The main function of a music festival is escapism; music is often secondary. So what do we do with a virtual festival experience like this weekend’s XR splendor?
Funded with $ 1.5 million in Australian government Rise funding and hosted on the Sansar virtual reality platform, the two-day online iteration of Splendor in the Grass promised “a first online experience in the world”: “A a virtual world where music, art and culture rule, where there are no blockages or social distances, where hypnotized mobs dance in the woods at the coolest pace. “
In other words, the festival, which cost $ 50 for a two-day ticket, $ 30 for a day, would be a higher virtual concert experience than popular streaming festivals like Isol-Aid and less default than live shows. other budget Billie Eilish and Dua Lipa.
It’s a noble goal, but immediately drowned out by the dissonance: Splendor XR was clearly meant to be an alternative to the fatigue of pandemic life, but the Internet is sadly the exact site of anxiety that many are trying to break free right now. Unlike Splendor in the Grass, where the phone can die or lose reception, during Splendor XR I can launch myself into my inbox or Instagram with a second warning (try it as I might not) ) and after months spent inside, a weekend on the Internet doesn’t seem like any escapism. It’s a perverse blessing for festival organizers that, due to blockages in some parts of Australia, much of Splendor XR’s key audience would have spent this weekend online anyway.
Upon entering the virtual world, I am asked to choose from a set of prefabricated avatars. Many wear Nike, a forced brand interaction that, in any case, feels very true to the spirit of most music festivals. When I’m finally “inside,” I’m amazed at how little genuine functionality there is. From festival marketing, I assumed I would be able to “walk” around the festival site to each stage and to different stalls, unlike last year’s Minecraft World Festivals which featured artists like 100 Geckos and Charli XCX . Of course not: it turns out that the ability to walk between stages is limited to those with virtual reality equipment and gaming PCs; the rest of us just click.
Upon entering the festival site, I am offered different “camera angles”, each showing me a different tent (box office, merchandise, bar, etc.) and each one sends me to a point of sale where i can spend money. If I want drinks, I can click from the bar to a third-party website and order a delivered drink. If I want merchandise, I can go to another third party site. If I want a pair of Nike Huaraches, the Nike tent will direct me to the Nike website for more information. And if I want to see how much fun everyone has, I can see the social media wall, which shows me blurry photos on Instagram of attendees wearing festival costumes sitting at their computers. The strangest thing is that there is a police stop without any interactivity. (Fortunately, unlike the actual splendor in the grass, they can’t do an illegal search of teenagers here.)
These areas are strangely static, a handful of virtual avatars moving back and forth from time to time as if you were watching a looping gif. In the chat to the right of the festival screen, I can communicate with my fellow attendees. Many seem to have technical difficulties: the delay despite using a gaming PC, the confusing sound on an iPad, and virtual reality are tightening.
When I click on one of the few scenarios available to view it, the stream defaults to the pre-recorded live set of the band it is playing. I am then offered the opportunity to see the flow as if it were from the crowd, which superimposes a kind of frame on top of the flow, adding fake lights and fake members of the crowd.
Client Liaison’s easily digestible 80s pop pastiche was made pretty much for festivals, but seeing with the fake people, all I can think of is what’s missing from this experience. It might be nice for those watching with friends, but it seems an unlikely prospect when so many in Australia are closed. Similarly, a set of the fantastic and wonderful punk band from Sunshine Coast, the Chats, mostly provokes a kind of bewildered curiosity, rather than the frantic rush that I imagine one of their live concerts could do. My attention is directed to the edges of the scene: Was it filmed at the Croxton Bandroom? Is this avatar dancing right in front of me a mistake? … Is it the chest of the washing machine?
When it comes time for the headliners of the first night, an enigmatic festival emerges: Denzel Curry and Phoebe Bridgers play at about the same time. (I initially wonder why a utopian virtual festival would have clashes, before I realize that, of course, the on-demand viewing of lost series is a $ 20 supplement).
My instinct is to see Curry, a Florida rapper doing a frantic and frantic live show, but featuring only Curry and a DJ, his low-production ensemble is strangely disconnected.
I leave it to Bridgers, but his ensemble is one of the many and most live broadcasts he has made on the back of his acclaimed album Punisher, and there is little to differentiate it from the others. When the main camera stream doesn’t show the video for the first few minutes, it’s not worth the wait.
I wander (or rather click) into the Tipi Forest, to see an anonymous DJ play anonymous EDM. I would need many, many friends to enjoy it.
My second day at Splendor XR, I decide to find fun off the carousel of pre-recorded sets. Programming beyond the main stages doesn’t look like the kind of pre-recorded video content you might watch on YouTube to pass the time: I have a conversation between Grace Tame and Tarang Chawla on the Forum, before I click on Global Village, where i see a leather guy on his feet synchronizing his lips with Queen while juggling. Ultimately, though, there’s only so much time you can spend in one of the festival’s alien areas when you’re just looking through a portable monitor.
I go to the amphitheater to see the giants of the jungle and I see vocalist Sam Hales start clapping as if to direct an audience, despite being clearly alone with his band. It’s admirable that these sets were recorded with the intention of capturing a true live experience, but again, it’s overwhelmed by a deep sense of strangeness, like when Hot Dub Time Machine takes a tour of popular hits like The Chain and Take On Me asking the “crowd” to sing “louder”.
The set of The Avalanches, filmed in one of his last shows at the Enmore Theater, includes at least crowd shots, which gives the whole the redolence of a concert film in the face of the visceral emptiness of some other sets. Perhaps his is the most musically impressive, an erudite and impeccably structured DJ ensemble featuring songs from his impressive 2020 album We Will Always Love You. A highlight of my weekend is listening to them undo We Go On with Queen’s I Want To Break Free, an inspired moment that, at a regular festival, you could imagine people talking about for months. With no people to share it with, the moment seems ephemeral. Like anything else I can see online on a given day, it makes me smile and then slide me.
Another drawing is the British underground electronic car Charli XCX. His live program adapts in a unique way: in a festival he will play a set with his hits (I Love It, Boom Clap, a cover of Spice Girls, etc.) and in a main program he will play the songs that have the became an underground star (Vroom Vroom, Femmebot, Backseat). She performs the previous set for Splendor XR, but her strong fans, who have bought one-day passes to see her, start flooding the chat asking for her lesser-known songs.
Charli’s performance seems to be optimized for virtual reality and, without headphones, is unobtrusive and repetitive; the pop star dances back and forth on a small snippet of screen, with no artistic brilliance from some previous ensembles. Charli, without people, comes out a little disinterested, while those who look seem perplexed and disappointed; everything has the air of something that none of us wanted to participate in, but in which everyone participates.
When the failure of Charli’s set seemed to lie in a misinterpretation of what Splendor XR really is, Grimes and his team have fixed it: a brand opportunity. Halfway through Charli’s set, news arrives that viewers will have to switch to the popular Discord messaging network to watch Grimes play. He has a collaboration with Discord and stars in his new advertising campaign, which makes this forced migration a particularly unpleasant move: in addition to getting his presumably strong Splendor XR headline share (funded with a grant!), Grimes gets sign a whole bunch of new users up to your Discord server and presumably get your data as well. Any user who has purchased a Splendor XR ticket just to see Grimes is therefore effectively docked; could have waited for the announcement that the Grimes set was moving to the free platform and signed up. In addition to facing injuries, the Grimes set ended up streaming on Discord, it was an audio-only DJ set, certainly nice for some, but far from the promise of Splendor XR.
The moment represented the festival’s broadest failure: far from providing a Covid escape and lock-in, Splendor XR revealed mostly what we’ve lost.