#1034: [DocLab] Tamara Shogaolu’s “Un(re)solved” AR Installation & Web Interactive on Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes

Tamara Shogaolu is an interdisciplinary artist & director who works in film and as a creative technologist that mixes analog with digital including VR, AR, and mixed media forms. We discussed these following immersive projects that she has had at DocLab, and her journey into immersive storytelling and AR installations.

This was recorded on Monday, November 22, 2021 as a part of a collaboration with IDFA’s DocLab to celebrate their 15th year anniversary.

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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. All right. Well, welcome back to another episode of the IFADocLab celebration of the 15-year anniversary. My name is Kent Bye. I do the Voices of VR Podcast. And today we're talking to Tamara. Tamara, why don't you go ahead and introduce yourself and tell me a bit about what you do in the realm of immersive storytelling.

[00:00:26.410] Tamara Shogaolu: Yeah, sure. Hi, my name is Tamara Shigalu, and I am an interdisciplinary artist, director, I work in film as well, and I'm a creative technologist. And I design different types of immersive experiences that blend some analog aspects and digital aspects as well with AR, VR, and other mixed media forms.

[00:00:48.504] Kent Bye: Great. Maybe you can give us a bit more context as to your background and your journey into this emerging media space.

[00:00:54.473] Tamara Shogaolu: Yeah, so my background started, I was actually an economist many, many years ago, but I was really interested in storytelling and have always been, I think, my entire life. And I started out with making films and maybe like 11, 12 years ago, VR wasn't really a thing at that point, but I was really interested in telling stories in different ways and creating sort of story universes that could be experienced and create different points of entry for people to experience stories. So at that time, I started experimenting with different things. And then I heard about the DocLab Academy, and I thought that it would be a good place to kind of go and learn a little bit more about the type of tech that was available. And I was developing a project at the time, which I wasn't sure about the form yet. At one point, it was a web documentary. But then as VR started getting better, I decided I wanted to explore VR, but I wanted to make sure that it was connected to the story. So I came to IDFA as part of the Academy and met really awesome people and started learning more about the ecosystem and how I should be designing and shaping this experience as I worked on it.

[00:01:58.954] Kent Bye: What were some of your takeaways from, you know, I feel like the DocLab is on the frontiers of trying to synthesize all these new emerging media. So what were the things that you took away from that Academy?

[00:02:08.895] Tamara Shogaolu: It was amazing. I mean, I'm still really good friends with some of the people who are also participants in the Academy. It made me think a lot about the medium in terms of why. And I think the way of looking at it where before going to the Academy, I think people were really kind of into the sort of almost fetishization of technology in a way of like looking at how do you define what's innovative and what's not. And I felt like at the doc lab when I did the academy, I got a really good chance to really think about story and how it relates to technology. And also the long history of this type of technology where I feel like there's new iterations and the ways it changes. But I mean, VR has actually been around for a really, really long time. And I think Most people don't realize that, but of course it changes in the way it relates to people. So I started thinking about more like user experience design in a different way of uniting, merging story and tech and making sure that the tech had meaning in the way that I was using it.

[00:03:05.764] Kent Bye: And so was the piece that you had at Tribeca a number of years ago, was that the first VR piece that you had where you were integrating different aspects of oral history over like over a decade? So yeah, maybe you could just give a bit more context as that project and if that was like your first XR project.

[00:03:20.428] Tamara Shogaolu: Yeah. So that was the first project I'd made. I'd made a, it was part of a, it is part of a series and I just showed it, uh, it's been touring on different museums this last year and it premiered at the Amstrad Museum as a whole, but I had made a film, which was the first part and that premiered at the MoMA and that allowed me to have a little bit more access to funding and stuff like that for developing the VR piece. And then I came here and I did the DocLab Academy with that project and I decided to make it a VR project, and it was based on these oral histories that I had collected in Egypt. The whole series is called Queer in a Time of Forced Migration, and the film is called Half-Life. The VR project is called Another Dream, and the final part is called They Call Me Asylum Seeker. So it's a three-part series that follows a group of four LGBT refugees from the Middle East and North Africa from the protests that are known as the Arab Spring through present day. And the VR experience I was able to develop through it and also looking at the overall series. And then I ultimately also finished the series here in the Netherlands. And the final part was commissioned by Open City Dock Festival in London, which allowed me to complete the whole series.

[00:04:29.671] Kent Bye: And then was the next big project that you did the Dome experience that was here at the Docklab last year?

