#923: Shola Amoo’s “Violence” is a Provacative Exploration of Race, Bias, Perception, & Agency


Shola Amoo’s Violence is a provocative virtual reality experience that “re-contextualizes the notions of violence by examining it through the lens of state oppression against marginalized groups.” It’s difficult to say too much about my experience of this piece without giving too much away, and so I highly recommend trying to find a way to see this experience before reading too much more or listening to this conversation exploring all aspects of the experience and it’s design.

Violence was originally set to premiere as a part of the Tribeca Virtual Arcade in April, but due to the global pandemic the premiere was delayed until June 24 to July 3rd as a part of the Tribeca showcase at Cannes XR within the Museum of Other Realities. There are a lot of very timely themes around the ethics of violence in protest that have been a big topic of discussion the wake of the range of riots and non-violent and peaceful Black Lives Matters protests that happened in the wake of the death of George Floyd.

Amoo is a filmmaker who directed The Last Tree, and it was from the film festival circuit that he was able to see some of his first VR experiences at Sundance and Encounters with pieces from African creators produced by the Electric South that provided a lot of inspiration for what could done with the medium. He knew that he wouldn’t be able to explore the issues of race, perception, bias, and agency within the more passive and flat medium and film, and so he set out to create a piece that contrasted the sonic refrains of compliance and the futility of protest by Margaret Thatcher and the more revolutionary and liberation rhetoric from Malcolm X.

There’s a lot of really well-considered design intention put into this piece with the use of a lot of symbolic and metaphoric imagery and embodied dance performances, as well as a number of challenging provocations that merit some further discussion and conversations. There’s a lot of really inspired innovations around the immersive power of virtual reality as a medium, and how to set up and debrief an experience through the innovative use of surveys that are conducting a scientific study in collaboration with Royal Holloway.

There’s a lot of provocative polarities explored in this piece, and after debuting it in a virtual reality world of the Museum of Other Realities, then Amoo says that he’d love to be able to screen Violence within a larger context of talks, seminars, discussions with historians, artists, and educators to be able to provide additional context and statistics about the role that violence has to play in tandem with non-violent resistance in order to bring about revolutionary change. It’s hard to encapsulate everything within a singular experience, but Violence provides an experiential context to have further and deeper discussions exploring these issues. I’d highly recommend keeping an eye out for Violence, and to check it out and carry on this conversation.


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Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. So on today's episode, I'm going to be doing a deep dive into an experience called Violence that premiered at the Tropica Showcase at the ConXR Festival that was happening within the Museum of Other Realities. So this is a very provocative piece and one that I think is very timely with all the things that's happening in the world right now. And it's also a piece that gave me lots of experiential design insights. And the unfortunate thing is, is that there's only like a day or two left of this experience even being available for you to see. So if you have the opportunity and you're listening to this straight away, then I highly recommend going to see it. If you haven't seen it already within the museum of other realities. And if not, then the first five minutes or so, we're going to be talking about this without too much spoilers, but then fairly quickly, we'll kind of dive into unpacking it and talking much more about it. And there's a lot of different aspects of polarity and the ways that you can explore the affordances of the VR medium itself that I think there's some interesting innovations that are happening here that I wanted to unpack and talk about. So that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices in VR podcast. So this interview with Shola happened on July 2nd, 2020, and it was in the Tribeca Showcase that was happening at the ConXR Festival within the Museum of Other Realities. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:01:32.049] Shola Amoo: My name is Shola. I'm a filmmaker, artist, and VR is something that I've always been interested in. And I think my film work has always had an immersive quality to it, especially the last project, The Last Tree. And so when thinking about the concept of this latest VR work, Violence, I was excited about taking my understanding of immersion from film and bringing it to a different medium and seeing what that feels like in that context.

[00:02:05.132] Kent Bye: So yeah, maybe you could talk about your journey into VR, maybe some of your first VR experiences or what was it that first caught you into going from a background of filmmaking into wanting to create an immersive experience yourself?

[00:02:18.382] Shola Amoo: I guess a lot of my experience with VR has been at festivals when premiering films and going to, I guess, Sundance, New Frontiers, and I remember Bristol Encounters, and some of my favourite pieces of VR were some of the VR projects funded by Electric South. who had the kind of initiative of funding VR projects across Africa. And so there was a couple of interesting projects that came out of Kenya, specifically by a filmmaker called Jim Chushu. His VR experience, I forget the name of his, but the other one was by a filmmaker called Nwendo Muki. Nairobi Berries, I believe is what it was called, and they were both artists. So they approached 360 video and VR in a different way. And I just found that they were exploring themes of identity and race in their work. in the medium in an interesting way, and that really spoke to me in terms of how they were navigating these themes in their work. Nuendo's in particular felt very lucid and surreal, whereas maybe Jim's was more, I wouldn't say conventional, but had a clear kind of narrative almost to it. Nuendo's felt quite formless in a very interesting way, yeah.

