Tribeca Film Fest 2021 builds a hybrid playground of tech-enabled art

Tribeca's 2021 festival mixes the liberation of encountering VR, films and events in person with the best virtual elements learned from lockdown.

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Joan E. Solsman
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The Tribeca Film Festival 2021 kicked off Wednesday evening and continues through June 20. 

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The Tribeca Film Festival kicked off Wednesday night, and it feels radically different -- even the parts that are just like they used to be. The festival, which has grown into one of the biggest US events for interactive storytelling in virtual reality and other formats (as well as, obviously, a large-scale film event), is straddling the pre- and post-COVID eras, offering a sampler platter dotted with the best elements of virtual events from lockdown alongside the liberation of reopening. 

And Tribeca 2021, which runs through June 20, has an array of tech-enabled projects that reflect an expansion of interactive, immersive storytelling after more than a year of distancing, with technology often the only bridge out of isolation. 


Tribeca Film Festival 2021 brings back in-person VR experiences after last year's fest was fully remote. 

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"The way that you're getting work to audiences has been revolutionized," according to Loren Hammonds, vice president of the fest's Immersive programming. "The creators had to think about what the future of immersive would be like. Is the future only VR? No. The future is expansive." 

For those in New York, the festival at large features the Immersive program in person; outdoor installation, often leveraging your own personal tech; films inside actual darkened theaters; and free screenings scattered through the city outside the fest's mainstay in downtown Manhattan. Riding a wave of vaccinations and arriving in the summer heat a month and a half later than usual, TFF is unfurling in a New York City infused with a party atmosphere. 

For those who are elsewhere in the US or would rather attend remotely, wide swaths of the festival are accessible from home, wherever yours may be. And Tribeca's Immersive program includes projects accessible even if you don't have a high-octane VR rig, too. 

"There are so many interesting ways to tell stories with technology, and I wanted to highlight that there are pieces that can be experienced without a headset," Hammonds said. That excites him for two reasons. "It shows the evolution of the way creators are thinking about immersive, but it also allows for an expansion of an audience."

Immersive, from home and in-person

Like the rest of the festival, Tribeca's Immersive program spans in-person and remote options. 

In New York, Storyscapes is Immersive's collection of in-person VR experiences, which fest-goers can join in small groups with timed tickets at Spring Studios, the festival's central hub. Critical Distance takes participants into the world of endangered orca whales and lets them experience echolocation. Another exhibit, Kusunda, revives a forgotten indigenous language.

Tribeca is also sprinkling the city with free outdoor projects, like Current, an audio walk guided by your own mobile device and headphones in lower Manhattan, and Breonna's Garden, an augmented-reality experience linked to immersive audio that was created in collaboration with Ju'Niyah Palmer to honor her sister, Breonna Taylor. 


Debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival, Breonna's Garden is an augmented-reality experience that creates a peaceful sanctuary dedicated to Breonna Taylor. It was developed in collaboration with her sister.

Tribeca Film Festival

And the largest collection of Immersive projects is its Virtual Arcade. This selection is available only for PC-tethered headsets through the Museum of Other Realities, a social art showcase in VR, and it requires a $15 online pass to unlock. But it spans a dozen titles, including versions of some of the Storyscapes installations mentioned above. 

Tribeca's Immersive program also features a long slate of participatory projects that are accessible remotely through a range of technologies, many of them free. Discriminator, for example, is an interactive experience available on a website, exploring facial-recognition databases, while Jupiter Invincible is an augmented-reality comic book you can download as an app. Knot: A Trilogy includes three audio experiences you delve into with timed (free) tickets from, ideally, a park bench, the front seat of a car and your own home. And The Severance Theory: Welcome to Respite are interactive live performances taking place in VRChat, available to anyone with a headset and a free ticket. 

Watch this: The dream of Oculus VR: Five years later