Chained: A Victorian Nightmare. 2018. Justin Denton, Director. Executive Producer: Ethan Stearns. MWM Immersive (formerly Reality One). Starrett-Lehigh Building, New York, New York.

Left: The poster for Chained. Right: A painting showing the first setting into which one is guided and enters, sits on a stool, and faces the oval mirror. Click on images to enlarge them.

“Thirty Minutes into the Future?” because the experience of seeing — no, experiencing — this latest adaptation of Dickens’s Christmas Carol stirred memories of Max Headroom, the old science-fiction television series whose subtitle or motto was “Twenty Minutes into the Future.” After a motorcycle crash in which a crusading investigative TV reporter for Channel 23 collides with a barrier on which is written “Max Headroom,” a crude, raucous virtual version of him escapes mysteriously from the recordings on his network-connected videocamera and appears with its own independent existence on the television network (a prefiguration of today’s internet and its virtual existences). In Chained something of the opposite takes place, since viewers — or, better, experiencers since tactile experience occurs — find themselves inserted into a virtual world, merging their identities with the someone we know in advance to be Dickens’s Scrooge.

Left: After passing through white fog that replaces the oval mirror, one finds oneself in Scrooge’s bedroom. Right: The artist's vision of the first ghost the viewer-experiencer-as-Scrooge encounters.

I began my experience of Chained by meeting a young women who had me fill a form, the main purpose of which, it turns out, is to obtain my name and date of birth (more on this later). This first guide takes me into a small antechamber on which I find a large old-fashioned iron door knocker and instructs me to knock three times on the door facing me. When I did, it was answered by an actress playing the role of a kind of wraith, who guided me into a small room, had me sit on the kind of stool depicted in the painting above right, and placed the VR apparatus on my head. At this point I saw the virtual version of the mirror that I had just seen, and almost immediately I found myself confronting a white fog or mist out of which a large hand appeared, and when I extended mine, I felt it grabbed as I was pulled into the mist as if I were passing through the wall. I found myself flying above a found-bound London, passing over the Thames I felt myself descending through the fog, and when the mist cleared I found myself within Scrooge’s bedroom, which looked very much like the one depicted in the painting above at upper left. Reaching out and touching the bedpost, my hand closed on something wooden. The first Christmas spirit appeared quickly, and since one of my guides — I think the first — had told me that Chained works well the more one interacts with it, I did my best to act the part of Scrooge. (How would one experience Chained if one had never read A Christmas Carol or had only a very dim remembrance of it?)

From here on Chained follows those parts of A Christmas Carol that feature only Scrooge and the three ghosts or spirits. There’s no Little Tim or Bob Cratchit, and the story proceeds until the last ghost brings one to the cemetery similar to one shown in the painting below and leads one at last to a gravestone upon which one finds one’s name. Chained ended as I was guided, still in the virtual realm, to a little room or study. When my original spirit guide removed the VR headset I found myself in a physical room like the virtual one. From beginning to end, the VR environment works very well.

With the exception of two details all seemed accurate enough: Flying through the fog above the Thames, I swooped over Tower Bridge. However much Tower Bridge, like Big Ben, might represents the city to those who think of London, it did not see completion until 1896, long after the world of Dickensian London. Second, that bright white fog doesn’t match descriptions of London’s infamous pea-soup fog. Nonetheless, the use of detail elsewhere in Chained worked very well. I found myself viewing different parts of the bedroom in the first scene when I turned in a circle, and I felt no lag in the VR, though details in all the scenes, no matter how beautifully rendered, had less in the way of sharp edges than things do in the outside non-virtual world — obviously a limitation of current technology but not one that markedly affected my experience of each scene. As the old interactive, somewhat clunky video created for Army trauma surgeons showed decades ago, the more the participant in a virtual realm engages emotionally with the situation, the coarser the granularity of realistic details can be, the cruder the representation. I found the confrontation with each of the Christmas ghosts in Chained so powerful that I found them believable — that is, I acted as if they were real, even though I have never encountered a ghost.

