Frictionless: A virtual reality documentary

Declan Keeney (Artist)

Research output: Non-textual formDigital or Visual Products


Context: As a virtual reality documentary, the work gives voice to the experiences of those who lived near a hard border in Ireland/Northern Ireland during the Troubles in a distinct form of mediated practice. The film is an output from an artist-in-residence project at the Playhouse Theatre.

Aims: Frictionless invokes what Bazin (1967) calls total cinema a ‘total and complete representation of reality’ here using VR to both simulate an experience and link this to the lived experience of ‘other’. The work explores presence (Steuer, 1992), spatiality (Qvortrup, 2002) and their impact on the emotional resonance of testimony, whilst guarding against what Nash (2018) calls ‘improper distancing’.

Methodology/Findings: The ethical implications for this nascent medium are not well understood, there is a risk of empathy being the viewer’s only appropriate emotional response (Hassan, 2020). The effect that VR’s spatiality has in the context of re-traumatisation needs consideration, particularly its effect on the emotional reading of the work, given the context imbued on each location through the dialogue. Through design, materiality, the positionality of the user, interactivity and narrative agency, we can guard against the notion of VR as an ‘empathy machine’ (Schutte, 2017). The film juxtaposes victims’ and survivors’ testimony in the form of audio recordings, with locations filmed in 360 degrees from present day. Participants, appear only at the end of each story, placing the viewer and participant together in a symbiotic relationship at their site of past trauma. Exploring presence (McRoberts, 2018) in this way adds an emotional punctuation giving agency to the past through its juxtaposition with present though the viewer’s ‘embodied transportation’ may form part of any new contextualised understanding. (Nash, 2018).

Dissemination: The project was premiered at the Art in Place of Conflict conference (funded by EU PEACE IV), Playhouse Theatre, 17th of September 2020.

Bazin, André. (1967). What is Cinema? Essays Selected and Translated by Hugh Gray Volume 1. Berkley, Los Angeles and London : University of California press.
Hassan, Robert (2020) DIGITALITY, VIRTUAL REALITY AND THE ‘EMPATHY MACHINE’, Digital Journalism, 8:2, 195-212
McRoberts, Jamie, (2018) Are we there yet? Media content and sense of presence in non-fiction virtual reality, Studies in Documentary Film, 12:2, 101-118
Nash, Kate (2018) Virtual reality witness: exploring the ethics of mediated presence, Studies in Documentary Film, 12:2, 119-131
Qvortrup, Lars (Ed), 2002, Virtual Space: Spatiality in Virtual Inhabited 3D Worlds, Springer-Verlag (London),
Schutte, N.S., Stilinović, E.J. (2017), Facilitating empathy through virtual reality. Motiv Emot 41, 708–712.
Steuer, Jonathan, (1992), Defining Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepresence, Journal of Communication, Volume 42, issue 4, December, Pages 73–93

Original languageEnglish
PublisherSpecial European Union Programmes Body
Media of outputFilm
Publication statusPublished (in print/issue) - 17 Sept 2020
EventArt in Place of Conflict: PEACE IV Conference hosted by the Playhouse - The Playhouse, Artillery Street, Derry/Londonderry, United Kingdom
Duration: 17 Sept 202017 Sept 2020


  • Virtual Reality (VR)
  • Virtual Environment
  • conflict
  • documentary film
  • immersive
  • storytelling


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