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Tangible Utopias: An Interview with Ioana Mischie
Transmedia Storytelling through VR, AI, and Participatory Design
Ioana Mischie is a Romanian born artist, writer and director, researching transmedia storytelling — mostly film and virtual reality — for a PhD, and in practice for more than a decade.
I want to ask you about Government of Children. How would you describe that project?
It's actually one of the projects that I love the most. It started in the United States when I had a Fulbright Scholarship at USC’s School of Cinematic Art in 2017. I interviewed a group of ten Mexican children that were living in Los Angeles. I asked them how they would redesign the city if they were the leaders.
I fell in love with their answers. So when I returned in Romania, I initiated the project, Government of Children. I interviewed 100 Romanian children to see how they would design the next century of our country. We interviewed them and documented the interviews in a film.
Then we collaborated with architects, landscape designers, 3D artists — to create these futuristic prototypes of society that they imagined. It was a collaboration between kids and adults, ultimately. What came out was a virtual reality experience called Tangible Utopias, which had initially just one futuristic city, then three, then five, then ten, and so on. We are still working on it so it's an open world right now.
This year we’re doing the second Government of Children, and expanding to other countries. We interviewed children in Kyrgyzstan, Bolivia, India, the Republic of Moldova, and Romania again, and a community of kids with sight deficiency. Together with them, we prototyped Velvet City, which has buildings made of velvet so that you cannot get hurt.
And that, to me, was one of the most transformative processes I have been through as an artist. I just love the interaction with this community, and I feel a huge responsibility in delivering their ideas. There are so many nuances to it.
Every country differs heavily. For example, when I asked the kids in Cameroon how they would see the ideal futuristic city, all of them, all the 20 kids, were saying that for them, the ideal futuristic city has potable water. We generally go for cities that are highly edgy and ultra modernized and ultra innovative. But then these communities care about things that other countries don't even consider anymore. My long term goal is to create this project not only with an artistic outcome, but also as a societal manifesto.
It’s interesting to see the state of our societies through the eyes of kids and to build on it. This is why I fell in love with transmedia storytelling to begin with — not only as an art form, but also as a prototyping tool, because we can actually use film and VR to prototype future societies.
I'm interested in the words people choose to use for their practice. I wonder if I can ask you about transmedia and why that’s the term you’re drawn to. What does that term, transmedia, mean for you?
I came across it as a student, that Henry Jenkins created the term. Later Henry was my professor at USC. It describes a holistic form of art, a holistic form of storytelling that is not limited to only one format. It's not limited to only what we are trained in school — “hey, write 52 pages long for a script for television.” It's mostly about, “hey, create a concept for a holistic world.”
Then you can expand it through multiple platforms to multiple target audiences, to multiple purposes, ultimately. It’s a holistic approach, sometimes associated with world building. But I use this term because I want to pay a tribute to my professor, to Henry Jenkins, who coined it.
Right now, I'm prototyping a format of concepts that is not only transmedia, but ideally transdisciplinary, transpatial — in a way that a concept can apply to multiple countries, not just to one. It's also trans-perspectivist, in the sense that if you have a certain situation, you can depict it from multiple perspectives, not just one.
I'm also playing with what I love to call transreal storytelling, which is playing with a story in reality, but also in virtual reality. How do you create the bridge between the two, the two realities, if you will, and many others?
This term inspired me to be creative about the practice that I have and to keep searching for new methodologies and ways of practice. It's a methodology that I use and try to expand on. It’s a transmedia futurism, using storytelling for prototyping futures.
And all of this was before today’s big AI boom, right?
When this happened, five years ago, there was none of this AI.
Has AI changed your process or made anything new possible? How are you folding this kind of “futuristic” technology into your practice?
During my PhD, I coined this concept called Infinite Cinema. I was inspired by several movements in the cinema world, such as expanded cinema from the 60s — Gene Youngblood said that expanded cinema is a form of expanded consciousness, and I was inspired by many other movements like interactive cinema, touch cinema, culinary cinema, vertical cinema, live cinema and so on.
So I ended up creating infinite cinema more as a philosophy of, let's say, artistic utopia somehow. But when I created this concept, there was no technology for it. Like, it was mostly a philosophy of creating infinite stories, having infinite authorship, and having an infinite form of spectatorship, but there was no way to bring it to life with the technology we had back then, five years ago —
How did you describe infinite cinema five years ago?
