Where Is Myself?
A Reflection on the Spatiality and Disquieting Effects of Daniël Ernst’s Virtual Reality Dioramas.
Virtual reality (VR) technology is an increasingly popular way for artists to experiment with storytelling techniques. In this long read, Nicholas Burman discusses the role of space, agency, and the haunting aspects of Daniël Ernst’s three part installation Die Fernweh Oper.
Daniël Ernst’s Die Fernweh Oper is a three act opera which presents Asteria, a fifty foot tall soprano, whose lyrics are inspired by your (the fan’s) adoration of her (the performer). This award-winning project was part of Amsterdam’s EYE Film Museum’s 2019 “Virtual Dioramas” installation, which featured a selection of virtual reality (VR) film works by contemporary Dutch artists. Ernst’s opera stretches and dissolves the participant’s expectations of space, and highlights the role that spatiality has in VR storytelling. By thinking about the power of space over Oper’s participant, this essay will also discuss the intersection between spectrality and agency.
In Media Spectres
The use of opera and dioramas as inspirations for a virtual reality project signals that the giddy jump forwards in experiential technology, exemplified by VR, is being made less alien with forms of entertainment typically associated with pre-20th century culture. Dioramas originated in France in 1823, and are small-scale replicas of famous or traditional scenes.  The apparition of dioramas in the context of VR installations can be seen as a haunting of supposedly dead media in the life of a currently active one, and is an example of new media reinvigorating an impulse to inspire new ways of seeing and thus thinking inherent to new media proliferation.
In Act One of Die Fernweh Oper, Asteria, as tall as the solid, gothic interior, pulls back an astral curtain, revealing you both to be in a floating, translucent church. Act Three finds you alone in a dimly lit utility closet alongside a caretaker (of the opera house? of the galaxy?). He is illuminated by a star-shaped bulb which shines even when unscrewed from its fitting. The walls of this claustrophobic setting make way for the great expanse of outer space. The strong invocation of the cosmos makes clear to the participant that VR is a medium interested in spatiality and disjointing our expectations of it. By stepping into the VR world we are able to be transported out of the confines of a material one.  VR allows us to be not so much astronauts but psychonauts, explorers of our social and individual capacities to (re)imagine space, and participate in realms that exceed what is experienced in the everyday.
VR allows us to be not so much astronauts but psychonauts, explorers of our social and individual capacities to (re)imagine space, and participate in realms that exceed what is experienced in the everyday.
I want to think a little bit about how exactly this VR world embraces the participant. Late 19th and 20th century advances in media technology (cinema, photography, TV, etc.) largely place their perceiving subjects into a stationary position, and the subject becomes a spectator. Much scholarship on VR storytelling makes clear that rather than confronting you, VR immerses you.  Brenda K. Wiederhold explains that in relation to VR, immersion has two meanings. “It can refer to the technology that enables the user to experience the virtual world […and it] can also refer to users’ experience and their willingness to feel invested in the world around them.’  With VR, the subject becomes participant.
Thinking on the narrative aspects of virtual reality remains somewhat incohesive. In the early 2000s, when the technology was in its infancy, there was doubt cast on whether such an interactive medium could be considered a good place to tell a story at all.  More optimistic reviewers could glimpse its potential but still focused on interactivity.  The potential for a “hybridity” between interaction and spectatorship to be persuasively realised is still a concern for VR developers.  Nevertheless, this essay is focused on a more filmic implementation of the medium, and so discussions on gameplay or interactivity in this sense are not very useful. It is important to consider the medium’s spatial parameters in order to recognise just how Die Fernweh Oper produces its effects.
Like cinematic film, a VR film requires the production of a specific temporality. It places elements into a sequence, those elements’ temporal relationship is integrated into the work, rather than, as is the case with prose or poetry, under the control of the reader. A VR film decides for you exactly when you will see or hear each bit. Also like film, it often implements a soundtrack. However, while film’s aspect ratio, the width and height of the frame, is integral to its aesthetic results, that ratio tends to remain static throughout a film’s duration.  VR, meanwhile, engulfs you in a world without an aspect ratio. It is like reality in the way that it recreates the naïve sense that there is no frame to a “real” experience.
Space, including the space of our daily existence, is framed before we even encounter it. In The Production of Space, Henri Lefebvre reminds us that it is an intersection of ideological and economic impulses that determine the form of the spaces we occupy, particularly in the urban context. He sketches out a “conceptual triad” for understanding space that is composed of “[s]patial practice, which embodies production and reproduction […] [r]epresentations of space, which are tied to the relations of production” and, finally, “[r]epresentational spaces, embodying complex symbolisms[.]”  Because VR simulates our experience of space as we find it in reality (360 degrees, no gaps or borders between elements), it is a medium well equipped for exploring this triad. Through VR we are able to become psychonauts of representational spaces. It also presents us with the opportunity to explore the impact of spatial relationships in terms of narrative and subjective experiences.
The Disquiet Opera
“The premise” of VR technology is, Iwona Pomianowska tells us, “to give […audiences] a feeling of presence, participation and sense of agency.”  Agency is an elusive concept, and the lack of interactivity in the current object of analysis does not lend itself to questions of interactivity. Indeed, that lack of interactivity, which could be perceived as agency of a kind, is perhaps what increases the sense of otherworldliness that Die Fernweh Oper generates. Oper’s second act is the one I found particularly striking, despite (or perhaps precisely because of) the fact that it contains the least action and highlights the participant’s lack of agency. The participant is situated within Asteria’s dressing room, a curtained beauty parlour surrounded by an imposing moon and orbiting machinery. Aside from her soprano tones, the starlet herself is absent. The only action to take place in this act is when the participant is transported in and outside of the room by the extradiegetic narrator, one “outside” of perceived events, though who is revealed in this instance to be the one ultimately in control.
