By Anita Malhotra
Diana Schniedermeier is a Managing Director and Executive Producer at the Interactive Media Foundation, an award-winning, non-profit company based in Berlin that produces culturally and socially relevant productions in a variety of media.
Their innovative projects include Inside Tumucumaque, a breathtaking VR installation that allows participants to “see” from the perspective of five animals in the Amazon rainforest; Baukraft, a Minecraft contest aimed at improving social conditions in an overcrowded Berlin neighbourhood; and Das Totale Tanz Theater, a stunning VR installation inspired by Bauhaus concepts in which the participant interacts with hundreds of digital dancers on a multi-story virtual stage.
Anita Malhotra spoke with Diana Schniedermeier on September 9, 2019 about the Interactive Media Foundation’s work at its office in Berlin.
AM: Can you tell me a bit about the Interactive Media Foundation?
DS: The Interactive Media Foundation started in 2013 and we are a team of experts from digital media, from narrative, from film, from games, and what we are trying to do is find expressions for topics that are relevant to society. These might be cultural topics, ecological topics, or health topics, for example.
When we start to research a topic that is interesting to us, we always have two questions: to whom do we want to communicate, and how do we have to communicate it so that it reaches people intellectually and emotionally? And so we have done graphic novels, motion graphic novels, games, and have been doing VR for a few years.
Then we look for partners: technological partners, partners for distribution, for financing, because we are a small company. Our main role is thinking about the topics, how to convey them, and who to work with.
AM: Do you have a background in VR yourself?
DS: I have been in digital media for more than 25 years. In the past, I helped companies to communicate or develop products or services, and tell stories, in the digital world. When I came to the Interactive Media Foundation I started to work on all the projects here because I was the one with the deepest digital production background and narrative background.
AM: I came to know about the Interactive Media Foundation’s work through the VR dance piece Das Totale Tanz Theater, which I saw at Montreal’s Phi Centre this year. Can you tell me about how this piece came about?
DS: A colleague from Filmtank – a documentary filmmaker – came to us at the end of 2014 and said, “Bauhaus is turning 100. Why not do something cross-media?”
Together with Filmtank we created the project Bauhaus Spirit, which included a documentary feature film.
It also included a Minecraft contest in 2016 where we asked teams in Germany to improve Gropiusstadt in Berlin. Walter Gropius planned a huge city in the south of Berlin, but died before it was finished.
Right now more than 30,000 people live there, and since the ‘80s it’s been kind of a synonym for social problems.
We rebuilt it in Minecraft and asked young people to make proposals on how to improve it. And then we found a Minecraft YouTuber who had a huge fan base in Germany. In the end we had fantastic proposals from all over Germany.
Then we did Das Totale Tanz Theater as an interactive virtual reality experience (single user and multi user) and as a 360° video with music composed by Einstürzende Neubauten.
We also produced the binaural audio play Audio.Space.Machine. All four productions deal with certain matters of the Bauhaus, utopian thinking, and their perception today. We premiered them at the opening festival of the Bauhaus Centenary here in Berlin in January.
AM: What was your role in Das Totale Tanz Theatre?
DS: I developed the idea and the story together with our creative producer, Maya Puig, and I am the Executive Producer.
AM: Where did the idea come from?
DS: It was inspired by two ideas of the Bauhaus. The first was Walter Gropius’ idea of the “total theater,” where there is no wall between the visitor or viewer and the stage.
One hundred years ago they tried to build it mechanically as a wooden stage but it didn’t work out. Today we have the technology – VR – which brings the visitor or viewer right into the centre of what is happening. And that is why we chose VR for this.
Then the question was, “What is the topic?” What I found very interesting is everyone thinks of the Bauhaus in terms of architecture or furniture. But in Dessau they had a stage, and Oskar Schlemmer was the director of the stage.
He did a lot of experiments about man and the surrounding space, and he was very interested in the question of the relationship between man and machine against the background of mechanization and industrialization.
