The performance moved on to ‘Zombies’ and it became clear why some people were so active. Throughout the experience your field of vision rotated at an imperceptible rate, meaning you often found yourself looking in the opposite direction to Gambino, the natural object of your attention. At first this seemed glitchy, but after repeat watches it seemed more like subtly directing your gaze. The ‘Zombies’ performance spent a lot of time on the crowd, with a glow in the distance and some dark red creatures floating in the sky. The most striking moment came during the breakdown when Gambino sang the refrain “Do you feel alive?” as you looked directly into the eyes of the front row. Into the eyes of people who look real, are real and were really in that moment, but were rendered by pixels. Meta.
We left the PHAROS festival to be transported through space to a gorgeous, colourful forest that was filled with skeletons dancing to ‘California’ (a metaphor a little more on the nose than the previous ones). The animation had a late 90s/early 00s video game style (Zelda in particular sprang to mind) and was vibrant, colourful and incredibly immersive, with Drew describing it as “like I was listening on a weird, spacey, drug trip.” The dancing skeletons and gorgeous rendering of the forest drew you in completely. “When you were going through the jungle it made me look around a lot more,” said Sian. “I was going up and down and everywhere to see what was going on.”
This turned out to be a trap as suddenly a dark, ghoulish figure appeared directly in front of you. This was the stimulus to travel to the final location, a desolate planet filled with more ghouls that slowly danced as a holographic Gambino sang ‘Stand Tall’. The hologram gradually moved closer and this became the most arresting part of the experience. With Gambino singing to you, surrounded by dancing demons, the lyrics and soulful beauty of the song really took hold, making it almost impossible not to take Childish’s advice as he sang, “So smile when you can, when you can.” “The fact that he’s singing personally to you makes the lyrical content, his sentiment and his expression so much more personal,” said Cara. “It made you engage so much more.”
The overall effect was, much like the album itself, was open to interpretation. “You don’t have to go to a concert anymore,” Joana from Hackney told me. “You can just download an app and watch a VR with so many different animations going on. It’s telling a completely different story. You’re put in the place that the artist was and you can see what they want you to see.”
Others were less convinced that replacing a live show was possible. “I don’t think it would replace a live show,” said Sian. “You’re all in there together watching the same thing, but you’re all having such an insular experience that it couldn’t replace the feeling of actually being there.” Drew agreed, saying “I think the visuals and overwhelming sound of a live performance can’t be replaced.”
Others were less impressed by the event itself. “I really like the record and the artist, however I don’t think it was added to in any sort of way by having a VR experience,” said Arthur. “I think collective VR experiences as well are a strange thing, but I like how he’s experimental and at least thinking about new technologies.” Tasmin concurred; “It’s hard to understand the purpose of this event. A bit style over substance.”