[00:04:34.840] Tamara Shogaolu: Yeah yeah I did that was I it was actually at the same time as I was finishing the series so last year was yeah I did like five projects last year so it was a very intense year and it's funny now that you're asking this question they're all like somehow related to it as well. But yeah, I did the Full Dome project, which was my first Full Dome project last year, which was, I received a commission from IDFA to be able to experiment in that medium. And the whole reason I got interested in Full Dome to begin with, which is from attending the summit here and listening to people talk about Full Dome. And I was just really, I didn't realize how it was its own medium or how, what that process was like. And I'm really grateful for having had that opportunity to be able to develop it. And then now it played at IDFA last year, but unfortunately because of the pandemic to limited audiences, but we're working on adapting it to a VR experience as well to continue touring. And the full dome version just played in Taiwan as well. So it's nice that as things are starting to open up, it's going around. And then at the same time, I also worked on a project, which was a collaboration with PBS and Frontline this last year that premiered at Tribeca as well. And it's a multi-platform experience. So there's like a podcast, a film, a sculpture that uses augmented reality for you to explore it. And then there's also a web interactive and the web interactive experiences in the selection this year at IDFA. And I was working at one point on all three of these projects at the same time. So it's kind of cool to see them all out in the world now. Yeah.

[00:06:05.425] Kent Bye: Yeah. Well, maybe it's a good time to dig into this piece called Unresolved that you worked in collaboration with Frontline. And like you said, it is multi-platform. So there's a film, there's a podcast. And, you know, maybe you could start with describing what this project is and what was already done in terms of, you know, Frontline is a pretty big organization. This is a pretty massive project that you were involved with. where you came in to be able to do both the web interactive, but also the augmented reality piece on that as well. So maybe you could set the larger context for unresolved.

[00:06:36.330] Tamara Shogaolu: Yeah, so the series falls on the back of 15 years of reporting. And there are these investigations looking into all of these racially motivated unresolved murders from the civil rights era, which spans something from like 1933 to like the late 1970s. So it's a wide array. And all of these cases are unresolved for some other reason, either like And we go into looking into why each one is unresolved and what the justice system, what role the justice system played into it. And I was approached last summer about this project by Frontline and given access to reading some of the cases and kind of looking at this. And it was also during the same time as the George Floyd protest and everything that was happening. And it was crazy to me that I was reading these cases from maybe like 30 years ago. And then they sounded a lot like the same cases that I was reading and things that were happening just now and seeing that nothing was changing in between these generations. So I was approached to take all of this information because there were 151 names that they were investigating and figure out a way to design it into something that could be shared with audiences and crafting a narrative out of that and also how it could be dissected. And because the backup of all the information, the investigation that they'd been doing was so massive, Rainey, who was like the head of frontline, felt like it might be better served by creating a multi-platform approach to it. So I was brought in to design a web experience that allowed audiences to explore some of these cases and some of the nuances in relationship to the justice system. And then I also designed a sculpture that serves as a memorial, but also a physical version in which audiences can kind of explore the names. And they're invited to say the names of each individual and in both experiences, but you say the name in order to hear their stories. And there was also in partnership with StoryCorps, which collected a lot of audio interviews from the necks of kin. So you can really spend like endless hours in this place. And because of the pandemic, I had to design it in a way that it could be indoors or outdoors and allowed for COVID regulations, but could also tour and it's been touring around the US at different museums. and stuff, but we wanted to make sure that everyone could kind of access these stories. And it's been really interesting because people in other countries have also had a lot of interest in wanting to share this project and kind of just realizing how these stories and these type of cases and the way that the justice system in the U.S. has behaved in a way is universal in many ways.

[00:09:12.893] Kent Bye: Yeah, so there's, I guess, different media that are digging into this story, the podcast and the film and the web interactive I had a chance to see at Tribeca. And my impression of that was that there's a larger story of injustice in terms of going back and there was at least an effort from the U.S. government to give some funding to dig into some of these cold cases or cases of unresolved injustices that happened and whether or not there would be any legal action versus this other aspect that seems to be like a larger truth and reconciliation of not only saying that these happened or at least from this web interactive to really dig into the story of these individuals and to have the space to really dig into someone's life and the different pieces that were happening in terms of what information was known and just a little bit more about this person as an individual. So be curious to hear your reflections on that because overall feeling that I remember from watching it was like just this feeling of injustice, like, you know, nothing's really changed or all this effort to have things go through the court system, legal system was just maybe not well set up or just fighting against the odds to be able to really bring some larger justice. But through the power of storytelling, you're able to maybe have some of that truth and reconciliation or at least honoring of these names in these lives. And maybe through the narrative technique, be able to really address things that maybe the justice system wasn't really able to handle.

