Doghouse is a virtual reality installation at Creativate, a new mini arts festival and the brainchild of National Arts Festival CEO Tony Lankester. Picture: SUPPLIED
Doghouse is a virtual reality installation at Creativate, a new mini arts festival and the brainchild of National Arts Festival CEO Tony Lankester. Picture: SUPPLIED

Correction: July 15, 2018. In an earlier version of this article Brenna Murphy's name was incorrect. 

Creativate is the new brainchild of National Arts Festival CEO Tony Lankester, a mini festival that seeks "to explore the space where creativity, innovation and technology converge".

Lankester is a self-proclaimed geek and has long been fascinated by the accelerated rate of innovation that digital technologies facilitate.

It’s exciting to see technology embraced as creativity, rather than as scientific "other" to the arts. The inaugural festival brought together the many fascinating aspects of digital technologies, including forays into sound, poetry, visual arts, and performance.

Kieran Reid hosted the Fak’ugesi Play Room, which demonstrated games designed by his pioneering postgraduate students from Wits. He gave a talk on the spaces where "Gaming and Theatre Meet" and the public had the opportunity to try out and discuss new games with their developers.

In 2017 Rhodes drama student Sam Pennington presented the first live video gaming event at the festival and it would have been a great tie-in here. My own writing students have increasingly become interested in writing narratives for gaming, which now makes more money globally than movies.

Most fascinating for me were two virtual reality (VR) installations. Doghouse allows you to inhabit one of five characters during a rather awkward family dinner. We were encouraged to explore what it felt like to be a different gender or in a different age bracket. I chose to be the young girlfriend brought home to meet the parents and it was a wonderfully strange experience.

Source Fold Compositer by Brenna Murphy and Birch Cooper at the Creativate Digital Arts Festival. Picture: SUPPLIED
Source Fold Compositer by Brenna Murphy and Birch Cooper at the Creativate Digital Arts Festival. Picture: SUPPLIED

As in real life, you never know what you look like except as mirrored in the reactions of the others. There were humiliating moments when my boyfriend’s father started coming on to me and an odd sense of shame for the drunken mother who tried to ingratiate me. It was interesting to be immersed in another culture, ensconced in a cozy Danish home, a consciousness-expanding awareness of being a passenger inside another body.

At the end of the 20-minute piece, a woman in our group said she’d grown nauseous and had taken off her headset. She said that apparently it was found that women were more prone to nausea during a VR experience and that this might have to do with the fact that most VR creators were male.

On some level this makes sense, since one is attempting to replicate actual subjective experiences, and even though I took on a new skin in a female role, it had been directed by the projection of a male imagination of what a woman might have been experiencing.

In Boulder, Colorado, I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to try out an Afro-futurist VR experience called NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, which had been created by a team of black women. In that scenario, the viewer inhabits the role of a young black girl who’s having both her hair and her neuro-plasticity braided. One is transported into beautiful sci-fi realms where one meets marvellous black goddesses presiding over their kingdom.

VR has already become a space that can be used for building empathy and understanding of experiences foreign to us, and the field has extraordinary possibilities.

The other VR experience on offer at Creativate was called the Source Fold Compositer. In this piece one discovers a fantastical world of intricate digital sculptures and effects while navigating a complex visual field.

With a bit of experimentation, one discovers archways that allow one to be transported to new courtyards, each shift also having an effect on generating sound by means of patches and triggers which loop outputs.

Co-creator Brenna Murphy told me that the sound effects are based on feedback, which, for him, is a "more natural" sound than, say, sound produced by a piano.

Feedback loops have to do with the nature of soundwaves themselves, rather than a deliberate manipulation.

Murphy and Birch Cooper (the other creator) explained how visitors to the piece "weave a warped pathway between dimensions" and the map of the different fields literally becomes the territory through which the performer moves.

A physical map laid out in the space allows observers watching the person immersed in the experience to see them as performer of their experience, watching them duck and dive and smile with delight at new discoveries. The sights and sounds one experiences in the piece are unlike anything in "real life" but as Murphy reminded me, "electricity is natural too".

Murphy and Cooper are part of a radically collaborative group from Oregon called MSHR (Mesher) who play at the interface between analogue and digital with the wide-open joy of kids allowed into an endless digital sandpit.

These VR immersive experiences can be disorientating, but they do reveal how reliant we are on aural and visual feedback to situate ourselves in terms of the context of our identity.

These experiences also make us question the dreamlike state of ordinary waking life and help us realise the extent to which we’re projecting our own identity on to the world.

Also part of Creativate was innovative live artist James Webb with installations on the Monument building, as well as a profoundly provocative Swiss-German collaboration called Hamlet (not to be confused with the play of the same name). There were sound jams and animated shorts, as well as a Hackathon in which poets were teamed up with digital artists to produce artworks.

Creativate is an exciting new addition to the Arts Festival, but it wasn’t that well attended. Lankester admits that it might have been better to programme it for the last weekend of the festival, where it could have segued into the Schools Festival, since a younger generation who have grown up plugged in might be more excited by the possibilities for play and experiment in digital arenas.

It might take time for those still mildly suspicious of technology to embrace these new possibilities. As Boris Nikitin, the director of the tech heavy Hamlet, told me: "Just because it’s fake, doesn’t mean it’s not true."