Last month’s Tribeca Film Festival may not have been able to happen physically in New York City, but festival organisers found innovative ways to reach audiences virtually, including, appropriately enough, with its Virtual Reality (VR) Cinema360 immersive program which was made available to the public globally via Oculus TV. Among this year’s Cinema360 selections was creative director Enrique Agudo’s conceptually ambitious, rich and impactful LGBTQ+ VR short film The Pantheon of Queer Mythology, which bridges the analog production of fashion with digital media.
With VR headset comfortably in place, The Pantheon of Queer Mythology viewer is transported to several distinct, otherworldly yet deeply evocative environments. Through four narrated chapters we meet various deities representative of contemporary queer culture. Firstly, in Homodistortio we meet Agoretz, the god of male hookup apps who immerses us in the tireless journey of swiping through profile pictures where the most acclaimed are muscular, hyper-masculine, white, cisgender men. Next, the genderqueer deity Iyyanna shows us the manifestation of their life experiences and self development as expressed through significant, defining objects, where maleness and femaleness are fluid. Sitting regally at the centre of sinking landfill behind the Hollywood sign, chapter 3’s Griyah narrates her struggle of being pushed aside by her queer siblings. Finally, the gay female deities, Kae, El and Rue give us hope with visions of the matriarchy as it protects, shares, nurtures and empathizes.
Through a queer lens, Agudo and his collaborators address themes of masculinity and body dysmorphia, as well as issues often ignored or overlooked by the mainstream like internalised misogyny and homophobia, dissonance of gender identities, racial imbalance and discrimination, and transphobia from within the community.
The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with the Madrid born visual artist Enrique Agudo, whose work has taken him from architectural projects to research-driven fictional narratives. He is the creative director of The Pantheon of Queer Mythology.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: What drew you to VR initially and why was it the right storytelling medium for this piece?
Enrique Agudo: “Actually I kind of stumbled into VR. I think of myself as a new media artist in a broader sense. I trained as an architect so a lot of the tools that I’ve used throughout my education have been very technology based. I was always far more interested in anthropological aspects of architecture rather than form or construction, the more traditional notions that are explored with architecture. I always more interested in the narrative. I love the idea that we use architecture as a way to almost take shape of what our life is about; the little carvings of our daily routines are sort of shaped in space. That was far more fascinating to me. I come from Spain where our culture is embedded in the history of religion. I find it really fascinating that all of the cultural objects are manifestations of those same things, and I find in general folklore is a beautiful manifestation of our heritage and who we are, and the sort of things we have praised for years and years. It centres around the issues of humanity and behaviour and anthropology really, and so I find it interesting as we think about how technology influences all those things. Certainly at times like right now, we see ourselves through these flat screens that have cameras in them, and so we start thinking of ourselves in terms of what we look like on these screens, that sort of feedback loop of what we think we are is now being heavily influenced by technology.”
“I started thinking of VR as a medium that is so fresh and so new and at a genesis stage, I felt that it was a good opportunity to tell stories of diversity and inclusion and queer identities in a celebratory way. I think that VR could potentially be the first medium that is completely inclusive and intersectional from its very beginning. I want to make celebratory queer stories as oppose to the story of the underdog, or a tokenised idea of what queer should be for a mainstream, digestible palate. What if VR is the medium through which we celebrate queer stories and create a paradigm where that is never not the case?”
There’s an acknowledgment of queer struggles in the narration, and also visually for instance the word ‘faggot’ and other derogatory terms scrawled on a classroom blackboard. But the film transcends that in a way, to a more spiritual plane, or a higher plane with these deities.
“It’s certainly been my experience that those names we were called at school when we were young kids, those are still the voices in my head. I still go back to those terms and when I’m in conflict with myself, those are the sort of things that come up. Not necessarily because I believe them, but they’ve definitely impacted how I experience my own place in the world. So I think that the point of making those so visible and so apparent is not so much to say ‘poor us’ because we were oppressed, but to express a celebration of who we are. Those things are just as much a part of who we are as the drag, or the dick pics, or all the other elements that are far less dark. I think that being queer has intrinsically within it a certain darkness that is part of the duality of who we are. The fact that we’ve been so exposed to that darkness makes us far more aware of it and at the same time not particularly ashamed, or not trying to repel that darkness at any cost, which is something I feel is far more abundant in mainstream heteronormative realms. I think we’re all fully aware that we had to go through certain things in order to become acquainted with who we are because our existence was always somewhat “othered” so we’ve come to terms with that darkness. Depending on our stage in life, we are hopefully getting to a place where we can celebrate that and this work tries to do that.”
Something that I really liked about the film is how expansive and inclusive it is, in terms of it not being just being a cis gay male piece; it feels very LGBTQIA+ in the experiences it immerses us in, which I feel is particularly important right now, at a time where there are some vocal gay, bisexual and lesbian people who want to exclude certain members of our family.