Well, it was hard to describe through practical case studies! So I was mostly describing it from a theoretical point of view. For example, for the authorship, I was saying an infinite cinema work of art doesn't have just one author, but mostly a network of authors, someone who initiates a concept, then someone who continues it, then someone who evaluates it, and so on.
So it's a chain of authors that continues through time and space. Then I would describe this idea of infinite explorers in a way or the equivalent of spectators, and I would describe them in comparison. Like, for example, in the past, spectators were looking at the Mona Lisa or any kind of painting or film from afar, right? But now they are watching it from within. And basically they are also having this freedom to jump from one world to the other.
So you were grounding it kind of theoretically, and then aiming to produce this effect through whatever storytelling tools might have been available.
I was prototyping these schemes — “what could this look like?” Government of Children, for example, could be seen as a prototype for multiple potential authors in the future, because the kids will grow and they can turn into the leaders of the project for new generations of kids.
I didn't have any particular case study that is holistic enough to explain the concepts. But now with the emergence of AI, I feel we are tapping into a form of collective consciousness that is already there. Like infinite authorship is already within the AI in just one picture in some ways. So it's interesting because it somehow accelerates the theory in a very funny way.
Because when we look at an image it’s produced from this collection of images. So in a sense, the theory became practical!
I remember I had this conversation with my professor many years ago when transmedia was seen as this abstract terminology and the practice was behind it somehow. So the theory was ahead of the practice. Now I feel it's the other way around.
Somehow the practice is ahead of the theory, and we try to keep up to adjust the two in a very harmonious manner. So it's a funny setting, but I think a very intriguing one for anyone in this world. Like I used to joke with one of my friends, perhaps these kinds of transitions only happen once a century, right? In some ways we are super lucky to witness this kind of technological and philosophical transition. And of course, we have the responsibility of using it for constructive purposes because it can go wild, it can affect ethics, but hopefully we will have the wisdom to use it well.
When did you first start working with AI in the practical sense?
I first experimented with AI, actually, for Government of Children. We simply ran out of budget.
We created a lot of CGI, and at some point we ran out of budget and we didn't have money to visualize all the ideas that the kids had. So we took AI as an opportunity to visualize some of the ideas we couldn't afford.
I feel it brings added value into the film to see them in comparison to the human designed CGI. It's a beautiful case study right now. So the film will be launched probably next year, but we are still working on it to finish the post production. But this was perhaps my first interaction with AI in film and it was a very pleasing one, and one that felt rewarding also for the kids I interacted with.
Then for the Story & Code program, it’s a very interesting experience because I work in the same team with Stein, who is an animator, and has huge experience with all the technicalities and methodologies of animation.
So I could focus on experimenting with AI. What we discovered is that initially, most of our original ideas for stories were narrative, shaped by our familiarity with film stories. So most of our concepts were action driven, motion driven and very cinematic. And while playing with AI without a concept, for example, just for understanding the technology, we realized there are so many other concepts to explore that have no connection to film directly.
For example, one of our ideas was to create an Instagram project about memories and how we crop reality to include or exclude different details. For example, if the two of us take the same ferry trip, we will remember different details. Perhaps a shoelace, a sunlight accent, hair in the wind or something like that.
We were intrigued by having many, many details of certain memories and having a continuous journey that people could feed with information about their own memories. And basically, on Instagram, it would be displayed as an endless story, in a way, with details from our memories. And it would be like a collective memory consciousness. But this is, let's say, a more philosophical idea.
We have at least 50 other ideas. That's the funny part. It's a technology that allows you to be very playful because you have so much time to try and to fail or succeed. You can be very prolific. This is our case right now, in some ways we are over prolific!
We need to trim down our experimentation and to really choose the essence, which will be important. But right now we have this odyssey of experimentation and surprises. For example, sometimes we prompt a certain script and we get something surprising that takes us into a completely different place. You start from something, but you somehow co-create with AI indirectly and you end up having something that is different, sometimes better.
At the same time, I'm not personally, I don't know, a fan of AI. I'm mostly a concept driven person and less of a platform driven person, so everything starts from a powerful concept and then gets expanded. My core activity is creative practice and trying to come up with unconventional solutions for various kinds of messages that I want to share with this world. I think we need to use AI wisely and have a powerful concept before using it. I believe a lot in combining the best skills of humans with the best skills of machine learning and to have holistic outcomes. I'm not so passionate about trying the latest technologies just for the sake of trying it. I'm still confident in storytelling as a human force.
As somebody who has worked with collaborative structures, with humans of diverse ages and international backgrounds — I wonder where you see AI fitting in. Do you see AI as like a collaborator, or more as a platform for facilitating that collaboration? Or as a media format of its own? How do you conceptualize that relationship?
