Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Archive for “art”

Wanna Try Some VR? Here’s a Guide

Lately I’ve been doing a bit of VR bingeing. While I’m not a binge TV viewer, I cannot get enough VR when the opportunity presents itself. Luckily, I’m based in Los Angeles, where new media experiments are all the rage, and my job takes me to exactly the kinds of conferences that showcase new experiments in the field.

As you’ve no doubt heard, VR is all the rage right now, syphoning start-up funding from what many believe are more worthy, though less glitzy, projects. Stanford’s Jeremy Bailenson has just published Experience on Demand, which catalogs the many uses for VR, mostly for training or therapy, and VR pioneer Jaron Lanier has just come out with a surprisingly optimistic book, Dawn of the New Everything.  Even if you’re skeptical about VR, I strongly urge you to try it out. And not just what you can pop into your Google Cardboard. Before you completely dismiss it, you need to experience it with better hardware, such as Samsung Gear or, even better, the HTC Vive.

Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. Even if you get the chance to go to South By Southwest or the Future of Storytelling Festival (I went to both last year), you will soon learn that you’ll be facing long, depressing lines, sometimes hours long, for an experience that will last less than ten minutes — sometimes much less. Welcome to the dark side of experiential storytelling.

However, where there’s a will, there’s a way: ask questions, inquire ahead, and see if you can make reservations. IMAX VR now has 6 locations and counting: I loved Eagle Flight and Raw Data, two exhilarating multiplayer games. And museums and cultural centers offer these experiences, as well, often with a more civilized reservation system in place than conferences offer.

And then sometimes you just get lucky. While strolling through Montreal’s old city, I saw a sign saying “Luxury Rubbish:” anyone who knows me knows I wouldn’t pass that up. Turns out it was the gift shop for a cultural arts center that just happened to be hosting a massive VR exhibition curated by none other than the Future of Storytelling.

Needless to say, I showed up the moment the place opened, on a day the staff recommended as a low-traffic day, and spent half a day in other worlds of many people’s making. Afterwards I knew I must share a guide to these experiences so that unlucky others can figure out which line they should get into at the next SXSW, Sundance, Tribeca or Future of Storytelling Festival.

Instead of offering reviews of quality and preference, my goal here is to give some indication of what new realities these VR pieces explore: are you interested in how VR might transform books, art, dance, games or movies? Then read on, my friend.

 Blind Vaysha, by Theodore Ushev, produced by the NFB

How might we transform literature into VR? In Blind Vaysha, the voice over narration keeps the story experience central but the innovation here is the way in which the vision theme plays out literally on your eyeballs. It’s a terrific convergence of form and content.

Broken Night, by Alon Benari, Tal Zubalsky and Alex Vlack, produced by Eko, Hidden Content and Real Motion, in collaboration with Irving Harvey.

How can we communicate the radical indeterminacy of memory? This is perhaps the only piece of VR I’ve seen that features bona fide Hollywood stars (Emily Mortimer and Alessandro Nivola) – and kudos to them for taking the plunge. The main value of this piece, I believe, is its success conveying the unreliability not only of the traumatized, but of the eyewitness. Which is you.

Dear Angelica, by Saschka Unseld, produced by Oculus Story Studio

There was something incredibly sumptuous about the colorful looping dreaminess of this gorgeous piece featuring the voice of Geena Davis. If you’re interested in graphic novels or comics, I think Dear Angelica is a delicious example of how drawings can come alive in three-dimensional space.

Flock, by David Lobser, produced by Object Normal, with support from NYU/MRL

Flock is a social VR experience, which means that you can interact with other people’s avatars within the VR space. Thankfully, we received some really good advice before starting: instead of focusing on racking up points by pecking bugs (were they bugs?) focus on climbing inside other players’ bird heads. (Yes, you read that correctly.) What ensues is completely psychedelic and, due to extreme physical proximity, puts into question claims about the alienating and anti-social effects of VR.

Life of Us, by Within (Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin), produced by Chris Milk, Megan Ellison (Annapurna Pictures) and Made with Unity

This was, undoubtedly, my favorite experience at Lucid Realities, which probably says more about me than the piece itself. As exhilarating as a roller-coaster ride, this trip through the evolution of the human species left me completely out of breath and dying to go back in. Like Flock, Life of Us is a social experience in which you can both see and hear a friend: I found it hard to stop talking during the experience because your voice evolves as your avatar evolves, from amoeba to space matter.

