In the darkness, one man looks through a window-like frame at another, as if in a mirror. Both are unclothed.


A necessary transformation: the performing arts and VR in Taiwan

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Image from In the Mist, directed by CHOU Tung-Yen. © Kris Kang
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Covid and climate change have accelerated the creation of VR and performance hybrids, especially in Taiwan

Having relocated from Belgium to Taiwan in 2021, I’ve seen how well the island has managed to keep its pre-pandemic lifestyle, thanks to its efficient policies, community efforts and geographical isolation. But my outsider optimism isn’t always shared by the locals, who are feeling increasingly isolated by ongoing government-imposed travel restrictions. Such regulations obviously also have a huge influence on an international sector like the performing arts. In the last couple of years, Taiwanese stage productions have only rarely been seen outside the island, and vice versa. But something has been brewing inside Taiwan’s safe cocoon: a necessary transformation.

For many good reasons, Taiwanese performing artists are taking the step to VR. To be able to present their work abroad despite the disruptions of the pandemic. To look for less environmentally damaging alternatives to touring. To experiment with and cultivate new available technologies. VR shows are indeed an artform with still great potential for development. And artists in Taiwan, whether filmmakers, choreographers, theatre directors or photographers, find themselves on exceptionally fertile ground to engage in this new form of artistry. Not only has the island developed a leading position in the global ICT industry over the last decades, there are also a number of government-supported organisations that actively boost the rise of VR art. These favourable conditions are reflected in the success of Taiwanese VR shows at last year’s Venice VR Expanded, the Virtual Reality selection of the Venice International Film Festival. Seven out of 36 entries were produced or co-produced in Taiwan. Five out of those seven were made with the support of the Taiwan Creative Content Agency (TAICCA), the intermediary organisation supervised by the Taiwanese Ministry of Culture promoting the development of Taiwan’s intellectual property through consultation and funding. Another important facilitator for VR projects is the Kaohsiung Film Archive, located in the south of Taiwan. This government-funded institute offers not only comprehensive support to VR projects through funding and talent cultivation, but also showcases VR works at their VR FILM LAB (‘The first experimental VR theatre in Taiwan’) and through the VR competition at the annual Kaohsiung Film Festival.

Trailer for In the Mist, by CHOU Tung-Yen

I crossed the island to experience two such projects: In the Mist by theatre director and filmmaker CHOU Tung-Yen at Taipei Film Festival, and Afterimage for Tomorrow by director Singing CHEN and dancer-choreographer CHOU Shu-Yi at National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts Weiwuying. CHOU Tung-Yen and CHOU Shu-Yi are no strangers to each other, nor to the use of new media. Together they created the dance production Emptied Memories in Taipei in 2012 – a time when they were already experimenting with panoramic 360 filming, the same technique used in virtual reality, but then with the images projected onto moving screens. Today, they are each developing their idiosyncratic artistic worlds with the help of VR technology. Slightly sceptical, I surrender myself to the VR headset once more, for the first time since last year’s Springback Ringside sessions during the Summer ReCollection Festival in Ljubljana, but this time with the knowledge that both shows were especially created for the medium.

A single headset awaits me inside a replica of a steam room, a real version of the virtual one I’m about to be teleported into. At Taipei Film Festival, CHOU Tung-Yen’s In the Mist, a wordless, erotic poem in the form of a 14-minute VR 360 film, is presented as an individual experience (although the film has also been screened for larger audience groups at different events). When the movie starts, I’m suddenly not alone any more, but find myself surrounded by 12 naked men, who seek to fill emotional and physical voids. The men cluster and recluster in pairs, trios and larger groups to kiss, caress, lick, suck or to downright do-the-deed. We only need our instincts to understand this primal body language, the uncensored interactions, the gestures of seduction, whether it leaves us appealed or repulsed. One of the men keeps turning his gaze towards the spectator, and that’s how you know you’re not just a fly on the wall, but an immersed thirteenth participant in the event. His repeated glance keeps asking me the same question: ‘what have you come to do here?’ The fact that I take it personally is probably what makes this work so powerful. And indeed, in this meeting between virtual and real bodies I experience many of the same feelings I have while watching live performance: the pleasure gained from watching others; the voyeurism, plainly; the awareness I get about my own body; the distraction and relief from the real world, but also the sudden return to that world and the feeling of being caught when one of the performers seems to notice me.

In the Mist is not just a deviceful porn film. Aside from all the complex questions it raises on spectatorship, it is also infused with theatrical elements. The play of light and shadows is not just beautiful to watch, it ingeniously enhances the hazy ambience in the room, with layers of mist cloaking the men’s identities. When closer to the viewer, their bodies reveal sweat pearls slowly drizzling down their curved skins. When far away, they become dehumanised ghosts. This spookiness presses on when a suited man rushes into the steam room, pointing his flashlight at the sauna goers in search of something – but no one seems to notice him. Or when one of the characters enters the room again, while he was already there, and watches himself as four other men indulge in his body. At the end of the film, the viewer rises above the steam room and sees how its walls open up. The fog diffuses, the men spread out, and what remains is only emptiness and distance. In the Mist manages to wonderfully combine the capacities of physical theatre and VR in a thought-provoking total experience. The show will get a second life at Taipei Arts Festival 2022, when it will be expanded into a hybrid VR and live performance.

Afterimage for Tomorrow, with CHOU Shu-Yi, directed by Singing CHEN

Afterimage for Tomorrow is already living that second lifetime. Originally made in 2018, this 20-minute VR 360 film by director Singing CHEN features dancer-choreographer CHOU Shu-Yi in the main role. Especially for Weiwuying in Kaohsiung, the duo has now expanded the piece into a hybrid work that blends the film with a site-specific live performance. One of the atriums of this state-of-the-art building became the framework, hosting about 20 spectators per session. From under Kaohsiung’s bright blue sky we get swept into a dark factory hall with colonnades stretching out in every direction. A narrating voice navigates the journey, but asks more questions than it provides guidance. A man wakes up in a parallel reality. The viewer flashes between various perspectives on this distorted world: on the crease between a mirrored group of dancers, flying over a coast like a bird, and peeking inside the main character’s bedroom. In this more intimate space, Shu-Yi wears orange clothes, evoking the idea that he is imprisoned there. The walls of his room are covered in papers and have stacks of books leaning against them, of which the content fades and eventually disappears over the course of the film. Sounds of crinkling paper overlap, from the headphones but also from the actual space. They form a bridge back to reality. As we take off the VR headset, the atrium is filled with those same empty sheets of paper, whirling in the wind. Behind the windows of the atrium, inside the theatre foyer, appears Shu-Yi. This time dressed in liberated white, he dances in 360 degrees around the glass box. Pressing his hands firmly against the glass, while his body fluently twists and crawls on, he dances like an octopus in an inside-out aquarium. To see the same performer in those two different states works to great effect: the captive and the free dancer are not different, they exist at the same time in different realms.

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The very thing that unsettles us, leads us to transformation

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Even in a chain of worldwide disasters, there is always art to demonstrate how well humans are able to adapt. It’s like some natural law, that we always find a way to express ourselves even if something holds us back. The very thing that unsettles us, leads us to transformation and new ties to become stronger together. And before you know it, the most remote of places suddenly becomes the centre stage for a whole new way of art making. Taiwanese artists and producers have been particularly isolated over the last couple of years, but have kept an open outlook on the world and changed the game for both VR and the performing arts, which they have brought together in something new, something bigger. One plus one equals more than two.