“Even in immersive theatre, there is always a distance between the audience and my work. But with VR, the distance between the two parties can be minimised. Many things can happen over the actors’ head, and the actor can fall right in front of the camera. A new combination and a new attempt.”
Text & Photo: Ho Siu Bun
Translation: Vivien Leung
On the 20th floor of the Tung Nam Lou Art Hotel in Yau Ma Tei, there is this specially prepared room, in which a pair of VR headsets and 17 objects await. A Mind Apart is a project by theatre artist Kiwi Chan. When the story unfolds, the audience will peep into the relationship of a couple while travelling between the virtual and the real world.
Kiwi describes this as a “Mixed Reality” theatre. In recent years, immersive theatre is taking off. Under the pandemic, Kiwi, with her theatre training, collaborates with “Dabinlo Lab” that is long engaged in multi-media creation and also with a UK-based company, “AΦE”, a specialist in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). Will it be a new creative method between theatre and technology?
All Began with a Suicide Incident
“In the beginning, A Mind Apart was meant to be a physical theatre work, in collaboration with another company. Under the pandemic, “Arts Go Digital Platform Scheme” became a possibility to merge art and technology, so we applied for the grant. Since I met an art group that is practising VR theatre, I thought that this format could be innovative and could give a proper narrative to discuss cyberbullying. It just fits well,” recalls Kiwi. She invited the UK-based team “AΦE” to be their technical consultant, and invited “Dabinlo Lab”, which she had known for a good decade, to join as they are very familiar with VR technology. The team was formed for the upcoming challenges.
A Mind Apart was inspired by cyberbullying. “The whole initiative began with a suicide incident. A participant of the Japanese TV show Terrace House, Hana Kimura, killed herself following some criticism online. Although I’ve been paying attention to the issue of cyberbullying, I was still shocked by this tragedy. This incident seems to be fictitious but not entirely so. Some said that the show is scripted, which presented a kind of unpleasant personality of Kimura, and she became the target. All these elements led to A Mind Apart,” elaborates Kiwi.
Here is what Kiwi and another script-writer Maxine Chan wrote for A Mind Apart. A female KOL (Key Opinion Leader) has a boyfriend seven years older. One day when they are making out, the video recording function is accidentally turned on. She later finds out about the clip. Amused, she decides to keep it. Some time after, her boyfriend suspects that she is planning to publish the clip online to gain more hit-rates. The couple gets into a state of conflicts and doubts, which leads to a breakup. In the VR clips, there are often scenes of intimacy between the two, with a strong hint of voyeurism. Kiwi says, “Many people asked me why there are sexual elements in the story. In fact, we all know that in an intimate relationship, it’s through sex that we see our true colours and conflicts.”
Chan Ka-wai, Kiwi – Curator, Director and Script Writer
Shifting Space through VR and AR
A Mind Apart is a unique experience. You walk into the room and put on the VR headsets. First, watch an introduction clip before you enter the world outlined by Kiwi. You will be guided to choose one of the 17 special objects in the room, each with a small graphic on the side. The VR app helps recognise the object and activates a VR clip. The narrative is not linear as you can climb up and down to fetch objects on the ground and on the wall. The whole experience takes about 40-50 minutes.
Kiwi’s creative concept to integrate VR technology may not be obvious in the first place. But the outcome experience proved to be convincing.
“At first we thought this work would be a detective game, but the deadline was getting close, so we switched our direction,” recalls Kiwi. The team soon discovered that each VR clip can only be 2-3 minutes long, otherwise the viewer will lose patience. “It took us no time to give up the detective style, as we feared it could turn into an “escape room”. We rewrote the story starting with the two characters. As we wished to enrich the experience, we realised that the story was not easy to develop. The story was to be presented with VR, so we decided to use different objects as a guide as well as the backbone of the story. Actually following the story plot with the VR headsets is voyeuristic,” comments Kiwi.
Kiwi was never a techie by nature. Yet when she first witnessed the application of VR technology by overseas art groups in performances, she acknowledged the potential of combining VR technology with dramaturgy. She says, “VR is a way to shift spaces. The camera position is the vantage point of the audience. When developing a story presented in VR, the design and considerations are actually quite similar to those in my theatre work. And now we have an extra dimension to play with.” Kiwi likes innovative formats, such as immersive theatre, Butoh, and physical theatre. “Even in immersive theatre, there is always a distance between the audience and my work. But with VR, the distance between the two parties can be minimised. Many things can happen over the audience’ head, and the actor can fall right in front of the camera. A new combination and a new attempt.”
Kiwi emphasises that it is not about the transformation of the physical space, but that of the characters’ psychological state. “Even though the story is straightforward, the audience does not have to fully understand it. Through the journey, we want you to know that you will never fully comprehend another person’s mental state. So can’t we be more considerate?”
Wary of being governed by technology, the team has been watchful. “Some think that VR technology can be used in many new attempts. Technologies are not good just because they are new. We must always remember that we are the storyteller, while technology is a tool. I keep reminding myself that I am not a techie, I want to do art,” says Kiwi.
The team works with UK-based AΦE as their technical consultant, which was only a coincidence. “A friend of mine had watched their performances in the UK and introduced them to me. It happens that AΦE was planning a world tour including Hong Kong. However, the tour was on hold since the pandemic broke out, any kind of visit was out of the question. So when I thought of doing VR, I thought of them. They do dance performances, but they did tell a story of Freud with VR technology.” AΦE gave technical advice, sharing with Kiwi the design process and concepts on on-site immersive theatre, “they helped us a lot and saved us from making unnecessary mistakes.”
The VR headset that brings you to the virtual world of A Mind Apart
Protagonist looking out of the window, through his binoculars
“Ultraman”, their code for make out
The graphic that sets off the VR clips
Theatre Producer with a Degree in Actuarial Science
Kiwi has a degree in actuarial science. After graduating from university, she entered the art scene. It piqued some people’s interest just because she had never officially studied theatre.
“I studied actuarial science, and have always been into physics and mathematics. I learnt dancing when I was a kid, but in secondary school, I started to be interested in theatre. However, with SARS in 2003, all the theatre activities were cancelled. So I only started theatre during university. After graduation, I was convinced that theatre was super fun, and a way to understand human nature and psychology,” confesses Kiwi. She changed course and went for a master’s degree in cultural studies.
Kiwi has worked at the Leisure and Cultural Services Department for five years, in arts administration. During this period, she was always involved in theatre. She likes movements, Butoh, improvisation and theatre. She has worked as a producer and run three troupes in ten years. In 2017, she quitted her full-time job and became a “slasher”: in arts administration/ production/ creation/ education.
Did your parents ever object to your choice? She answers, “Perhaps in the adult world, I should opt for another path, but it gives me the most satisfaction to make art. So here I am again. In the first seven or eight years, I was under a lot of pressure since I didn’t study theatre. After some years of maturing, I know I want to do something that I really love.”
Having been in theatre sector for over a decade, Kiwi found her way, “I like the idea of working as a one-man band, from start to finish. I like looking for fundings to work within my means. I want to create independently, and have no wish to join other groups. I am an individualist and want everything under my control.” For her, A Mind Apart is a surely new attempt, and her artistic pursuit has just only begun.
Learn more: A Mind Apart