Immersive art installation helps visitors experience and empathize with LGBTQ journeys

[This story from The Salt Lake Tribune illustrates one of the most important applications of presence, helping people who need to be understood and those who need to understand others. See also a (very positive) review in The Utah Review and for more on “Hi, my name is Savannah” see coverage in Medium. –Matthew]

[Image: Savannah, a 15-year-old LGBTQ activist, delivers the coming-out testimony she wasn’t allowed to give at her church meeting in Eagle Mountain in 2017, in the VR short film “Savannah,” which is being shown at the Damn These Heels LGBTQ Film Festival in Salt Lake City, July 12-14, 2019. Credit: Carol Dalrymple]

Savannah couldn’t finish telling her Latter-day Saint ward she is a lesbian. Now you can see her full testimony in virtual reality.

By Julie Hirschi
Published: July 12; updated: July 14, 2019

The girl steps up to the lectern and begins, simply, “Hi, my name is Savannah.”

In reality, Savannah, then 12, wasn’t allowed to finish her testimony, which she tried to deliver in May 2017 to her Eagle Mountain congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — to declare that she is a lesbian.

In virtual reality, Savannah, now 15, delivers the whole speech without having her mic turned off — and the viewer, wearing a pair of goggles in a VR art installation featured in this year’s Damn These Heels LGBTQ Film Festival, is sitting in a pew listening.

“It’s actually quite inspirational, the fact that I’m an inspiration for this kind of coming-of-age type of filming,” Savannah said. [The Salt Lake Tribune is not using her last name, in accordance with her parents’ wishes.] The VR video, shot last summer, provided “that validation, to be surrounded by all the people that loved me, and being able to finish that testimony that I really wanted to finish that day.”

The short film, titled “Savannah,” is one of four virtual reality works that will be shown in the festival’s VR Lounge, on the mezzanine level of the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City.

The festival, marking its 16th year, kicks off Friday with the opening-night screening of the documentary “Changing the Game,” about transgender athletes seeking fair treatment in competition. The festival continues with a full slate of films Saturday and Sunday, and the VR Lounge will be free to the public both days, from noon to 5 p.m. (On-site registration is recommended; otherwise, it’s first come, first served.)

“We are not following the virtual-reality lounge rules,” said Carol Dalrymple, who with Dane Christensen founded InterSpacial Collective, which is designing Damn These Heels’ lounge as an immersive experience.

Where VR lounges are often just a space with people standing around with gadgets strapped to their heads, Dalrymple and Christensen decided to create more of an immersive media arts/film installation.

“We are weaving emerging immersive mediums such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and depth-sensing cameras with physical space, and with traditional mediums such as audio recordings and 2-D film to create an experimental and exploratory experience for the audience,” Dalrymple said.

When guests arrive at the Rose Wagner’s mezzanine level, they will come up on rows of church pews. They will be invited to sit and read a card with instructions and questions on which they can reflect. Then they will put on headsets that will allow them to watch and hear the short “Savannah,” which Dalrymple directed.

The space is called The Sanctuary, and is meant to replicate a place of worship, meditation and reflection. The idea is to reclaim the space by examining how faith, sexuality and identity intersect.

“We are definitely exploring with both physical and metaphorical use of space,” Christensen said. “I would even say it’s the spaces in terms of our identity and expressions of faith but also, where do we go to cultivate those?”

Behind the pews sits an old wooden dresser. In its drawers are props for the guest to try on in front of a mirror — which is actually a screen attached to a picture frame, with a hidden depth-sensor camera that will display a live holographic image of the viewer.

While guests are looking at themselves in this altered mirror, they will hear over a headset a radio profile, produced by former KUER reporter Jenny Brundin and aired on NPR, of a transgender woman — also named Jenny, coincidentally. In the profile, Jenny discusses how she struggled with her identity as a man and came to terms with her true self, even as she lost part of her self, her marriage, career and religious community.

The holographic mirror, Christensen said, is “really trippy and almost a little bit weird, but it encourages this blending of the reflection and how others see you and how you see you.”

Dalrymple and Christensen co-directed “Judith,” a VR short about a woman who painted for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for her entire career, but stayed closeted most of her life. In the VR Lounge, Judith’s story is also told through an image of her art as it is being created, and visitors can make their own contributions to it using a “virtual toolbox.”

The fourth piece is “Faithful,” which screened at Damn These Heels last year as a 2-D film and appears this year in the 3-D space of VR. It centers on Marylu and Lauralie, a loving, committed couple who are active in their Latter-day Saint ward. Christensen directed the film, and is experimenting with the 3-D capacity of 2-D films in VR.

“We are still at our infancy as a culture how to present VR in a compelling way, and the idea of having an externality that reflects the internality of the story is a cool approach to that,” said Davey Davis, program manager for the Utah Film Center, which presents Damn These Heels.

“I love that they took a specific angle of faith and identity,” Davis added, noting that many of the films in Damn These Heels deal with how LGBTQ people deal with their religion, particularly in Utah.

For Savannah, being at the center of a VR documentary was a fascinating experience. “VR is very futuristic for me,” she said. “Especially seeing how it’s going to become a type of filming from now on.”


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