you're supposed to feel a certain way. It happens with many VR journalism and advocacy experiences, and sometimes it produces a kind of contrarianism, an insistence that you're not the kind of person to be manipulated by simulated feelings. Sometimes, though, it just means that not feeling the right thing seems like a failure — that you're missing out at best and a sociopath at worst.

De la Peña has two pieces at Sundance 2016: Across the Line, based on footage from women crossing the omnipresent and often abusive anti-abortion pickets outside Planned Parenthood; and Kiya, which dramatizes a 911 call that captured two sisters unsuccessfully trying to stop a third's ex-boyfriend from killing her. The first ends with a remembrance of the three killed and nine injured by a gunman who targeted Planned Parenthood last year, and the second closes by reminding participants of the number of women murdered by romantic partners and ex-partners every day.

De la Pena's work has covered everything from California's early 20th-century eugenics program to the shooting of Trayvon Martin, but her Sundance pieces are both variations on a theme. If you're a woman of a certain generation and background, it's not one where empathy requires much imagination — it's something that you've spent decades being, at the very least, warned about. Across the Line and Kiya aren't making a new connection, but touching a raw nerve.

Across the Line and Kiya aren't making a new connection, but touching a raw nerve

Still, my initial reaction to Across the Line — which I tried first — was analysis. De la Peña's work is aesthetically unique: it uses real location blueprints, photographs, and motion capture data to create simple digital scenes that participants can walk through in VR. It feels distinctly influenced by the blocky style of Second Life, suggesting reality rather than recreating it. Across the Line, though, opens with a short 360-degree video introduction that follows a young woman through the picket line and into the clinic. I'm told this was done to create a greater sense of space, since the HTC Vive it's being demoed on provides less space than the custom headsets of her earlier work. But it also fills out the work in an interesting way, like a photorealistic cutscene in an otherwise low-detail video game.

The central piece of Across the Line is set on the street outside a clinic, as you emerge from a car and hear the real voices of protestors — recorded from Planned Parenthoods across the country — calling you a whore, asking you to think of the children, and telling you that you'll burn in hell. It's not seeing the virtual faces of these people that's affecting, it's having them address you directly. There's a moment where one of them warns that "your hoodie will not hide you," and I had a brief moment of confusion about how the experience knew what I was wearing.

But my response felt dependent on the fact that I wouldn't be surprised if someone said things like this to me in real life, and especially not on the internet. And the result wasn't empathy in any sense that I've ever read about. It wasn't rage, because rage implies something inchoate and out of control. It was that cold, vicious consideration of whether one could identify, track down, and kill someone who firmly deserves it — or, if they prove unavailable, someone sufficiently similar in outlook.

Is it still empathy if you expect it to happen to you?

This isn't an unfamiliar consideration, nor one that requires virtual reality, and it's not one I like to catch myself making. It's an inversion of what empathy VR is supposed to do for the world — a connection that aligns you with one person and makes another a monster. This may be what makes me suspicious of changing the world by provoking emotions: emotions are not inherently good, and they're not inherently helpful. Hate is one of the purest emotions of all.

I get the feeling that de la Peña's team thinks about this far more than coverage of the empathy-entertainment complex usually suggests — that their work is clearly activism, but not agitprop. Kiya, for example, isn't an immersive PSA about domestic violence that's only valuable if it's able to reduce a social ill. It's valuable because it tells a story about the world that we haven't heard and illuminates the lives of people we've never met, regardless of what we choose to do with that afterwards. This is something that's widely understood about most art, but with VR, it still seems to get lost.

At the end of the experience, I reluctantly tell a member of the Across the Line team about my violent response. "That seems to be one of the reactions," she says, laughing a little (supposedly it breaks down heavily by gender). "No, I mean... I'm completely serious," I tell her.

"I know," she says. "That's why I'm laughing." Apparently, I'm told, everyone else is serious too.