Film still from “Anthropocene: Ivory Burn”
Film still from “Anthropocene: Ivory Burn”
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There are two exceptional and highly unusual exhibits currently on display until November 17 at Waterfall Arts: “Storyforms” and “Confluence: Stories from the Village Canoe Project.” Curated by the Camden International Film Festival (CIFF) and brilliantly installed by Waterfall Arts’ program director, Meg Fournier, “Storyforms” is a collection of documentary and “virtual reality” film works in which normal expectations of what constitutes a movie experience are both expanded and constrained in very innovative ways.

Because of my long relationship to Waterfall Arts, I would not normally write about Waterfall shows. However, in this case, considering CIFF curation, international participation, and nothing in the show for sale, I believe conflict of interest is reduced. My whole intent is to spark the interest of countless readers to spend an hour or more investigating the rich variety of experiences both in and beyond the gallery. You will leave with newly opened eyes for immersive, virtual media, but more importantly, for deeper connections to our world and our fellow earthlings of all species.

Meg Fournier, associate producer for the Camden International Film Festival, says “Storyforms” is “CIFF’s 2019 showcase of interactive and immersive media, highlighting the work of innovative artists and filmmakers who are transforming how we make art in our rapidly changing digital age. These powerful virtual- and augmented-reality experiences plunge viewers into the heart of stories that feel virtually alive in the moment, engaging the senses with astonishing clarity. In ‘Storyforms,’ we introduce Waldo County residents to these mind-expanding, new media, connecting people to phenomena all around the world.”

Watching all 12 film experiences in this show would require nearly three worthwhile hours, but don’t let that put you off. The thing to do is to check out what you can absorb for at least one hour, and then come back if you’re so moved.

Start by plunging into “America,” the huge, silent-with-soundtrack, 29-minute, black-and-white movie flickering on the entire front gallery wall. Winner of the Philip Guston Rome Prize and exhibitor in the Whitney Biennial, filmmaker Garrett Bradley revives exceptional footage of an all-African American cast in the once-abandoned but recently rediscovered 1913 feature film “Lime Kiln Club Field Day,” which depicts New Orleans’ black culture enjoying leisure, building social interaction and joy, rather than suffering stereotypical racism and oppression. Amazed by the discovery, Bradley creates her own contemporary fictional scenes that, in collage with “Lime Kiln,” create a poetry alluding to the vast range of black experience in America — from blackface to empowerment and transformation.

The 10 virtual reality (VR) programs in the Clifford Gallery require the viewer to don a headset, receive a quick training, and suddenly find oneself … elsewhere … completely surrounded in the sphere of another reality. A story unfolds above, behind, below and before you as you swivel, astonished, in a simple white chair.

Voices and visions as real as if you suddenly tripped and fell into a pool of water: a militia of soldiers mysteriously being consumed by a forest; a very real 400-year-old bonsai tree that actually survived Hiroshima’s bomb; the heart-rending, dessicated oasis and bones of Africa’s Lake Chad; tons of thunderously burning elephant ivory tusks confiscated from poachers; a vast Nairobi landfill populated daily by 6,000 people and dozens of giant birds together pursuing a tragic trash economy.

Both the scale of the necessity and the waste are, frankly, astonishing and emotionally extreme, given the series of crises we are in the midst of here on Earth. Political, environmental, human, mythical, shocking, intellectually demanding, visually stunning, even frightening, the programs provoke thought and require participation.

Virtual reality can be a mere novelty, but, beyond the technical miracle, the “Storyforms” content provides an important immersion into urgent realities that we share with humanity across the enormous breadth of the world. So many of these programs literally demand immediate, real, active response — the moral imperative of doing something about so many very non-optimum situations worldwide. “What can I do?! Now!”

Then you take off the headset, and, yes, you’re way more aware, but you’re back in a simple room in midcoast Maine, your head and eyes filled with the world’s beauty and desperation.

There’s a lot that needs to be said and done about all that — the VR medium, the strangeness of the experience and the potential for it to contribute to real change. Everything good starts with awareness, and this medium BRINGS it.

Dear Reader, set aside just an hour from one day to spend with “Storyforms,” immerse yourself in the technology, and let these experiences sink into your bones.

“Confluence: Stories from the Village Canoe Project” is the perfect answer to the imperatives brought up in “Storyforms.” In real time, this past August, artist Chris Battaglia organized a multi-phase project where 10 multi-media artists embarked from Bangor in a large canoe to paddle, camp and make artwork together in a 10-day “floating artists’ residency” down the Penobscot River from Bangor and out through the bay to Brooklin. Supported by the Kindling Fund and in partnership with many Maine organizations, the Village Canoe is a multi-year project which will continue to engage artists, environmentalists, farmers and educators in the future to build a 30-foot canoe and create a rich fabric of experience, creativity and community. Find out how to participate at villagecanoe.org.