Fragments, by Asobo Studio and Microsoft Studios Global Publishing

How might Augmented Reality be used for gaming? This is the first time I’ve ever used HoloLens, augmented reality glasses that mapped game animations into my physical space. I love the idea, but it was clear from the outset that seven or eight minutes isn’t enough time to get a feel for the plot, the characters, or the rhythm of game play. Try, if you can, to get some serious time with Fragments so that you actually have time to piece them together.

Home: Immersive Spacewalk Experience, by Tom Burton, produced by BBC Studios and Rewind

What does it feel like to be in outer space? I had sweat rings after this experience, which tasked me with making a repair on the outside of a space station and finding my way back into the station afterwards. Needless to say, I panicked and died, which I heard was the fate of most. The seeming artificiality of the environment in outer space maps beautifully onto the artificiality of the VR experience, which is one reason I think Home had one of the longest wait lists at Lucid Realities.

The Island of the Colorblind, by Sanne De Wilde, produced by IDFA and Brakke Grond


I wouldn’t call this a virtual reality experience, but a fascinating experiential art installation that I’d recommend to anyone interested in the science of color or the possibilities of place-based, interactive storytelling.  Like Blind Vaysha, one reason this works so well is because the story itself is about the nature of vision. Watch your eyes trick you.

RIOT (prototype), by Karen Palmer, in partnership with The National Theatre Immersive Storytelling Studio and Brunel University London


What happens when your facial expressions control the experience? I first heard about RIOT at SXSW but I had to wait several months before I had a chance to try it out in Montreal. Instead of choosing options from a menu, the application uses facial recognition technology to determine how you would react during a riot. I left this one wishing I could do it again with different expressions.

While this may seem too sci fi to be true, get used to it: immersive storytellers will inevitably adopt tools like these. Distracting hand controls will be a thing of the past.

Blindfold, made in partnership with the Committee to Protect Journalists and The Center for Human Rights in Iran.


How would you respond to a violent interrogation? This sinister experience puts you in the shoes of an investigative journalist; your answers determine the fate of your brutally beaten friend who sits right in front of you. The experience is made more compelling by your ability to respond to the interrogator’s questions by nodding or shaking your head. Like RIOT, Blindfold allows us to imagine what it will be like to have a more embodied entertainment experience: in this one, the feeling of being seen by this ruthless interrogator is chilling.

Tilt Brush, by Google

How might we turn gestures into art? I used this truly delightful application in a friend’s house. If you get any pleasure out of pure color and giddily dancing around, then this is a must for you, too.

CARNE y ARENA (Virtually present, Physically invisible), by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Emmanuel Lubezki, Mary Parent and ILMxLAB


By far the grandest VR experience I’ve ever had, Alejandro Inarittu’s large-scale Carne y Arena is a multi-room experience intended to give you the chance to walk in the shoes of immigrants crossing the Sonoran desert. A giant room filled with sand and a powerful wind machine help conjure the physical experience in a way that approaches participatory theater. After the VR experience ends, you enter a room filled with the true stories of the people you encountered, further blurring the line between virtual and real. No wonder it won a special Oscar.

Through You, by Saschka Unseld and Lily Baldwin

How might a dance performance be captured in VR? This live-action love story focuses on a pair of dancers, which reminded me repeatedly of Wim Wenders’ Pina, a poetic 3-D documentary film about the influential dancer/choreographer, Pina Bausch. Both experiences were simultaneously exhilarating and heartbreaking. Through You offers the additional advantage of giving us a peek at how VR can be used for pornography. Given the option, I’m not sure who would choose 2D over VR.

Transference™, by Ubisoft and SpectreVision


What would an interactive movie feel like? I heard a couple people yelp before I tried out this experience, which involves (spoiler alert) a very scary guy with a gun in the basement. Making your way through this grim scenario requires patience and problem-solving. Only a sample was available at Lucid Realities, but the entire experience includes multi-branching narratives in which players can affect the fates of characters.

