From 0 to 100 in just three years: With his VR project "Queer Utopia", Portuguese-Brazilian VR artist and filmmaker Lui Avallos will be part of Venice Immersive at the 80th Venice Biennale. His successful story started during the pandemic in 2020. In our interview, he reveals what has happened since then and why his current project is so special.
How did you get in touch with the VR/XR technology?
Lui Avallos: For me, the pandemic was a big driver. I had just moved from Brazil to Lisbon for my Master's degree. And then everything closed and there was hardly anything to do. So I was looking for something new to learn. It had to be something complex, technology-wise. But of course I was already interested in VR before that. I studied "Image and Sound" in Brazil and also made films before. And during my VR learning phase, I developed the project "Handwritten", which is about the pandemic and its effects on social life. Through this project, I also came into contact with the VR community.
Do you have a big VR/XR scene in Brasil? And what about Lisbon?
Lui Avallos: There is no big VR scene in Portugal. So in a way, we are trying to do some pioneering work and bring VR technology into the art scene.
In my home country Brazil, on the other hand, are actually a lot of people working with VR. Brazilian artists have been successful several times at the Venice Biennale. At the moment I'm commuting between the two countries, and at the end of the year I'm going back to my home country for a while. We are making a virtual reality museum there for the Yawanawá, an indigenous group of people from the Amazon region. Portugal and Brazil both influence my work.
How come that your VR shortfilm „Handwritten" was shown at DOK Leipzig?
Lui Avallos: I just blindly applied to a few festivals. I was very unsure whether I had a chance because "Handwritten" is an essay film with 360-degree material and it's very experimental. DOK Leipzig is a great festival - and the XR section is one of the most exciting festival sections out there at the moment.
All this happened in October 2021 during the pandemic. So it was a bit weird being in a room with several people all wearing VR headsets. For me, it was the first festival I participated in with one of my works.
How did you come up with the idea for „Queer Utopia"? What was the hardest part when working on the project?
Lui Avallos: The initial inspiration for the project came from the photos of the American photographer Alvin Baltrop. He photographed a lot in the 70s and 80s in the "cruising areas" on the Hudson River in New York – this was an abandoned and also dangerous place where queer men met for anonymous sex. But it also became an avant-garde place for artists. The cracks in the facades of the houses in his photos also represent, in a way, the cracks that have gone through society. And I wanted to take all of that and put it into a VR world. Because VR allows an immersive feeling. At first, it wasn't supposed to be an interactive piece at all, but a very essayistic video. The first treatment was selected for the "Biennale College Cinema – Virtual Reality" in Venice. The residency is very intense and also market-oriented - with experts from very different genres. That's when I understood that maybe I was thinking too niche. I had a special theme not all non-queer people can relate to. Then the generational aspect slowly came in.
In which direction did the project then develop?
Lui Avallos: We started interviewing queer men over 60 about their experiences with "cruising". Here the focus shifted a bit over time. I was less interested in cruising and more interested in the people and their personal stories about that time. Because that was the generation that fought for the rights of queer people. And they will be leaving us soon. There will be a generation gap between my queer generation and the queer generation of the people who lived back then. So the cruising theme was just the entry point for a much bigger storyline that now appeals to a wider audience. The main character Gabriel represents the collective memory of this generation.
Was it difficult to find men who wanted to tell you their story?
Lui Avallos: It was not difficult to find these people. I talked to friends and then they asked some of their friends and so on. The older people were positively surprised that I, as a young queer person, wanted to hear their story. They started a movement back then and their stories are very precious - I wanted to preserve them for the next generation.
You won the "XR Pitch Battle" of MOIN Film Fund last year with "Queer Utopia". Where did you hear about the contest and how important was the 10,000 euros prize money for you?
Lui Avallos: I heard about the XR Pitch Battle through our head of development who's very active in the XR community. The resources from MOIN were essential to kickstart the project and make sure we could hire key talents to move forward and build the prototype.
At the Venice Biennale 2023, you are showcasing "Queer Utopia: Act I Cruising" as part of Venice Immersive. So there will be more parts?
Lui Avallos: You can't explain queerness with just one character. That's why it's just a first starting point. We want to invite other people to think about how it could go on. It doesn't even have to be in this particular format. "Queer Utopia: Act I Cruising" has an independent story with a beginning and an end. It's about Gabriel and his idea of utopia - the story is inspired by the book "Cruising Utopia" by Jose Esteban Munoz. In the installation, you meet Gabriel as an old friend in his flat, where he confesses to you that he is slowly losing his memory. From this point, you follow him on an interactive VR experience through his memories. And we'll reveal what they look like at Venice Immersive.
All photos: Mundivagante Studio