Representations of the ‘refugee crisis’ have ranged from the spectacular to the devastating. In an attempt to engage with this spectacle, some organisations have developed virtual reality ‘experiences’ that aim to encourage audiences to ‘walk in the shoes’ of displaced people: to feel compassion for their plight, and to gain an understanding of their everyday experience. In this piece, Aikaterini Antonopoulou critically dissects this mode of representation, arguing that it generates a ‘gameification’ of reality, where intense experiences can be had, without any of the consequences. In building on the conversations taking place as part of the Representations of Displacement Series, this piece suggests virtual reality prevents any meaningful encounter in part because it relies on the absence of substance: the experience without the consequence.
The Virtual Reality of the Refugee Experience
By Aikaterini Antonopoulou
Clouds over Sidra is a Virtual Reality short film directed by Gabo Arora and Barry Pousman that boasts an immersive experience of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, through the eyes of Sidra, a twelve-year-old girl who has lived there for eighteen months. Commissioned by the United Nations and sponsored by Samsung, the film was launched at the World Economic Forum in Davos, at the height of the refugee crisis in January 2015, in order to raise awareness of the situation. With the help of Virtual Reality headsets that provide a 360-degree view of the setting, the viewer takes the place of the young girl and wanders from the family’s accommodation through the streets of the camp, to the school and the neighbourhood’s bakery, to the gym and the football pitch (for more on seeing the Zaatari refugee camp through Virtual Reality see here). They can examine closely the camp’s spaces, while they listen to Sidra describing moments of her life: her baby-brother crying; studying and keeping her books clean at school; cloudy weather that gives her a sense of protection; how the boys in the camp like to play video games while the girls play football; her reflections on the end of the war and the return to Syria. The film is saturated with detail, both in visual and acoustic terms, in a pursuit of a life-like experience.
Clouds over Sidra is not the only Virtual Reality movie that aims to evoke “empathy” and “immersion” in the life of refugees (see The Displaced and Carne y Arena). Since the intensification of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, multiple stories of displacement have reached us and our screens in various forms. From diagrammatic interactive “games” to high definition films, and from graphic novels to Instagram snapshots, journeys, refugee camps, and lives re-established in exile are staged before us in an attempt to simulate the experience of those who are displaced. The question of the role and agency of contemporary imagery when it comes to seeing and understanding the refugee crisis arises here: how much detail is enough detail in such representations? Do such digital reconstructions create a real-like experience or rather a hyper-real condition?
Two years after the launch of the Clouds over Sidra, in January 2017, the participants of the World Economic Forum in Davos were invited to experience a new, more tactile take on the refugee crisis. Organised by the Crossroads Foundation and designed by refugees and NGO representatives who have worked with refugees, A Day in the Life of a Refugee is a participatory, “real-life” simulation that calls us to walk “in the shoes” of the refugees in order to understand some of their struggles and decisions in life. The performance begins with participants being assigned a refugee identity and the story that accompanies it. Then they flee from home in the dark and amidst the sounds of sirens and bombardments, they negotiate with smugglers, and are interrogated by soldiers. Similar to the military simulations that become training fields for the targeting of existing urban conditions (see Theme Park Archipelago, in Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism), the set where this takes place is meticulously designed: tight spaces; makeshift tents; dirt; rusted metal sheets; barbed wire. The experience is described as “powerful” and “moving,” but is the return to the physical here a return to the reality of things?
In Welcome to the Desert of the Real, Slavoj Žižek agues that the obsession to get as close as possible to this reality makes our everyday environment increasingly “virtualised.” As in Virtual Reality, where things maintain their appearance, but are deprived of their substance, our “real reality” (meaning here “physical”) is experienced itself as a virtual entity: “coffee without caffeine, cream without fat, beer without alcohol, (…) sex without sex, (…) warfare without warfare, (…) politics without politics, (…) the Other deprived of its Otherness.” (pg.10-11) Both in Clouds over Sidra and the Day in the Life of a Refugee, great attention has been paid to the representation of the refugee camps; however, the absence of pain, the possibility to leave the simulation at any point, and, most importantly, the absence of the fear of death confirm this virtualisation and even the “gamification” of everyday life: in other words, the increasing perception of our lived world as if it were a video-game-like environment, where we are offered intense experiences, yet deprived of their consequences.
According to Žižek, in order to maintain this realm of virtualisation we often have the impulse to “return to the Real,” and to ground ourselves in it; this “Real” comes back to us as yet another semblance, an image, and an “effect,” which “has to be perceived as a nightmarish unreal spectre” (pg.19) in order to be sustained. In response to the simulations described above, this “return to the Real” comes through the ironic gesture of a group of refugees in the Ritsona refugee camp, Greece, to advertise their tent on the popular platform Airbnb, inviting us to “a real opportunity to experience life as a Syrian refugee.” The advertisement is not ample in detail; on the contrary it gives limited information and in a humorous rather than dramatic tone: “if you are lucky you might get one of the two hot showers. There is a large vacant lot where the toilets are, which the children use as a playground. Please join in the games.” The image that accompanies it is, again, so bare that it exposes a very different reality; one that calls for meaningful understandings instead of spectacular effects when it comes to humanitarian crises.
N.B.: The author would like to thank Prof. Andrew Herscher for pointing out the Airbnb advertisement
- Antonopoulou, Aikaterini. “Situated Knowledges and Shifting Grounds: questioning the reality effect of high-resolution imagery.” Field vol.7(1), (2017): 53-63.
- Carne y Arena. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu. USA: Fondazione Prada and Legendary Entertainment, 2017.
- Clouds Over Sidra. Ddirected by Gabo Arora and Barry Pousman. USA: WITHIN, 2015: http://with.in/watch/clouds-over-sidra.
- Graham, Steven. Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism. London: Verso, 2010.
- The Displaced, directed by Imraan Ismail and Ben C. Solomon, USA: WITHIN, 2015, https://with.in/watch/the-displaced, accessed 3 November 2017.
- Žižek, Slavoj. Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London: Verso, 2002.
For pieces related to the themes explored in this post, read the following:
- Blachnicka-Ciacek, D. (2017) “Refugees. Present/Absent. Escaping the Traps of Refugee (Mis)Representation”
- Davies, D. (2017) “Hard Infrastructures, Diseased Bodies”
- Davies, D. (2017) “Urban Warfare, Resilience and Resistance”
- Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) “Invisible (at) Night: Space, Time and Photography in a Refugee Camp”
To read other pieces published as part of the Refugee Hosts Representations of Displacement Series, click here.