A bug’s life

What if you woke up as an in­sect? VRwand­lung, a vir­tual re­al­ity in­stal­la­tion, walks one through the lit­er­ary world of Franz Kafka’s The Me­ta­mor­pho­sis, in five min­utes

The Hindu - - CHENNAI - Gowri S

From the cor­ner of my eye, I see some­thing dan­gling from the right side of my head; mildly weigh­ing me down. I lift my palms, only to re­alise that they have trans­formed into scrawny, hairy non­de­script limbs. Here, in the Old Town of Prague (Czech Repub­lic), in a small, dingy room which is faintly fa­mil­iar, I spot a mir­ror. It is not un­til I move to face it that I see what I am now — yes, I woke up as a bug.

Mem­oirs of a loner

I am trapped, and wil­fully so, in the lit­er­ary world of Franz Kafka’s The Me­ta­mor­pho­sis. For any­one who has read The Me­ta­mor­pho­sis, Gre­gor Samsa is not a stranger; rather he is an em­blem of lone­li­ness and mis­ery, a very re­lat­able fig­ure at that, whose char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion speaks vol­umes of the con­di­tion of so­cial iso­la­tion. At Goethe-In­sti­tut, this lit­er­ary world of the 20th Cen­tury, takes shape in de­light­ful five-minute in­ter­vals in­side a cur­tained, dark con­trap­tion equipped with VR head­sets and mo­tion sen­sor footwear and gloves. VRwand­lung, as the vir­tual re­al­ity in­stal­la­tion is called, will land one in Gre­gor Samsa’s shoes, fir­ing a cu­rios­ity that will only re­sult in one go­ing back to pick up a copy of The

Me­ta­mor­pho­sis. This is pre­cisely what the li­brary at Goethe-In­sti­tut in­tends to do.

When I meet Ján Tomp­kins, he is help­ing a viewer slip into the shoes, in­side the setup. Ján who joined the team headed by Mika John­son (who is be­hind VRwand­lung) as a so­cial me­dia as­sis­tant, is su­per­vis­ing the set up in Chennai. Af­ter

the ex­pe­ri­ence, he sits me down to ex­plain the in­cep­tion of this in­stal­la­tion. “The Goethe-In­sti­tut in Prague is re­spon­si­ble for the fi­nan­cial up­bring­ing of this pro­ject by Mika John­son. There were three sep­a­rate teams work­ing on the in­stal­la­tion — one for the en­gi­neer­ing of the bug’s body, an­other for the art di­rec­tion who cre­ated the model of the sur­round­ing and a sep­a­rate team who scanned this setup on to a vir­tual space,” says Ján. Mika, the di­rec­tor, is a Kafka fa­natic and he had worked on VRwand­lung in 2017, for over a year.

“As we all know, peo­ple who like Kafka ei­ther re­ally like him or don’t. There is no in be­tween. So when Mika, got the op­por­tu­nity to set up some­thing in the (4 me­tre by 4me­tre) space, [The] Me­ta­mor­pho­sis fit well since most of the story takes place in­side a room,” Ján ex­plains. VRwand­lung has trav­elled to 50 or more cities in over 30 coun­tries. At any given point, si­mul­ta­ne­ous shows are likely to be set up across lo­ca­tions. In the Euro­pean Union, they had trav­elled with a makeshift box that had the en­tire kit within it. In­sti­tutes also some­times lo­cally source the tech­nol­ogy to make it avail­able to the stu­dents.

Ex­pe­ri­ence on de­mand

“We didn’t have a tar­get au­di­ence be­cause VR is still a new tech­nol­ogy in many places. But af­ter the in­stal­la­tion was set up in Prague, we re­alised that a lot of our un­in­ten­tional au­di­ences were stu­dents and those who haven’t read Kafka be­fore,” says Ján adding that it is get­ting in­creas­ingly hard to get peo­ple to read. Es­pe­cially when the work is more than 100-years-old, and orig­i­nally writ­ten in Ger­man. By giv­ing a taste of the work, re­plete with a few di­a­logues, the in­stal­la­tion only in­tends to pique one’s in­ter­est.

The de­sign is also done de­lib­er­ately in an open-ended man­ner, in an ef­fort to in­vite read­ers to re­visit the novel. The mir­ror is a piv­otal el­e­ment in the setup. “We didn’t want to cre­ate the en­tire piece, be­cause then it would be 40 min­utes long. We wanted the piece to be just an ex­ten­sion of the lit­er­a­ture,” says Ján. Though this is Mika’s first ex­per­i­ment with vir­tual re­al­ity, he is al­ready work­ing on mul­ti­ple projects in­volv­ing this tech­nol­ogy. One of his long term goals is to cre­ate a set up with dif­fer­ent rooms that peo­ple can nav­i­gate through, each one be­ing a dif­fer­ent lit­er­ary world of Kafka’s.

Trans­form­ing lit­er­a­ture into some­thing tan­gi­ble, is still very new in the coun­try. But cur­rently, across the globe, there is an ev­i­dent shift from VR be­ing as­so­ci­ated with only video games to other pur­poses. “VR has fi­nally found its foot­ing as a very le­git­i­mate art form that gives one the free­dom to break the bound­aries of sto­ry­telling. Lit­er­a­ture can be eas­ily trans­formed into some­thing very ex­pe­ri­en­tial,” says Ján adding that col­lab­o­ra­tions like that of Mika’s are def­i­nitely on the rise. Though VR presents it­self as a medium to por­tray sto­ries in a dif­fer­ent way, they may work bet­ter for some nar­ra­tives than oth­ers. “You should al­ways ask what the story ben­e­fits from, by be­ing in VR,” says Ján. If it is just a story that wants one to re­main sta­tion­ary, it is no dif­fer­ent than a movie.

VRwand­lung will be on dis­play till Fe­bru­ary 15 at Goethe-In­sti­tut, Rut­land Gate 5th Street. For time slots and reg­is­tra­tions, visit www.goethe.de/ins/in/en/sta/che.html


Mul­ti­ple re­al­i­ties The in­stal­la­tion has trav­elled to 50 or more cities in over 30 coun­tries; (above) Franz Kafka

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