[00:10:36.259] Tamara Shogaolu: Yeah, I mean, I think for me, I wanted to when I was working on it, I didn't really want to focus just on the murders, because I feel like as a society, to a certain extent, we're desensitized to the violence against Black bodies. And I was watching, I don't know if you've seen this film, Exterminate All the Brutes. It's this documentary series that kind of looks at the history of colonialism. And there's one scene in it where they're reading a piece of dialogue that that was written by somebody who was enslaving children in Africa. And there is a visual, like a reenactment of it. But the director chose to, Merle Peck decided to show it with white children as actors playing out these roles. And even as a black person who's a descendant of people who were enslaved, I was looking at it And I was shocked, you know, I felt a different sort of renewed shock by seeing white children in shackles walking through a forest. And I realized at that moment how desensitized and used to seeing black children in shackles or black people in shackles in different spaces or experiencing pain or death was something that we were just used to. And I felt like as a storyteller and a maker, I kind of have a responsibility to like challenge and question that. And I thought what Raul Peck did was really moving and heightened the point in just a very subtle way that I was like, I don't want to contribute to the fetishization of this type of violence against people of color. And I wanted to make sure that even though these stories were about these injustices that happened, most of these people were killed because they fought for so much justice. And that was one of the things that I kept seeing. These were people who gave up their life for voting, people who gave up their lives for wanting to educate other people. people who gave up their lives because like one of the women in the stories is the first female prosecutor in the whole state of Kentucky. And she gave up her life just because she wanted to live out a full career, basically. And I think that I wanted to make sure to honor their lives and design from a perspective in which we're celebrating and getting to know them as people, because maybe that can have more impact when you start seeing people as people instead of just names on a list. And I think that the moment that the impact of this really hit me was like, it's not only about looking at the people, but there's like actual families who have spent generations trying to get justice for these individuals who are these names on this list. And when I was in New York, Frontline brought some of the relatives and descendants of some of the individuals whose names were on the list to the exhibition and the sculpture. And there was a moment where there was a son, the son of one of the names on the list. And his son came and his son had never met his grandfather, of course, because he had been murdered. And they shared a moment where they started taking photos next to the name. And this became like some sort of acknowledgement that there was a generational, it was like the first intergenerational photo in a way that they had. And that was just like, that really hit me emotionally. And the fact that I could create something that allow just some sort of acknowledgement that the fact that these people lived was really what I was trying to do, I think.

[00:13:43.703] Kent Bye: Yeah, so there's the web component but then there's the augmented reality experience and then an installation that was there at Tribeca that you're talking about in the Battery Park where you're able to have these QR codes that you would use the augmented reality app and then scan the code and then you would have to say the name of the person and then it would go into an immersive experience. And so maybe you could talk about the augmented reality portion of this experience that then you created and just maybe describe a little bit about what the larger context was that were these panes and panels and the quilts that came and then how the augmented reality was as a medium starting to tap into other aspects of the story that you could tell that you weren't able to tell in these other media.

[00:14:25.880] Tamara Shogaolu: Yeah both experiences were inspired by sort of African-American quilting traditions and this idea of people being able to tell their stories through that and you know in times of slavery like when we weren't allowed to read or write by law like quilting became a way to keep stories between generations. So I was very much similarly looking at this intergenerational aspect and also the sort of cycles of violence of racial violence and terror in America and telling it through a quilt. So the web interactive is designed to be a quilted forest and there's a lot of symbolism when it comes to like the role of the tree in American society and you can read people can read more about that in there, but you act as a source of light that kind of brings this quilt to life as you explore each story. The physical version, there's a sculpture that is designed of like 13 different quilts that we designed that within them, they're like encased in these glass panes that are etched with all the names of the victims. And each one has a sort of different QR code or like symbol or AR marker that allows you to say their name once you point your phone to it and explore it. But within it, there's also different like points of light that allow you to learn more about the investigation. And you're invited to kind of move around the space, finding these different AR sort of 3D, different markers that exist within the virtual space, the digital aspect. and you can move at your own pace so you can explore as many stories as you want. And then at the end, you're invited to kind of walk through all of the names and you kind of realize the large scale of the whole investigation. So I feel like the web interactive allows you to dive a little bit deeper into particular cases and also the role of the justice system. And I feel like the augmented reality installation maybe is a little bit more meditative. And even as you're physically there and you're hearing all these people say all these names, it feels sometimes like an incantation or like an actual bringing back to life of all of these different individuals. And I think it acts more as a memorial and a way of like realizing the scale and impact of these names of these murders, basically. Yeah.

