CULTURE VS COVID: CONNIE HARRISON

Life in the time of covid has inevitably become more virtual, and the pandemic has accelerated innovations in VR, AR and “mixed reality”. In the latest of our interviews about creative ingenuity under pressure, we get a personal perspective on the latest developments.

CONNIE HARRISON

has parlayed an agency background and a long involvement with Punch Drunk Theatre into a creative consultancy that’s breaking new ground in multi-sensory VR and mixed-reality by merging the latest tech with her understanding of storytelling and live action. After her own acclaimed immersive production Somnai, Connie has directed

ambitious brand-financed AR productions including 2019’s Central St Martin’s MA fashion show with Three and a momentous live-action immersive launch in the Arizona desert for H&M.

What has been your favourite piece of culture that wouldn’t have happened without covid?

Music and live events are a big part of my life. I loved how artists, musicians and festivals found a way to stay connected to their fans. Whether it was doing a crazy live gig from their sitting room or creating a whole virtual world where you can meet people and dance in front of the DJ booth. People didn’t give up. And while it will never replace the real deal, it kept the spirit alive and made us smile. Balenciaga created an apocalyptic computer game, “Afterworld: The age of tomorrow”, for their autumn/winter collection,  and sent over 300 VR headsets to guests worldwide. Demna Gvasalia, their creative director said “Only the true and authentic creative intelligence will be able to pass a long-term test of survival.” Boom!

Thinking personally, have you explored new opportunities or new ways to create or produce that you wouldn’t have tried if it wasn’t for the pandemic?

It made me think about making self-sufficient pieces of work. Stuff you could do pandemic or not. Probably using immersive technologies and software. But also having ideas related to escapism, freedom and fantasy. With the Pandemic dragging on, buying a VR headset and escaping to a virtual world is understandable. I had a nice VR experience recently in Altspace. We were in a beautiful snowy woodland scene, chatting to people, sat around a campfire, toasting marshmallows. Then the next minute we went and hung out on a beach. Social VR used to be a little bit for the geeks among us, but I don’t think that’s the case now.

What will be the new outlets, the new spaces, the new ways the arts can reach people and also provide performers and creators a means to make a living?

Multi-medium. Multi-channel, multi-platform, multi-device, multi-everything. Creating work that transcends conventional forms. Covid has forced us to reflect and adapt. It’s made some things feel out of date. Why fly across the world to sit in a big conference hall and hear someone speak? Why fly models in from all around the world to catwalk for two minutes? Why commute into work every day? This is insane germ-spreading, time-wasting, planet-killing behaviour. Now more than ever, we will look to blend physical with digital and virtual.

The crisis has been both a revolution and a serious challenge. How have things changed for you?

I’m working on a VR project at the moment, but with the collapse of the events and entertainment industry, I’ve had plenty of time to step away from habits and routines and reflect on what I really want to do with my career. Where to focus my time. What new skills I need to do the stuff I want to do. And also, I’ve learned that actually I can’t be arsed with a lot of contemporary TV and fiction. It bores me. I haven’t spent the whole of lockdown finishing Netflix like a lot of people. I’ve day-dreamed most of my way through it.

Covid-19 has accelerated our desire for new, immersive platforms and content and we will expect to access these “new worlds” on any damn device we want. We’re reaching a point now where everyday devices can help us make our own immersive environments. The new iPhone 12 Pro lets you use AR apps to build a map of a room, scan 3D environments and objects, and overlay that onto the real world. It’s like the AR we know, but with more occlusion and accuracy, so it looks like it’s there. You can then move around the room and it stays placed there. A bit like a mixed reality headset, but without the headset bit. Then if we add some Apple AirPod Pros with its spatialised sound, we’re away.

We’ve seen some great brand-led initiatives; is there more brands could be doing? What’s the best way they could help?

Stop being greedy and selfish? Dunno. Transparency. Kindness. Be humans first, corporations… last. Also, let’s be honest, if there was ever a time to throw an amazing party, 2021 is it. Brands need to get planning! No one is going to squirm at a branded banner right now. People will be grateful.

What’s the one development that gives you the most reason for optimism?

In the pandemic – WFH and the vaccination.
For me – Learning Ableton and the rise of spatialised sound.
Forever – Advances in medication (some of which is very close to home)