August 14, 2018

Film & Television

‘Exquisite Corpse’: reinventing a parlour game in immersive VR

By Steve Dow

Exquisite Corpse

BADFAITH Collective build a Surrealist body at the Melbourne International Film Festival

Donning virtual-reality headsets, Melbourne International Film Festival attendees will get to see the 21st-century equivalent of a Surrealist game of chance, moving through the topography of artists’ imaginings about the human body, edited with a punk taste for the experimental.

As an artist, to use virtual reality to defy the physical limitations of the screen is “truly incredible”, says the film’s curator and producer, Leo Faber. “It’s a teleportation device, really.”

The premiere 12-minute collaborative film Exquisite Corpse, created by six well-known Australian conceptual artists and filmmakers known collectively as BADFAITH, is inspired by and named after a parlour game that requires imagination and trust.

In the original word game known as Cadavre Exquis, each participant writes a word or part of a phrase on paper, then folds and hands the paper to the next person to add more words. Each player cannot see what fellow players have written, resulting in nonsensical phrases.

The Surrealists expanded this game with drawings and pasted images, taking turns elaborating on each other’s art. For instance, Nude, a 1927 composite drawing in ink and pencil held by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is a female figure credited to four artists – Yves Tanguy, Joan Miró, Max Morise and Man Ray – with feathered eyes, an arrow in the belly and snow shoes for feet.

The immersive Australian equivalent, opening with a reference to Marcel Duchamp’s 1926 short film Anemic Cinema, runs through six tiny films inspired by an “exquisite corpse” whose body parts were divided between six artists. Their work is “slammed together in a punk track”, says Faber of the low-budget, hard-cut editing aesthetic.

Artists were left in the dark about which body parts fellow artists were assigned. Indigenous conceptual artist Tony Albert’s contribution, based on the head, is shown first. Then comes London-based Australian video artist Shaun Gladwell’s film about the neck; director and screenwriter Natasha Pincus has the heart and torso; documentary maker Amiel Courtin-Wilson the hands; short film director Luci Schroder the groin-pelvis; and video artist Daniel Crooks the legs.

Faber and Gladwell have previously curated the virtual reality section of the Sydney Film Festival. The BADFAITH Collective – whose name is drawn from Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s musings on bad faith as a state of human existence – has three other virtual reality projects in the works.

Faber says virtual reality is a potential antidote to bad faith, because “it allows you to act out a number of experiences or realities through this head set and new technology”.

But Gladwell tells me from London that virtual reality blurs the line between genuine and inauthentic experience. “VR is the potential cause and the potential cure for bad faith,” he says.

Nonetheless, he sees the title Exquisite Corpse for this venture as a “metaphor for VR itself; there’s so much going on. You can’t see the whole thing growing, extending and evolving”.

Gladwell says virtual reality is going through an accelerated stage of growth that is similar to what cinema experienced: from prohibitively expensive to create, requiring a big production team, to more consumer-friendly cameras that are relatively cheap, and more processes becoming automated. “Right now, it’s a bit like the stage early video was at,” he says.

“The power of the experience is huge. We’re going from images connected to frames to all of a sudden having frameless image experiences. To have that experience accessible by lots of people is half the appeal to me. There’s a democracy about it.”

Where is virtual reality headed? “I don’t think there will be one main, set course for VR,” says Gladwell. “It will remain an isolated, solitary experience and that will be powerful because people will be able to shut the rest of the world off, and they go into a kind of momentary image prison; they’re locked into this other space.

“But we’re also looking at very exciting social platforms that people meet each other in these virtual environments. They’re doing it live, but they have to synchronise meeting. That’s an incredibly powerful environment … Instead of Skype, where I’d be seeing you in Sydney and you’d be seeing me in London, we’d both meet somewhere in virtual space.”

Faber, the VR evangelist who converted Gladwell to the medium, sees far horizons.

“Certainly as the technology evolves, you will be able to live out experiences almost as like they’re real,” he says. “You will be the hero in the Indiana Jones movie; you will be anything and everything, and geography and space and time limitation and physical limitations will no longer apply.”

For now, however, the practical human resource problem of having a limited pool of trained people to guide viewers, to focus the picture and navigate the headset menu system, puts the handbrake on the vast virtual reality plains.


Exquisite Corpse is premiering at the Melbourne International Film Festival with sessions on August 15 and 17.

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.


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