Zikr: A Sufi Revival
Virtual Journeys Into the Nature of Reality
Interview with Gabo Arora
Interviewed by Sholeh Johnston
Gabo Arora is an award-winning immersive artist, filmmaker and Co-founder/Creative Director of TomorrowNeverKnows™, a content, technology and research studio founded by the industry’s leading creative pioneers and entrepreneurs focused exclusively on emerging technologies currently known as Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI). He is also a professor at Johns Hopkins University, where he designed and leads the new Immersive Storytelling and Emerging Technology (ISET) program and lab.
Created with John Fitzgerald and Matthew Niederhauser, in collaboration with fellow technology studios Sensorium and Superbright, Arora’s latest immersive documentary, Zikr: A Sufi Revival, takes four participants on an interactive, virtual reality journey into a world of ecstatic ritual and music alongside members of the Tunisian Sufi group Association de la Renaissance du Maalouf et du Chant Soufi de Sidi Bou Saïd. By opening up an experience to Sufism through dance and song it aims to introduce participants to a heart-centered practice of inclusion, acceptance, art, joy and understanding.
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Thank you for joining us Gabo. Can you tell us a bit about your background, and how you came to work on immersive documentaries?
I was a Senior Policy Advisor to Secretary Ban Ki-moon at the United Nations, and became their first Creative Director. I founded UNVR, their virtual reality app, through which I made many of the earliest documentaries using this new medium. Since my time at the UN I’ve continued to push the boundaries with what these immersive technologies can do to tell documentary stories that get people to relate to far-off places and to issues. Recently, I’ve done a documentary on the Holocaust; in Zikr
, as you know, we’re talking about Sufism; and most recently I’ve done a piece on the bombing of Hiroshima and testimonies from survivors there. It’s a rare time now in which an artist can have their palette completely expand every month with the emergence of new technologies and new ways of telling stories.
I never saw humanitarian work as a career. I saw it as a calling to make a difference. Before the UN, I was in the NGO sector and worked as a grassroots humanitarian. I was in Colombia with an organization called Peace Brigades International which was nominated for a Peace Prize in 2001, where I chose to do a lot of direct action—I was literally a human shield. So when I started my UN career, I was critical of the UN, and I realized I was only going to do it if I could do something extraordinary with that sort of power and privilege. And I think I did—it allowed for VR to be used for social good which wasn’t happening at the time.
My first documentary, Clouds Over Sidra, led to Oculus VR for Good being founded. I worked with HTC to set up their VR for Impact program as well, and these investments have been made because they saw the success of those early UN documentaries. They also increase donations—Clouds Over Sidra famously continues to double donations across the world in face-to-face, on the street fundraising. But to get this impact it has to be a good film, not just VR. It’s about good and honest storytelling. To be really creative you have to take risks, you have to be a little edgy. Now, like at the last Tribeca Film Festival and Sundance, there’s a huge appetite for people to use new tech to connect us to our common humanity because that was the original promise of the internet.
What is so powerful for you about immersive storytelling, particularly for addressing both the current and historic issues that you mention? I studied philosophy and film since I was very young, and I have always felt this desire to create. And I think there’s always this tension between form and content—each new generation, in order to be taken seriously, has to be original. It can be inspired by the past, and for me that was literature from 19th-century Russia and also cinema from the 60s and 70s, but I knew I had to do something that was going to be new. So, when I was exposed to VR I immediately felt that the form I was looking for to express myself had found me, or I found it, and the excitement was in being able to tell stories in a way that had never been possible before—you get to be in a story, you get to interact with a story, you get to shift your perspective in ways that traditional mediums like cinema don’t do. So, a lot of my work is neither cinema nor a video game, but it’s a merger of those two or a new iteration of those two mediums.
The question of dealing with historical or current topics is a good one, because it’s not always evident that a story or topic will lend itself well to VR, AR or interactive approaches. For example, with my experience on the Holocaust, The Last Goodbye, there was an enormous amount of pushback out of fear that somehow my work would trivialize or “gamify” the Holocaust. There were similar concerns with Zikr, for something that is quite a serious, spiritual topic. That is definitely a challenge and a valid concern, and it’s something that has motivated me, because I know that when you get it right you can provide a new sensation and experience for a person that they would never have had before. Regarding Zikr, so much about Sufism cannot be understood rationally, it has to be through participation, and VR technologies are, by their nature, participatory. You have to engage in order for something to reveal itself to you.
