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By Alice Parsons on

Choosing our ‘Alternate Realities’

After exploring scores of exhibits at Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Alternate Realities exhibition, we faced the task of selecting just three pieces to display at the museum for our part of the tour...

… A dream job in many ways—but an impossible task too, after seeing and experiencing so many wonderful, challenging and varied projects.

Sensible Data/Mixed Emotions

Detail from Sensible Data, Mixed Emotions by Martin Hertig
Sensible Data/Mixed Emotions © Martin Hertig

The first piece we selected was also the first work I experienced at Sheffield Doc/Fest: Martin Hertig’s Sensible Data/Mixed Emotions.

‘Sensible Data’ refers to the desk-based part of the exhibit: you sit in front of a phone, take a selfie and watch as a small robot draws your image. You’re then invited to email the machine, which will stamp your image with an age, a beauty rating (eek), a mood and your name. Apparently, I was feeling ‘confused’ on the day! This deceptively simple one-person experience was an instant winner for me: not only was it exciting and entertaining (for onlookers as well as the participant), but it neatly talks of our ‘data selves’ without being scary.

Images are collected by the machine and displayed digitally in ‘Mixed Emotions’, but don’t worry, everything gets deleted at the end of the day. You can either take away your machine portrait or stick it up for others to enjoy—or do it twice and do both! Sensible Data/Mixed Emotions is also the first exhibit you will encounter in our exhibition, though the projects can be experienced in any order.

Is Anna OK?

Detail from Is Anna OK showing a hilly landscape in shadow with two women sat on a bench in the foreground
Is Anna OK? © Camila Ruz

The next work in the space comes from the brilliant Aardman Animations and the BBC.

Is Anna OK? is a two-person VR experience told from the viewpoints of twin sisters Anna and Lauren. I was initially attracted to the piece because of its set: a simple but beautiful purpose-built park bench and lamppost, complete with autumnal leaves and a grassy verge, host the exhibit.

Going into our Alternate Realities project, we always aimed to include a virtual reality work. There was such a wealth to choose from at Sheffield Doc/Fest, and to find a piece that allows two visitors to experience it—to tell two sides of the same story simultaneously—seemed liked a new use of VR. It also spoke really well to questions we’re all asking about the documentary form.


Detail from Belongings showing six people on stools, four of them greyed out
Belongings © John-Paul Marin, Matt Smith, Tea Uglow, Kirstin Sillitoe

The third piece in our presentation of Alternate Realities is Belongings, a large interactive installation created by SBS’s Digital Labs. It allows visitors to hear the personal stories of up to six people, each of whom explain a ‘belonging’ they brought with them when fleeing their homes for a new life in Australia. In this exhibit, those seeking refuge did so for a variety of reasons or factors, but each faced the near-impossible task of choosing one item they couldn’t live without. Through these one-to-one encounters, visitors enter into a private and intimate moment.

The sheer size of this piece meant it had a huge physical impact on the Trafalgar Warehouse, where we initially explored these installations. It drew visitors in without being overbearing and provided a great anchor—both physically and thematically—for what I felt shone through as a real crux of this year’s programme: the question of identity.

The question of identity

Although varied and diverse in their themes and presentation, it was evident that a lot of the works in this year’s Alternate Realities exhibition were looking at the many ways in which we can discover and interrogate our own (and other people’s) identities. Every exhibit was fresh and surprising in its approach to the fundamental and age-old questions of who we are and what helps us to make sense of that.

Sensible Data/Mixed Emotions looks at how machines see us—but our interaction with the decisions made by the machine might make us ask ourselves if we agree, disagree, or are even able to see ourselves in a new way after the experience.

Is Anna OK? looks at memory and experience. Whichever of the two points of view you choose has important things to say about how we are seen by others, and what power memories can hold in shaping who we are.

Finally, Belongings looks at possessions and priorities. Is the item you choose sentimental? Was it a gift from a loved one? Or perhaps something practical? Whatever it may be, this installation can speak to us all about the fundamentals of being. Truly emotive to engage with, Belongings encourages visitors to ask questions of themselves—as, indeed, does the exhibition as a whole.

Our selection from Alternate Realities will be on display between 5–14 October 2018. Entry is free. Find out more on our website.

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