Oculus Trauma: Inside Oscar Raby’s 'Assent'
Witness the horrors of war in this award-winning interactive virtual reality documentary.
"In 1973 my father witnessed the execution of a group of prisoners captured by the military regime in Chile, the Army that he was part of. Assent puts the user in my father’s footsteps as we head to the place where that happened."
- From Oscar Raby's Assent artist statement
Chilean-born artist Oscar Raby’s interactive virtual reality documentary Assent uses dream logic and video game aesthetics to investigate the aftershocks of war. Recently selected for Sundance's New Frontier exhibition, the Oculus-enabled experience allows users to assume the role of Raby’s father and relive his trauma. Assent stands out from other Oculus projects because it is explicitly personal. It is not a tech demo, or a ride on a roller coaster made of polygons—it is an unblinking examination of the ways in which the horrors of war are passed down from generation to generation.
Assent has had a great run so far. In addition to Sundance next month, the project won the Cross-Platform Audience Award at Sheffield Doc/Fest earlier this year. And when I first encountered Assent at IDFA DocLab, it was so popular I was unable to secure a 15-minute screening appointment.
Earlier this week, I borrowed a friend’s Oculus and stepped into Assent. The following day I connected with Raby to talk about the project’s origins, and to discuss what virtual reality has in common with stage magic.
The Creators Project: So I had the experience yesterday, finally.
Oscar Raby: Excellent.
It’s impossible to go through it and not think about how you take on the memories of your parents, and how their memories become your memories.
Yeah. This story has been with me for 20 years. I’ve always carried it as a secret. As something you don’t show everyone until there’s a circumstance of confidence or trust and safety—and complicity as well. Like the kind of conversation you have with a friend, and you know that he’s getting what you’re saying, and you go all the way through the core of the story and your feelings and how it affected your family. So for 20 years I’ve kept that pretty much to myself. Only to myself and my close ones.
But at some point, the scales between being affected by the story and being able to control the story changed in its balance. And that probably had to do with regarding myself as an adult just like my father. Instead of just receiving from him his decisions, his way of life, his traditions, basically his stories, I realized that I could actually change the course of those stories, and the interpretation of his days, and own life. Perhaps even more, I could help him carry the weight of that story.
So it went from carrying the story to being able to change the course of that story.
Are you the model for the assassins and the victims?
Yeah. That has a little bit to do with what you said before—that you carry the memories, and somehow I’m embodying what my dad told me, what I’ve been carrying. Not only through the oral tradition, but by seeing him in myself. By realizing that when I look at myself in the mirror I have certain gestures that I can see in his features, in his demeanor. The way he talks, the way that he looks. So I find myself being reminded of being in the same stream of events that he started once. That he continued, actually.
It also has the logic of a dream, in that every character is a manifestation of a part of yourself. Which I think is really fitting with the form. Because there’s something inherently dreamlike about the form.
Totally, like when you have a lucid dream, and you realize that you can control it, but that’s just a tiny illusion... that you can control it. Because at some point you do something that you realize is surprising even for yourself. Like, “Am I actually flying?”
That brings me to the way that the interface works in the course of the piece. In a way, the choices and the interactivity that are given to the audience are illusory choices. When your father’s experience starts, it’s actually a very linear experience. And it makes me think of being a spectator to the executions and how your father must have felt. He must have felt some level of autonomy, and some level of choice, but at the end of the day there’s a certain impotence to coming across that type of violence that he can do nothing about.
Just like in dreams when you wake up thinking you’re holding a bunch of coins, like gold coins, then you realize that you don’t have them. It’s that exact moment before waking up, when you think you still have it. You still have that magic trick. In that regard, it makes me feel that there’s an illusion, just like magic, like stage magic. Like a magician. In visual arts, do you know this trick called “Trompe l’oeil?”
Yeah, “fool the eye.”
Yeah, “a trick for the eye.” Which is a way of making you feel that you are entangled with the materiality of the piece that is right in front of you. In this case, it’s strapped to your face. You’re entangled in the sense of “This thing is doing something to me. Not on a rational level, but on a physical level. And I’m accepting it.” Which is kind of the basic tenet of magic. You accept it. You don’t judge it.