Maybe I see it as a support system. When I talk about film and VR, I've been studying this for years, I feel comfortable doing it. But I have a passion in the field of fashion, and I never had a chance to study it. Right. And in this field I also don't have any drawing talent. If I were to create a fashion project, even just a concept driven one, AI is extremely helpful to help me shape a mood or a specific collection.
At the same time, I think it has the danger of standardization. Personally, after a while a platform like Midjourney becomes very repetitive and predictable. The danger of AI is the repetitiveness and the lack of innovation, because it's only based on data from the past. It's very hard to train an AI to innovate. It will always refer to data that existed previously.
So my current challenge is, how can I innovate using AI, perhaps focusing my own mind and heart on the core of innovation. This is what I'm trying to figure out — how can I contribute to what AI cannot offer?
Of course, this is right now, I don't know what will happen in ten years. Perhaps we will also have AI inventors, or who knows? But right now, we need to train ourselves for something Pagan Kennedy called Inventology. It would be so nice to actually have schools focusing on innovation and invention and inviting kids and adults to actually invent the next objects, the next needed layers of our world. I'm a very strong advocate for this.
Working with children to imagine the future, and now thinking about AI as another input, you really have all these different input streams that are interacting with each other. I wonder if there are strategies for steering through these streams, ways to differentiate between these imaginaries when you're working with kids, designers, artists and AI?
I'm having this dilemma every day because right now we already have around 20 future cities prototyped in different manners and methodologies, with most of them with human teams. Recently we started to include AI as well. I was thinking of creating a project called the Atlas of Tangible Utopias, where I could include all of them and simply say for each: how it was created, what was the method behind it, etc. So that everyone can compare and contrast and conclude which one they like better? This is my current way to organize what we are doing, just being transparent about how we are doing everything.
I usually also every, I don't know, three years or every five years, I try to write an article about the practice and to kind of say what was the hardship we went through? What were our observations from interacting with kids but also with adults? What were the ups and downs? And it always differs. I recently did it with ten children from the Republic of Moldova, and it always comes out differently because children operate in their own different way.
And when you combine or remix their ideas with the ideas of other adults, it's always a surprising result. But also, I need to mention, after leading more than probably 600 interviews, there are patterns that emerge. I'm happy to say it's a generation that loves nature and they are very keen on preserving nature. This is just one of the elements we encounter in all of the futuristic cities.
I'm a very dedicated systemic thinker. I love to create systems, not only projects. And this is why this project is so intriguing to me, because it obliges me to create a system for, say, how can you travel through these cities? I wanted to create a website so that you can choose which kids from which countries to hear, which ages, social backgrounds and so on. Then the film is customized to your own interests.
Right now we are doing it the classic way, editing the film.I have to choose some ideas to leave some others out. But this is my dream for the future, to give this power to the spectators. And this is just one of the many projects, but I love creating these ontological projects.
That’s a great term, what are some examples?
We also have this piece on adapting human dreams in VR. I started it in a very difficult moment of my life when my father had a brain tumor. I learned that people with brain tumors often cannot dream anymore. So I started to collect dream narratives, and I’ve adapted the first one in VR with the hope that this project will also travel — not only in museums, but also in hospitals and perhaps be used in a therapeutic manner. And it didn't happen, the therapeutic part, because the pandemic came and no one could enter hospitals anymore.
But I'm hoping to achieve this therapeutic layer one day, because I feel in my mind, art is not just made for a museum or a cinema hall or a headset. Art exists and should exist everywhere in society, in schools, in hospitals, on the streets. I believe these are the best display means for any artistic project. And when I say infinite cinema, I also mean creating projects that not only belong to the cinema, but belong anywhere, to a village or to a super high end city. They can speak to you because they speak about universal things we have in common.
It’s been fun for me to contemplate the idea of a cinematic experience that lasts forever, but how long is forever with these projects? What limits are you up against?
I'm aware that our societies have constraints, but I would love to create these projects in an ongoing manner for the long term, even after I will not be on planet Earth anymore. I'm hoping to somehow create a mechanism for them to continue. But we still operate in a system where you get funding for one standalone project, not for a long term project.
So every year we start from scratch, which is the paradox, the power world. So no matter how much I would love to advocate for infinite cinema or transmedia storytelling, I do know how difficult this is, especially in a country like Romania, to actually have continuity in your practice.
It's not easy.
