Melanie Crean (Panelist)

Melanie Crean
Assistant Professor
Parsons School of Design

10:30 am to 11:30 am
Beyond the Classroom: How do we teach VR?
VR/AR/MR in an arts and humanities design school and university

Melanie Crean is an artist and teacher working with video, performance and dissenting technologies to explore how stories can be used as instruments of justice to equitably shift relationships of power and difference. Crean studies mythic structure and the history of representing the powerful, exploring how these archetypes might be rewritten to create personal and social change in the present. She often works collaboratively, using strategies from performance and expanded cinema to investigate the forensic architecture of civic sites and create a form of social portraiture.

Crean is an Assistant Professor at Parsons School of Design at The New School, teaching courses on emerging media, social engagement and visual culture. She has received fellowships and commissions from a variety of institutions, including Art in General, Creative Capital, Creative Time, Franklin Furnace, Jerome Foundation, No Longer Empty, Performa 11 and Rhizome.

Reflective Essay :

s it did with early filmmaking, critically approaching education and production in the “new” VR space involves continual experimentation to understand how new possibilities for narrative structure and aesthetics can be used to make meaning. At a time of civic discord, I am acutely aware of the intensified politics of perspective, and curious as to how this may be explored through variations in agency offered through immersive media. Rather than being brought into a story visually through the fixed camera gaze of film, VR allows for different levels of immersive perspective. Agency is connected with how your perspective allows you access to the story, and your ability to affect it’s outcome. Much has been made of empathy as a quantifiable sentiment necessarily associated with VR; though empathy has long since been fostered through literature, photography and film. New forms of perspective potentially offer new forms of identification, which is a key to generate emotional response.

Recently, teaching an Immersive Documentary course at Parsons with the journalist Dan Archer, I found my self trying to facilitate students to “unlearn” most of what they thought they knew about writing a narrative.  The director Eric Darnell talks about film as a space where you can tell the story of an experience, whereas in VR, you give someone an experience from which they can generate their own story. VR is a narrative experience formed across space instead of simply across time. It can be structured as a set of experiential moments that one fits together like puzzle pieces instead of following a linear plot; or as a time based piece that one can experience from different points of view; each affecting understanding of the story. The latter is sometimes called the Rashoman effect, after the Akira Kurosawa film of the same name.

New VR makers need to consider the use of space to create meaning and its potential role in the user’s experience. Beyond the mise en scene backdrop that establishes atmosphere in film; virtual space acts as a kind of text, a substrate that can be used to shape perspective, access to information, and ultimately meaning. Many VR pieces test the nature and extent of perspective: such as in Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness (2016 by Peter Middleton and James Spinney) about seeing space through sound; Perspective Chapter 2: The Misdemeanor (2016, by Rose Troche and Morris May) where meaning comes from discrepancy in perspective; and Tree (2017, by Milica Zec and Winslow Porter), were impact relies on attaining an otherwise impossible POV.

Another aspect of “unlearning” involved in VR education, is to convey that experiences are not something written so much as they’re designed. In considering a story for VR, one must think about what aspects might be interesting to experience, to allow understanding the nature of the story beyond the realm of language. Rather than describing the hero on their road of trials, how can one suggest the feeling of those experiences? For example, Giant (2015), also by Milica Zec and Winslow Porter, conveys the mounting trepidation of being in a bomb shelter through the sound and physical tremors of “bomb blasts” seeming to approach the virtual location.

Agency, the power to create change, relates to how involved we can get in a given experience. Are we simply an onlooker, or are we a character in the story? If the latter, how much can we impact the nature and outcome of the experience? Writers Devon Dolan and Michael Parets talk about variations in local agency, where one can shape certain aspects of their own experience, as opposed to global agency, where one can alter the course of the story.

To empathize with a character, one generally has to identify with them. This relies heavily on the quality of writing and representation that go beyond structural design, but can certainly make use of it. Having the ability to see more than one side of a story may open up this process, encouraging us to question what Rose Troche calls the “vulnerability of the 1st person perspective.” In an era of filter bubbles, destabilizing the primacy of the 1st person perspective, so that we might question what we know and don’t know, can potentially be quite valuable.