Jury report Best Digital Culture Production 2021

The evolution of the Interactive category into the more elusively and dynamically named Digital Culture that was launched this year reflects the wide diversity in the 11 projects selected for Storyspace. They range from VR to game engines, artist-created software, documentaries and apps, resulting in a rich ensemble of experiences. Stories can take many forms, from a site-specific performance in the context of a neighbourhood to an immersive installation around analogue motherhood, and from expert reflections on blockchain technology to the critical art of buying clouds.

None of the works lack engagement with the major contemporary issues that determine our reality. Grouping the projects thematically feels almost forced precisely because they reflect the complexity of these hyper-problems – some start at the micro level of individual emotion, others open portals to the recent and more distant past, or to hybrid futures or extra-terrestrial explorations. The selection pushes the boundaries of what storytelling can be, even to the point of abstraction. Several projects show that artists dare to appropriate ready-made technology and adapt it to make their own tools. But this level of technological skill does not always translate into an equally high level of narrative sophistication.

However, we appreciate the risk the makers are taking by continually embracing new technologies and challenging conventions associated with the experiment. At the same time, these embraces do not undermine a critical attitude towards issues such as surveillance technology, biotechnology and commodification in the digital domain. Looking at the final selection of the three nominees, we see a clear common thread – each work goes beyond the interactive and moves towards an immersive and participative experience.

I want to delete it all, but not now (Roos Groothuizen)

The escape room built by Roos Groothuizen tells a story that we can all recognise in our desire to escape the clutches of social media and big tech. As a participant, you take on the role of a detective searching for clues to find a missing person, Rosa. The escape room contains several commonplace contemporary tools that are able to keep an eye on us and are linked to social media – making them both the lock and the key at the same time. The escape room is playful and fun to lose yourself in, but also shows the frustration and fatigue produced by dealing with these technologies. In the end, you are motivated to try to choose something better rather than resigning yourself to the inevitable.

Good Neighbours (Natalie Dixon & Klasien van de Zandschulp)

Good Neighbours builds on highly relevant and crucial research in communities on issues of privacy, citizenship and surveillance technology. The makers, Natalie Dixon and Klasien van de Zandschulp, highlight the way that everyday consumer technology is playing a toxic role in our interpersonal relationships, disrupting social cohesion, snowballing suspicion and magnifying our biases. Setting the immersive performance in a real neighbourhood, based on real stories gathered from the community, is highly effective. Context thus becomes content, and as a participant you play a role in the complex story. Smartphone apps and smart home security turn mundane urban scenes into incriminating evidence. In using this technology, we all become either potential suspects or agents. Ultimately Good Neighbours aims to not only to generate awareness and critical reflection, but also to influence policy on public space.

IVF-X: Posthuman Parenting in Hybrid Reality. Breed and meet your cyborg baby. (Victorine van Alphen)

IVF-X by Victorine van Alphen does what good sci-fi can do. It becomes a mirror for our existing world, in this case addressing presuppositions and biases surrounding parenthood. The carefully considered scenography and the stages in which the story is constructed make even a sceptical audience into vulnerable participants. Story and technology are one. This is not a VR experience, but one that uses VR precisely, convincingly and harmoniously as just one of the media. IVF-X asks questions about what life is, about genetics and reproduction, and about the individualistic society and culture we live in. In just 20 minutes, you are effectively immersed in very personal and profound layers of what parenting could be outside of patriarchal, commercialised and gendered norms. It offers a third space beyond the ever-present binary thinking. At the end of the piece, the questions posed about post-human existence continue to resonate.