Many of the topics you work with are somewhat political in nature, so what was it that drew you to telling the story of Sufism? A lot of my other work up to that point didn’t necessarily directly relate to my own personal experience. In fact I would shy away from that—I’ve always been very curious about other people and other cultures. I like to have the naiveté of someone who is looking at things with fresh eyes. I was commissioned by Steven Spielberg and the Shoah Foundation to make The Last Goodbye, and I’m not Jewish, my family has not suffered from the Holocaust, but I think that brings an understanding of the common humanity that we have to make everyone else care about those issues. I don’t think you need to be Jewish or have gone through that to have empathy.
Now Zikr was really a calling. During my filming of The Last Goodbye with Pincus Gunter, who was a Holocaust survivor, and Steven Spielberg whose foundation did a lot of work against Islamophobia, both were alarmed by what has been happening throughout Europe with the migration crisis. I was really struck how Pincus saw parallels between that and the Holocaust, and I thought: okay, how can we figure out a way to deal with Islamophobia? And this is where my personal history came in.
I grew up in a Hindu family, and my parents have dealt with the results of religious persecution and a lot of tensions with Islam. I grew up with these biases, and what really helped alleviate them was my exposure to Sufism—through music, attending shrines, and the philosophy of Sufism. So I thought, maybe the personal part of me can come out for the first time. I didn’t pick Sufism on the subcontinent though, it was Sufism in Tunisia, which still allowed me to have a different perspective and a heightened curiosity that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Tell us more about the Sufi group, Association de la Renaissance du Maalouf et du Chant Soufi de Sidi Bou Saïd—how did you develop a relationship and the trust to participate in and film something that was probably quite intimate for them? That’s a really good point and one that I try to make—the rituals in Zikr are not meant for audiences or voyeurs, they are meant only for participants. The only reason the community of Sufis that I eventually worked with agreed, is that we really let them know what the technology was doing. We showed them VR in an education process to build trust and reassure them that this was not going to be a flat film on YouTube, but that we are allowing someone to become a virtual digital participant, and that the aim is the same as in real life: to open your heart, to be vulnerable, for this music and the vibrations to allow you to experience an elevated state. And as a result of that, they were excited and opened up.
I encountered the group in a very serendipitous manner. I was in Libya working with the UN to do some training and I just asked people: what’s interesting here if I was to make a VR documentary? And one of my colleagues, who’s an Associate Producer of the experience, told me that there’s a revival of Sufism and he knew some groups and could invite me to meet them. I met them and participated in rituals first and was able to build their trust by being very into it, and then slowly over a series of trips we were able to meet more people and understand the community better. The thing that we’re most proud of is that we were able to gain the trust of women’s groups as well, because I think that story about the empowerment of Sufism from a feminine perspective is neglected in Islam.
The documentary merges ritual with interviews, so you have this ability to hear and understand directly from people what Sufism means in their own lives, and why it’s their chosen path. It was a huge learning process. It’s not easy because they’re not performing, they’re more interested in doing the rituals, so some of that works well with what we’re trying to capture, and other times it was more difficult.
And for those who haven’t experienced the film, can you walk us through how it works and how that entrance into the ritual is set up through the VR experience? I’m interested in how that invitation into a genuine spiritual experience is made, when so often these rituals are relational and defined by their context. Yeah, we take that very seriously—it’s called “onboarding” where you’re able to bring people into a physical space and get them to wear the headsets.
In our installation at Sundance and in its current form, we play an actual zikr, which is a recitation of the Qur’an in a layered, repetitive, drone-like way, through the speakers in the physical environment before you have your experience. So people come into the space and they’re already feeling like they’re going to enter into something different. They take off their shoes. They stand on a carpet. What’s most interesting about the experience is that it uses the latest and greatest of avatar science, a field which studies the effects of having digital bodies.
You have to experience Zikr with three other people—it’s not a singular or alienating experience. There are four headsets in a circle and that’s how the experience starts. You have sensors on your hands, and controllers in your hands, and immediately as you go into the experience you realize that you have this effervescent body made out of particles, and you can see other people as you begin as well. Avatar science explores human relationships and emotion, and the abstract relationship of connecting with people even when they don’t have real bodies. You can feel their essence through a digital space, and you start having different cognations of what your relationship is to the stage, place and story.
You then realize that you are connected to all the people you’re doing the ritual with through virtual beads, prayer beads that connect you. And what’s fascinating with the physics of virtual spaces is that even though the bead rope is not physically in your hand connecting you, your brain automatically thinks you have a connection to these other people. When you move the beads they seem to have an elasticity that makes you want to continue to move your hands, and as you do that you light up other avatars and the world of where you are.
