Members of the Jury,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
the brilliant physicist, Stephen Hawking (1942 - 2018), once wrote that it was “hard to be a realist when it comes to scientific theory – in other words to take the view that reality exists independently of our experience”.
What we hold to be real depends on our theories, according to Hawking. He gives the example of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which very few people probably really understand . .
Hawking didn’t mean that theories carry less weight than experience – he was far from concluding anything of the sort.
The important thing for him was staying open minded and not relying on apparent certainties.
He was also not saying that everything we think is real is just in our imaginations. Hawking thought that solipsism like this was a waste of time. Instead he argued passionately for us to stay curious, because the world is waiting to be investigated and understood.
There are lots of ways of doing this. Science is just one of them. Another way of understanding the world has always been to invent it.
That’s the essence of art.
It invents the world. Or rather, worlds – in the plural.
And its worlds are no less potent than those of science.
New technology means that art is entering truly new dimensions in its traditional genre of inventing new worlds.
Virtual reality transports us into wholly new data spaces complete with all our senses: visual, auditory, tactile.
Augmented reality adds digital information and virtual objects to our real world.
What until now was a major topic primarily in research, science and – of course – in gaming is now increasingly of interest to medicine, psychology, the media, the advertising branch – and naturally to artists.
There is a huge amount happening here at the moment, and so it’s especially great that the VRHAM! Festival has sprung bravely into the breach to bring together the experiments and pioneering work happening in this area.
Among them is no lesser man than the master of provocation Jonathan Meese – over whose shoulder we get to look in a virtual studio while his multiple mothers urge him to paint.
There are also works by a further 15 artists or collectives selected by the hard-working jury from among 108 submissions (from 26 countries), for example by:
• film director Dani Levy with a 360-degree work on life in Jerusalem, in other words a flash-point of the conflict in the Middle East,
• the theatre collective CyberRäuber in collaboration with Schauspiel Dortmund who sound out the aesthetic possibilities of the theatre,
• as well as from Australia, China and America.
Hamburg is the ideal location for a festival like this.
And not just because one of the first models of VR glasses was made here.
Since the end of 2016, Hamburg has been working to a mandate from the city’s parliament to establish itself as a “pioneer location for virtual reality”.
The goal is to be at the forefront of this innovative technology field, working with players from research, established companies and start-ups, and to gain worldwide visibility.
We’re already seeing very lively communities in the areas of VR/AR/360 video, for example VR meet-ups (about every two months), the VR developers’ jour fixe and the virtual weekend.
The Human-Computer-Interaction working group at Hamburg University and the Faculty of Design, Media and Information at HAW – Hamburg University of Applied Sciences represent research expertise of international excellence within our universities.
In 2017 the Hamburg Senate made available a total of €300,000 to start the nextReality.HAMBURG initiative.
Strategic management is provided by the Ministry of Culture and Media, while Hamburg University (Informatics) is the project coordinator.
Marketing and networks are main themes, but education and research plus service and support also play important roles.
The project comes under the nextMedia.Hamburg campaign run by Hamburg’s media and digital business sector, whose goals include:
• developing content-business models for the future at the interface between content and technology,
• encouraging knowledge transfer between research, industry and businesses
• and linking start-ups with the local media and digital industry.
nextReality.Hamburg e.V. was born at the end of 2017 as a result of cooperation between active and innovative figures in the creative industries. It’s working to promote awareness of Hamburg beyond the city limits as a pioneering centre of VR/AR/360°.
And we can already encounter VR activities in our everyday lives in Hamburg, too:
The Elbphilharmonie inaugural concert on 11 January 2017 was broadcast live on YouTube in 360 video.
The Speicherstadt and Kontorhausviertel Digital app uses AR/Mixed Reality to explore the Speicherstadt past and present; VR installations recreate historical surroundings and scenes.
In autumn 2017 Hamburg’s “Big Three” (BIG3) public transport players (Hamburg Airport, Hamburg Port Authority and Hochbahn AG) took part in a Hackathon on “The future of intelligent transport systems” (ITS) during the solutions.hamburg congress.
In November 2017 the nextReality Contest awarded prizes to solutions in the VR/AR/360° field and staged a trade fair that attracted broad interest beyond Hamburg and provided good opportunities for interaction and networking.
In the near future we expect more exciting developments:
• Europe’s biggest scientific conference on “Humans & Computers” is planned for September at the University of Hamburg, with about 1,000 participants, a new “nextReality Contest” and conference plus the “VR Prototyping Lab” to improve links between research, teaching and industry.
• The Kreativspeicher, an area of about 1,868 square metres exclusively for VR, is expected to open in the Speicherstadt in about summer 2018. Six start-ups will be involved from the outset together with a further three or four companies that will be cooperating with HAW. Its configuration and size (university degree course, research, VR studio, start-ups, public exhibition space) will make the Kreativspeicher pretty much unique – at least in Germany, and possibly in Europe.
I’m really looking forward to seeing the contributions from the arts sector. We’ll be able to experience a few of the initial ones here today and in the coming ten days.
I’m delighted that the VRHAM! Festival has been able to plug into the Triennale. This year the Photography Triennale is taking an intensive look at the relationship pictures have to reality.
This question is also very pertinent to VR. It’s far from being settled – you could say we’re answering it “on the road”.
The VRHAM! discourse programme tackles the issue head-on and gathers together knowledge and experience to date. In its main programme it groups artistic perspectives under the headings HOME and SHIFT.
I hope many visitors from other areas altogether will find their way here and develop an enthusiasm for VR art. At any rate, I think it’s tremendous that VRHAM! is so open to a broad public.
The author and art critic John Berger once said:
“The thing that makes it difficult for people to discover art is their fear of not being able to see. Because art’s said to be something for experts. You have to say to them, ‘Rubbish! You don’t need to know anything!’”
All you have to do is look, discover, experience, reflect, look again – in short, be curious, as Stephen Hawking urged.
VR art has the capacity to greatly broaden the possibilities of experiencing art with the senses. And it changes our roles as observers – because from now on we won’t be . . .
VR art puts us right at the heart of things. Sometimes even interactively.
And so sociologists are already calling VR an “empathy machine”. It lets a person slip into someone else’s skin in the blink of an eye and to envision vividly – at first hand so to speak – what that feels like.
Essentially VR takes up the thread of Aristotle’s Poetics: Through the identification with sorrow, fear and distress portrayed or experienced during the drama, we develop our own capacity for compassion.
However, it’s not the sole purpose of art to make better people of us – even though that was what Gottfried Ephraim Lessing wanted. But art and culture can give us the necessary inspiration and irritation to see the world with fresh eyes time and time again.
It can make us aware of friction, fractures and changes that we’re often unaware of in our daily lives. It can give us a view of the world that’s poetic or political, melancholy or humorous.
Art can prove to us again and again what Stephen Hawking knew:
That reality is always also the sum of our knowledge and our experience.
So on that note, Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d like to wish you many interesting and enriching experiences at the first VRHAM! Festival in Hamburg.
My thanks to the team for this initiative and for their tremendous commitment.
And to the backers, sponsors and partners for their curiosity and support.