Bloodyminded, Antigone and the Politics of Empathy

Are immersive art and virtual reality just too liberal?

At the Barbican on Sunday evening, a full house watched Bloodyminded, an experimental project performed and streamed live from Hampshire to a number of locations in the UK and abroad. As the auditorium emptied, moans and complaints could be heard throughout, lamenting the technical glitches, poor execution and variety of perceived inconsistencies. Some even took to the screen to voice their criticisms, writing their complaints online though the microsite so that they would appear (somewhat embarrassingly) in the production itself. Technical problems, however, ought to pale in comparison to the ideological issues these developments raise about the way immersive technology operates on its users.

Art by Jeremy Simmonds

Bloodyminded blends audience participation in the style of choose-your-own path videogaming with a collective cinematic experience, allowing viewers to insert their thoughts and contributions into the dialogue and narrative of the film as it progresses in real time. The film’s narrator responds to the viewer’s input (perhaps in future the actors will respond too) and the narrative is thereby influenced by those watching. Sometimes it is one or two viewers whose input is selected for inclusion, sometimes a long reel of responses is included and at other times a statistic is generated from the total number of watching respondents (a la the logic of TellTale Games). It’s an exciting concept in which the viewer can actively involve themselves in the production of a cinematic experience in real time, constructing new meanings out of the pre-planned script and taking it off in new directions, its live production allowing its content to at least potentially address anything the audience choose.

However, this apparently open experience also points to a dangerous possibility: that of involving the audience on a personal level only in order to evoke their empathies to force agreement with the ideological message of the production. In Bloodyminded, the audience are asked to confess their own acts of violence and their potentially well-repressed secrets as well as childhood memories, apparently with the intention of making them feel more personally connected to the neoliberal narrative of the film itself. The viewer ‘relates’ like never before.

But what are they relating to? Bloodyminded tells of those who conscientiously objected to participation in the 1914-18 war, and recounts the story of one objector’s great granddaughter (named SJ) breaking into an army barracks to bury his ashes with those of his friend against the wishes of the army, who shun objectors as traitors. Few would object to this alone, but ultimately the film hinges on the relationship between the protagonist and her brother, now himself a senior figure in the army stationed at the very same base who believes in the sanctity of law and its ultimate virtuosity. At the end, the film arrives a platitudinal injunction to believe in something and pursue it, even against such laws, accompanied by an apparently heart-warming bonding scene between anti-war activist sister and army sergeant brother uniting over their shared family values as they finally bury their ancestor. The perhaps unconscious parallels with Sophocles’ immutable classical tragedy Antigone might already be apparent to some readers.

Conscientious objection to war might well serve as a model for pursuing ethics against the odds and against ideology, but the actions of this bizarre modern Antigone serves – like her almost 2500 year-old predecessor imagined by Sophocles, to reinforce fixed family and moral values over changing legal and political codes. As Hegel writes of Antigone, it is less a battle between good (Antigone and her familial fixed morality) and bad (Creon and his arbitrary laws and state values) but between two forms of ethics each making too exclusive a claim. SJ is right to oppose the codes and patriarchy of the army (portrayed well in the experience) but the narrative comes down only on the side of SJ the character rather than interrogating the question that makes Sophocles’s play so important: that of how both legal and moral codes must be able to change in relation to each other, making Antigone nearly as wrong as Creon. Antigone the character might be the ultimate original empathy generator, but at least Antigone the text was aware of that.

While Bloodyminded’s protagonist SJ may represent pursuing what is thought of as always right (generation to generation), making her something of a figure of liberalism, and the army’s bro culture may represent the adherence to state law and values over all else, what is missing is a more radical political approach which interrogates the relationship between long-standing inherited morals and contemporary laws.

There may be yet another concern, that we enjoy such art ‘interpassively’, to borrow a term from philosopher Robert Pfaller, rather than interactively, the term the marketing teams of such productions so passionately describe their products as. Interpassivity can be generally conceptualized as ‘vicarious living’ in which the other (machine or human) carries out the (pleasurable) act so that the subject themselves is absolved of the need to do so. With ‘standing up for what we believe in’ pitched as such an enjoyable experience in Bloodyminded, could the enjoyment of SJ standing up for what she believes in, contrary to encouraging the viewer to do the same, actually placate the likelihood of them doing so after the movie?

In any case, comparable with Chris Milk’s impressive Virtual Reality project which uses the VR world’s capacity to put the user’s empathy to work for charitable causes, Bloodyminded puts the user into its experience in order to push its message further into the viewer (whether it also placates the potential for revolution in that viewer as well). Such new forms of tech might seem perfectly fine when they endorse charitable acts, but if such experiences can put the viewer to work for good, why not also for ill?

The ideological position of Bloodyminded is – at the very least – questionable and its ability to bring the viewer into its story and manipulate empathy ought to remind us of a danger with the way in which newly immersive technology is being deployed, or at least alert us to a concern that the art and tech world producing such immersive projects seem heavily invested in liberal narratives. As with Bloodyminded, the narratives of immersive art, film and gaming are inevitably fraught with political ideology while also collapsing the critical distance between that ideology and the audience to an extent that may not be so in traditional cinema.

To experience this new artistic technology, then, we need a new kind of viewer aware of the power of immersion over empathy and ready to think about the politics of the process. Those on the more radical side of progressive politics, who seem under-represented in these mediums at the moment, might even think about how to use new forms of empathy production for our own agendas. VR and immersive games might not be a site at which the political Right have a hold (though that element creeps into certain PlayStation VR products), but at the moment they remain – even at their most artistic edges – intensely liberal spheres of storytelling. With the cost of making such productions, this could be difficult to change, but the Left can at least be aware of the problem.

Alfie Bown

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