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IMMERSIVE IMPRESSIONS: Artists convene in Wilmington to figure out new applications of virtual reality media

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The concept of 3D cinema has come a long way since the archaic image of a blue-and-red bespectacled audience gasping at monster movies in the ‘50s. Within the last decade, movie theaters across the world have been offering new sensorial experiences once relegated to specialized IMAX theaters. But these emergent technologies are far from exclusive to Hollywood.

For the last four years, right in our community’s backyard, Cucalorus has been showcasing independent filmmakers that utilize new media, like virtual reality, panoramic filming and other user-interactive environments. Beginning with the short-film showcase Visual/Sound/Walls in 2013, Cucalorus maintains a foothold in highlighting VR experiences that elude neighborhood movie theaters. To further such explorations, Cucalorus and The School of Making Thinking organized “Immersion,” a residency program in which artists from across the country convened in Wilmington to explore artistic applications of virtual reality and similar user-interactive media, including 360-degree film cameras, headsets similar to the Oculus Rift, and consumer-level programs like Google Cardboard.

Sophie Traub is an instructor at The School of Making Thinking—an experimental conceptual arts and performance college based out of New York City. She divides her time between teaching and performing in theatre and cinema. Currently, she is in Wilmington participating in the residency while acting as a facilitator for the school. The School of Making Thinking began offering classes year-round in 2011, and additionally hosts two to three artist residencies annually. The program examines the creative process itself, followed by intense theorizing once the work is complete. “Immersion” marks the first formal collaboration between the School of Making Thinking and Cucalorus, although Traub flew down to Wilmington to act as emcee for the actual film festival last year.

“Our classes are generally performance-oriented,” Traub explains, “ranging from mainstream to experimental. Our last residency, ‘con/text,’ looked at the practice of performing texts, be it spoken word or more experimental performances, including social interaction. Immersion is a bit of an anomaly, in that it’s more focused on the medium than it is thematically-oriented. But it’s still just as theoretical and interdisciplinary.”

Dan Brawley runs Cucalorus’ residency program, which hosts five to six formal residencies per year. The residency’s pastel-painted living quarters are located in Wilmington’s Soda Pop district, in close vicinity to Jengo’s Playhouse and Wabi Sabi Warehouse on 9th and Princess streets. Each residency focuses on a specific theme, with last year’s being sexuality and gender, social justice and sexual assault. To better enable potentially difficult dialogues, Brawley maintains a supportive, tight-knit group by fostering communal dialogue while sheltering the participants from public scrutiny during what are often intensely personal exercises in creative expression.

“We began this residency with everyone acting out a one-minute long performance,” he describes. “Then everyone puts their name in a hat and randomly draws someone else’s name. Each artist has to put together [his or her] own version of the other artist’s performance [by acting it out]. The initial performances are great, but the re-interpretations always tell us more about everyone involved.”

In the case of Immersion, 16 artists are participating from a wide spectrum of creative disciplines: filmmaking, acting, sound engineering, sculpting, etc. Because of the highly personal subject matter, as well as the possibility of inducing discomfort (or even nausea) via sensorial experimentation, the residency’s work is currently off limits to the public. Although the experiments may seem perilous, Brawley affirms the residency’s goal is to push artists into dangerous conceptual places in a safe and loving environment.

“The reason we come together is to explore the concept of collaboration,” Brawley says. “While we focus on building creative skill and discovery, everything we learn from other artists is more important. It’s a fluid and organic communion of accidental and intentional incidents. Every moment can be a joyous discovery.”

Los Angeles-based filmmaker Tchaiko Omawale attends the residency in hopes of using VR to heighten the emotional connection between herself and anyone who watches her films. Her work explores themes of self-harm and eating disorders in a semi-autobiographical manner that lends itself to forming a powerful shared experience.

“I want to explore the question of what the liberated black body looks like,” she explains, “in front of and behind the camera, using my body and exposing myself.”

Matt Pearson, a Brooklyn-based production designer, is part of the residency as well. Having created large-scale installations for MAC Cosmetics and Under Armour, he lends his talents in creating landscapes both physical and intangible.

“We’re all trying to experiment with new media in different fields,” he points out. “Some of us will come out of this with finished pieces, but some may end up with entry points to larger projects. We’re also examining how students can use this technology in educational settings.”

Another New York City-based artist, Ryan Staake, returns to Wilmington after participating in “Wandering the Sphere: Crossing the Interactive Threshold in Live-Action VR” as part of the 19th annual Cucalorus Film Festival in 2013. With Immersion, Staake has explained the technical applications of VR in an exclusive workshop. His expertise in the medium has been refined by making music videos for artists like Young Thug, J. Cole and Booka Shade. Staake’s innovative use of panoramic videography and other user-interactive media is apparent. He demonstrates the concept by sharing footage from experimental VR dating events, wherein two users could meet one another in a virtual space by wearing motion-capture suits, and interact with digital avatars created from full-body scans of each participant.

Staake’s extensive history in the medium allows him to assist residents in realizing their ideas with as few technical difficulties as possible. As part of the demonstration, he performed a full-body digital scan of performer Naima Ramos-Chapman using only an iPad and a VR peripheral.

“It ranges from video shot on 306-degree cameras to any experience where the user can make decisions and interact with the material,” Staake describes. “I like to proactively get involved in bringing VR to filmmaking. It’s a great way to bring people together.”

Cucalorus’ next artist residency, “Playing With Food: Eating Our Work,” runs from August 4 through the 14. Artists will examine the use of edible material in art and question the concept of consumption. Anyone interested in applying can contact Cucalorus by email at or by calling 910-343-5995.

Playing With Food: Eating Our Work
Artist residency program, Aug. 4-14
To apply: or 910-343-5995

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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