“I’m fully aware of that and I start the film with the cis gay male context as it’s the one that I know most about because it’s the one that affects me directly. That first episode talks about how we see ourselves through the endless writing of profiles, and all we aspire to. This is of course generalising, but the most woof’d, the most liked, the most popular profiles on all these apps are often cis white gay males who look a certain way and they sort of all emulate their straight counterparts, with notions of masculinity and validation. All these things that are so twisted and subverted and based on a lot of things that are a little misogynistic, and quite uneven, and racist and disparaging in so many ways. So I tried to make a point of that, to make sure that I tell the story from what I know, and then I sort of expand from there. Initially I actually had nine deities, not so much to cover each of the letters of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, but more so because there’s a lot of situations within the queer identity that are often less seen, or less popular or maybe not acknowledged or written off as degenerate. Whether it pertains to kink or polyamory or asexuality. All these things can be obscure with the LGBTQ+ community itself, and sometimes a little contradictory because the sexual expression of cis white gay males might be completely different to gay women. So I wanted to take the opportunity to tell the tale of queer people in a complex and contradictory and multidimensional way.”
“A lot of people don’t realise that there’s a lot of transphobia within the LGBTQ+ community, or that there’s racism within all the letters of the umbrella, and those things don’t really serve the story of the mainstream narrative because they can’t put us a box. If they give us all those multi dimensions. I sort of used it selfishly as a way to broaden my own perception too. I’ve collaborated with all these people who have lived these stories. For instance Gracie Cartier, an incredibly beautiful woman who has lived her life as a straight man, as a gay man and as trans woman. She’s experienced several iterations of herself. Moving to Hollywood, every time that her identity evolved she experienced a certain kind of rejection and in a way had to start all over again. So in her chapter, the idea is that she stands regal over her conflictive story of development and evolution, and not only does it fiercely, but holds herself to such a standard of class and manners and dignity in a way that I can’t really attribute to myself. It’s been an incredibly humbling lesson about other people’s experiences. I’m a cis white male so I have a platform that other people don’t have. The fact that I’m able to come from this privileged position and be able to tell a story about queer people and provide a platform for those people who maybe wouldn’t have been able to tell the same story is my duty in order to help propel those people to have at least the fraction of the privilege that I have and to defy the society that gave me that privilege and not them.”
I’ve seen the film several times now, and I feel like I had a pretty different experience each time. I love being able to look up to the sky or ceiling, whatever happens to be there and down to the ground. Because it’s subject, and so immersive, we really bring our own thoughts and experiences with us. As a creator do you feel like you have to relinquish a bit of control and allow people to discover the film for themselves and to get whatever they take away from it?
“That’s the most interesting thing about getting into VR and telling stories in VR, because it is the most immersive medium that we know so far. Nobody is going to have the exact same experience because their circumstances and their head movements will illustrate a completely different experience to the next person that sees it, so that uniqueness of self with a story that is being told to you hasn’t really been seen in the same way before. The immersive nature of the medium already makes us suddenly much more open to being empathetic towards the characters that are presented to us. The fact that we are inside the story suddenly makes us a little vulnerable to the story, and therefore we have to be more empathetic in order to relate to these characters. It’s funny because the biggest critique that I’ve had about the work so far is that in cinematic terms it doesn’t really read as a film; the narration doesn’t really line up with what you see, the visuals sometimes seem that they’re not telling one story. I found that the biggest praise that I could get because a lot of what it comes down is that this film is as important as the queer experience is important to the person who sees it. So if you’re in it and you’re a cis white male and you’re exposed to the idea swiping profiles endlessly, and trying to reach for this impossible human creature that has all these attributes that we make up, that everyone else has but that we don’t, and you can relate to the idea of that endless search and soul-sucking experience that the apps can be, you’re going to take something away from that that might make you think about your own place in that specific environment. If you hear the narration by the three women who are talking about the destruction of Earth and the rebirth of a matriarchal idea with women at the forefront of that fight, then you might go away and think about what matriarchy means to you, even if you don’t quite understand from the scene all the different elements that are placed there for you. I always say that this has been conceived a little bit like a Dutch painting, like a Seventeenth century Dutch still life, where all the elements are there and you’re telling a narrative, but the narrative isn’t linear and there is definitely more than one take on it. And so I love the idea that this piece might have the same effect. All the elements are there for you to dive into, your own life experience and your own sense of identity will heavily influence what you go home and think about after seeing it, I hope.”
Tell us a bit about the practical work involved in creating it. Most people will have a good idea of how a conventional film is made, but not so much when it comes to VR because it’s so new. With this piece it seems like a mixture of elements that are purely computer generated and things that are photo realistic that presumably were scanned in some way from real life?
“Exactly. One of the things that I find kind of lacking in VR at the moment, because the medium is so new, is that a lot people are jumping to psychedelic drug trip kind of experiences. Because we can sort of float on air, and dive into the dark mass of the Internet and then have dolphins flying through clouds made of popcorn…that’s all fantastic and it’s part of the novelty of the medium that we can experience these whacky things, but I’m really much more interested in mastering the medium from a very traditional, almost painting like approach, simply because I think the medium is at its most powerful when you address the power that it has in the seriousness of its potential.”
