Moving and grooving at DocLab

Moving and grooving at DocLab

This year’s DocLab, IDFA’s showcase for innovation, experimentation and a satisfying touch of weird, waves goodbye to its former venue in Amsterdam’s centre and sets up shop in Tolhuistuin beside the space age Eye Museum in Amsterdam North. DocLab chief Caspar Sonnen explains why.

The immersive industry is growing, and digital works are increasingly becoming more physical. As a result, we  required more physical space, as well a broader range of exhibition contexts to properly show the type of works that we show. That is why, alongside the new main DocLab exhibition in Tolhuistuin, we are also experimenting with events and installations in the ARTIS-Planetarium (which presents Juliuis Horsthuis’ Fractal Time, see pic above), the Eye museum, and inside Central Station,” stresses Sonnen. “But we’re going to miss the Brakke Grond (the event’s spiritual home for over a decade) which was an integral part of DocLab’s growth and development.”

All of which means that the DocLab offer in 2019 comprises a lot more of what we have come to expect within the domain of immersive and interactive non-fiction, and then a load more on top.

This year’s Domesticating Reality theme throws up a slew of documentary experiences, numbering close to 40, ranging from VR to interactive cinema; from immersive theatre to 360-degree Planetarium screenings, from AI experiments to an audio walk inside the house of an absent stranger.

Two competition sections again explore the best in new digital storytelling and immersive non-fiction, while the DocLab Interactive Conference promises a unique programme of stimulating presentations, thought experiments, visions of the future and wild collective experiences courtesy of, among others, Vincent Morisset, Agnieszka Polska and Dutch interactive duo Metahaven.

DocLab is entering its second year of partnership with the MIT Open Documentary Lab, continuing to allow the august institution access to research the festival as a live lab for experimentation and development. As DocLab notes online, “the program is aimed at the growing international ecosystem of artists, developers, scientists, and entrepreneurs working in interactive and immersive content, and each year will focus on specific research questions that arise from developments in the field.”

At the DocLab R&D Summit, a think tank event for experts from all corners of the interactive and immersive storytelling industry, MIT will present the results from last year’s research into authorship and AI and the 2019 research exploring the tension between storyfinding and storytelling in immersive media. Meanwhile 17 new projects in all stages of production are part of the IDFA DocLab Forum. 


Sonnen waxes enthusiastically about DocLab’s use in 2019 of the somewhat ergonomically-challenged Amsterdam Central Station as an artistic venue. “It’s very much not an exhibition space,” he points out. For us it was a very interesting territorial challenge in figuring out what we could do there. Certain works would not benefit from being exhibited, other works we hoped would be enhanced by being presented in a public space.”

Through the Wardrobe is a good example, located in a pop-up store between commercial shops,” he continues. “It’s an augmented reality/mixed reality experience where we have a VR headset and you get to try on the physical clothes of different protagonists that will have different gender identities. Having the experience of hearing their stories and hearing the things they talk about whilst wearing their clothes is quite an intimate experience. In a way it’s quite playful, it’s something that the artist designed to be experienced not only by art connoisseurs, but by everyday people.”

One of the questions Sonnen is regularly forced to field is why DocLab, dedicated to experimentation with technology and documentary art across disciplines, remains aligned with IDFA, a staple of the doc calendar. It is a question he is happy to answer and finally put to rest. 


“I think the question of what is a documentary, what is cinema, is a question that IDFA has looked to answer throughout the year, every year, ever since its existence. The raison d’etre of a festival like IDFA is to challenge, what is documentary as an artform? Within that, there is already exploration of what cinema is. Is it all about feature length, or are there other forms of art cinema? Is a video installation cinema? Is a live cinematic performance cinema? I think those questions are that we and the people making documentary explore every year.  

Likewise. DocLab is not a generic format, we’re not about generic formats. And within the DocLab realm, I think the same questions are being asked and answered, across disciplines, new technologies and emerging artforms. Documentary cinema is not the same as documentary photography and documentary VR-films are not the same as immersive documentary theatre or interactive documentary installations using artificial intelligence. We can continue to talk about the art of reality across different media and disciplines but doing that without documentary cinema would be much less interesting than doing it together.”