From the corner of my eye, I see something dangling from the right side of my head; mildly weighing me down. I lift my palms, only to realise that they have transformed into scrawny, hairy nondescript limbs. Here, in the Old Town of Prague (Czech Republic), in a small, dingy room which is faintly familiar, I spot a mirror. It is not until I move to face it that I see what I am now — yes, I woke up as a bug.
Memoirs of a loner
I am trapped, and wilfully so, in the literary world of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. For anyone who has read The Metamorphosis , Gregor Samsa is not a stranger; rather he is an emblem of loneliness and misery, a very relatable figure at that, whose characterisation speaks volumes of the condition of social isolation. At Goethe-Institut, this literary world of the 20th Century, takes shape in delightful five-minute intervals inside a curtained, dark contraption equipped with VR headsets and motion sensor footwear and gloves. VRwandlung, as the virtual reality installation is called, will land one in Gregor Samsa’s shoes, firing a curiosity that will only result in one going back to pick up a copy of The Metamorphosis. This is precisely what the library at Goethe-Institut intends to do.
When I meet Ján Tompkins, he is helping a viewer slip into the shoes, inside the setup. Ján who joined the team headed by Mika Johnson (who is behind VRwandlung) as a social media assistant, is supervising the set up in Chennai. After the experience, he sits me down to explain the inception of this installation. “The Goethe-Institut in Prague is responsible for the financial upbringing of this project by Mika Johnson. There were three separate teams working on the installation — one for the engineering of the bug’s body, another for the art direction who created the model of the surrounding and a separate team who scanned this setup on to a virtual space,” says Ján. Mika, the director, is a Kafka fanatic and he had worked on VRwandlung in 2017, for over a year.
“As we all know, people who like Kafka either really like him or don’t. There is no in between. So when Mika, got the opportunity to set up something in the (4 metre by 4metre) space, [The] Metamorphosis fit well since most of the story takes place inside a room,” Ján explains. VRwandlung has travelled to 50 or more cities in over 30 countries. At any given point, simultaneous shows are likely to be set up across locations. In the European Union, they had travelled with a makeshift box that had the entire kit within it. Institutes also sometimes locally source the technology to make it available to the students.
Experience on demand
“We didn’t have a target audience because VR is still a new technology in many places. But after the installation was set up in Prague, we realised that a lot of our unintentional audiences were students and those who haven’t read Kafka before,” says Ján adding that it is getting increasingly hard to get people to read. Especially when the work is more than 100-years-old, and originally written in German. By giving a taste of the work, replete with a few dialogues, the installation only intends to pique one’s interest. The design is also done deliberately in an open-ended manner, in an effort to invite readers to revisit the novel. The mirror is a pivotal element in the setup. “We didn’t want to create the entire piece, because then it would be 40 minutes long. We wanted the piece to be just an extension of the literature,” says Ján. Though this is Mika’s first experiment with virtual reality, he is already working on multiple projects involving this technology. One of his long term goals is to create a set up with different rooms that people can navigate through, each one being a different literary world of Kafka’s.
Transforming literature into something tangible, is still very new in the country. But currently, across the globe, there is an evident shift from VR being associated with only video games to other purposes. “VR has finally found its footing as a very legitimate art form that gives one the freedom to break the boundaries of storytelling. Literature can be easily transformed into something very experiential,” says Ján adding that collaborations like that of Mika’s are definitely on the rise. Though VR presents itself as a medium to portray stories in a different way, they may work better for some narratives than others. “You should always ask what the story benefits from, by being in VR,” says Ján. If it is just a story that wants one to remain stationary, it is no different than a movie.
VRwandlung will be on display till February 15 at Goethe-Institut, Rutland Gate 5th Street.
For time slots and registrations, visit www.goethe.de/ins/in/en/sta/ che.h tml