[00:03:38.660] Kent Bye: So you have a, is violence your first VR piece that you created, or did you create anything before this then?

[00:03:43.621] Shola Amoo: No, violence is my first VR piece.

[00:03:45.261] Kent Bye: Okay. Was it originally set to premiere back at Tribeca? And then I'm just curious, cause like, when did you finish creating it? Because it seems like it's very, in some ways responsive to what's happening, but it seems like if it was going to be at Tribeca, you had already created it. So just.

[00:03:59.924] Shola Amoo: Yeah, no, I had already, I'd been working on it throughout the previous year and it was, If you're talking about the way that it pertains to the moment we're in, that's very much just almost unfortunate, I could say, to some degree, because of obviously all of the protesting. what's going on around that. But yeah, no, I had been thinking about the themes and ideas behind violence for a long time. As I said, I've been exploring certain ideas about masculinity and race and perception in my cinema work. So violence organically came out of that kind of line of production, that kind of line of thinking. But it was clear it wasn't cinema. And I was buoyed by the VR experiences that I'd seen, namely the two I've mentioned. and really felt like violence could only work in this kind of immersive VR space. I think the biggest question I was always asking myself in regards to it was, why can't it be a film? Why does it have to be VR? And I think the fact that the kind of engagement that it requires and the way it's aimed to kind of challenge the user and to engage in some sort of interactivity and to the user respond accordingly, I felt like that could only happen in VR.

[00:05:21.802] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, I always prefer people to have an opportunity to see an experience before they listen to the whole discussion about it, because I think there's a lot of really interesting things about this experience that I want to dive into. But before we go into areas that could be potentially spoilers for the experience, maybe you could talk a bit about what your plans are for if people do want to see this experience, how might they go about it? Are you planning on showing it to other festivals or getting it out there? So people may want to stop the stop the recording.

[00:05:54.478] Shola Amoo: No, no, no. I mean, I mean, literally tomorrow, I believe is the last day at museums or reality. So if when does this go out?

[00:06:05.066] Kent Bye: I don't know, either today or tomorrow. So it's a podcast. So people, probably the majority of people are not going to be able to have time to see it while it's available.

[00:06:13.489] Shola Amoo: So that's true. Good point. I think we are planning to see about other festivals later in the year. But I think also a big plan of mine personally is to take the work outside of a festival context, and try and set up as a kind of an exhibition somewhere, most likely in the UK and London. where we can have people who are not often engaged with VR come and experience the experience.

[00:06:42.253] Kent Bye: Okay. Yeah. Well, I just give people an opportunity that I'm going to talk a little bit about my experience and unpack more of the experience. And I do think it's the type of experience that really is worth going into without having much context and just sort of experience it on its own. Right. Especially because you are doing an additional aspect of research. So maybe you could also give a little bit more context as the questionnaire at the beginning and the end and how that came about in terms of adding that to this particular experience.

[00:07:11.163] Shola Amoo: Yeah, well, I guess there's no way of doing that without giving a bit about what it is. So in a sense, violence, the project is conceptually, it's a re-imagining or re-contextualizing of the word violence, looking at it through the lens of oppressed groups who are engaged in arguably a violent relationship with the state. And we look at this through character in a very sparse, white-lit room, which kind of almost feels like a prison and has a kind of claustrophobic energy. The questionnaire really pertains to the need to get a sense of the user, their kind of perceptions and ideas. So we have a few questions at the start, you go through the experience, and then we have a few questions at the end. And it's very important in terms of the engagement with the experience to have those questions, but at the same time, not have them lead too much, but lead enough. So the balance there is quite tricky to get because you want people to come to the experience and you want to get that organic reaction during their time in the experience, which is very short. It's about five minutes. So I think that's what the point of the questions are. We've worked with an academic institution, Royal Holloway, to devise the questions. So we had psychologists really interrogate the questions and how we wanted to set out the questions in relation to the experience, because we want that data from the users to, A, inform what we've done and what we intend to do, and B, to search it for patterns and rhythms that engage with the questions of race and bias.

[00:08:58.407] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, the experience itself is a very visceral and powerful experience. And I heard you speak a little bit about the experience and a panel discussion. And so maybe you could talk about the main protagonist character and what you were trying to convey with the masculine physique and just everything else that you have in this main character that is featured in this piece.

