Tribeca Virtual Arcade’s 'Testimony' shares experiences of sexual abuse survivors


On “Star Trek,” the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise could relax on the holodeck, a space where Earth environments were simulated and historical events recreated. Technology has not yet produced a real holodeck, but by donning goggles and earphones, viewers can “enter” three-dimensional environments through virtual reality—the African bush, or the mind of a fictional character—and interact with objects and images to play games, and to alter the course of a narrative film. At the Tribeca Film Festival’s Storyscapes and Virtual Arcade, exhibits allow visitors to be a tree in the Peruvian rainforest or a homeless person living on a city bus. In Zohar Kfir’s Testimony, they can select from stories of men and women who are survivors of sexual abuse.

Testimony viewers are offered seats on swivel chairs. After being fitted with goggles and earphones, they are presented with oval-shaped, black-and-white stills of the survivors floating in a black, gray and white background, and connected by white lines. They choose survivors by looking at their stills. A movement of the head in any direction takes users to other stills and other stories, or to the background where they can rest. “All you need to do is move your head away—and that is a metaphorical act,” Kfir said in an interview at the Tribeca Center.

She likens this to a common coping mechanism: “If you see a homeless person on the subway, you may turn your head because you are uncomfortable. You need an easy way to disengage or take a moment to breathe.” At 40 minutes, Testimony is lengthy in comparison to many VR exhibits that average eight to ten minutes—but it is interactive. Users can skip around. “Giving freedom to the viewers is one of the main themes,” Kfir explains. Some people screen Testimony over two visits.

Kfir spent an hour videotaping the testimony of her five subjects, and then edited the footage into five segments or “nodes,” each several minutes in length. The survivors describe the circumstances of their assaults, and in another node, what they did in the immediate aftermath. In other segments, they discuss what they think can be done to prevent sexual assault. One young woman says that she would require all convicted rapists to wear pink jumpsuits to identify them, and a collar that would sound anytime they approached a school. Discussing one of the survivors who appears in the piece, Kfir recalls, “It was the first time she talked about her assault. Afterward, she wrote to me: ‘You don’t know how much you have released just by this hour of interview.’”

Born in Israel, Kfir’s first college studies were in film, but she soon switched to new media. She holds a graduate degree in Interactive Telecommunications from New York University, and now lives in New York City. In October 2016, she received funding from Oculus through DevLab, an initiative from Oculus and Kaleidoscope to explore the boundaries of VR as an art form. Kfir’s initial task was to find survivors who would testify on-camera. “I approached friends who I know were sexually abused, but for different reasons they were not willing to participate,” Kfir explains. “I then posted a request among friends to spread the word and found people who were ready to speak." Kaleidoscope VR's creative producer Selena Pinnell was one of the first people to testify; she set the tone for the project and became a collaborator.

Kfir refers to herself as a media artist. “Film is my main medium. I do sound design for most of my projects, but I like to enrich my work with other people’s talents,” she says. “Josephine Wiggs, who did the sound design on Testimony, is an artist I have collaborated with for the last decade.” Viewers of the exhibit hear sounds related to the confessions of the five subjects; for instance, a vocalist speaks of the loss of her voice after her assault. A brief sound cut is of her singing. Subtle but quite moving, these sounds provide context, as they would in a documentary film that cut between an interview and a clip of the singer performing.

The surrounding environment of the arcade is challenging because it is often noisy, and headphones do not block sound. This viewer, on her first visit to Testimony, felt vulnerable when a heavy object crashed to the floor very near the installation. “Not being in a private space is my major criticism of VR,” Kfir says of the medium. “Most of the time you are in a public setting. Dissemination of VR is also very problematic for this reason.” At the moment, most VR applications are in arcades because they are too expensive to install at home. Kfir and her collaborators had designed a private space for viewers, but it was not possible to erect it at Tribeca. The media artist arrived at a unique solution: “I try to be there when people get out of the experience so that I engage in conversation with them—or give them a hug.”

Some of Kfir’s subjects in Testimony have visited the exhibit. “One of them said something very interesting,” the media artist recalls, “that she felt very supported to see everyone around her.” Kfir speaks very candidly about the inspiration for the work. “I am a survivor,” she says. “I was quite young, and it was one of my first memories in life.” In Kfir’s experience, connecting with other survivors is what allowed her to recover. “I want to expose these stories, and also bring on more survivors to share their stories,” she explains. “It’s very timely now. Speaking up is the only true healing.” Kfir is designing a web platform that will allow survivors to upload their own testimony.