I still remember when I first heard from Blake and Maira – who were still out in the jungle shooting the project that would become Songs of the Vine. I was very happy to see it accepted into the festival as I had just been reading The Cosmic Serpent – a study of ayahuasca and its history in the ancient cultures of South America. I was excited about the opportunity to ask some questions of these intrepid storytellers whose interests intersected my own in sacred ritual and spherical photography and its power to create a palpable sense of presence.
FIVARS: Tell us about the journey that led you to this subject?
Maira and Blake (directors of Songs of the Vine): The journey began in 2014 when Maira’s sister first visited the Temple of the Way of Light, a world-class ayahuasca healing center located in the Amazon Rainforest outside of Iquitos, Peru. After her profoundly positive experience, she returned to the Temple in 2015 with Maira, who underwent a similarly transformative and healing experience. Maira then introduced Blake to ayahuasca when the two of us returned to the Temple in January 2016.
After Blake experienced the medicine himself, together we decided to pitch a multimedia project to the Temple, which included a series of virtual reality films focusing on the traditional healing modalities of the Shipibo (an indigenous group native to the Peruvian Amazon who’ve been working spiritually and medicinally with ayahuasca for centuries). After they accepted our project proposal, we returned in the summer of 2016 and spent ten weeks living in the jungle, regularly participating in ayahuasca ceremonies, filming educational VR videos, and recording an album of the Shipibo curanderos’ (healers) ikaros (medicine songs).
FIVARS: Have you tried the ceremony yourself?
Previous to filming this project, we had both visited the Temple as guests seeking healing, and participated in a number of Shipibo-led ayahuasca ceremonies. Our experiences in ceremony inspired us to propose this project and build a new platform to spread the message of the medicinal power of ayahuasca. When we returned to film in the summer of 2016, we participated in ceremonies weekly. Our personal transformations with ayahuasca, under the invaluable guidance of master Shipibo curanderos, deeply informed the mission and process of the projects we’d been commissioned to create at the Temple.
FIVARS: Do you see a correlation between psychotropics and VR as a phenomenon in the culture?
Many believe entheogens have been a part of human culture since before recorded history, so we don’t see their use as a current “phenomenon,” just a continuation or evolution of their role in society. However, there is definitely a correlation between the states of consciousness that VR and psychedelics can induce, in a sense that both can enable shifts in perspective that can radically alter an individual’s perception of themselves and the world around them.
In some respects, the psychedelic state of consciousness induced by ayahuasca and other entheogens can be thought of as an advanced, neurochemically activated augmented reality, which pre-dates human technological advancements in virtual and augmented reality by hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In this way, humanity has a tremendous amount to learn from the plant kingdom about augmenting human consciousness and perception to facilitate personal and spiritual growth.
FIVARS: What is your background in documentary, filmmaking, storytelling and/or spherical video?
Maira’s background is in sound design, acousmatic music composition, animation, and multimedia video art. Blake has been working in the VR filmmaking space since early 2015. We felt that VR was an especially fitting and powerful medium to immerse viewers in the Amazon Rainforest, to learn about ayahuasca from Shipibo curanderos and experience their medicine songs.
FIVARS: Talk a little about the making of and behind the scenes. Audio, Color correction, editing…:
Making Songs of the Vine was one of the most meaningful experiences of our lives, largely because it was inextricably intertwined with very personal and transformative healing processes that we underwent over the ten weeks we spent together living and working in the Upper Peruvian Amazon. It was also an extremely challenging experience, as we took on all the roles and responsibilities of a very ambitious and technologically intensive project, while also embarking on spiritual journeys that transcended the day-to-day work we had been commissioned to do. We literally put our sweat, tears, and vomit into making Songs of the Vine – and grew so much in the process.
There was something strangely dichotomous about crafting a film about such ancient and natural forces with cutting-edge technology, but somehow, we managed to find a balance in the creative process, and miraculously, all of our equipment survived two and a half months in the extreme conditions of the Amazon Rainforest.