Tree, by Milica Zec and Winslow Porter of New Reality Company, in partnership with Here be Dragons and Droga5

How might VR be used to increase empathy? When the goggles and the backpack came off, people were occasionally in tears. It’s hard to explain how emotionally moving this experience can be, since becoming a tree in a rainforest doesn’t exactly suggest epic drama, or even much movement, per se. But there is something magical about growing tall as the tree, and feeling your arms transform into limbs that you can shake and sway and use to shoo away exotic creatures. But the kicker for me (spoiler alert!) was the intoxicating aroma: it turns out that the backpack is loaded with timed scent diffusers, which tackled my primordial brain and took me there like nothing else could. If complete immersion is the endgame of entertainment, this VR experiment takes us closer to it.

Got some VR you’d like to recommend? Please send your favorites my way via


Re-Imagining Memoir: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home


Even though it had been highly recommended to me repeatedly, I didn’t get around to reading Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home until after I saw the musical at the Circle in the Square on Broadway. It’s rare that I retain enough interest in something to read the book after having seen the movie or the play, but I knew I would this time. The musical, which grabbed five Tonys, was such a fresh, original take on memoir, with subject matter so foreign to the Broadway stage, that I knew I would enjoy, at the very least, mulling over the differences between book and play.

I was especially eager to dig into the book after I read a fantastic interview with Lisa Kron by Laurie Winer in the LA Review of Books. Kron was the playwright for Fun Home and I was really intrigued when she claimed that about 75% of the play doesn’t appear in the memoir (what?!) and that the book didn’t contain any scenes:

“There are no scenes in the book. There are no scenes! There is no dramatic action, there are no sustained scenes. There aren’t even really characters. There’s Alison at this age, at this age, and at this age. There are fragment[s] of scenes in different locations.”

I just couldn’t fathom what that meant, and I must, say, after having read the memoir, I’m still not sure what she’s talking about. Either her notion of what qualifies as a “scene” or a “character” completely diverges from mine, or (and this possibility entrances me) her play so deeply informed my reading of the memoir, that I was unable to recognize the lack of scenes or character. Had Kron baked into my mind the material I needed to bridge the gaps between plot fragments and character revelations? It seems like I would need a time machine to know (or a device like the one in the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)

But then I remembered Scott McCloud’s brilliant graphic book, Understanding Comics.


Read the rest of this entry »

New Tools for Measuring Cultural Engagement


I was very pleased to be invited by the National Endowment for the Arts to participate in a lively symposium addressing perhaps the most important issue in the arts these days: how do we justify public funding for the arts?

For those of us who frequently attend arts and culture events, the question seems silly. Doesn’t everyone realize that humans are hard-wired to respond to compelling stories and visuals, whether they manifest themselves as sculpture, video games, concerts or novels? Isn’t it clear that music and movies can bridge the most profound political divides and move hearts and minds?

As we see arts programming melt away in cash-strapped public schools, we have to acknowledge the awful truth — that arts and culture is considered a luxury, not a necessity, and justifications for their value must be proven rather than assumed.

Both the NEA and the UK’s Arts & Humanities Research Council, which co-sponsored the symposium, position themselves as agencies harnessing the power of art, culture and leisure to improve the lives of citizens and invigorate and strengthen communities. The problem, of course, is proving that their funding strategies actually achieve these often hard-to-measure goals.

Measuring Cultural Engagement: A Quest for New Terms, Tools, and Techniques summarizes a two-day session that brought together a wide range of researchers, using both traditional and new-fangled techniques, to describe and measure the myriad forms of cultural engagement that take place in all types of physical and virtual spaces. I’m hoping that this report will jump-start an international effort to revisit our presumptions about what counts as cultural engagement (Instagramming a photo from a museum, for instance) and taking advantage of new technology to better measure that engagement. Arts and culture organizations should feel more confident about the possibility of measuring the impact of their work, not only to fundraise but also to make the crucial course-corrections that all creative enterprises must make when they are committed to achieving complex goals.

