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By Alice Parsons on

Introducing Alternate Realities

This October, we’ll host three special exhibits from Sheffield Doc/Fest’s Alternate Realities programme. The museum team visited the festival to explore what it’s all about—Creative Producer Alice Parsons tells us more.

What is Sheffield Doc/Fest?

A Sheffield Doc/Fest branded tote bag

Sheffield Doc/Fest is a world-leading festival of documentary storytelling in all its forms. It takes place every June, with live talks, performances and—of course—documentaries being shown at venues of all sizes and scales. It’s a great opportunity to visit Sheffield and there is an infectious festival feeling, with outdoor screens, pop-up experiences, a whole warehouse of immersive storytelling, and a packed programme of documentary film.

What is ‘Alternate Realities’?

Visitors taking part in an installation at Alternate Realities

Alternate Realities is a free strand of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s internationally celebrated programme, aiming to challenge and expand the documentary form. It features work from artists working in virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) as well as immersive installations.

This year’s exhibition featured work from over 50 artists and producers exploring ideas in two strands. ‘The World Unknown to You’ invited visitors into new environments and situations with the use of immersive storytelling technologies such as VR and AR, while ‘Better Known Truths’ worked as a congregational VR cinema, showing documentaries intended to be experienced in a group setting.

We’re really excited to be part of Alternate Realities’ first ever tour. Three selected exhibits from the programme will be hosted here at the National Science and Media Museum on 5–14 October 2018—in the lead-up to, and during, our Widescreen Weekend film festival.

Other highlights from the exhibition will tour to the Barbican, London; Lighthouse, Brighton; Phi Centre, Montreal, Canada; and Noviembre Electronico Festival, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

What happened on our visit?

In June, members of the museum’s Exhibitions, Operations and Festival teams visited the 25th edition of Sheffield Doc/Fest to explore the Alternate Realities programme and make selections for our upcoming exhibition of highlights. As a Sheffield novice, I was excited to be visiting the city at such a vibrant time in its cultural calendar. Sheffield Doc/Fest is a hugely celebrated and highly acclaimed festival, so I was keen to see as much as possible.

Trafalgar Warehouse in Sheffield

We arrived at Trafalgar Warehouse, the home of Alternate Realities, and entered a vast space dotted with installations and experiences. My first thoughts were how physically and visibly interesting the exhibitions were dressed. It’s easy to think of VR as a world that exists inside a headset, but the careful additions of set and staging for the installations adds a whole new layer to these experiences, heightening the visitor’s interaction with both the physical and virtual worlds.

Between the team, we managed to experience almost everything on offer in ‘The World Unknown to You’. The experiences were varied both in their content and in their presentation. I was able to experience everything from a one-on-one encounter with David Attenborough at the Natural History Museum, to deep sea diving on the California Coast, as well as more hard-hitting experiences including Festival Commission ‘Face to Face’—a multi-room installation exploring the life of Michelle, who wears a facial prosthetic following a gun injury.

An interior view of one of the Alternate Realities installations

Upstairs at Trafalgar Warehouse was the congregational VR cinema, showing a set of 360° films under the title of ‘Better Known Truths’. These were organised into five themed areas: Childhood, Fear, Habitats, Climate, and Loss. Up to eight people could enter the VR cinema and simultaneously watch a pair of films under these headings.

We booked to see the two films—both world premieres—under the heading ‘Habitats’. The Real Thing is a look at ‘fake cities’ built in China, including replicas of famous landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and the canals of Venice. Grenfell: Our Home is a series of interviews with residents from Grenfell Tower. The interviewees describe their homes and belongings as the 360° video builds around them, showing the environments they are describing. It offers a profoundly moving look at the lives and loss of those effected by the disastrous Grenfell Tower fire.

Viewing films in this format is extremely intimate. One-to-one encounters can be a difficult feat for more traditional documentary form, and so I found the presentation of ‘Better Known Truths’ to be a fresh look at how VR might enhance our interactions with documentary topics, while retaining the communal element of watching a film or documentary in a traditional, shared environment.

Visitors watching an installation at Alternate Realities

Although playful in areas, Alternate Realities was not afraid to show challenging and demanding content and experiences, utilising new forms of storytelling to not only engage and inspire but to also ask questions of and challenge visitors.

We’re looking forward to hosting three exhibits from the Alternate Realities programme on 5–14 October 2018. Read more about them on our website, and keep your eye on our blog for more behind-the-scenes stories.

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