This act offers very little interactivity; one is stuck in position, unable to move, and left feeling like a doll in a doll’s house. When inside the room, the participant’s line of sight is followed by the heads of Biedermeier figurines. When transported outside the room you are struck by the emptiness of the inside: no one is home. Except that you are meant to be. Or are you? Something becomes apparent when you are inside: you cannot see yourself. I don’t only mean that you cannot perceive a digitised version of your hands, for example, but that the participatory presence (of you in the room) is not recognised by the space itself. Like Dracula, you are offered no reflection by the parlour’s mirrors. You are both inside and outside, here and there, and yet unstable in both positions. You embody, to borrow Moishe Postone’s characterisation of hauntology’s spectre, “temporalities that cannot be grasped adequately in terms of present time[.]”  The participant becomes like Asteria’s vocals: present and disturbing but emanating from an extradiegetic location. This effect is made possible because the VR world plays with space’s potential by breaking the limits of what real space can do, or does.
Instead of us placing ourselves where we want, the space seems to decide how we are positioned; could it be that the space itself is the primary narrator of our experiences?
Lefebvre’s “conceptual triad” provides terminology useful to explaining the sort of space that this opera, and VR more generally, places us in.  In terms of the actual space of daily life, there is a clear distinction between representations of space, such as architectural models, representation space, ideas of potential spaces, and spatial practice, which is our actual activity in the material surroundings of our reality. In Oper, the boundaries between these aspects of space are blurred. For while we feel as if we are situated somewhere, we are aware that we are embedded in a spectacle which creates a mere facsimile of a “real” world. A representational space, dream-like and defying the laws of physics, is rendered as a virtual representation of space. In this instance, spatial practice is restricted because the participant’s agency also is. Instead of us placing ourselves where we want, the space seems to decide how we are positioned; could it be that the space itself is the primary narrator of our experiences? As you are displaced from inside to outside the parlour, when the church makes room for outer space, and when the closet dissolves and becomes the night sky, you suspect this could be the case.
By placing Asteria in close proximity to the heavens and braiding her voice through environments that collapse and expand our expectations of space, Oper generates a woozy narrative that inspires an association between the soprano singer and a reality beyond our own. It hints at the oft used metaphor that music “lifts us up” and provides experiences beyond the rational. Like these moments of elevation through engagement with art, this VR opera provides an experience of a space which is not really like space at all, in that it expands and contracts in the way that only representational space can. Being so immersed in such a simulation does give one the sense of really being there, of being able to take a psychonautical trip through an imaginarium of possibilities.
- One of the medium’s inventors, Louis Daguerre, would eventually lend his name to an early form of photography, which highlights the clear genealogy between dioramas, photography, and thus cinema, and subsequent innovations in multimodal mediums with narrative potential, including VR.
- The potential power of this experience is somewhat depleted by the weight of the goggles, the fact that the actual world is still slightly perceivable during a performance, and that a long amount of exposure to a VR world does make you feel slightly sea sick.
- Pomianowska, Iwona. “Modern Documentary in the Age of Virtual Reality: Deepening Engagement with Nonfiction Storytelling through Technological Innovation”. Images. The International Journal of European Film, Performing Arts and Audiovisual Communication, no. 30, 2017, p. 50.
- Wiederhold, Brenda K. “The Next Level of Virtual Reality Isn’t Technology – It’s Storytelling.” Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, vol. 21, no. 11, 2018, p 671.
- Glassner, Andrew. “Interactive Storytelling: People, Stories, and Games.” Lecture Notes in Computer Science (including Subseries Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence and Lecture Notes in Bioinformatics), vol. 2197, 2001, pp. 51–60.
- Fencott, Clive. “Virtual Storytelling as Narrative Potential: Towards an Ecology of Narrative.” Lecture Notes in Computer Science (including Subseries Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence and Lecture Notes in Bioinformatics), vol. 2197, 2001, pp. 90–99.
- Mischie, Ioana. “PoV Hybrid Storytelling in Virtual Reality and its Axiological Implications (Case Study: The AI Comrade).” Cinematographic Art & Documentation, no. 20, 2017, pp. 40- 48.
- Outside of experimental films that do implement different aspect ratios at different times, split screen is a more common play with the distribution of space in film, but this play is framed through a static ratio.
- Lefebvre, Henri. “Plan on the Present Work.” The Production of Space, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1991, p. 33, emphasis added.
- Pomianowska, Iwona. “Modern Documentary in the Age of Virtual Reality: Deepening Engagement with Nonfiction Storytelling through Technological Innovation”. Images. The International Journal of European Film, Performing Arts and Audiovisual Communication, no. 30, 2017, p. 46.
- Postone, Moishe. “Deconstruction as Social Critique: Derrida on Marx and the New World Order.” Review of Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New Internationalby Jacques Derrida and Peggy Kamuf. History and Theory, vol. 37, no. 3, 1998, p. 371
- Lefebvre, Henri. “Plan on the Present Work.” The Production of Space, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1991, p.33.