It’s hard for me not to see virtual reality as a very late 19th/early 20th century technology in this strange way. It’s actually a very analog medium, in that it’s almost like you’re listening to a radio play while you have a stereoscope strapped to your face. You expect it to be a much more technological experience than it is.
Yes, more complex, and lots of small cogs and particles of light that you don’t understand why they work, but they work and they’re doing something to you.
But I think that the center of the trick is what’s triggered in you. The visual memories, the sound memories, the things that are not being presented to you on screen, but you’re completing them, in the back of your head. The imperfect things.
That makes me think about what a huge part sound design is in what you’ve done.
Totally. In general, VR is presenting a huge opportunity for radio people and spoken word artists. It’s offering them the opportunity to complete the picture. The center of attention seems to be in the eyes. The key’s in the title: “Oculus.” The whole company is built around the eyes and what can be seen. But that’s freeing up a territory that can be occupied by many other disciplines, by many other industries, many other crafts that have to do with inviting you in and feeding you information through the ears.
It feels very much like this is your medium. There doesn’t seem to be much confusion about what medium you’re going to be working in next. Is that accurate?
Yes, but I’m not going to be married to this medium forever. It’s nice to know that mediums go through cycles. And they can provide something different. For instance, the internet: now that we saw and we are aware that it’s reached its maturity, it seems to be that it’s information heavy. Data-driven projects find a fertile ground on the internet. That is perhaps why when we ask the question “Have you wept, have you cried in front of a website,” 99% of the time, the answer is “no.” Because information doesn’t make you cry. Information can make you laugh, but cry? Just a few times.
I think what we’re being offered now as artists is the opportunity to tap into another side of the experience. One that has to do with the feeling of your body. I think that that presence that VR is providing us is the presence of yourself. Not just sitting like a couch potato, but actually being there, with minimal interaction. Just moving your head. Like, if you move your head a little bit, you know that the camera is actually moving with you. Which is different than having the mouse sitting on the table. You need to be purposeful when moving the mouse because you have to break that inertia of the mouse sitting on the table. Whereas with the head, you just breathe and the camera is already moving. A tiny bit.
Which brings up the solitary nature of the experience. It seems to me like the feeling of solitude that you’ve created is a very special one because it exploits what other people could see as the limitations of the medium. The loneliness, the claustrophobia.
Wouldn’t you say that that’s the negative version of isolation? Because I’m totally up for that, and I’m purposefully using that as a positive constructive element. Not as a positive thing itself, but as a building block. If you think of a brick, you don’t think of a brick as a negative thing.
On that, I want to talk about the tools that you used, and the form that you used. Unity can be a big hurdle for users because it’s tied to certain experiences, i.e. game experiences. But you do a really clever thing early on in the voiceover, which is that you make reference to video games that you wanted as a kid.
Yeah, everything is self-referential. Not “self” to me, but “self” to the work.
Actually, you know, for Sundance, the exhibition space is a room, and that room resembles my room as a teenager. And the posters I’ll be putting up are posters for a game called Virtua Fighter. Do you know that one?
Yeah, I know Virtua Fighter.
So do you remember how it changed the way that the camera moved? From being 2-D like Streetfighter? But with Virtua Fighter the camera could go in and around the characters. That was definitely a turning point in terms of how you experienced that fight. That clash.
The fact that that’s a reference given the aesthetic you’ve chosen is no surprise, really.
Yeah, those polygons are very raw and very unpolished. I don’t look up to that aesthetic, but it does connect the story to 1993 and 1994. It’s there. That’s when it’s anchored and that’s when I got in touch with the story. So it all kind of joins together very well.
So wait, how old were you when your father told you what happened?
That conversation has been changing over time. It’s been changing. In the beginning, it was “Okay, I don’t think I understand so I’m just going to put it in the backpack and keep walking.” Then it kept changing and I realized “Wow, this is really big.”
I realized I was part of a big historical moment that wasn’t just one day, one conversation. It was generations. Up until today. And I’m sure it will keep being something.
Kel O’Neill (@keloneill) is one half of the artist duo Jongsma + O’Neill, and the co-creator of the interactive documentary Empire. His last piece for the Creators Project was about competing in the POV Hackathon.