For close to a year now, Isabelle Van Grimde and her team have been working on a virtual reality prototype based on the work EVE 2050.
This new adventure stems from a collaboration with UQAT, Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue, following extensive discussions regarding the artistic and scientific interest of such a project, for both Van Grimde Corps Secrets and the university’s graduate students.
In 2018, Marilène Oliver, an associate artist with the company, created Deep Connection, this virtual reality work deeply impressed and moved Isabelle Van Grimde. It renewed her interest in the evolution of this technology, which she had been following closely, opening up a new realm of possibilities and prompting her to begin work on a prototype.
A specific innovation in virtual reality also appealed to Isabelle Van Grimde: the creation of the Oculus Quest. Until then, the users of virtual reality headsets were constrained in their movements by wires and the need to be guided by another person to keep themselves out of danger. Oculus Quest, the technology used by UQAT, is totally wireless and can adapt to a defined space, so that the user never risks crossing certain physical boundaries or hitting obstacles. The body of the spectator is thus free of all encumbrances and can be fully immersed in this other reality—a sine qua non for Isabelle Van Grimde. This technology is continuing to evolve, currently allowing users to direct the experience with their bare hands, without controllers.
Aware of the financial, human resources, material and time constraints of such a project, it became obvious to Isabelle Van Grimde that a prototype should precede the construction of a full artistic experience. To create this prototype, Van Grimde Corps Secrets shared the scientific and artistic research of Eve 2050 with the students of UQAT. These documents were invaluable to them, allowing them to understand not only the context of the work, but also the entire universe surrounding it and its organic modes of operation. To supplement this data, Isabelle Van Grimde and dancer Sophie Breton travelled to Rouyn-Noranda to record the movements of the EVE 2050 avatar with the use of numerous sensors (MOCAP Motion Tracking System).
The initial images were relayed to Isabelle Van Grimde during confinement. Thanks to the Discord platform, originally built for gamers, all those involved in the creation of this prototype were able to work remotely, both safely and efficiently.
The creative team is made up of Isabelle Van Grimde, Thom Gossage, Sophie Breton, the Flotoyo group, graduates of UQAT from Toulon (France), professors from the Création et nouveaux médias department and a university graduate, as well as Eltoro Studio. Iloé Françon, the production manager of Van Grimde Corps Secrets, is the project coordinator.
Devising a virtual reality prototype around a work like EVE 2050 requires extraordinary creativity, because the textures, movements and forms that make up its universe have never appeared before in this platform, which is closer to video games than the performing arts and biology. While the potential virtual reality work will certainly integrate 360° films of dancers, the prototype is based on an exclusively virtual creation. The experience is designed for the spectator’s visit to the tower, presented in the first chapter of the web series, Origin, in which new rituals of reproduction, birth and death are explored.
The tower is the physical space in which the spectators move, using an elevator that transports them from one floor to another. The tower involved in the scenario of EVE 2050 was built with the help of bacteria; the building is therefore alive, a growing body. The texture chosen for this organism is similar to resin, with the shape of beehive cells and tones of amber, far from the more classic concrete, glass, and metal normally used in these experiences.
Given that the links between virtual reality and video games are very close, the first avatars built by the UQAT students were manly, muscular and warlike in appearance, whereas Eve is more organic and feminine. Creating the avatar, which in ORIGIN is no longer human, but not yet cyborg or hybrid, was thus quite a challenge. Extensive efforts were devoted to her form, somewhere between androgynous and feminine. Instead of designing a costume, we focused on the texture of her skin because, at this juncture in time, science has managed to harness the bacteria of the human microbiome, allowing the formation of a skin adapted to the environment, rendering clothing obsolete.
The work on movement was a key step in the process, since EVE 2050 is above all a work shaped by dance and conceived by a choreographer. During the movement capture (MOCAP), Isabelle Van Grimde and Sophie Breton adapted their work to exaggerate each segment of the movement, thereby transcribing it in all its permutations and richness, and restoring all the complexity and qualities of real movement.
As artistic director of this project, Isabelle Van Grimde faces immense challenges, but also a multitude of new possibilities: “Each stage of creation opens up fresh avenues,” explains the choreographer. “The web series allowed us to do things that were impossible in the installation, just as the installation allowed us to do new things in relation to the stage piece. This virtual reality prototype is once again pushing back the boundaries of what we can do with EVE 2050.”
In the virtual reality prototype, spectators find themselves at the heart of this universe, at the heart of the action, in the middle of the space. Because the tower itself is located in space, they can see planets through the openings.
After putting on the virtual reality headset, we are transported to a new space where, as in our world, we can move around, touch objects and interact with our surroundings. Awkward manipulations, however, can teleport users out of the tower and into space. An experience that Isabelle Van Grimde describes as “unbearable” for the human mind, which perceives billions of kilometres of emptiness below and around itself, without warning or preparation.
“During a test run of the prototype, I approached Eve and touched her,” Van Grimde recounts. “Everything began to vibrate: Eve’s avatar, the tower, my headset. Another time, the developers tricked me by programming Eve to enter the elevator without me, leaving me with no way out of the tower.” These bugs and peculiarities in the prototype under construction make the experience more vibrant, reflecting the spontaneity of awkward movements.
Eve’s avatar also holds its share of surprises, especially in the turmoil and confusion it creates when you meet it. Isabelle Van Grimde remarks that she was deeply affected the first time Eve moved, since the avatar, created from scratch from her imagination, was coming to life before her eyes. Much work, however, remains to be done on the coding of Eve’s movements, so that they match the expressiveness and precision of dancer Sophie Breton.
This experience of creating a virtual reality prototype as the fourth part of the EVE 2050 triptych has allowed the team to utilize many of the discoveries made during the research phase and to explore the themes in greater depth. “As a creator,” concludes Isabelle Van Grimde, “I feel extremely privileged and grateful to have been able to experience this platform, and to have had such a project to develop during confinement.”
Virtual reality is shaping up to be an extremely interesting new territory for dance, and vice versa. The fact that an artist and choreographer is the creator and decision-maker in the construction of these experiences will allow this tool to develop and expand its possibilities and horizons to encompass a greater variety of aesthetics and visions. It is important today that a diversity of artists employ these new tools to enrich their paths and present to the public a wide range of sensibilities. Virtual reality thus provides a marvellous new playing field for dance and audiences alike.
- Thomas Thevenet, member of Flotoyo and intern at Van Grimde Corps Secrets
- Yohji David, member of Flotoyo and intern at compagnie Van Grimde Corps Secrets
- Florian Clar, member of Flotoyo and intern at compagnie Van Grimde Corps Secrets
- Michell-Eve Clavette
- Mathieu Perreault
- Casey Côtes-Turpin
- Estelle Guingo
- Isabelle Van Grimde
- Thom Gossage
- Sophie Breton
- Iloé Françon