Today, one of our driving questions is the relationship between man and machine against a background of digitalization and artificial intelligence.We chose this topic because we found it so relevant today. We told the story by means of dance because the experiments at the Bauhaus stage at that time used it as well.
It was very tough because what we did was bring together digital arts and stage art, with choreographer Richard Siegal.
He’s a stage artist, so when he does his choreographies he is on a stage and he is in reality.For him it was a very new experience to work with such a big team and within a certain frame.
We worked together with Artificial Rome – a studio here in Berlin – and they came up with this idea of this huge tower as a stage.
AM: How many real-life dancers were there?
DS: In the end it’s only four dancers, and they are multiplied by the computer. That made it so interesting for Richard because normally he doesn’t have the chance to have 300 dancers on the floor.
Even the costumes are only virtual. We never built them in reality. The dancers danced in a motion capture studio, and the costumes and everything were mapped on the computer.
That was quite a challenge for the dancers as well because these costumes set certain limitations for their movements.
We didn’t capture a whole choreography but only very small parts of movements. These movements were cut into more pieces, and in the end we had 2,500 pieces of movement. They were modeled at the computer to a choreography.
Part of the choreography is linear and part of the choreography you can modify. It was very important for Richard and Torsten Sperling, the choreography programmer, that when you modify it, it had to look very smooth. Not like a machine, but like a human, which was quite a challenge.
AM: Where has Das Totale Tanz Theater toured?
DS: Das Totale Tanz Theater and Das Totale Tanz Theater 360o have been touring all year. It started in Berlin at the Academy of Arts at the opening festival of the Bauhaus centenary. Then it went to the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. At the same time it was in Beirut – they had a Bauhaus centenary festival there. It has been to Athens, Copenhagen, Sao Paolo, the United States, China, among others.
Until yesterday it was in Munich, and it is still in Montreal. Today everything was shipped to Bauhaus Dessau because of their brand-new museum. It will go to the PalaisPopulaire – an arts space in Berlin – in November, and to Madrid and London. In the end it will have been at least 20 places this year.
AM: In 2018 your company created a virtual reality installation called Inside Tumucumaque, which recreates part of a Brazilian rainforest and selected animals that live there. How did this project come about?
DS: When we started to think about it, I had a chat with the communication chief of Greenpeace in Germany, and he told me that the Amazon and the rainforest is an urgent topic, but people all over the world – especially in Western industrialized countries – have heard about it for the last 20 years and simply do not listen anymore.
So we needed a kind of format or narrative that reaches them. We decided on VR because we needed something where people can really change their perspective and bond to these animals and this environment in an emotional way.
AM: What was your role in this project?
DS: I was the Executive Producer. Our creative director, Ina Kruger, developed the idea so that I could concentrate on the executive producing.
AM: Can you tell me about the development of the project?
DS: Tumacumaque is a real place in Northeastern Brazil. It’s one of the largest protected natural areas. The project started with our partner, Filmtank, who did a five-part documentary series for ARTE about the big river deltas in the world.
One of my colleagues, Michael Grotenhoff, went down to the Amazon delta to do this documentary. He is a cross-media guy so he was very interested from the start and is one of the producers of the VR installation as well.
He received long lists from us of what kinds of sounds we needed, because all the sound you hear is original sound from that area. Then we worked together with scientists from the Natural History Museum in Berlin. They had an expert for each animal. And the Botanical Garden in Berlin had an expert for the flora.
Michael took a lot of pictures so that we’d really get the textures of the plants and everything. And then we planted 7,500 plants virtually on the computer. They were checked by the experts at the Natural History Museum and the Botanical Garden.
And then our production partner – Artificial Rome – developed the concept and the whole world with our creative director, Ina Krueger, and their creative director, Patrik de Jong.
They had wonderful 3D artists and they modeled various animals. And the experts from the Natural History Museum added corrections like, “No, it doesn’t move like that” or “That feather of the bird has to be a bit different.” We got really detailed feedback, but the 3D models were fantastic.
