meet badfaith, the collective taking a punk approach to virtual reality

With his latest film playing Sundance, Shaun Gladwell explains the group's unorthodox approach to the technology.

by Briony Wright
07 February 2017, 12:35am

Left to right: Leo Faber and Shaun Gladwell

Virtual reality is at an interesting stage in its life cycle: while evolving quickly it still seems a long way from its full, mind-bending potential. The idea though, that the technology might one day enrich our lives in ways that we don't yet understand, is truly compelling. Now, helping to steer virtual reality into the future is Badfaith, a collective of artists and filmmakers from around the world, who are taking a novel and experimental approach to the craft.

Founded by video artist Shaun Gladwell and producer Leo Faber, the team is rounded out by filmmakers, writers and future thinkers, all intent on looking at new and interesting applications for the technology. There's award winning Australian filmmakers Amiel Courtin-Wilson, Luci Schroder, Samantha Matthews and Natasha Pincus; contemporary artists Tony Albert and Daniel Crooks and writer and futurist Dr Jordan Nguyen. Together they are taking an unconventional approach to virtual reality as they seek to transcend the medium by questioning everything and challenging what they've always been told is possible.

In an industry that's forecast to be worth $100 billion by 2020, it's heartening to know that there are some interesting brains on the case. With his recent six minute VR film Orbital Vanitas accepted into Sundance this year, we spoke to an enthusiastic Shaun Gladwell about his company, the work they're making and some cool things virtual reality will be able to do for us in the not-too-distant future.

Congrats on getting into Sundance, how is your film going down?
Thanks, it's so great. Sundance is a festival that has always supported independent film, but they're supporters of early technology too. That said, this is the first year that Sundance has had a dedicated venue for VR projects.

That's great, so there's enough work to be able to show it continually in a venue?
Oh yeah, in fact there's so much work that they only took 0.5 percent of the submissions. It's massive.

What is your film Orbital Vanitas about?
With my work I've always liked to place people into experiences and virtual reality is allowing me to do this in a whole new way. At the same time my work is also kind of critical of VR. I was thinking about how VR arrests two of your key senses: sight and sound. In my piece you travel through space but soon find yourself in a giant skull — it's a comment on the idea that we're literally closing our vision and hearing off and trapping ourselves in an audiovisual prison. Instead of being trapped in a cinema, we're doing it in our own heads.

That sounds really interesting. How did you harness the VR in the piece?
My film requires that the viewer sit in this special seat called a 'Voyager chair' which is made by a company called Positron. I've choreographed the chair's movements to coordinate with the animation so that it feels like you're floating or falling when you're watching it. I'm trying to understand the tools that will allow people even further into the experience.

I like the fact that virtual reality still seems a little clunky. Do you feel like it's still in its infancy in a way? 
I think that everyone involved in VR is still just scrambling and trying to figure out the language, regardless of the budget and scale of the project. I can only speak from my experience but I'm working with a collective who pool all our resources and I think we work in a really humble way, almost like a punk band. We smash stuff together and play with a lot of distortion and feedback. Even though we're quite new, we're still working with sophisticated companies like Positron who are making the technology. There's a sense that everyone involved in VR is kind of helping each other out. There is something of a community vibe, which is really nice.

What are the hallmarks of Badfaith's work?
I think it's our approach that defines us more than anything. We're less interested in making VR than ripping it apart somehow. We've come across 'construction guides' written for people making VR including best practices and rules. At Badfaith we don't consider what's best practice, we don't care about that. The idea that you need to make an experience more agreeable or smooth doesn't resonate, it isn't part of our objective. We like the idea of smashing VR apart and reassembling it in different ways. Our first few works have been quite dark and brutal.

What's the best virtual reality experience you've ever had?
Chris Milk's new work called Life of Us is really great. He puts you in a situation where you experience the VR with someone else. First you're an amoeba then you evolve into an ape and it's amazing because you're experiencing it with a partner. Actually the VR projects that have really blown my mind tend to do the opposite of what you expect. The Guardian commissioned a work where you were stuck in a solitary confinement cell. That was fucking insane because VR is normally about being in infinite space and flying but this was the reverse, set in a heavy, claustrophobic space. Another one that premiered at Tribeca was called Notes on Blindness — it put people in headsets and simulated the experience of slowly going blind.

Wow, that's crazy. We also heard that virtual reality might allow people to feel like they're on stage with the band at concerts in the future. Is this true?
Absolutely, with 360 degree live streaming video you can essentially fly into the position of wherever the camera is. If we're talking about The Rolling Stones for instance, there could be a micro camera hanging off the lip of Mick Jagger and you could literally be in his mouth, which would be terrifying, but it's all possible now with the headset technology.

It's the new frontier. What is Badfaith working on next?
A documentary which is a character study of a Muslim friend of mine from Bangladesh who observes the Islamic faith and has connections with a mosque in East London. She's also really keen on skateboarding and has an all-female Muslim skate crew. She's amazing and I'm so excited about taking an experimental approach to VR documentary story telling.



Text Briony Wright

virtual reality
amiel courtin-wilson
shaun gladwell