For Isobel Knowles and Van Sowerwine the still-nascent artistic medium of virtual reality (VR) is the perfect fit for exploring themes of dislocation, disorientation, alienation and culture shock. After all, to strap on the headset and surrender our senses to this dazzling immersive experience is to be dissolved into strange new landscapes and environments. And just like the experience of arriving in a new country, it can be distressing as well as exciting.
The duo’s 360-degree stop-motion VR film, Passenger, 2019, is a decidedly psychedelic recreation of arriving in a new and unfamiliar land through the ubiquitous experience of the taxi ride from the airport.
“When I first put on a VR headset I was struck by the similarity to the feeling of emerging outside an airport after a long flight,” says Sowerwine. “This made me think about my parents’ and other migrants’ experiences of arriving in a new country.”
In the film, the viewer steps into a taxi and is soon joined by its driver. He reveals himself to be an anthropomorphised red-hooded plover, an Australian migratory bird. The taxi begins its journey, and at first the surroundings appear to be the familiar industrial or commercial buildings that tend to be near airports. However, the journey becomes ever more hallucinatory and surreal, with the kindly driver, a fellow migrant, offering guidance and advice the whole time.
“I thought about ways to tell a story in VR that would allow a non-interactive linear narrative to invite the viewer to participate in the story,” says Knowles. “The taxi ride allows the story to unfold around you and for you to be included and implicated in the story while being completely passive. For the story of migration, it also gives the passenger a safe, familiar space with the unknown held safely outside, which gradually breaks away until you’re left standing alone to face the world.” Sowerwine adds, “We wanted to create a universal and emotional experience, and we hope we can create a sense of empathy with new migrants.”
Passenger appears as part of the exhibition Take me with you, which showcases the Melbourne artists’ body of work going back to when they began their collaboration at art school in 2001. Among the older video pieces are Clara, 2004, You were in my dream, 2010, and It’s a jungle in here, 2011. The wide spectrum of Knowles and Sowerwine’s work embraces stop-motion films, site-specific installations and interactive pieces, all with an emphasis on engaging the viewer physically as much as emotionally, and often with a strong thread of storytelling. Passenger is the culmination of many of these things.
“Our work is focused on creating a personal connection with the characters and stories we create,” says Sowerwine, “as well as making immersive narratives that give the audience an active role to play.”
Passenger is their first VR film, and Knowles acknowledges the influence of the VR works of Lynette Wallworth, Jess Johnson and even LEGO Batman: The Batmersive VR Experience, 2017. And indeed there is a playful, whimsical feel to Passenger, which makes for a counterbalance to the more sombre point being made about how daunting the experience of migration can be.
“We wanted to leave a sense of hope and of moving forward, as well as acknowledging the challenges,” says Sowerwine.