[00:09:22.478] Shola Amoo: So violence really is playing with the concept really of bias and perception. And so we have this masculine, this muscly, almost hyper-masculine black man in this cell. And I say hyper-masculine in terms of a kind of trope perception that some people may have of the character. And this cell is formulated like a prison. It's a white cell and he is unable to escape it. And escape is clearly on his mind. We have sonically a refrain from Margaret Thatcher, which talks about the futility of protest and fighting back against the state. It's a refrain of compliance and it's a refrain of anti-revolutionary rhetoric. As the experience goes on, and our protagonist is bombarded with this refrain and clearly unable to escape his experience, sonics change from Margaret Thatcher to Malcolm X and the refrain around violence starts to talk in a more revolutionary liberation tone. And that's something that the protagonist finds quite galvanizing in the experience. So it's really in that moment, what we're doing is flipping sonically the concept of violence and enabling the user to interact with this character in the space, but also go through a process where they're interrogating their thoughts, feelings and fears, if indeed fear is one of the emotions that come up. And it's interesting to see how that relates to individuals based on race and gender.

[00:11:05.180] Kent Bye: Yeah, because I went through this experience and at the end, there was a thing in the questionnaire where it asks if I was participating in any way. And then it was at that moment where I realized that I could participate and then I, you know, hadn't participated. And so it made me actually reflect a lot about the experience. And I went through the experience again and I participated in a way to see what the extent my agency was. And I've done a lot of VR and sometimes there's an invitation to participate Because whenever I watch a narrative, it's like, I don't want to miss what the narrative is. And I don't want to be playing with the toys of the agency when I may miss something. And so part of that, and in some ways, I'm glad there wasn't an explicit invitation, because it actually catalyzed deeper thoughts later about it sort of made it into a larger question in terms of like, okay, well, how can I express my agency in the wide world in a different way? So it was actually quite a provocation in that way. So just curious, because there's a lot of design decisions that you could make there in terms of making it clear of like, hey, are you going to like help me out here or not? And so maybe you could talk about that design process and that provocation.

[00:12:16.682] Shola Amoo: Yeah, firstly, really, really enjoyed your experience of violence in a sense, because those are sort of the emotions we're aiming to evoke. So it's really good to hear that. And secondly, I mean, in regards to those decisions in the design, we really had to rack our brains and go back and forth on just how explicit we were going to be. Because again, so much of this experience is really a delicate dance. It's a delicate balance. I felt like if we were too explicit with the interactivity, to some degree, that that almost takes over the impetus to interact, if that makes sense. It doesn't come from an emotional pull, it comes more from the fact that, oh, let me test out this interactivity, let me do it. And so it's a fine line between not doing that, but also making sure that the person, the individual in experience feels that they can engage at the same time. And violence is such a short experience and in its own way, regardless of interactivity, such a spectacle to some degree. that is understandable if the user, even though we've restricted the amount of movement in the space, the user might get caught up, I guess, in the performance. But I think it's designed to not only make you think about those things in the experience, but almost what comes after the experience, as you mentioned, is equally as important. It becomes a question of agency, not in the space, but agency in the wider world and your sense of empowerment. Just the simple acknowledgement that, yeah, I could have done something. How does that affect one walking out of the experience? and their day-to-day. And I think that's really a valuable question around violence. It's about that agency not in the experience, although that's of great importance. And those who feel so compelled that they start touching things and trying to enable our character that freedom, that's also super valid and also super welcome. But those who don't, particularly on that first go, there's also merit to that at the same time.

[00:14:29.303] Kent Bye: Yeah, when I saw the experience in my space, like there's four walls and my play space, I could only actually sort of touch the back walls that was behind me and the other walls I couldn't even get to and there's like, no, I didn't find any way to teleport. But when you were planning on showing this at something like Tribeca, I imagine that the space would be like almost like a one-to-one so that people could actually touch all the four walls. That's sort of the intention for when you were going to show it, have it available so that people could walk around because The way that you design it, you actually have the character almost, you have to get out of the way, otherwise he's gonna run into you. So you're kind of encouraging people to move around the space a little bit. And he's kind of going around in a circle in a way that would encourage you to potentially like discover that you could participate as well. So yeah, but having it in my home, like maybe I didn't see it in a space. I still don't think that I would have participated, but that was one of my considerations that came up.

[00:15:26.236] Shola Amoo: Yeah, I think that's something that can be explored in a physical exhibition to some degree. I think in regards to what we were doing, because I can only speak on what we were doing for the Museum of Realities, the restriction was important. I felt also because I think if you can move around the room, there's a lot to explore. I think for the time that the experience is going on, I found it useful to restrict to a space. And at least you had the access to that wall that was closest to you as a place to demonstrably knock down the walls and show your interaction. And also just to give you a sense of focus in the experience.

[00:16:06.152] Kent Bye: Oh, so even if it was at Tribeca, you would still be restricted? Was that the idea that you would not be able to walk around the entire space if it was at an exhibition space? Or is that a decision you had to make because of the virtual?

[00:16:18.243] Shola Amoo: I think because of the virtual, I think we're open to, when that's in a physical space, exploring how that might work in a different way. But I think for museums of reality, the restriction felt very useful.