“Initially I thought that creating something that was purely CG might have been a bit of a cop out. Because we were creating stories that are about mythology, about human experience that are allegorical in some ways, I thought we might want to bring the CG and the physical closer together so that the person doesn’t feel alienated as soon as they step into this world. The team I collaborated with was entirely made up of queer people. I collaborated with with fashion designers and crochet artists and hair and makeup professionals, all kinds of people who have helped me put together the costumes, as well as letting the costumes be influenced by the collaborative narrative that we developed with each of the characters that embodied the deities in the end. Then we used a process called photogrammetry, which is the sort of thing that’s used by Marvel for the superhero movies to scan the film star. It takes one photo from 140 cameras at once, then you create a 3D mesh out of those photographs. All the cross points give the software an idea of how to create that three dimensionality, because they of course align. From that we went on to scanning objects as well, objects that maybe we couldn’t find on the Internet or model ourselves, in order to have textures that were photorealistic and closer to objects in real life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m fully aware that this experience is very psychedelic drug trip, but the psychedelic drug trip that you’re having seems far closer to Earth than Uranus! If that makes any sense?!”
I’ve had some memorable, quite profound, experiences with VR, especially at Tribeca over recent years. What’s the most exciting use of VR that you’ve experienced so far and is there anyone working in the field whom you particularly admire in terms of what they’re doing with the medium?
“The answer to that is two different things because the people whom I admire and I want to emulate a little are often not doing VR themselves. The type of VR that I’m really fascinated by is the one that makes you forget that you’re in VR, which is really difficult to do because obviously we’re always aware that we are looking through those goggles. I think that one of the most impressive VR experiences is the recently released Half-Life: Alyx, which is a video game in VR that has completely blown away my own notions of VR because of the expanse of the possibilities of interaction with the environment. It’s so sensitive and so well-thought-out and so meticulous that it’s very easy to spend three hours in the headset and not even think about it, which is scary because it’s so immersive that you forget your sense of space and time. Also, I have to say the thing that blew me away when I started working in VR, that charmed me and hooked me in, Saschka Unseld’s film called Dear Anjelica which was a Sundance winner a few years ago. It’s an incredibly beautiful bedtime story about a mother and a girl, and the aesthetic is very brushstroke like, very painterly, using an app that is available in VR, Quill, where you paint and use brush strokes in space. And so they’ve created this beautiful almost motion animation in three dimensions with dragons and cars; it’s like a whimsical dream. That’s possibly the most impactful story that I’ve been told in VR.”
“I am really interested in the idea of the expression of anthropology and conditions, almost like design fiction. So I’m really fascinated by people like Frederik Heyman and Sam and Andy Rolfes. Heyman has recently done a tonne of photo shoots that are in all the magazines, perhaps most notably he recently did a Paper Magazine shoot with Lady Gaga, where he 3D scanned Lady Gaga and put her into these virtual environments, he’s been working like this for a while now. All the idents are short clip animations that he then takes stills from to create fashion editorial, and I’m fascinated by his work because it falls close to mine in a way.”
“The Rolfes are a brother duo who have been doing interactive performances. They create these environments and these avatars and they do a live performance in a motion capture suit for music festivals and art exhibitions. I’m fascinated by the revolution of the movement of creating a performance which happens in the physical world, but its manifestation happens in the virtual world; conceptually it’s super powerful to me. And also their stories are super inclusive; they’re trying to make a world that includes everyone regardless of their identity, which obviously hits close to home for me as well.”
And finally, what’s your favourite LGBTQ+ film, TV series, book, play, artwork, piece of music, or person, even a VR experience; something queer that’s really resonated with you over the years. Or it could be something more current, or both.
“Hmm, let me think. I could go really nerdy with it or I could go really mainstream! Well, I have a bunch of tattoos, and all my tattoos are of queer artists that I’m inspired by; I have Francis Bacon and Marsha P. Johnson, and Keith Haring, and David Hockney…so I guess those are all people who I constantly reference. In terms of films, one that certainly changed the way I see things – and I could tear up just thinking about it – is United In Anger: A History of ACT UP the documentary. I was always a little oblivious about having queer women in my life until I watched that documentary. I was in my early twenties when I saw it and I didn’t have that much life experience to have that many queer women in my life at the time and if definitely made me reach out to more queer women. When I think of how gay women stood next to gay men during the AIDS crisis it could bring me to tears thinking about the unity that they showed in order to get testing and funds, and to not let this be just a gay male disease, that was really impactful. I hope that maybe in a way this film does that a little too for maybe people who aren’t so aware of the trans community or have, maybe unintentionally, chosen not to pair up with or invest time in getting to know people in the trans community; simply because I feel that in the same way that gay women stood up with us during the AIDS crisis we should be doing the same for our trans brothers and sisters who are being murdered and oppressed and kicked out of the Army, instead of just thinking that’s not a problem that relates to us. I just think of women standing up for gay men and my heart sinks thinking what it must have taken for them to go out of their way to fight a fight that didn’t affect them in the same way. That notion should be the fire that helps us stand behind our trans brothers and sisters. This whole experience has been eye-opening for a lot of reasons, but it’s certainly humbled me into practising those things that United in Anger taught me when I watched it.”
By James Kleinmann