DocLab, IDFA's new media programme exploring the intersection between documentary and digital technology, turns 10 this year.
When it launched in November 2007, the first iPhone had been on the market for two months; Android smartphones would arrive a year later; the iPad was three years off. Social networks were in their infancy. Facebook had fifty million users, against 1.79 billion users a day now. VR headsets, Artificial Intelligence, data mining and biometrics were the stuff of technology research laboratories.
Fast-forward ten years and digital technology is an integral part of our everyday lives. As it marks its 10th anniversary, DocLab explores how the digital revolution has impacted both documentary and our everyday lives in a programme entitled Elastic Reality.
"It's a fitting theme for our 10th anniversary," says DocLab creator and curator Caspar Sonnen. "The internet has had an increasing influence on our reality in the ten years since we began."
Continuing its four-year partnership with Flemish Arts Centre de Brakke Grond, which is the main hub, the Elastic Reality programme spans an exhibition, conference and live events.
Exhibits include Follower by American media artist Lauren McCarthy, who has created a number of works exploring how our digital and physical worlds are becoming increasingly intertwined. In Follower, she examines how technology raises the possibility of new forms of real-life social interaction. Participants sign up at DocLab to download the Follower app onto their smartphone and be followed by one dedicated follower for a five-hour period during the festival. The follower will never make their presence known, but will snap photographic evidence that they were on the participant's tail during the session. "Just participating in it throws up a lot of questions about why we want to be followed", says Sonnen.
There are also a number of VR works including Francesca Panetta's Underworld: A Virtual Experience of the London Sewers, which takes the viewer on a torch-lit tour of the city's intricate sewer system, designed by 19th-century civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette. The work, which world premieres at DocLab, is the latest VR experience commissioned by The Guardian for Google's Daydream View headset.
Other VR works in the line-up include award-winning Notes on Blindness VR, simulating what it is like to lose one's sight; the timely Flint is a Place, about the crime-ridden declining former industrial hub which became a symbol of all that was wrong with the US in the recent presidential campaign.
The National Film Board of Canada – a key collaborator with IDFA since its early days – will world premiere Bear 71 VR, a reworking of its web-based experience following a Canadian grizzly bear, which won the IDFA DocLab award in 2012.
Other physically interactive exhibits include photographer Sanne De Wilde's The Island of the Colorblind, a small chamber simulating the visual reality of inhabitants of the Pacific island of Pingelap who all suffer from achromatopsia, limiting the colour range of their sight. Visitors can also try out Smell Dating, a new dating service connecting people to their perfect match through their response to the scents left on worn t-shirts.
The live programme continues on Saturday with The Best of Awkward Tech, an exploration of the most absurd inventions that expand our notions of reality, featuring Matt Romein and Joseph Mango's Meat Puppet Arcade, in which the users play with digital reconstructions of the makers' dismembered body parts in digital arcade slot machines. Beyond the public events, DocLab will also host a meeting of its fledgling Immersive Network, aimed at stimulating new collaboration in the digital arts and story-telling arenas.
Looking back over the past decade, Sonnen notes that the spirit of the internet has changed since DocLab began. "When we started, the internet was a much more chaotic, ambiguous, open and playful kind of space. In the last ten years, traditional browser-based internet has been channelled, colonised even, by a handful of corporations", he notes.
"This has resulted in not everyone building their own blogs to show their feelings, but everybody being part of one or three global networks, which in turn has resulted in filter bubbles and all that comes with that. It's not necessarily a new phenomenon, it's been heading that way over the last ten years, but now it's starting to affect not the just the internet but our lives in general."
Photo: Nichon Glerum