[00:16:30.185] Kent Bye: Well, there's a question asking about the use of violence at the beginning and the end. Again, we're going to pass the point of sort of talking about the experience. So hopefully people have paused if they don't want any of those spoilers. But for me, I found what was interesting was that because everything that has been happening in the world and, you know, there's a very specific, I think, 18 minute video from Trevor Noah, where he was talking about the social contract and how the social contract has been broken and it's been broken for a long time, but it's been broken to a point where people really felt like they wanted to react in a way that was showing other people who may be comfortable and not feel that the social contract is broken to convey to them that, yes, this is a contract that's been broken for us for a really long time. And so from the beginning to end, I found that I wasn't all the way to the end saying, okay, in my mind, it was sort of like using violence in any context, in any situation. There's like, I think there's limits. to where that violence goes. And so I felt like from beginning and end, I was the same. But if I would have seen this experience at Tribeca before all of this has happened, I think, I don't know what my experience would have been. It's hard to say because we're in the moment. But I can imagine that I probably wouldn't have been as far as I was after responding to the current situation and listening to the argument that Trevor Noah made and sort of just learning about the history of riots. I mean, it's sort of an interesting experience in the sense that it is very much of the moment and almost feels like in response to the moment, but it's also like it was made before that and trying to catalyze it. So just curious to hear some of your thoughts on some of that.

[00:18:08.279] Shola Amoo: Yeah, that's a really interesting point, because I guess the foundation of the project kind of rests on the idea that you will come into the experience with some preconceived notions, to some degree, some people will. And The great aim of the project is that potentially it might find a way for you in a very visceral, cathartic way to flip some of those notions via being in that experience. Now, if you're saying socially consciousness has shifted since Tribeca to the point where you think the starting point for some people's ideas around, say, violent protest is maybe progressed from where it was. I mean, I can understand that as a valid point, but I also think that Although there is this externally, this feeling of a mass consciousness or shifting of consciousness, I imagine that most people intimately still have potential concerns around what that looks like and feels like, particularly if you're in a confrontational situation. And I think violence as an experience is very confrontational. I heard your podcast. Sorry, I can't recollect the name of the lady you were talking to, but she said she was very afraid.

[00:19:22.798] Kent Bye: Yeah. Yeah, it was Paula Weiss. And I regret not asking her to elaborate on that point a little bit more. But yeah, it's actually sort of listed in one of the motions that you were seeing how people were reacting in different ways. But yeah, go ahead.

[00:19:37.878] Shola Amoo: No, no. And I think it's interesting because I think what would be the aim of the experience to some degree, and maybe you don't get it fully as an individual from that first go, is the ability to push through those initial ideas, whether it be fear or or just a sense of strong emotional disagreement, because that's, as a tool, in terms of progressing a kind of conversation, violence as an experience, I think that's very much at the heart of it. And confronting those overt or covert feelings, perceptions, biases, working through it and reaching something at the end that has progressed those initial thoughts and emotions.

[00:20:22.561] Kent Bye: Yeah, because I mean, I see that there's a long journey. And then there may be steps along the way in terms of like, I don't think that a single VR experience is necessarily going to be enough to sort of like bring about all of the change that you drive. So this may be like the first type of experience, but there may be a follow on because I know one One of the things that I was wondering about is that, you know, this issue of the nonviolent resistance versus using violence as a tactic was a debate that happened during the civil rights era. And I sort of think of like Malcolm X versus Martin Luther King in terms of they were in some ways disagreeing about some of these different tactics. And you included a quote from Malcolm X within this experience. And, you know, as you think about this larger context of that debate, I'm just wondering how some of those nuances of that discussion may fit into either an experience that you created here or if you thought about those specific debates that were happening and how to include that into an experience like this.

[00:21:20.718] Shola Amoo: Yeah, I think it's really, it happened sonically during the experience where we move from a Margaret Thatcher kind of almost repressive refrain to one that takes the same concept, but recontextualizes it. And in that process, sonically in doing that, from Margaret to Malcolm, you're already opening the space and allowing more nuance into a concept than previously existed. I think in many ways Malcolm has that amazing quote, I don't call it violence when it's self-defense, I call it intelligence. I think that's something that is a quote from him that really stuck with me. Because I think we can all agree on a very basic term that violence out of context is not something that we gravitate to, to some degree, generally. I mean, can't talk for everyone, but you can say generally you wouldn't want that. But in a context of oppressed groups, oppressed people trying to breathe, trying to have a say, trying to self-actualize or be considered human, you understand Malcolm's quote a lot more keenly in that context.

[00:22:32.617] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, part of what you said earlier was that you're trying to recontextualize violence. You know, you're talking about violence and violence as a tactic for protest, but also it's speaking to the systemic racism and the institutional violence that's propagated out there. And that as a concept is actually very difficult to visualize or explain. In this particular piece, you have the embodiment of a single actor who's in some ways trying to embody that in your metaphorically in a prison that he's trying to liberate himself from. But I'm just curious to hear a little bit more about this. How do you convey institutional racism and systemic violence at a large scale in an immersive experience and try to unpack that recontextualization of seeing something like the riots as like an expression of violence, but also that's in response to something that is a violence that is put onto somebody.

