Walking into a VR shoot

by Zoe Meng Jiang

Upon invitation from my friend Benny Shaffer, I walked into a VR shoot in the past summer, knowing almost nothing about VR yet, and performed in it! The project, titled Closed Caption, is now in the final stage of post-production.

It happened at the now abandoned Beijing Film Studio. Here are some photos taken by Brin Brendan Burbex at the shoot:

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The film studio complex is huge

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A giant acoustic space

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There I am..

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The team

The video work is co-directed by Benny Shaffer and Faye Yuan, who is actually based in New York. There is the project description provided by them:
In the past summer, four experimental musicians stage a sonic intervention inside the abandoned Beijing film studio in a playful meditation on the transformation of space through time. Closed Captioning is a 360º video piece with spatialized sound (a work in progress). This site-specific performance stages a live encounter between people, place, and sonic environment. In a cavernous film studio turned demolition site, a group of sound artists make field recordings that become the points of departure for a series of improvisational performances. The group reenacts a French Situationist technique of urban exploration called dérive, or a rapid passage through varied ambiences. With emphases on chance encounters and playful-constructive observation, the dérivers experiment with the acoustics of the space to generate a live event through sound. The project documents the creative process behind staging a spontaneously unfolding performance while embracing uncertainty – the rapid flow from recording to rehearsal to performance. The place itself turns into a central protagonist, gradually transforming from a sea of debris to a scene of spectators.
During the following meetings with Faye, I’ve grown increasingly interested in this project and its way of activating a historical site.. I have been brainstorming how to talk about this very unusual practice of performance and VR, in different possible frameworks:

  1. Understanding the form of 360 degree video with directional sound.
  • A Post-humanist cinema?

Posthumanism is better understood not as the end of humanity, but as the end of humanism (or human exceptionalism) – that is, posthumanism is precisely the belief that humans no longer play a central and binding role in reality[i]. Liberated from behind the camera monitor and relinquishing their rights of cuing our looks, the filmmakers are both performers and audiences around the camera(s), letting go of old “fixed” identities and embracing the limitless opportunities of always becoming the other.

  • Real Virtuality

The digital birthmark of Closed Captioning does not necessarily compromise its realness. On the contrary, the video could be the only document of the current state of the soon-to-be-demolished historical site. It bears witness to this forgotten place of memory, as it allow us to trace every spatial detail – an intensified reality – of the studio complex, like the littered “props, discarded makeup and 35mm prints of martial arts movies”. We can imagine, only after the disappearance of the studio that the viewing of this video would become truly “virtual”.

  1. The spatial explorations of the abandoned and vanishing site of Beijing Film Studio can be conceived as an intervention that activates different temporalities:
  • Socialist VS Post-socialist

The historical site of state-owned Beijing Film Studio has undergone the entire shift from socialist to market economy, witnessing completed different modes of film productions: from early state propagandas, socialist realist films during the Cultural Revolution period, to profit-driven commercial films when it was incorporated into the system of China Film Group Corporation in 1999;

  • Industrialization VS Urbanization

The demolition of the old Beijing Film Studio is part of the historical transformation in China’s late modernism. The industrial era is experiencing a downfall, and currently China is carrying out urbanization in a large scale. Downtown old factories are torn down and repurposed for the construction of urban infrastructures like residential or recreational areas. The old Beijing Film Studio shot its last film on May 15th, 2009, and was relocated to suburban Beijing. Closed Captioning creates images of reveries of anachronistic flâneurs on the site of ongoing demolitions, and excavates the buried strata of unremembered temporalities of the present in a world trapped in rapid transformation. In fact, sites of demolition, or a poetics of vanishing, have been the trademarks of Chinese independent/art film since it’s beginning in early 1990s.

  • Analog VS Digital

The new Beijing Film Studio in suburban Beijing is part of an enterprise called China Film Group – National Film Digital Production Base. From the change of the name we can understand that the relocation is part of the state-owned production company’s strategy to come to terms with the digital age. In the last three decades, for independent filmmakers/artists who are not associated with the state system, the tool bearing social indexicality has subsequently evolved from state-owned camera, to DV, and now to the ubiquitous digital screens. Nowadays images are no longer indexical traces of reality or direct representation of continuous movements. Digital images can only be seen and heard when they are played back on a computer, so that all representations are performances of codecs[ii]. It adds a second layer to the improvisational performances of the four experimental

[i] William Brown, “Man without A Movie Camera—Movies without Men: Towards a Posthumanist Cinema?,” Film Theory and Contemporary Hollywood Moview, Routledge: New York: 2009.

[ii] Dale Hudson & Patricia R. Zimmermann, Thinking Through Digital Media: Transnational Environments and Locative Places, Palgrave MacMillan: New York, 2015. Page 101.