Conversations We Want to Have with Ourselves: Reflections from the New Frontier Story Lab

A flattened 360 photo with Amelia Winger-Bearskin, Lab Fellow Rosie Haber, and New Frontier Story Lab Manager Ruthie Doyle.

Amelia Winger-Bearskin

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I am a technologist, but my son says I can’t tweet properly. So here is some advice distilled from my time with my and Callum Cooper’s project Porton Down at the the 2017 New Frontier Story Lab, in tweet form:

Before I left for Sundance, my dear friend Stephanie Diamond, now known to me as “the great connector of magic,” connected me to Alysia Reiner, who wanted a director for the VR experience of her independent feature film Egg. On the plane to the New Frontier Story Lab, I admitted to myself that I wasn’t sure I had the skills to work with an independent feature film on an experience. But after the Lab I had the creative energy, tenacity, and tools to meet this opportunity head on.

I began to zoom out a bit and focus on the system that Sundance Institute put in place to allow this transformation to occur. I want to understand this specific experience as a template that I can reuse over and over so I can keep this focus every day of my life, and more importantly share this experience with those friends of mine and community members who were not here with me on this mountain.

Amelia Winger-Bearskin speaks at the New Frontier Story Lab. © 2017 Sundance Institute | Jonathan Hickerson

The first thing to understand about the Lab is that its critique experience is completely unique. It is hyper-focused on the artist and the project, and on your role as a collaborator, artist, community member, director, writer, storyteller, facilitator, business leader, inventor, and Sundance Institute alumnus for life. I was unprepared to have that much close attention focused on me. I’m the director of a nonprofit (IDEA New Rochelle), I’ve been a performance artist for 15 years, I’m in Lacanian/Freudian analysis, and let me tell you — no one has ever paid this much attention to me.

Every hour of every day, until I built a little fire in the stove of my own room and passed out fully clothed, I met with a mentor or creative expert in a different field who advised me in my process and interrogated my work. The advisors at the Lab come from a wide range of disciplines — not just filmmaking but also creative technology, software, game design, animation, cinematography, writing, dramaturgy, journalism, and more.

The scale and rhythm of these sessions was so intense that it short-circuited my ability to defend myself from criticism, and made me vulnerable in ways I had never even thought to protect. This kind of attention completely broke down what I thought I knew, invigorated me to make some of the most exciting work of my life, and gave me tools to go out and form something with my own small voice for this emerging format of VR.

When Joan Tewkesbury led her writing workshop, she insisted that all of the characters in our stories must be fully developed. In VR we often forget this aspect of storytelling, regularly defaulting to conventional NPCs (non-player characters), a trope inherited from video games. She encouraged us to write deeply from all the different human perspectives in our narratives. Even if we didn’t know what they were, she gave us permission to make them up. And even though I was working on a documentary project and would not be able to include pure speculation or fiction into my finished work, I still found that the process provoked me to think about my subjects from new perspectives.

Film still from 2017 Lab project “Porton Down.” Drawings by Callum Cooper, collaborator Amelia Winger-Bearskin.

When I got back from the mountain, I applied this insight to my life. I cycled through everyone I’d ever known, met, worked with, or danced with, and tried to think of the person that I needed to make the Egg VR piece — not just the person with the skills, but the person that the project itself needed! Fellow NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program alumna Sarah Rothberg is that person, and together we fashioned Your Hands Are Feet.

Amelia in VR.

At the narrative panel on the mountain, creative advisor Mark Monroe told us, “The art is the conversations we want to have with ourselves.” This helped me demystify my intentions. In VR storytelling we are trying to communicate a certain kind of truth to someone else. But sometimes it makes more sense to just explain it to ourselves. When you put someone in a VR headset, they are alone, but they are also fully immersed in the visions and ideas that you have inside your own head. If you can’t come to terms with your own thoughts in all their weirdness, how can you expect to express them to someone else?

Jaron Lanier has written about post-linguistic communication: the concept of “childhood + cephalopods = humans + VR” in his book You Are Not a Gadget. We wanted Your Hands Are Feet to be a psychological space that shares a feeling in a way you can’t always express with just words. Your Hands Are Feet creates menacing metaphors and simulated similes that could only be possible in virtual rituality.

Sara Rothberg and Amelia.

Since taking the leap with this project just a few months ago, Sarah and I formed a production company, are currently building our dream VR project, won the $100,000 Engadget Alternative Realities Prize, and plan to share it really soon.

None of this would have been possible without the transformative experience I had on the mountain at Sundance. I’m pretty lucky because the people who mentored me at the Story Lab are still my mentors, and the friends I made there are now my collaborators (just wait to see what 2017 Lab Fellow Rosie Haber and I are making in Augmented Reality!). All of these people continue to inspire me daily.

Copy written with the amazing advice and help of two of my favorite Berkeley rhetoric majors: Eamon O’Connor and Sarah Rothberg.

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