Sometimes you need to do a lot of pro bono work combined with, at times commercial work to make it survive. But in the long run, I believe there is something truly pioneering and truly beautiful emerging.I guess this is what keeps us fighting in some ways.
Any reservations you have about how these technologies are being rolled out? Some of the Blockchain and NFT stuff is very tied to this promise of continuity; but there are also a lot of controversies in that space — AI, of course, is no stranger to controversy either — maybe even VR.
Oh, I'm super skeptical as well. I usually start from being skeptical before attempting any solutions. The big concern for me is not confusing continuity with addiction. I feel contemporary technology is highly addictive. It obliges you to stay stuck to a screen.
People are spending more time in front of their screen than the amount they spend sleeping, for example, which is super worrying, right? Like, our eyes don't rest anymore. They are always paying attention to something, always absorbing something, sometimes not even what is helpful for us to absorb. So it's a very worrying situation.
My biggest question is, how can we use technology for good? How can we actually interrupt this addiction wisely? Let's say a transmedia artwork can have both a virtual part, but also a part that happens in real life. You could interrupt a project in a very meaningful manner and enjoy the sunlight, and then go back after a while and contemplate further. We need these strategies to make sure that we don't alienate people. My mission is certainly not creating ongoing projects where people would not blink. It’s about ongoing concepts.
But the point is, of course, we need time to enjoy life in so many different ways than just being exposed to an artwork. Government of Children, it's an interesting case study because we have the film, we have the VR, but we also have a lot of educational debate, activities, and games around the project. When we display it in schools, it's a balance between screen time — which is usually tiny — and debate, or actual drawing. I believe in this mix.
During my PhD I was upset about this idea that everyone was coming up with dystopias for the future. All of these dystopias are claiming it's an excess of technology, an excess of robots, no more people anymore. And I was like, but wait, we don't have to dive into only science fiction, we can create another type of fiction.
So I created another genre called Noetic Fiction, which instead of inviting you to create futures around the advancement of technology, it actually invites you to create and imagine futures around the advancement of human consciousness. Like, how could this world evolve if we would evolve differently and we would behave differently?
One of the kids I interviewed really enriched this opinion. I was sharing with her the results and these beautiful futuristic cities, and she was telling me, yeah, all these cities look amazing. But I don't think the future will only consist of beautiful buildings. I think it should consist of beautiful humans — how will humans behave and treat one another? And I was like, wow, you're so right.
You're a genius!
We need to think about ourselves first in terms of how to shape our own minds and hearts in a more constructive manner. Because right now many of us feel very disoriented and it's just not right to have teenagers that feel so disappointed about life, right? I mean, they are in perhaps one of the most active parts of their lives.
How do you think we can find that kind of optimism in our own practice? I struggle with optimism in the design space right now, because so much of it seems to be entangled with a kind of narrow — often exploitative — view of what technology is meant to do and who it is designed for.
So I don't know. I start from the premise that stories and concepts do shape the world we live in. Like every single thing, a chair, a table, a door, everything was created from an idea first. So my expectation is if we come up with better concepts and better genres and better methodologies, we can actually end up living in better societies and better neighborhoods and better art communities.
I'm pretty sure there is causality there. We rarely think about it because as artists, we go to film school or to another art school and you directly learn the craft, but you rarely think about the essence of that craft or how it can be completely revolutionized. Actually, in the US, I think you're doing this more often than us, in Romania. In Romania, a lot of people take things for granted and formats for granted, and they don't necessarily think about pushing boundaries at the same pace that US students and professors do.
I also think a lot about the way people talk on LinkedIn. It is only about achievements. Like, okay, achievements, achievements, ways of success and measuring success. I think at times we just need to stop, just to stop from doing anything and just contemplate on where we are now. How can we contribute as artists? What kind of new formats do we need? What kind of new stories do we need, and do we want?
We need these conversations before just rushing into things, because otherwise the ones that are paving the way are, let's say, the technology creators for VR, right? I mean, the headset owners are the ones that are commissioning the content and the ones that are generating the practical trends. Right? These trends should come from more directions, not just from the technological stakeholders, because they would be mostly interested in having people in their headsets as long as possible. The essence of our world is not just about that.
It's also about how we can learn things, how we can stimulate lifelong learning, communication between generations — which is so hard to facilitate now because the generations are completely disrupted from each other. And, yeah, it's a complex, complex world. But I do feel we have a lot of tools to create amazing projects and amazing methodologies. But, yeah, it's not easy.
How does that thinking make its way into an artistic practice?
