The Museum of the Moving Image’s annual First Look program is a terrific way for New Yorkers to see some of the most exciting new experimental film and documentary work emerging early each year. The 2022 iteration includes several timely works about Ukrainian/post-Soviet history, a pre-COVID meditation on isolation from Poland, a survey of men who live in abandoned missile launch silos, and much more.
One of the most exciting picks is As Mine Exactly, a virtual reality performance piece by filmmaker Charlie Shackleton. During the experience, a participant sits across from Shackleton in a room and straps on a VR headset. Shackleton then reads his lines aloud in the room as imagery from his youth plays on the participant’s screen, laying out the story of his mother’s experiences with epilepsy and how seeing her seizures as a boy impacted him. He not only narrates, but also “converses” with his mother, whose voice is heard through a speaker positioned behind the viewer. By actively mediating the participant’s interactions with this anecdote, Shackleton draws attention to the ways we already reframe and perform our pasts, both in how we personally process events and how we relate them to others.
Hyperallergic sat down with Shackleton over Zoom to discuss the piece and the logistical and artistic headaches involved in making it. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
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Hyperallergic: Why was it important that you be a physically present part of this experience?
Charlie Shackleton: I had qualms about telling this story on film to begin with, because it felt so personal, intimate, and sensitive. Some of the material and experience I let people in on, I was daunted by. I think when I had the idea of it becoming a one-on-one performance, that felt like it circumstantially matched what it represented to me to be sharing this story. However I did it, it would’ve felt like I was confiding in the audience, so why not stage it in such a way that I am literally doing that? And everything that would bring to the performance would heighten the themes of the story. It is so much about presence and absence, so to have me present with the viewer underlined that in a way nothing else really could.
H: Especially since, even though you are physically present, there’s the distancing element of the audience member wearing the VR headset.
CS: Yeah. It’s fascinating to watch people do it. You’re intensely close to someone in a way that you almost never are with a stranger. I’m staring at their face for half an hour, but they can’t see me back. They can hear me, how approximate I am to them, but it’s a weird kind of proximity that’s unlike anything else. I come out of it — and I think they come out of it — feeling both really close to the other person but also weirdly alienated from them. And again, that felt right for this. I can’t imagine doing another piece like this, because I don’t know what kinds of stories it would follow.
H: How did you prepare to perform this way? What effect have the performances so far had on you?
CS: I think I prepared in all the wrong ways. [laughs] I did have a long time to think about it, and I knew that it was going to be exhausting — emotionally, physically, even technically, having to be in command of the various components. All that turned out to be true, but in a different way than I ever could’ve imagined. I think what I didn’t really prepare myself for was how psychologically intense it is for a succession of different people go through something emotionally with you. And the reactions really varied. Sometimes it was easy to tell how someone was feeling, sometimes it was quite hard. But I think it left a psychic impact on me as well, just watching them receive it.
H: Subjectivity is a recurring theme in your work.
CS: My shorts Personal Truth made me think about the layers of mediation in telling a personal story. Not only was my notionally conversational voiceover obviously scripted and had been reread so many times in recording it, but also what I was expressing as my unvarnished perspective was of course heavily filtered. It had been through many rounds of drafts in an attempt to make it satisfying, structurally and emotionally. I’d always had this slightly uneasy relationship with how I presented myself in my own work; it’s a strange semi-real, semi-unreal version. I knew that in telling a story that was so personal, I had to confront that within it. It would be dishonest to say that I can tell a story about this incredibly formative part of my life impartially or without artifice.
H: How did you plot out what to put into the headset screen, and how to present it, edit it, arrange it, and more?
CS: One of the things I like about that technology is that it feels experimental. You put the headset on and you can decide what you’re going to do inside it; it can be completely spontaneous and impulsive. I didn’t see that reflected in any of the broadly defined ‘film work’ being made for VR. It instead felt like everything was super polished. There’s a focus on immersion that leads people toward sanding off all the rough edges and making grand statements. I was interested in VR as a DIY tool, especially because the technology is still so ropy and breaks as often as it works. It’s only as useful as what it allows you to do, not for its own innate being. I wanted to make something that would evolve quickly and responsively as I was road-testing it. It’s never going to stop evolving as long as I’m performing it. It’s already changed quite a lot just over the course of a week of doing it.
The material evolved in response to showing it to people. I had endless material, thousands of childhood photographs and videos and things I’d written, things my mom had written, any of which could’ve been included — and a lot of which was included, at one point or another. But when you get someone in a headset, it’s fascinating to see where their focus sharpens and where it doesn’t. I can see where they’re looking, what’s catching their attention and whether that aligns with my intention. Those moments are what I tried to build the piece around.
Initially I did what I think 99% of people who first make work for VR do, which is shoot a load of 360-degree footage. But because my piece is a theatrical performance as much as it is a work of VR, I had two spaces I needed to orchestrate: the 360-degree canvas of the headset and the physical space I and the participant occupy. And often the two worked against each other. I found that if I started the piece and all I gave them to look at was an image I put directly in front of them, they would focus intensely forward on that spot, which was where I was in the room. That bond was intense, and something I could exploit to create the intimate relationship the piece relies on. But when I showed them a 360-degree video, that bond was instantly severed; they’d look around, look behind themselves. And as fun or immersive as it might’ve been, I never got back that focus. That led me to strip back how much of the virtual canvas I occupied, to maintain control of the audience member’s focus.
Something that’s also interesting about VR is the void, which you don’t often get to see because most of the work is so visually populated. You don’t usually get to linger on the strange absence of a frame, but I think that’s intriguing. If I put something in someone’s peripheral vision in a space they had gotten used to being blank, you can see how radical it is for them to suddenly breach this imagined wall. That wouldn’t be the case if I had quickly filled in all the space and shown them a 360-degree vision of my childhood street.
H: What technical and artistic changes have you made in this road-testing process?
CS: Pacing is probably the biggest thing. What feels right when I’m rehearsing feels totally different in an actual atmosphere with a human being. The pauses are often much longer now than I ever imagined they would be, either because the person is reacting in some way that I need to leave space for, or just because something strikes me in the moment and it feels like it needs to breathe.
I also need to reassure people as early as possible that they don’t have to perform. I really need to get that in the synopsis. If I was a viewer, I would be put off by the idea that it was immersive theater, where you have to play a role. I don’t want to only have a self-selecting audience of people who would be up for that kind of thing. It needs to be clear that it’s very low-key, low pressure, that the experience is ultimately being told a story by another human being.
First Look 2022 runs March 16-20 at the Museum of the Moving Image (36-01 35 Avenue, Astoria, Queens).