[00:16:35.761] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think that that part of saying their names is a song that had come out that is listing all the names of people who have suffered from racial violence. Maybe you could expand on that a little bit in terms of the actually having the audience member say the name and what the type of reactions are. What do you think is actually happening there in terms of when you invoke the names and you have the audience start to say the names? As a design, it feels like that's something that's distinct from all the other media of really addressing that. as a story and then what the augmented reality is able to really do when you have that ability to have an app that's reacting to people saying the names and how you were able to really integrate that into your design.

[00:17:17.438] Tamara Shogaolu: Yeah, well I mean I was inspired by the Say Their Names movement in terms of adding that into the experience. Then as we tested, we had to test it a lot because at first we were like, do we have people just say the name once? Or do we have people say the name multiple times? And we found out that if they say the name three times, there's actually like a cognitive process that happens where you realize they're a person. And there were times where certain people would get frustrated if they had to. They're like, I have to say the name more than once. But then we realized it was because they were getting emotionally uncomfortable that they're realizing this name isn't just like a gimmick that you're saying to access more information, but it's actually a person. And the first time they say it, it's in relationship to the technology. The second time they say it, they start really processing what that name is. And the third time they say it, they realize it's a person and then you have their face kind of coming alive on the phone as you're reading it. And I just from testing it so many times and deciding like how many times we would do it. Also, we had to test a lot of like the voice recognition aspects with different accents, different voices, different places, sound design and how that all impacted. I really saw a difference when people said the names three times and how the third time they say it, there's like this realization moment and the emotional energy and tone changes completely.

[00:18:34.817] Kent Bye: Yeah, and this is an augmented reality experience that seems to be fairly site-specific. When I've downloaded the app, it was asking for a start marker, and I was never able to experience the app because I was here in Portland, Oregon, and it was showing in New York City and then in Amsterdam. And so are there any plans to make it not so site-specific? Or do you feel like having the installation is really a key part that doesn't really make sense unless you have all of the other aspects of that? And if it just wouldn't really congeal as a standalone AR experience independent of that site-specific installation.

[00:19:06.559] Tamara Shogaolu: Yeah, I think it's really connected to the sculpture, but that's why we made the other components, right? So people can access the story in the podcast, or they can access the web interactive, which you can experience anywhere. And then the film will be coming out later this year, and people will be able to experience these different parts of the story. And the installation is moving around different parts of the US, so we're hoping that in partnership with other PBS stations, like they'll be able to go and exhibit in different places. It's now going to be in Chicago at the DuSable Museum. But I'm hoping that it's going to keep making the rounds. But I think that in this case, it is something that when you go physically there and you're interacting, there's a physical aspect of seeing the quilt and feeling like you're actually in it that I don't think is replicated easily without the physical component.

[00:19:58.494] Kent Bye: Yeah, that makes sense. Well, this is the 15-year anniversary of DocLab, and it sounds like DocLab's actually been a big part of your career and being inspired, but having direct influence in terms of the different projects and the commissions. But I'm curious if you could offer some reflections on what the DocLab means for the wider documentary community, and also, you know, some of your biggest takeaways about these new emerging forms and just having that community there to not only see the work that people are creating, but also the larger community of other artists that are experimenting and pushing the edge of what's possible with these new forms of storytelling.

[00:20:35.814] Tamara Shogaolu: Yeah, I mean, I think what I find exciting about DACA sometimes is, usually in other festivals, there starts to be the usual suspects, where you see a lot of the same people. And every time I come to IDFA, there's some new and different experimentation. And it's not just about having had a track record of showing types of work, but there definitely is a very specific DocLab brand, I think, when it comes to things, which I find really refreshing. And I'm able to see things that, you know, sometimes I see things that I hate, but I'm glad that they're shown because it makes me have, it's things I have a reaction to. I don't think I really see work that I have no reaction to. which I think speaks loudly to like the type of space and that's how you come up with new ideas. It's definitely been instrumental to my career and I mean I live in Amsterdam as well so I get to see a lot of the people in the community on on a regular basis and I've met most of my maker friends outside of this that have created an ecosystem through IRFA which I think is one of the other things that is amazing but It's definitely an invaluable space. And I love coming to the summit and just getting exposed to different things. I was just in a meeting where we were talking about full dome, and it's something that I recently got to experience and just seeing how different ecosystems are being creative. And it's not only just about displaying the work, but really creating a community and room for makers to experiment. And I think it keeps me and gives me the opportunity to continue to experiment, which I really love and appreciate.

[00:22:09.393] Kent Bye: Yeah, I'd be curious to hear what you think the ultimate potential of all these new forms of immersive storytelling might be and what they might be able to enable.

