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Filmmaker Adam Curtis Unearths Future of Immersive Storytelling with IED

As part of the Information Experience Design (IED) programme’s Exploded Screen elective, filmmaker Adam Curtis visited the RCA to critique student work based on his films. The students were responding to a brief by IED Visiting Lecturer Matt Clark to use one of Curtis’ films to create an immersive, multisensory work. 

Adam Curtis is an English documentary filmmaker whose works explore areas of sociology, philosophy and political history. He cites Emile Zola, Robert Rauschenberg and Max Weber as influences, and describes his work as 'journalism that happens to be expounded via the medium of film'. His films, including Bitter Lake (2015) about the relationship between the west and Afghanistan, Century of the Self and So You've Been Publicly Shamed, have won four BAFTAs.

Curtis was impressed with the students' installations, in which politics were naturally a running theme. For example, he saw enormous potential in the project by IED student Anna Ridler, who dug into Wikileaks data to pull out unlikely unlikely stories about love and gender. 

Emily Briselden-Waters, Daria Jelonek, Ker Siang Yeo and John-Michael Parry staged a mock product launch for Pure Media, a mobile phone screen overlay purporting to filter out all offending content. Curtis’ film Century of the Self was the inspiration. 'Very good,' he remarked at the way propaganda techniques were twisted round, 'a piece of modern realism.' Maria Euler also referenced the same film, mashing it up with The Matrix in a staged lab experiment in which she, in white lab coat, offered up a red or blue pill, each linked to a political ideology.  

Curtis highlighted the key role of narrative. 'You took what I was doing as a journalistic argument, and you applied imagination to it... making me emotionally experience it. And that’s really good. It’s the way forward, to excite people and make them think and feel things in a different way.'

Amanda Olesen and Robert Walker created a display cabinet of butterflies – all beautiful but dead, but for one, which was fitted out with a shape memory allow which made its lifeless wings flap again, based on incoming data about a storm on the other side of the world. This was a deliberate reversal of the well-known description of chaos theory, explored in Curtis’ film All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

'The romantic view of nature is that it’s wild and chaotic and we want to control it,'said Curtis. 'I think there’s another view of nature on its way, which is that it’s strange and mysterious and we can’t understand it... It’s what I have against the climate change movement, as constituted. They just want to hold the world stable, rather than say, "Oh yeah we’ve got a crisis, let’s change the world to make it better... " There’s a really crucial question, which is: Do you want to be free or do you want to be stable? Being free is dangerous, but exciting.'

Sylvana Lautier, Ava Watson and Helen Mair created an interactive video installation in which a visitor had to balance on an unsteady platform in order to maintain a tranquil scene of an Afghan poppy field projected around them, or else risk triggering footage of the darker consequences of the poppy trade. This was from Curtis’ latest film, Bitter Lake. 'I think it’s really good,' said Curtis about the installation.

The setup was similar to a project that Curtis and Clark had worked on previously. 'The reason I wanted to set this particular challenge,' said Clark, 'and it was a challenge, is because we worked on a project a few years ago with Massive Attack.' In their case, they worked with 11 screens showing clips from Curtis' films, each screen 10 by 15 feet across. 

They discussed with the students the challenges of balancing storytelling and interactivity. 'It is the fundamental problem if you’re ever going to do immersive stuff,' said Curtis. 'You have to let audiences do what they want to do. People just love exploring stuff – that’s the thing these days. But if people explore where they want to go, you can’t tell them the story you want to tell them... It’s a bit like on the internet. Everyone’s in their own social media bubble. If someone comes in and says something you don’t like, they’re out. It’s the problem of our time for telling people new stuff; everything remains stuck.'

Curtis contrasted the programme's experiential approach to contemporary fine art. 'What was impressive about your stuff today,' he told the students, 'was that you avoided a lot of clichés, because you were interested in trying to tell me something. And that’s really good, because modern art doesn’t do that... The way to do it is through content. You’re telling a story, but in an experiential way. That’s the key thing to crack in the future. Don’t be artists.'