What is very special is that one of Artificial Rome’s directors – Dirk Hoffmann – is originally a painter. We wanted to avoid the typical computer game look so the last thing Dirk did was apply a watercolour technique by hand to the plants to get a very specific kind of texture. He wanted to achieve a style similar to 19th century natural history drawings or the paintings of Albrecht Durer or Peter Doig.
AM: The piece allows the viewer to take on the perspective of a black caiman, harpy eagle, vampire bat, poison dart frog and a type of tarantula. What have some of the reactions been by the audience?
DS: In virtual reality, people react very differently. There are very active people, who really jump in, and people who are a bit more quiet and remote. What was really funny – especially when I look back at the premiere – was that we had a lady who loved to be underwater. She sat on the floor and said, “It’s so peaceful here. I don’t want to get out.”
At the beginning we didn’t have a time limit and it was a real challenge. Then we invented a time limit of a quarter of an hour. There was a child of 12 or 13 – he jumped on the floor swimming and he was totally absorbed.
Many people are very surprised because we always think that spiders can see well with their big eyes, but actually they don’t see much. People like the colours that the poison dart frog sees, and many people enjoy flying with the harpy eagle.
AM: Where has Inside Tumucumaque shown so far?
DS: It premiered last April at the Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe and the next place was in Stockholm. Then someone from Future of StoryTelling saw it and invited us to New York to present it there. It was in Sao Paulo this year at FILE, the largest electronic arts festival in South America. It went to Finland and around Germany, and Ars Electronica in Linz invited us to present it there.
Yesterday it was at the Bundestag because there was an open day for the public. The different parties wanted to present something that is a real topic right now, and the Amazon is burning, so it really fits. And we got quite good feedback there as well.
AM: You are currently developing a VR project called The Bone. Can you tell me a bit about that?
DS: The Bone is about the alienation of humans from nature, told via the topic of salmon. The Chilean artist Michelle-Marie Letelier is very concerned about ecology and saw in Norway how salmon is farmed and what is done with the salmon and to the environment.
She then learned that due to stronger regulations in Norway the salmon industry was moving to Chile. She came to us after seeing Inside Tumucumaque and said, “You do such wonderful VR work. I would really like to make accessible an experience where you learn something about wild salmon and farmed salmon.”
She had done some research with the University of Bergen and found out that otoliths – small organs in the ears of salmon – are like a chemical diary. You can read from them where the salmon has lived and what it ate and everything like this.
And then there was Martin Lee Mueller, an eco philosopher living in Oslo, who wrote the book, Being Salmon, Being Human about the Cartesian split between humans and animals.
The idea is from Michelle, but we helped to translate it into a VR experience. In the first phase, you go into a poetic world and dive into a stream of consciousness of the wild salmon and the farmed salmon.
The traditional music of the Sámi in North Norway, the Yoik, connects the experience to the northern hemisphere. In the next phase we will go to the southern hemisphere, to Chile, and shed a light on the even more brutal Chilean reality. We will present the first stage in Stavanger [Norway] during the Screen City Biennial in October 2019.
AM: Are there any other projects that you’re working on now?
DS: We are starting to work on a project about the oceans. It will be a cross-media project again. What we’re trying to do is to recreate the beauty of the ocean so that you can take a look at the real problems that the ocean has.
Everyone knows about plastic in the ocean – that is a huge problem. But it’s not that well known that noise in the ocean is a serious problem. All the orientation, navigation and communication in the oceans by fish and mammals is done via sound, so they can’t find their mates.
Humans can’t hear most of it because of the frequencies. But there are artists with whom we will work on this project who collect the sounds with hydrophones. When you hear that, you say “the ocean is so full of sounds!”
This is one of the problems we want to shed light on. In 2021, the UN Decade of Ocean Science will start and we plan to release the first part of this project.
Das Totale Tanz Theater can be viewed at Montreal’s Phi Centre as part of the HUM(AI)N exhibit until Sept. 29, 2019. For more information about the Interactive Media Foundation and their projects, please visit interactivemedia-foundation.com.