In my creative practice, I'm usually driven, like probably the majority of creators, to aesthetics. I want my projects to look a certain way. I focus a lot on art direction, on the quality of visuals and audio and so on. But I think we need to talk about ethics just as much as we talk about aesthetics.
When we watch a film, okay, we watch a documentary. But if that documentary was filmed without the consent of people I don't know, we are already entering a very blurry ethical landscape. So perhaps the film is brilliant, but let's discuss also what's the process behind it so that we can ideally achieve artworks that are brilliant also from an ethical point of view. Right? And that's harder to define because, what is a brilliantly ethical project? We don't even know with certainty what ethics is.
So, as a funny thing, I was proposing back in the days, just like we have a director of photography in films, how about we have a director of ethics, someone who is in some ways responsible with social research or the research of the impact of the project in certain communities. That person could be a strong facilitator for expanding the horizons of a certain work.
I'm playing with this right now, but I'm coming from Romania, which was an ex communist country, and I don't want by any chance to fall under censorship because the director of ethics could tell you, “oh, this cannot be done!” That's not the point. Mostly I mean, to have an advisor that encourages you to have perspectives from many fronts, let's say, or, I don't know, to kind of make sure you don't impose your own judgment.
We need to talk about it. Sometimes people consider it dangerous because who are you to talk about ethics? People think you need to be a saint in order to talk about ethics. I don't think you need to be a saint. You just need to be a human being and to have an open dialogue about this.
In the AI space right now, a lot of people see AI and they just immediately say, well, that's unethical. It's built on data sets of other artists and things like that. You use AI occasionally, in a broad set of tools where human creativity, creativity of kids, is obviously at the center. But we are both working through lots of questions, pretty openly, in the Story and Code program. How are you navigating these issues about AI?
I think it's important to talk about it. I remember I attended a workshop. I don't remember the name of the speaker that said this. He was saying that right now we are using AI and we are surprised by it because we are witnessing it for the first time. So everything is a surprise for us.
But our kids might use it nonstop and for them, it might be an over standardized practice. Right now the novelty of AI fuels a lot of controversy and a lot of enthusiasm. Like everything is, if you want, super polarized in a way, because it's so new. We are either in love, hating it, we just have these strong emotions about it. No one is neutral about AI.
I think we need to keep a skeptical eye — to be creative with it, but in some ways not to, let's say, change our entire creative practice around it and to become dependent on AI exclusively. I don't think that’s the value of our creativity.
Another aspect about the current context is that the emergence of AI invites people to think about posthumanism more. I don't think that's the right direction of thinking, or perhaps I'm not the one to judge, but I believe more in something called post-technologism. I believe humans are here to enrich the planet. These technologies, all of them, are very ephemeral. And the question is not, oh, who will come after humans? Like, it’s not which kind of robot replaces us. But what will come after AI should depend on what kind of technology we need to express valuable ideas.
And right now, I feel AI is an interesting step. I really love playing with it. It's not the last one. It's not a destination, it's a tool we play with. We will conclude with the affordances of AI, what are the best practices around it? How can you use it? Is it an art form in itself? Is it synthography, this art of synthesis? Or is it just a tool to help you do film and classical art forms?
Also, the copyright question is very important. Who owns those artworks? But ultimately, I think even the copyright topic is so biased with the conventions of our world, right? Because ultimately we perhaps don't need the idea of copyright in the way it was understood by now, because there are so many famous artists that were inspired by the imaginaries of other people, but they were the only ones credited. So in this sense, AI is not necessarily so unfair.
It's just acknowledging that it's based on many data sets, it's based on many imaginaries, and we finally have the chance to combine and compile and see also, it's so fascinating to see what people are creating with AI and to see what they’re interested in. I don't plan to use AI with shadowy intentions or to make myself, let's say, more lazy by using AI. But I do plan to use it when I feel there is no other better way to dive into a form of visual collective consciousness.
If I were to compile and research thousands of pictures by myself, it would take ten years to do so. So I think let's appreciate the bright side of it. At the same time, while not exaggerating on it, there are more aspects. There was this idea of the quantified self, right? There was this theoretician, Steve Lohr who said we are not living in capitalism anymore. We are living in data-ism, which is a society driven by data. And our purpose in life is to provide data. I can see this happening right now, but I don't believe in this system.
I'm hoping to replace this system with something much better. I don't believe in this movement of the quantified self. I don't think our life resides in the number of steps we take or the number of data posts we make. I believe a lot in what Lee Humphries called the Qualified Self, which is, what is the quality of our inner selves? What is unmeasurable? I believe in that.
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