I recently had my first ever virtual reality experience, in an arcade in Cabot Circus. Whilst I enjoyed soaring above the city on a simulated rollercoaster and being jumped at by creepy characters on a ghost train, it was refreshing to see VR being used for a less commercial and more impactful form of story telling.
It’s not often that you get to truly inhabit someone else’s experiences and become fully immersed, but as technology advances so do our opportunities to empathise with each other in new and exciting ways. We Sing in Fire and Blood, a new virtual reality opera created by long standing Pervasive Media Studio resident Hazel Grian, is a great example of technology that can sometimes seem futuristic being used for one such cause. The latest iteration of the work, now 30 minutes long, was previewed at Limina, the new virtual reality theatre housed within the Watershed. Support for the project comes not only from the Watershed, but also Arts Council England and the Avon and Somerset Constabulary.
We Sing in Fire and Blood follows the true story of a woman who suffered extreme and sexual violence during an attack inside her home, which was then set alight. This is Grian’s story. For those curious to know every detail of the incident itself: this is not provided, nor does it need to be. This piece is heart wrenching whilst still being respectful, following choral accounts sung by a host of police officers, neighbours and nurses who were involved in different stages of the incident’s aftermath. Together they weave a story of suffering and resilience, but also of hope and our ability to come together as a community and support one another in the face of tragedy. As a viewer, you sit with these figures around a communal campfire, the central motif of the piece. Perhaps the campfire is a representation of the victim herself, crackling and flaring with emotion as the voices sound out her story. The stage is set to the dark background of the city, clouds rolling above. Though you know that a small group of audience members sit on individual chairs around you, it feels very much like a digital theatre where you are the only guest.
It was a privilege to preview this piece surrounded by the people it celebrates. Their laughs, smiles, hugs and tears only served to enhance my understanding of the very real impact this shared experience has had on all of their lives. Though everyone was welcoming, in some ways I felt like an outsider, a voyeur getting a glimpse into something so personal. I came out of the experience feeling moved and quiet, reflecting on the horror of something so violent happening in a place where we should feel safe, and on our collective ability to respond, empathise and support the victim of such an attack.
In a recent interview for International Women’s Day Grian spoke about the project as a chance to start a conversation and give a voice to women who have experienced extreme and sexual violence. The film does just that, but it also reminds us there is still work to be done:
“Over a quarter of a million women experience rape or attempted rape in the UK each year. Only 1% lead to convictions.” (ONS, PSNI, Rape Crisis Scotland)
Virtual reality provides a safe space for story tellers and viewers to create private connections and encounter moments of meditation, making it a wonderful medium to explore the human experience. Film makers and artists like Grian, who is uniquely positioned with over twenty five years of storytelling experience, have just begun to utilise the power of VR. I look forward to seeing more people from marginalised groups, including women, accessing these experimental technologies to tell their stories. The more we talk about these issues and others like them, the more we can support and empower those who suffer their affects.
No formal release date has been provided for the work, but if you see the title We Sing in Fire and Blood at a film festival anytime soon, I suggest you steady yourself and take a seat, it is an experience worth having. For more information about the project please visit https://www.wsifab.com/ or https://www.watershed.co.uk/studio/projects/we-sing-fire-and-blood
Article by BWV Community Reporter Suzi Bratt