You can read another blog of mine about the Symposium and watch the video. Follow the conversation on Twitter: #NEACVP

Experimenting with Space & Reinvigorating Modernism


I’ll be joining artists, critics and curators for a two-day conference about experimental art installations in modernist house museums. Anyone who follows me on Instagram knows that I was completely smitten with the Competing Utopias installation at the beautiful Neutra VDL House. It was a brilliant mash-up of East/West Cold War aesthetics and ideals that revealed how powerful and intellectually venturesome an art installation in a historic home can be.

And so I’m really excited to be involved in this upcoming conference October 4-5, 2014.

Invention: Contemporary Artists and the Modern House responds to the curatorial shift in the maintenance of house museums, in which directors are supporting increasingly transformative art installations that both challenge and celebrate the modernist landmarks. These collaborations with artists point to alternative preservation strategies, which move away from the conservation of historic homes as static objects and instead affirm the importance of human occupation and transformation. The conference will host a series of conversations between house museum directors, curators, artists and architects to reveal the curatorial motivations and artistic processes behind these interventions.

I’ll be joining Mark Allen, the incredibly creative guy behind Machine Project, and Ted Bosley, the Director of the Gamble House, for an intimate conversation about Machine Project’s playfully irreverent installations and performances at the historic Pasadena home. Be sure to check out the entire conference schedule (Oct 4-5), which takes conference goers to the marvelous MAK Center on King’s Road (built by Schindler), the Neutra VDL house, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hollyhock House.

All events are free to the public. To register for the conference, visit the registration page.

Inspecting Indian Vogue


As I was shedding my last bunch of rupees at Indira Gandhi Airport in New Delhi, I quickly snagged a copy of Vogue India to read on the plane. I was curious to see how different it felt from the American version, especially after spending two weeks crisscrossing Northern India.

One thing I’d been warned about before arriving is that women on the street do not – I mean DO NOT – wear the kind of revealing clothing that you see in Bollywood films. Head to toe covering is the standard; even short sleeves are pretty rare. Even when it’s hot. Scorching hot.

Billboards and TV ads in India reflect the bodacious Bollywood ideal, but I can’t recall seeing anybody dress like that in even the glitziest restaurants and hotels in Delhi.

Much of the recommended clothing in the editorial portions of the magazine also defied street conventions, including shorts, short skirts, form-fitting or whisper thin dresses (a big no no, I was told), and long skirts (OK) with equally long slits (absolutely not OK). There was also a gorgeous swim suit spread, but I had to wonder: where in India could they be worn? As far as I could tell, Western-style hotel swimming pools would be the only acceptable place.

Similar to American Vogue, the Indian version featured profiles of successful women, including a comedienne, a radical novelist, and a slough of Indian art collectors in Dubai. The issue had a very global feel – it was, for instance, the first place I glimpsed Adidas’ fresh new World Cup garment collection, which they concocted in collaboration with The Farm Brand, a Brazilian fashion label.

I wasn’t surprised by the insane number of jewelry ads; women in India are often not allowed to have bank accounts or real estate assets, but the jewelry is often all theirs (check out this NPR piece about Indian women’s obsession with gold). Read the rest of this entry »

Fashion & Originality on the TED Radio Hour


Guy Raz interviewed me about the culture of copying in the fashion industry in what he called “maybe our best show ever.” During the TED Radio Hour, we discussed the cult of originality and the fashion industry’s constant creative incursions into the archives of fashion. The show also includes Steven Johnson on where ideas come from; Mark Ronson on sampling in the music industry and Kirby Ferguson on the ubiquity of remixing. Check it out and let me know what you think!

Tracking “Culture”


I’ve been ODing on data about the arts and culture sector lately, participating in an event at the NEA and another at Disney Hall last week (you can watch the video here). I think that the arts are seriously undervalued in the U.S. and so I’m always looking for data that helps us better understand how and why humans are attracted to certain melodies, visuals and stories, and what they think they’re accomplishing when they settle into a cushy seat to soak up an opera, a ballet or a  concert.

At Disney Hall, a packed house heard top line results from Culture Track, a 13-year tracking survey of arts and culture audiences in the U.S. There’s a huge amount of data here: the 2014 survey (you can download a report) includes responses from over 4,000 people in all 50 states who are “culturally active” – they already attend some array of museums, theaters, music, dance or opera programs.

