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Clear the stage for Digital Art

By Elena Philipp

Culture Despite the Crisis (Episode 4): The Hamburg VRHAM! festival and Zimmertheater Tübingen’s Institute for Theatrical Futurology (ITZ) explore how virtual reality and theater can be combined.

Virtual reality is a multifaceted world: flora-like plants proliferate in a simulation of ecosystems that result from the fusion of technology and organic matter ( Two groups of avatars equipped with artificial intelligence react to a stranger – what social dynamics emerge? ( Insight is given into private spaces that have become indispensable retreats during the quarantine – a walk-in, immersive archive and time capsule that preserves the corona situation, globally similar for many people ( "Floralia," "Aporia" and "The Smallest of Worlds": three digital artworks on view at the VRHAM! Virtual Reality & Arts Festival 2021 – and 'for real', on site.

Since 2018, every June VRHAM! has been showing artistic works using virtual, extended or augmented reality, along with 360° films and immersive installations in Hamburg's Oberhafen. As the first international artistic virtual reality festival, VRHAM! focuses on these formats. For the digital art being shown and the visitors, the team creates a live walk-through exhibition during the festival week: "We want to put the works in context and make them physically tangible," explains festival dramaturg Sabrina Schmidt. "Often there is still an initial fear of technology. Going to the site, that's the core of the festival." To this end, VRHAM! organizes elaborate installations in Oberhafen, the arts and culture quarter in a former freight station on the edge of the newly built Hafencity. For each work presented at VRHAM!, a stage-like setting is created in the long train shed and the adjacent former storage rooms.

A person wearing VR glasses stands in a transparent high cube installed in a dark stage situation. To the right and left of it are screens onto which projections are made. © Diakaki Mersiadou

Ilya Mirsky, for example, built a cozy, carpeted space for his and Vivienne Mayer's 2019 performative VR installation "U|topian Space|S|" ( There, two visitors could interact with a performer who was filmed in real time by 3D cameras and played into the VR environment as an avatar. Motion capture technology made this possible. For the VR work "The Grass Smells So Sweet" (, a four-by-four-foot square of grass was rolled out at VRHAM! in 2018. "When the way the ground feels matches the visual experience, it's a more intense experience," recalls Ilya Mirsky, who can still sense the smell of artificial freshly cut grass. "The scenographic character is important to us," says Sabrina Schmidt. "Many artists in the field also work with sensory impressions, with objects or surfaces that you can touch; with a breeze, or smells. It's exciting to see how your own body reacts to that."

For the physical edition of VRHAM!, corona 2020 was a damper, as it was for so many art projects. Installations in analog space were not possible – but for a festival dedicated to the digital arts, the purely digital version was also an opportunity for broader awareness. It was also a positive challenge that once again led to new technical knowledge and ideas, as Sabrina Schmidt and Ilja Mirsky tell us. In 2021, VRHAM! took place in a hybrid format, with strict hygiene regulations and with small groups visiting Hamburg's Oberhafen, yet it was accessible worldwide as an online festival.

The importance of the analog exhibition for the VRHAM! festival, which stages VR art in real space and not just online, also has to do with the professional backgrounds of the organizers. Founder and artistic director Ulrich Schrauth was director of operations at the Thalia Theater Hamburg and production manager of the international festival Theater der Welt 2017, where he met Sabrina Schmidt, who worked in dramaturgy at the Münchner Kammerspiele and as artistic production manager for the Spielart festival and the Berlin Volksbühne. Ilja Mirsky, who was the technical director of VRHAM! 2020 as a freelancer and is doing his PhD on artificial intelligence and human-machine interaction, has been working as a dramaturg at the Zimmertheater Tübingen since studying cognitive science and performance studies in Hamburg. Germany's smallest municipal theater has reinvented itself as the "Institute for Theatrical Future Research" (ITZ) since Dieter and Peer Mia Ripberger took over as directors in 2018/19. VRHAM! 2021 was a collaboration with ITZ Tübingen.

Funded by the #TakeNote program for knowledge transfer and cooperation, VRHAM! and ITZ Tübingen developed a three-part concept: a discourse program with international VR experts, a VR workshop for independent theater professionals and two residencies for artists.

Despite the personal connection of those involved, aren’t these rather far removed from each other – a VR art festival in Hamburg and a municipal theater in Tübingen? Not at all, explain Ilja Mirsky and Sabrina Schmidt. "An important content focus at the Zimmertheater is digitization, which is always incorporated in the development of plays on current socio-political topics," says Ilja Mirsky, explaining the proximity of the two institutions in terms of content. "Tübingen is the largest research location for artificial intelligence in Europe, the city is also called 'Cyber Valley'." The Zimmertheater regularly works with those involved in AI. "At the ITZ, we use the potential of digital techniques artistically — and the residencies in cooperation with VRHAM! were very interesting for us: What can happen when artists who have a focus on VR and XR come to Tübingen? How can we build bridges between theater and festival?" "Especially after last year, that's the question," adds Sabrina Schmidt. "What does it mean program-wise for theaters and festivals when new narrative methods and aesthetics find their way into art along with new technologies? How do you deal with that and what does that mean for the future?"

To find out, VRHAM! and the ITZ invited two groups of artists to residencies after an EU-wide open call. Zoe Diakaki and Marina Mersiadou from London were unable to travel due to corona, but the organizers met with them in virtual space. Diakaki and Mersiadou gave an insight into their artistic process via photos and videos and exchanged ideas with their mentors on how to proceed with the performative production "Inhibition" ( Once "Inhibition" is finished, it will be shown at the VRHAM! festival.

Gustavo Gomes, a former dancer with Richard Siegal and the Ballet of Difference in Cologne — which is open to digital art – was able to work in Tübingen. The Zimmertheater provided him and the other participants – two dancers, an AR specialist, a filmmaker – with a black box stage, technical support and the theater's own guest apartments, including the Neckar-Terrace. "It's an idyllic setting. All artistic production teams get to live in the middle of Tübingen's old town and receive the best technical support possible on our two stages," says Ilja Mirsky. Gustavo Gomes spent seven days in Tübingen working on the choreography for his AR dance production "Votary" ( His project is complex and it will take several residencies for him to realize it: "Votary" is based on a binary coding system for individual movements. A 3D depth sensor was used to spatially scan the bodies of the dancers, which were later digitally inserted into a Moscow chapel that was also scanned and acted out using augmented reality. "This is the transnational potential of VR," Mirsky enthuses. "You bring together different bodies and environments beyond all borders, in a third space."

For one of the two 2021 residencies, this third space was unfortunately the only possibility: "The exchange was missing," says Sabrina Schmidt. "We wanted both teams to come together in one place. Via zoom meetings, we tried to map that out, but it's not the same." Now VRHAM! and the ITZ are hoping that next year's residencies can take place in real space – and that they can be funded. Without the #TakeNote grant, that would not have been possible for VRHAM!’s sponsoring organization, despite other approved grant applications and third-party funds. Yet the open-ended, research-driven residencies are so important in a young, complex art form like virtual and augmented reality: "We would like to make it possible for artists to further develop their projects in a protected setting, without it being like theater, where the result has to be finished and ready to present," says Sabrina Schmidt. "For trial and error, you need time and space." More freedom means more basic technical research and aesthetic immersion. In this way, diversity in VR art can continue to expand.

In the series "Kunst trotz(t) Krise" (Culture despite the Crisis), cultural journalists Elena Philipp and Georg Kasch take a look behind the scenes of funded projects on behalf of the Fonds Darstellende Künste. What is the impact of the fund's #TakeThat funding as part of the NEUSTART KULTUR program of the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media?