Left two: Spirits one encounters. Right: The figures of Ignorance and Want that one of the spirits pulls out of his body and throws on a dining table set as if for an ample (Christmas?) dinner. I include the frame in this image to show how each of these paintings, one of which was signed “2018,” appeared when hung on the walls outside the start-point of Chained and in the room one finds oneself after the VR headset is removed.

From the very beginning of the thirty minutes of Chained when my wraith-like guide prepared me to enter the virtual world and placed her hand my shoulder, haptic, physical sensation played a part in my experience. The power of each of the larger-than-lifesize ghostly spirits became amplified by the weight of their hands on my shoulder, and when guided to do so, I sat on a chair, lowered myself on Scrooge’s bed, and touched what seemed to be skulls on a grave. I don’t know whether one actor or three performed part of the parts of the Christmas ghosts, but one or three they certainly occupied my attention!

The question: is this a case in which the medium truly IS the message, in which the medium’s message goes 180 degrees counter to Chained’s obvious theme — the perils of selfish isolation? On second thought, this paradoxical relation of oneself and the say, “work,” hardly is limited to the experience of computer-supported virtual reality, for it is very similar — exactly how similar? — to that of the reader and the printed text. In fact, if one wished to be annoying contrarian one could point out that today, since most books are written, edited, and produced on computers, they are not so much different. But there are differences. Since I am an experienced reader, the book I am reading passes away from my consciousness of it, or at least exists on some different non-intrusive plain. Perhaps a result of its novelty, the VR participant in Chained, the artform’s equivalent of a reader, pays close attention to the medium itself, simultaneously enjoying the novelty, the pleasure of a new experience, and testing the limits of its reality effect. The most obvious result of such reactions to Chained, a work as stridently focused on the shortfalls and evil actions as any fundamentalist sermon, is a certain deflection of attention from its supposed main point. In other words, the very cutting-edge pioneering element of such works means that we do not experience them they way people will in the future.

Left: An early version of Marley, much less nightmarish than the one I encountered. Clicking on the image to enlarge it makes the chains attached to his chin and beneath his ears easier to see. The creepier, gaunter Marley I saw not had more chains piecing his face. Right: The cemetery similar to the way one first encounters it.

FOST [The Future of Storytelling]

Left: A view of the The FOST space including at left the apparatus for Birdly: Jurassic Flight and in the distance the surround for Munduruku: The Fight to Defend the Heart of the Amazon. Right: The apparatus for Birdly: Jurassic Flight and its helpful guide.

In addition to Chained: A Victorian Nightmare The FOST space featured seven other projects. I Am a Man and Traveling While Black relate narratives of African American experiences of racial prejudice ranging from the terrible difficulties of travel before the civil rights movement and general desegregation — travelers had no place to eat or relieve themselves during a ten-hour ride — to a more recent police shooting of an unarmed twelve-year-old boy in Cleveland. Traveling While Black combines archival film with VR interviews with those who have experienced racial prejudice set within a famous African-American restaurant in Washington, D.C. Birdly: Jurassic Flight, which employs the apparatus shown above, provides an experience of flight: I lay on on the apparatus, placed my arms in the wings, donned a VR headset, and as I flew within the VR environment experienced the moving air on my face (the product of a low tech fan). Flapping my arms allowed me to gain altitude and I dipped turned, and swooped above and within a Jurassic world. As someone vulnerable to motion sickness, I began to feel queasy by the end of the five-minute session, and that lasted twenty more minutes afterwards. Two of the projects did not employ headsets. In Cosmic Sleep, which attempts to convey the “experiences” of a comet moving though space, the participant lies upon a flatform and is covered by an apparatus that makes parts of one's body hot as one pases near a sun and cooler as one recedes into darker space. One fills out a questionnaire in Algorithmic Perfumery, and the apparatus produces a perfumes that supposedly matches one's preferences.

Left: Posters four the eight projects in FOST on 17 March 2019. Right. Sponsors and partners of FOST. My son’s firm, Macktez.Com (named after his maternal grandfather) provided computer equipment and technical assistance to FOST, which enabled me to see, experience, and review three of the projects. Thanks!

Created March 18, 2019