I’d say the big take-away for me is that arts audiences are not particularly loyal to arts institutions any more – they’re loyal to their own taste. Instead of subscribing to a museum or a theater, they prefer to pick and choose from the options available. Arthur Cohen, who presented the findings, described audience members as “culturally promiscuous:” they’ll have a good night at a theater and then never call for a second date.

I think that new media plays a big role in this sea change. People who use the Internet (and a vast majority of this group does) have become accustomed to seeking out what interests them rather than sitting back and being told what they might like. And so one thing you see in the Culture Track report is that attendance is down, people are going less frequently, but they are visiting a wider array of cultural offerings.

Read the rest of this entry »

Measuring the Impact of Art


Last week I attended a high-caliber symposium co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the UK’s Cultural Value Project. They brought together a dizzying array of researchers (demographers, cognitive scientists, arts policy wonks, “recovering” academics, etc.) to discuss how we ought to measure participation in arts and culture on the local, regional, national and global scale.

“Participation” and “engagement” are key metrics for arts institutions and their funders. But the inquiry often ends right there. I think the vast majority of people in the arts – including artists and administrators – take it as a given that art has a beneficial effect on society. I happen to agree with them. Wholeheartedly. But many powerful people in this world – including those who hold the purse strings – are not necessarily convinced. Funding for the arts is paltry compared to expenditures on science, where, lo and behold, we have a lot of convincing evidence about the importance it holds for humanity. Read the rest of this entry »

Myth Girls & the Art of Making Books

For several years now, I have been on the board of an experimental literary press where we have spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to keep the printed book vibrant and alive. At Les Figues Press, we decided to publish books in unique dimensions and we coupled each author’s work with the visual work of another artist, hoping against hope that the resulting physical object would convince even the most cyber-savvy readers to purchase our special little hunks of pulverized tree.

So I contantly keep my eyes peeled for efforts to revitalize interest in the printed book. My most recent encounter with an inspiring innovation was in Medellin, Colombia, where the intrepid forces behind Proyecto Liquido – a group that explores the overlapping territory in fiction, art, science and technology – had transformed an online short story published 18 years ago into a surprisingly layered tactile experience.

With a black rubberized cover (not unlike the one on my iPad), Kij Johnson’s Chicas Miticas (Myth Girls) feels more like a machine than a book.  Everything inside is dual: from the bilingual translation (Spanish and English) to the double-sided format (the book is basically composed of two pamphlets facing one another). While one side is devoted to a disturbing tale about the terrible cost of freedom, the opposite renders the story into sleek, hyper-polished illustrations by Oscar Gonzalez, one of the five collaborators who transformed Johnson’s story into this unique material object.

If the book were simply illustrated, and bound in this surprising way, it would have been arresting enough. But three pages into the lushly animated version of this stark tale, you finally see a depiction of the main character, but only from behind, and rendered on vellum, so that you can see her ghost-like presence in two inhuman vistas, extended by a trifold. A few pages further in, you reach the material heart of the work, where lush illustrations bleed into layered vellum inserts and – I kid you not – a ripped quilted jacket is sewn directly onto the page. Read the rest of this entry »

When Life Meets Art: Dinah Lenney at TEDxUSC

One of my favorite performances at TEDxUSC this year was by the actress and writer Dinah Lenney, who explored the connections between life and art. I can’t help but think that her training as an actress has made her a bit more sensitive than the average writer is about the “reality” of fiction and the visceral connections it forges between representation and material existence. Through a series of poignant and funny tales, Lenney explains why it is that she is more awestruck by a painting of a tree than the tree itself. To her, it’s the human intervention, the longing to capture in art something that simply occurs in nature, that gives her a sense of awe.

I was reminded of Jean Baudrillard‘s infamous formulation of the simulacrum: he argued that a really compelling representation of something (a picture of a sunset, for instance) may all too easily become the primary referent for the real thing (e.g., the actual sunset). Whenever you find yourself saying, “Hey! That looks just like a postcard!” then you have become subject to the allure of the simulacrum. But while Baudrillard bemoans the dehumanizing aspects of this displacement — this re-placement, as it were — Lenney celebrates it. She sees how important the witnessing of that sunset actually is: a human tried to tell us about it through a postcard, and the message was received.

Viva la simulacra!