Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Riding high over the Amazon, my glasses have steamed up. The virtual reality crowd, it seems, don’t typically cater to heavy-breathing older folks with varifocals.
Assembly Rooms (Venue 20)
Munduruku, created with the backing of Greenpeace, promises a multi-sensory journey into the lives of the threatened Munduruku people of the Amazon forest to join their struggle. Glasses off, the fog lingered, but it was still a richly intriguing 20 minutes, a virtual reality ride inside a small tent, with the scents of the jungle (three, to be precise), feeling the tremor of approaching lorries through your seat, and even a warm pot of rice placed in your hands, riding canoes along the river, to where a group of children dance around you.
For the second year running the Edinburgh Fringe has its own digital strand, a noticeable trend with other festivals, from the Sheffield Doc/Fest documentary festival, to FutureFest in London, and major art events.
At the Venice Biennale this year, the Dutch media and art collective Dropstuff delivered one solution for a city drowning in tourists: in The Fair Grounds visitors hopped on a bobbing fairground toy and took a five minute virtual reality tour of Venice, or indeed Amsterdam. The simulated gondola ride fired through the canals at jet speed, pausing only briefly for the highlights.
Last year’s high-tech outing in the Assembly Rooms, the Edinburgh Digital Entertainment Festival, in the midst of the biggest live theatre event in the world, got derisory treatment in some quarters. This year it is back as FuturePlay, in two geodesic domes and a shipping container in a George Street hub, as well as a series of talks and panels. There’s an array of virtual reality art works or films, games, and a VR exhibition and painting studio. They are separately timed and ticketed, as the Virtual Reality Studio, Tech Zone, and the Immersive Gallery.
The most evocative piece of the VR studio is easily Dear Angelica. You could dismiss it as tacky, but it is a sculpture in light, of floating words and figures hand-drawn in space, where images take shape mysteriously. Starring Geena Davis and Mae Whitman, the piece explores memory and loss, where a girl remembers her mother from her screen appearances, and through her battle with a demon, presumably cancer.
Another piece, First Impressions, memorably puts you in the place of a baby in the early months of development; moving from black, white, and blurry to interactions with mother and father.
Cirque du Soleil’s Inside the Box of Kurios takes you on stage up close with the performers. Data Duo, in theTech Zone, was a musical synthesiser for people to make electronic music together.
The artist Kate Downie has the headline festival show at the Scottish Gallery this year, a leading figure of the Edinburgh art scene, whose drawings and paintings have run from the bridges over the Firth of Forth to Chinese river valleys and America’s Route 66. At The Scotsman’s invitation she came to try Google Tilt Brush. At the Art Basel in Hong Kong, international artists have already been invited to work with the application. Artists Dustin Yellen and Jeff Koons were given early access.
The Immersive Gallery commissioned two artists this year to produce 3-D artworks; you can walk between them, great globes in space, and explore inside. “The tech is great but this is more a vehicle for artists to do amazing things,” says producer Josh McNorton. “Everything here is artist-driven.” A former student of playwriting, he says: “I love the Fringe, I love theatre, but I want to know where we take audiences.”
The Immersive Gallery comes in half-hour time slots for the price of a standard Fringe ticket. Home VR systems would still set you back something close to £2,000 for a higher end computer to handle the programme and some decent second-hand headsets and earphones.
My own attempt to bring in Calton Hill, North Bridge, and the castle over Princes Street Gardens, an impression of Edinburgh, resulted in a blurry mess of greens and greys, though the fireworks were good, assisted by the sparkling light setting. Painting in space is a particular skill, and completely addictive; instead of half an hour, you want an afternoon. It is possible to paint from above, or inside your own work; it’s like being Paddington Bear, creating a glorious mess that fills a room, with nothing to clean up.
Downie produced a work she described as “like the Forth Bridge on acid”. “It’s still a bit boysy and geeky at the moment,” she tells me, lacking in “greys and dirty colours”. “I don’t want space, I want a big 3-D piece of paper, I would much rather have colour on white. I would want to be doing what I can. You don’t want bubbles and smoke, you want to manipulate a palette.”
Until 26 August. Today various times.