[00:23:25.337] Shola Amoo: Yeah, so response to state rights to some degree. And I think there is an understanding of terrible prison statistics for people of color, not just in the US, but in the UK as well. At one point, fortunately, we were incarcerated. as much or worse even proportionally, but I think it's really important to see in a systemic bubble like that you need to find ways artistically to elucidate and articulate a point in a very, I wouldn't say non-preachy way, but in a very loose and fluid way, particularly in an experience as short as violence. So in regards to design, in a way it was very organic to place this one individual who represents in a way, this character represents, you know, I can't really do air quotes on a podcast, but represents some sort of archetypes, right? And there is already preconceptions and notions just with the character who is presented the way he is presented. And when you put that character in a four by four insulated space that ostensibly feels like a cell with white panels, we will find in very simple design ways to articulate these systemic pressures that we already discussed. And then there's the pace of the experience, the frenetic nature of the experience, the movement, the intensity of the movement, the sound design, the almost military-esque sound of the refrains initially from Margaret Thatcher. All of these design decisions create, I believe, a claustrophobic energy that is not too reminiscent or too dissimilar from feeling like you're in a prison.

[00:25:16.884] Kent Bye: And I know that Violence has been premiering at the Museum of Other Realities, and this is the world premiere, right? This is the first time you've been able to have a chance? Yes, yes. Okay, so it's a little awkward because, you know, it's in a virtual reality experience and, you know, it may be difficult for you to hang out and show it to people and, you know, have them talk to you right afterwards. So, but have you been able to hear feedback from people? And what's been the feedback that you have been able to get so far on the experience?

[00:25:42.936] Shola Amoo: We've had one or two, and what's been really interesting though is just getting the data, which hasn't been thoroughly unpacked, but there's a lot of it. So that's going to be an interesting process of really looking for the patterns and the innate feelings and energies towards the piece or the experience. But generally, I think people have found it very, the people I've spoken to anyway, have found it very powerful and impactful. and just have been bewildered by the timing of it as well in a sense that it feels right on cue and yet it was something that has been in gestation for such a long time in a way.

[00:26:20.311] Kent Bye: When you plan on showing this experience again in the future, are you going to have like the same survey or is this set of data going to be something where you're going to take that and do some analysis and maybe publish it somewhere? I'm just curious because there's a question I want to ask, but I don't want to sort of ruin the future research of it.

[00:26:38.978] Shola Amoo: No, I definitely, we definitely, I want to let the data we get from this iteration of violence inform the physical presentation of violence. And I think Royal Holloway will definitely be doing some investigative work in how they want to present that information. But yeah, I'm very excited to dive into the data because I think it's going to help basically recontextualize the experience in a physical space with a completely different kind of air. But I think we have to wade through the data and see what it throws up.

[00:27:12.937] Kent Bye: And I wanted to ask about the very first question that you have, because it's sort of a in some ways, maybe a calibration, because you're asking about masks and the context of the global pandemic and The mask issue has been quite a politicized issue, especially here in the United States, where it's almost become a proxy for whether or not you're listening to scientists or not scientists or there's a politicization of it but there's also lots of context around sometimes it's better to wear masks and sometimes it's not if you're indoors or outdoors and so there's like lots of nuances where the question kind of got collapsed down into do you think you should wear masks or not but I'm just curious like how that is connected to the overall and feel free if you don't want to reveal or talk about it because you don't want to

[00:27:55.825] Shola Amoo: Yeah.

[00:27:57.306] Kent Bye: It made me wonder, you know, what's going on here.

[00:28:00.828] Shola Amoo: No, I don't want to say what the questions are for, but I think all the questions are important.

[00:28:08.312] Kent Bye: Okay, that's fair enough. So yeah. Okay. Well, maybe you can talk a little bit about your vision for how a piece like this, like what would be your ideal reaction to how that fits into this overall change that you want to see? Like maybe paint out that vision and see how this, this experience is a part of that.

[00:28:31.413] Shola Amoo: Yeah, well, I'd really like to just see what maybe we couldn't do in MOR, in museums of reality, is what we can do in a physical space is have a series of conversations with people who have been through the experience and see what sort of journey these individuals have been on and see where the conversation goes to around protest the recontextualization of the word violence through that lens of protest against the state and see particularly individuals who may have come to the experience with very strong fixed ideas that may be verged on the edge of them feeling like it's never viable. I think that's important. I think a lot of what needs to happen is these discussions between people with extremely different ideas. And I'd almost like to just house violence in a venue where it can be on for months and engage different individuals with talks, seminars, discussions. discuss the statistics and really actively engage people in a one-to-one about these themes and ideas. I think it has the potential to really challenge individuals on their own views and their own biases and perceptions. I think we need more of that in society now. I think our ideas are very fixed and maybe due to how we consume information, maybe we're all in echo chambers, I don't know. But I do know that one of the key steps will be taking people out of those polarized arenas and pushing them in an experience or in a context where people with almost violently opposed views can really clash on those ideas. And I think this is a good almost proxy or experience to elucidate on that in a way.

