Knowing is seeing: distance and proximity in affective virtual reality history

In this article, I examine perspective taking in virtual reality (VR) representations of the past, which could be regarded as one of the latest developments in the genre of reenactment and affective history. By building on Vanessa Agnew’s analysis of reenactment, I argue that some VR experiences, even though they reduce the distance between the knower and the known and adopt a strong emphasis on emotional engagement, can contribute to historical understanding and promote coming to terms with the past. I emphasize the importance of recognizing how VR experiences situate the audience and the past in relation to each other, i.e., through modes of relation that entail projection, replication, rupture and dialogical attention to the past. These modes of relation are configured through devices of proximity and distance, the combination of which produces a unique approach to the past in each VR experience. By analyzing two VR experiences – The Book of Distance and Accused #2: Walter Sisulu – I demonstrate how they put the tension between distance and proximity in relation to the past on display. The Book of Distance, in particular, makes distance, rather than proximity, much more prominent in its narration, while Accused #2 shifts the focus to the auditory experience, thereby emphasizing the speculative nature of the visual aspect of historical imagination.