Slowly, that takes you into the experience. It’s a merger of 360° video and then being in the “otherworldly” spaces where you connect as avatars. Sometimes you have virtual instruments, so you can play along, and as you move you start changing and influencing a lot of what you’re experiencing. I know what I’m saying sounds a little crazy, but you have to trust me that it actually makes a lot more sense when you do it. It’s much more than just listening to music and watching people. You actually feel your presence and the presence of others.
It sounds fascinating. You’re playing with this idea of virtual reality and a kind of ‘particalized’ presence, which in itself is like a metaphor for a real trance state or ritual environment. There’s something really interesting about how the technology works and the kind of world it’s inviting you into, and maybe what it says about the nature of reality. Has that been part of your thinking? Yeah, I think it has. We didn’t want it to be too ‘on the nose’ but subtle and abstract enough that we allow the subconscious to guide us in some ways. I think it’s important for it to be instinctual and not a rational understanding of what that state is like. It’s a representation and there are definitely elements of the experience that are trying to illicit a deeper state. But I was very sensitive to the risk of doing this in ways that people would associate visually with psychedelic drug culture. I had read this New Yorker article as we were making it about the de-Islamization of Sufism in the West, specifically with Colman Barks’ translation of Rumi’s poems, so I wanted to avoid this to make sure to stay true to the Sufi troupe’s own story. I wanted it to be something that these Sufi troupes could use themselves to get people excited about Sufism in their own country. So, the story and design are within what they feel comfortable with as an Islamic practice. It’s subtle, but we’ve tried not to trivialize it.
What are some of the responses that you’ve had from people encountering the installation? The best response I got—and there have been many of them—was: “I needed that.” [both laugh] There was a Vice journalist who started exploring Sufism and seeking Sufi groups in New York. A group of white guys from Colorado were like, “If this is Islam, sign me up!” [laughs] That’s cool because it means that fundamentally people enjoy it. People feel lighter. They feel enthralled not only by the music, but it’s almost like a massage for their soul.
When I was working on it I got slightly criticized—people would say, “Are you trying to convert people?” I said, what are you afraid of? If you want to convert, why is that a bad thing? I think there is something in Zikr that gets people excited to realize that there is something more to Islam that was being hidden from them given our political and geopolitical relationships, where we were born, or our histories. Not being from the Islamic faith, I felt a strong sense of wonder that there was more there, that for reasons of my own biases, or my own culture, I was preventing myself from accessing the greater truth. I think a lot of people were getting a glimpse of something that they can then go deeper with in their own practice.
Generally as an artist there is often this imperative to be secular and objective, to not give privilege to religion, but I think that’s a mistake in some ways. My second documentary at the UN was called Waves of Grace. It was about the Ebola crisis and the story of a survivor, and I got a lot of flak because we decided to focus it on her prayer to God. At the UN, which is the church for secular fundamentalism, people would say “you can’t evoke religion,” and I’d reply that, well, religion is part of people’s lives. Why don’t we allow them to express how they would really express themselves in real life? Why are we afraid of religion? I know religion has done a lot of damage in the world, but it is also a source of inspiration and faith and hope. Maybe we don’t truly understand what religion is. I think that in America, in the West, in the world, we’re not getting that relationship right, because we tend to close off dialogue with anyone that evokes something that feels unscientific. I think there’s a deeper truth to be explored, and this is the first step in understanding what that is.
Yes, the political complications around religion create a lot of fear that can block our capacity to understand each other on a much more fundamental level, and also reach for the things in our experience which might be different on the surface, but fundamentally and universally similar. So it’s interesting to hear how, rather than presenting information, you are offering an experience which is not appealing directly to the intellect, but appealing to the body and the subtle mind in a different way, which perhaps is opening doors that aren’t initially possible through direct or political dialogue. Yes, exactly, and most people become religious because of some mystical experience, right? People can negate it, but that sense of awe is still such a strong part of human experience. With virtual reality the tools are still developing, there are a lot of issues, but I couldn’t think of a better use of the technology—it gets us closer to mystical experience than any other format I can think of. In film they say “show, don’t tell,” and I think VR allows people to “be.” A great VR experience makes you lose yourself so that you actually think you’re in a different world and you feel a sense of presence in another place. That is powerful and spiritual to me on so many levels.
Thank you for taking time, Gabo. Thank you.
PHOTO © ZIKR MEDIA 360 ZAHROUNI COURTESY OF SENSORIUM
PHOTO © BETTORODRIGUES | BIGSTOCKPHOTO.COM
PHOTO © COURTESY OF SENSORIUM
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