[00:30:28.286] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think one of the challenges is the understanding of history and what the history actually is. And Glenn Contave is an augmented reality artist who I talked to two years ago now, and he was making augmented reality art about Columbus and trying to get New York to officially take down Columbus statue and Columbus circle and to rename it. And, you know, that's one of the things that we've seen in the wake of all these protests is people on their own just taking down these statues because of that deeper context. of the history that's associated with a lot of these figures, whether they're associated with the Confederates or connections to slave trade. And I know that's been happening in Bristol and all over the world that's been happening. But this issue of the history, because I think, you know, some of these issues that you're talking about of violence and the riots and how that's been connected to actually bringing about deep systemic change that there's a history there that is maybe not universally known or held, but there's a fragmentation in terms of what the history even is. And so just curious how you start to address some of those issues of the history, you know, is that other media through conversations or how do you get people on the same page?

[00:31:37.890] Shola Amoo: I think in regards to what I was suggesting in terms of having conversations and seminars, I think you invite all the academics and all the people who have a really engage understanding of the history to talk about the broader context of violent protest in history, where it's being seen, where it's happened, where it's enabled progress, as well as non-violent. I think it's not seeing that these things have happened over time and being able to contextualize them. And I think that in regards to, especially as we've seen some of the reporting, Of some of the protesting of late, it's like it's devoid of a tradition or it's in a vacuum. There is a lineage to it. I think this is why Malcolm is in the experience to some degree. And I think having a day where you can have in a physical space after the experience, seminars, talks, recontextualization of what you've just experienced in a different way. with artists, historians, educators, I think that is an important part of this whole process. It's also interesting to have violence at MOR, almost avoid all of that, just to see what that feels like and what the response is to it, and then think about what that feels like in the physical space.

[00:33:00.321] Kent Bye: Yeah, I definitely think there's a lot that you can do and because it gives people a baseline or shared experience that then they can talk about because I think that's the value of art. The conversation we're having here, you know, is catalyzed by this experience that you had created. I'm curious to just hear a little bit more from your perspective of the role of violence and the other nonviolent protests that were happening with the bus boycotts and other things, freedom rides, you know, there's sort of a combination of, like, both things were happening. And so it's hard for me to point to, like, oh, it was definitely this thing that catalyzed a larger change. So my conceptualization, it's like there's a balance of both that may be needed. But, like, from your perspective, how is either rioting or violent protests sort of fit into the larger revolution that needs to happen? Because, you know, there's obviously debates that were happening between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King about this very issue. And King saw that the nonviolent protest was something that was his path. Malcolm X was like, well, this isn't working. So we need, we actually need something more because this is just sort of placating into this. And so there was like this tension that was happening then. And you could argue that's still happening today because we're not there. So I'm just curious to hear some of your perspectives on that.

[00:34:06.428] Shola Amoo: Yeah, I think, you know, I think about some of the riots from British context that have happened, whether it's the Brixton riots in the 80s or more recently, the London riot after Mark Duggan was shot. And I think a lot of the times it can be pointed out as these things are mindless thugs just looting and terrorizing. And it's always devoid of context. Like, for example, when Mark Duggan was shot, the family went to the police station and weren't able to receive any answers for that shooting, which I would argue is still the case today. And what resulted was a deeply impassioned reaction to that. And yet people always talk about property in relation to, say, the loss of human life. You know, that young man was killed, And yes, there was a riot subsequently after that. And yes, some property was damaged. And you could argue that it descended into looting and all of those sort of things. But I think at the core, you have to remember what was the instigator. The instigator was the fact that we had a young man who was murdered. And in history, In the UK, I think for the past 40 to 50 years, I don't think we've had any police officers charged for the large amounts of young black men who have been shot or who have died in prison. I don't think we've had one since the 50s in regards to an actual prosecution of an officer for some violence. So I think these things, if, and by the way, between that time, there have been many a peaceful protest for advocating that, you know, we need to revise our policing measures. We need answers. These families who have lost countless people over the years need answers and it hasn't happened. So I think, one, I think it's a good idea not to separate violence and nonviolent protest, but I think in a way they are hand in hand. And a lot of the times I think it only really descends into violence when nonviolent protest that has been going on for a while feels like it's getting no results.