Since returning to the Bay Area last September, we’ve been working together through the post-production process. Blake focused mainly on the visual side of the project, working through the stitching and color correction, while Maira focused more on sound design and mixing the multitude of audio recordings she captured. However, we very much shaped the film together through the editing process, and continually refined the film until it became the final piece that it is today.
FIVARS Runs Sept 15th-17th at House of VR in Toronto, Canada. Get ticket now.
5-channel 360° video-Performance
Choreographer and Performer: Laura Stokes
Composer and sound designer: Soosan Lolavar
Director and media Designer: Nima Dehghani
Decompensation is a performative VR piece that attempts to recreate the psychological stages which refugees pass through when moving and settling into a new social/cultural context over the span of many years:
Early Arrival, Destabilization, Exploration, Return to Normal life, and Decompensation.
the failure of an organ (especially the liver or heart) to compensate for the functional overload resulting from disease.
the failure to generate effective psychological coping mechanisms in response to stress, resulting in personality disturbance or disintegration, especially that which causes relapse in schizophrenia.
In this participatory piece, the notion of “Displacement” is communicated through music, performance, and 360-degree video.
The viewer experiences three different presences:
1. Seeing other participants
2. Becoming a participant
3. Immersion in the virtual world of the performer.
An immersive perspective provided by virtual reality is hoped to inspire an empathy for the displaced individual. Therefore, VR aims to function as a type of empathy machine in which the immersive quality enables a sensory experience.
The work displaces the viewer in order to contemplate the displacement of the refugee. The immersive experience provided by virtual reality can increase empathy, through sensory experience. By activating the body and the senses, virtual reality brings new topologies of emotion, pleasure, and passion to the landscape of interaction.
Laura Stokes is a Pittsburgh-based movement artist and educator. Her greatest curiosity is how artistic movement practices and creative physical play affect the human condition from early childhood through adulthood. She aims to help integrate creative artistry and physicality into the educational world by dissolving dichotomies around the role of the body in learning. Laura’s collaboration with visual media artist Nima Dehghani on Decompensation, was her initiation into the world of choreographing dance for virtual reality.
Other most recent projects include: El Eswitch, a choreographed solo exploring the dynamics of code-switching in language and culture; co-creating and teaching The Contact Lab, workshops in Contact Improvisation with Jean-Paul Weaver; and her ongoing dedication to developing innovative creative movement classes for children. Laura holds a B.A. in dance from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania.
Nima Dehghani is a multidisciplinary artist, writer, and architect. Born in Tehran, Iran in 1986.
Humans, communication, individual conflicts and social discriminations with allusions to politics, have been the subject of most of his works. With a background in architecture and theater, he strives to build the most comprehensible virtual venues to convey his thoughts, to focus on the notion of displacement, home, diaspora and the purest relationship between human and space: Migration.
Nima works predominantly in the medium of performing arts and digital media and his goal is to find the most effective ways to influence the audience using new media. His research revolves around the core of Middle Eastern studies, social behavior in online networks and performativity of social actions.
Nima got his BA’s in Architecture from University of Science and Technology in Iran, and then moved to the US to get his Master of Fine Arts degree from Carnegie Mellon University with emphasis on digital media and performance.
Most of his past works have been performed or shown in Iran before 2013, and after that mainly in the US and different festivals in Spain, UK, Belgium, Czech, Georgia, and Germany.
As a playwright and director, Nima has won several awards, the last one before he leaves Iran was “The best young director of the year” in 2012.
Decompensation screens at FIVARS 2016 September 16-18th, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.
Title: Nobel’s Nightmare
DIR: Chamsy Sarkis
Country: USA | RT: 5m
Production Company: SmartNews Agency
One of the world’s oldest city and for many years the heart of the Syrian economy, Aleppo is now ravaged by war. This immersive footage was shot with the Syrian Civil Defense teams of Aleppo, the unarmed volunteers performing search and rescue, recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Filmed in 360°, the video is an insight on their every day struggle and a visit through the devastated city. The film includes include interviews with White Helmets as well as scenes of bombings and the rescue of those trapped in the rubble.