Become a Theatre Master through VR: An Interview with Tale of Tales
In a bizarre yet delightful move, an upcoming virtual reality piece by Belgian-based duo Tale of Tales (Auriea Harvey & Michaël Samyn) will let you step into the shoes of the world-famous Polish theatre director Tadeusz Kantor.
Tadeusz Kantor was renowned for often participating directly in his plays, observing the action and intervening when necessary, so a VR piece that toys with this behaviour seems most fitting. Tale of Tales’ piece will allow you to become Kantor and experience yourself what’s it like to set up a play in his unique style. Culture.pl’s Marek Kępa caught up with the duo after they had just finished a month-long residency working on the piece at Tadeusz Kantor’s former home itself: a picturesque countryside villa in Hucisko, Poland.
Marek Kępa: How did spending time at Kantor’s former house influence the project's development process?
Tale of Tales: Being in his house allowed us to get in touch with the personality of the artist better, which helped with interpreting his art. But it was also a nice experience to simply be away from home and have an opportunity to do some concentrated work. More important for the piece that we’re making, however, have been our visits to the Cricoteka in nearby Kraków, where we could see many of the stage props up close.
Getting up in the morning with the view of the impossibly large chair against the sunrise did help us stay on course. But in the end, we’ll be making our own work of art. It's not a documentary or even a tribute. We are just very inspired by Kantor's work and the links with our own.
MK: In what’s considered one of your most popular games, The Endless Forest there is no objective, you’re simply a deer wandering freely around a great wood. Will this Kantor piece also be devoid of any specific mission? What will the interaction look like?
TT: While most of our videogames deviated from many conventions of the form, our new work breaks with that tradition entirely. Even if The Endless Forest lacks conventional game objectives, it is still very much designed in response to videogames. Our new work, including the Kantor VR piece, is not. We do not start from the assumption that we're making a videogame or working in a videogame context anymore. We simply use the medium of the computer to create art. And we design everything in a way that fits the project best.
It's still early in the process and we tend to change the design of our work a lot during production. But so far we are simply creating a virtual theatre stage where the user can build their own stage set with props inspired by Kantor. These props include life-size mannequins that can be posed and manipulated. They will have autonomous behaviours too, so that sometimes things will happen spontaneously. In a way, we cast the user as Kantor himself: present on stage to direct the spectacle, while simultaneously being affected by it emotionally.
MK: Some of your previous games might be seen as a bit scary – one involved a severed human head on a platter, another had the player contemplating the inevitability of death on a cemetery bench. Is the VR piece about Kantor also going to have that sort of vibe?
TT: Given the attention paid to death and morbid memories in Kantor's theatre, quite probably! In fact, we consider it a unique challenge to create something as unsettling and moving as his work in virtual reality. We hope to surpass the initial marvelling at the technology and the casualness and even fun that often accompanies VR experiences. We want to draw people into our creation instead, into an atmosphere where very serious topics can be contemplated.
That doesn't mean that we don't recognise the humour in Kantor's work. There will be room for the strange, the absurd, and the grotesque as well.
MK: In Hucisko, you put a functioning prototype of the VR about Kantor on show. What were the reactions of those who got to put on the goggles?
TT: Most people seemed to enjoy the experience. We received a lot of compliments and encouragement. For most it was their first time ever trying VR, so that was very exciting. There is a sense of wonder when virtual reality becomes something you can mistake for the real world. Above all, we learned a lot by observing how people interact with the prototype and what they would say during and after. This gave us a lot of ideas for the future of the project.
MK: Who would you say your VR is addressed to? What kind of audience are you hoping to attract once the piece is ready?
TT: We aren't making this with a particular audience in mind. Everyone is welcome! But we do hope that our creation will appeal to fans of the theatre, and Kantor in particular. And we hope to make something that people who enjoy more traditional art forms can also appreciate.
MK: Tale of Tales is based in Ghent, Belgium. What is it about Kantor, a Polish artist, that made you make a whole piece about him and even spend a month in his former home?
TT: There's a lot of good contemporary theatre in Belgium. But when we saw videos of Cricot 2 performances, we realised that a lot of it seemed to have been influenced by Kantor's approach. Ultimately this entire project came about by chance. When we were invited by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute to visit cathedrals in Poland we were guided through some of Poland's major cities by a member of the Kantor Foundation. Later, when we presented at Patchlab in Kraków, he took us to the Kantor house in Hucisko and invited us for a residency. Originally, we were only going to create a small Kantor-inspired piece. But after seeing the videos and books that the Adam Mickiewicz Institute sent us, we found ourselves inspired to create something much more ambitious.
MK: How will you remember your stay in Hucisko?
TT: Fondly. We felt quite at home there after a while. And the people who visited us there were all so nice and cheerful. We'd love to go back one day! The trees, the cicadas, the hills, the sun, the thunderstorms. Wonderful memories!
MK: When is your VR piece scheduled to premiere and how is it going to be titled?
TT: We don't have a fixed premiere date yet. And we might actually show it here and there before it is even finished. In a way, a piece like this is never finished. It doesn't need to be: that's the task of the user! We will continue to work on it for another 6 months to a year. We haven't decided on a title yet.
MK: What VR devices will the piece be compatible with, and how will it be distributed? For example, will it be downloadable?
TT: We use both the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive, so those will be supported. Maybe more if we discover suitable VR systems during development. The main purpose of the project is to be shown as an installation in a public space. But we also hope to distribute the software, for free, via the Internet, for people who have VR equipment at home.
MK: Finally, before this year’s visit you came to Poland last year on invitation from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and visited churches in Warsaw, Kraków and Gdańsk. I hear you’re looking to use the architecture of these churches in a video game called Cathedral in the Clouds. What sort of project is this and when do you expect it’ll be ready?
TT: We actually published a little report of our trip on our website. Cathedral-in-the-Clouds is a big umbrella project that we will be working under for years, if not decades. It consists of a cathedral in virtual reality on the one hand, and digital images of Christian scenes on the other. The purpose is to create contemporary works of art that stimulate contemplation, inspired by ancient religious traditions and art. It’s an attempt to continue a pre-modern artistic tradition in the technology of our time and to re-evaluate Christian mythology for contemporary inspiration, not necessarily in a strictly religious way but spiritual nonetheless.
We want to explore the strong link between the immaterial world of the heavens and the divine, and that of computer networks and cyberspace. Our next art residency is five months in Rome to research and develop this work further.
Interview conducted by Marek Kępa over email, July-Aug 2017