Anna West and David Callanan’s To Miss The Ending is the winner of the first-ever XR/Immersive art award at the 2020 London Film Festival.
The pair, who head up digital arts studio idontloveyouanymore, took home the audience-voted award after the project was on display for the past week and a half via LFF’s virtual festival hub, The Expanse. To Miss The Ending envisions a world in which the increasing pressures of today’s society, from environmental turmoil to far-right extremism and all the madness in between, begin to push people into uploading their consciousness to a digital metaverse to start life anew.
Viewers start the piece in the middle of uploading their own existence to the platform but, after an error, are instead taken on a fragmented tour of the uploaded memories of five other members. Each voice contends with the other as they recount real memories through digital interpretations, and the platform buckles under the weight of the confusion.
The piece itself is a compelling meditation on the modern climate. Starting out in a barren landscape, the character’s recollections begin to paint the scenery, with buildings, rivers and vegetation dropping into existence, made up of digital blocks. What starts as a sparse set quickly begins to pile up, an unnerving sense of claustrophobia boiling away as the additions — often tied to painful memories — keep stacking. Signing away ownership of your life might seem like a no-brainer at first, but what happens when the glitches start? When do you notice the gaps between the real work and the digital, and how does that affect you? All of this strikes an especially powerful chord coming off the back of the launch of the Oculus Quest 2, a headset that requires users to have a Facebook account and locks anyone out of a VR ecosystem if their social media profile is banned.
Speaking to UploadVR, West and Callanan reveal that the project started life as a theater production back in 2016, but felt intrinsically tied to VR from the start. “The narrative of the piece or the themes of the piece in lots of ways are kind of about VR,” Callanan says. “And, in general, I think the piece maybe sways towards viewing a purely digital experience as maybe a negative thing, or as resulting in the loss of something. And the idea is that that highlights the aspects of your life that you really enjoy, love and maybe now more than ever are missing.
“I think there’s something really interesting about telling that story, using technology that approaches a digital escapism as closely as possible as we can get to right now.”
It’s a concept we’ve often seen explored in contemporary media, especially as VR and big tech in general has grown in popularity. But, while it builds on themes explored in works like Ready Player One, West says it was mostly “based on our own thinkings about our own hometowns. So maybe that’s the personal element comes in a bit more – where, in our hometowns, do we have these memories and what could happen to those memories in the future?”
Having started life four years ago, though, both West and Callanan note they didn’t quite expect some of the piece’s predictions, if you will, to come to pass quite so quickly. “There’s definitely something a bit worrying about needing a Facebook account to access VR and also where AI and machine learning and attention-grabbing algorithms could land VR as a platform if they’re allowed to consume it, because it’s such an attention-grabbing medium, anyway,” Callanan notes.
At its core, though, in a world in which consumerism is increasingly moving towards digital subscription services and online lifestyles, Callanan says To Miss The Ending touches upon “the increasing movement towards not owning things including, eventually, your sense of self.”
Moving forward, West and Callanan plan to tour To Miss The Ending in 2021 before a potential release to home headsets. The film was idontloveyouanymore’s first VR experience, but the team is already planning more work with the medium. “There’s a really cool lack of rules in VR right now because it’s so new,” West says. “You can do anything. People will maybe tell you some rules that are going on, but they’re sort of there to be questioned and really like there’s new paths that are being found. And that’s really, really exciting and very open and accessible.”