[00:22:19.620] Tamara Shogaolu: I feel like that's the that's the question of the century, the question of the 15 years, right? Yeah. I don't know. I mean, I can only look at it from my perspective and I guess my practice. And I think every year I have some new thing that I want to work with. Right now, I'm really interested in augmented reality and this sort of combining of analog and digital. And I don't know if that's just in response to the pandemic of being fully digital, but I've really been enjoying playing with physical spaces and it's something that I want to continue doing. I'm working on a project now that is also another sculpture series. So I'm continuing to play with looking at quilts as a storytelling platform and playing with like electronic display quilts and some other mechanic aspects of quilting to create like moving sculptures that tell stories. And I'm doing that through a fellowship at MIT and Black Public Media has been supporting me as well. So that's kind of where my brain is at right now in terms of physical immersive storytelling. And I think that doing something for the planetarium last year also impacted that. I love that physical connection of things. So I don't know if that's the right direction to be going in, because I don't know what direction the pandemic is going in. But I'm curious about that. And I mean, even if you look at the metaverse and how they're playing with haptics, I feel like physical is really important. And that's somewhere where I think there's room for more exploration of how do we combine these virtual and digital spaces with physical and analog technologies.

[00:24:04.568] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I think another part of that too is almost like the group collaborative ritual that you may get. And I'm curious if you have any reflections about what it meant to create a space that was creating a larger context for that type of healing ritual or grieving ritual or truth and reconciliation ritual that meant the community was really coming together around this. And if you have any reflections of what that meant for folks coming together in actual space and that site-specific nature of that, in that memorial installation that you created and what that meant for you in terms of an artist to be able to create a space for that type of ritual.

[00:24:40.140] Tamara Shogaolu: Yeah, I mean, I think that it probably had a really profound impact on me. And yeah, I mean, it's kind of sometimes you just get goosebumps. Like, there's this moment where we all realize we're human and it's just so, so raw. And I think that that exists also when you're doing VR work. Like, I felt that when I'm in a headset, but not with somebody else, right? Like, I felt it personally and independently. I think there's something really beautiful about having this shared moment of reflection, or just sort of like meditative space where you're really kind of reflecting. So that experience and with that project I think kind of marked my interest in wanting to continue to explore creating those type of experiences that feel meditative in a way and can allow for communal sort of participation. And even like audience performance in a way where, you know, them saying the names creates the soundscape of the place. So that's something that I'm exploring right now, for sure.

[00:25:41.073] Kent Bye: Yeah. And the other thing that just comes to mind is how you said the intergenerational photo opportunity that he had created. So just thinking about like the multiple generations of people from different generations coming together, but how that you're able to spend time in a certain way of honoring those names, but also creating an opportunity to have one of those first intergenerational photos. And I think that's a really powerful aspect as well as thinking about the slices of time and the different generations and then having them all come together through a shared experience in that way.

[00:26:10.465] Tamara Shogaolu: Yeah, that was, I mean, that, that, that I didn't plan. That was the Empire producer from, from Frontline, but it was a moment I, yeah, I started crying. I'm not going to lie. Cause it hit me like, you know, you, you're making this thing and you know, it's you, you're really familiar with the families and the stories while you're working on it. But seeing that was something that hit me very deeply for sure. Yeah.

[00:26:34.981] Kent Bye: Yeah. Is there anything else that's left and said that you'd like to say to the broader doc lab community?

[00:26:39.626] Tamara Shogaolu: Um, no, happy birthday, Itfa. And yeah, I'm excited to see what comes in the next 15, 20, 100 years. Casper is still going to be around. Running it. But and yeah, and thank you for giving me like room to play and explore. And yeah, to Votinga and Casper. Thank you. And everyone on the team, actually.

[00:27:06.322] Kent Bye: Yeah. Awesome. Well, Tamara, thank you so much for joining us today and to reflect on the 15 years of DocLab, but also to give us a little more context of your own personal journey and some of the different projects that you've been working on and the different ways that you're pushing the edge of the future of immersive storytelling. So yeah, thanks for joining us today and unpacking it all.

[00:27:24.227] Tamara Shogaolu: Yeah, thank you. Thank you for the thoughtful questions.

[00:27:27.392] Kent Bye: So that was Tamara Shigalu, an interdisciplinary artist, director, works in film, as well as a creative technologist that mixes analog with the digital, including VR, AR, and mixed media forms. This conversation was recorded on Monday, November 22nd, 2021, as a part of a collaboration with IFA's DocLab in order to celebrate their 15th year anniversary. If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then please do consider becoming a member at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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