[00:36:21.975] Kent Bye: Yeah, yeah. The way that I see things being politicized here and the reaction to that is like coded as law and order. There's either following the laws and order in response to some of those lootings and the violent protests. And so to me, it feels like there's a certain amount of safety and security that is a privilege, often a white privilege in terms of people that don't have to face this every day and they can afford to ignore it and not pay attention to it. And Martin Luther King has said that rioting is the language of the unheard in some ways in terms of like making this experience heard and the injustices and the lack of safety and security that is being experienced. And so it does feel like it has gotten a lot of people's attention and it does seem to have catalyzed a larger nonviolent protest movement that has had people marching around the world. And in some ways it's that solidarity that has created a larger cultural shift of people that are maybe saying the words, but I think the other challenge is how to actually embody. And I think there's the cultural awareness of things that happen that actually, I think it's hard for me to take away one or the other.

[00:37:33.736] Shola Amoo: I think violence, nonviolence work in tandem. I think it's hard to isolate it as one or the other. I think there's a relationship between the two that often leads to the answers of why people are rioting in the first place.

[00:37:51.038] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I guess the debate, if it only becomes around law and order, then I think it's sort of missing the deeper grievances that are there. But at the same time, there's change that has happened in the past in the history of civil rights that has come about because there is this grievance that has happened. So, yeah, it's not something that I think one experience or one conversation is going to resolve, but I think that this VR experience is particularly provoking because it does bring up a lot of these deeper questions. And I think the thing that I take away that, you know, maybe, you know, going back to your point of why you chose to do VR in the first place is because it was a virtual reality experience that I could have passively received, but there was an opportunity for me to express my agency and I didn't within the experience. And that is something that really sticks with me and makes it so that, oh, well, I don't want to have to experience that again. And so what can I do in the wider world to be able to actually embody it and to really bring about the changes that I need to? And I think that's the challenge of like, you know, how do you really for each individual, what do they need to do to embody the change that they need to do to be able to bring out the systemic change? Because the systemic change is so intergenerational and so vast and huge that it's really difficult for me to even conceptually wrap my mind around it. But there's things that I can do to play my part. And I think a piece like this is inviting people to at least have a little bit of agency within that experience and then to have them question what agency can they bring out in the wider world.

[00:39:22.656] Shola Amoo: Yeah, and I love that that was your experience of it, because that very much is the intention to, for one, to question complicity, agency, and to really interrogate it. So yeah, I just love your response to the experience.

[00:39:38.391] Kent Bye: Well, there's Courtney Coburn, and she was talking in the discussion about as a Black artist, she has to decide whether or not she's going to create art that educates White people about what racism is, rather than working on experiences that are going to directly impact Black futures. And that's a trade-off that she had to make, and it's something that she thinks a lot about. But there's been a lot of white people wanting to help out, and how can I help? And there's a certain amount of emotional labor that is put onto people of color, Indigenous people, Black people, to be able to sort of educate people about what they can do. But also, it may not necessarily be their role to do that, and maybe people need to educate themselves. So I'm just curious, some of your reactions to some of those dynamics.

[00:40:24.610] Shola Amoo: It's funny, you know, I absolutely hear what Courtney was saying about that. And yet it's a similar thread, whether it's through my work in cinema or my work in VR. I make work that interests me and asks bigger questions, the big questions that I'm interested in. And I think what's good about violence in the sense is that, yes, it can be an educational tool in that way and it can if you're a white person coming to that experience, your perceptions based on race may differ to, say, a black person's experience. And yet at the same time, that might not be the case. You might have black people who come into that experience who also might be a bit conservative or who might find that experience quite challenging. So I think that with this particular experience of violence, because it's something that we all have a visceral reaction to just as humans. The concern that Courtney has, which is a valid concern, didn't hit me in the same way for this particular project. Because I think violence as an experience is coming from such a gut place of instinct that has a kind of almost essentialist punk energy to it. And so I feel like It wants people to go on a journey and it didn't feel for me personally as some sort of, oh, I'm going to teach white people, but it did feel like it would be super challenging. And that challenge was an important challenge for the user to accept.

[00:42:03.927] Kent Bye: Well, I love how Paula, when she said that if she does do it again, that she's going to go in with a completely different intention. And so this does seem like a type of experience that after you sort of get the whole experience, you can go back and maybe have a different experience. But I'm curious about your experience of this experience. If you've found yourself, you know, having any sort of catharsis of using the experience of the agency or, you know, I actually think, you know, for,

[00:42:29.639] Shola Amoo: And it's interesting. I found the experience really euphoric. And I don't think it's because I'm the creator of it. I suspect Black people experience this because at the start, it's so intense and puts you in a place, confines you, restricts your movement. It's claustrophobic. And yet, by the end without, I mean, Jesus giving all the spoilers away. By the end, the end is the end. I won't say anything more about it, but the end is the end. And it is not one that works off the trope of black death or black destruction. It's something else. And I think that that's interesting as a cathartic moment. So, and I think there is a sense of, particularly if one is engaged in that process of liberation in the experience, there is something euphoric about that in my mind.

[00:43:31.731] Kent Bye: Yeah, yeah. Well, hopefully if people didn't get a chance to see this, there'll be some curators and other people that maybe will get enough of it and want to be able to experience it. And I hope that at some point it's made available for people to be able to experience it on their own, because I do think it's an important conversation. And I think it's a testament to the art that you created because it is very provocative and was able to facilitate a lot of this discussion we had here. But for you, I'm just curious what you think the ultimate potential of immersive storytelling and virtual reality might be and what it might be able to enable.

[00:44:05.383] Shola Amoo: I think there's a, I think with VR, I always, I think I said in the panel that I'm not entirely sure it's had its sit-and-sink moment yet, where it's like everyone's kind of clued in, okay this is what it's for, 100% we know where it's going, and that is both, well I think primarily that's super exciting coming from a medium that's like 100 years in, so I think there's bags of potential and I think we're really scratching the surface of it. And I think I'm excited to make a project like Violence because I see it as something that can evolve and change over time and circumstance. And so I'm very, you know, this being the first experience I've made, I found it very inspiring to think about this space called VR, which feels like the Wild West in a very different way and has bags of potential. And that's why I also highlighted the work of Electric South across Africa, because I think diversifying it and having a range of different individuals, multidisciplinary, broad spectrum of individuals engaging with the medium will be to the medium's benefit and will create scenarios and concepts that can help evolve it.

[00:45:22.897] Kent Bye: Great. And is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?

[00:45:27.579] Shola Amoo: So yeah, check out violence for the one day that is on left.

[00:45:43.201] Kent Bye: Well, Shola, I just wanted to thank you for creating this piece and for sitting down to unpack it a little bit. You know, again, like I said, it's both fortunate and unfortunate that it's so timely, and I'm actually glad that there's a larger conversation that's happening, and it almost feels like it's in response to that, but it is, you know, like you said, it's been in the process and addressing an issue that's been there for a long, long time. So hopefully it'll continue to have its life out there in the midst of the pandemic and coronavirus and find ways for people to continue to have access and see it. But yeah, I just wanted to thank you for making it and for joining me here to unpack it a little bit here on the podcast. So thank you.

[00:46:18.028] Shola Amoo: Well, good. Thank you.

[00:46:20.110] Kent Bye: So that was Xolo Amo. He's a filmmaker and artist, and he is the creator of Violence, which was premiering at the Tropica Showcase within ConXR within the Museum of Other Realities. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, this is a piece that has really stuck with me in a lot of different ways. And there's a lot of deliberate design. He said that it was a delicate dance and a delicate balance to be able to have the opportunity to express your agency and to participate without having the explicit invitation. And I think this is a key part because, you know, you're asked questions at the beginning and the end. And typically any survey, you're going to be asked a question again to see if you've changed, but there's also a question around asking if you participated. And it was at that moment for me that I realized that you could even participate at all. They don't want to have an explicit invitation where, you know, at that point it becomes more of you kind of testing the VR technology and the intention behind the actions that you're taking takes a different meaning. And what happens if you don't take action, then the questions in the survey actually had me at least reflect upon that and to question that and to actually take that agency out into the wider world in some fashion. So to me, I think that's like a fascinating concept to have different surveys at the beginning, the end, and to be able to work with different scientists to get information about this and to see if there's any correlations they can make. And it'll be very interesting to see what kind of patterns they may be able to see from this. So, you know, there's a lot of aspects of this experience that are really exploring polarities. So at the very beginning, he's having a quote where he says that the sonic refrain from Margaret Thatcher, who's describing the fatality of protest and the fatality of fighting against the state. And he calls it a refrain of compliance and a refrain of anti-revolutionary rhetoric. And that's contrasted after the character is trying to break out of this metaphoric prison and he can't, and you can't break through the walls and it collapses and there's this pause and then during that pause, you start to hear more of this revolutionary rhetoric from Malcolm X. And from that point, the character gets out and breaks free of the prison. And that prison is these white panels. It's a very stark symbol of the oppression of systemic racism. And, you know, there's very complicated history of a lot of the different dynamics here. And it's a symbol that you could read into. And the more that you're aware of the deeper history in the context, see this mass incarceration as a continuation of slavery. And Bryan Stevenson, in the documentary that premiered on HBO, it's called True Justice, Bryan Stevenson's fight for equality. He makes the argument in his film that mass incarceration is a continuation of that lineage from slavery to Jim Crow laws to public lynching to segregation and on into what we have now, which is the era of mass incarceration. So it's just the new normative standard that has been acceptable by all the gross injustices that we have with the statistical inequalities of our system of justice. So it's a grave injustice to have these different levels of systemic racism that's built into it. And that's a lot of information to cover. And I would recommend people to get more history and context by looking at something like Brian Steveson's documentary to really make that full argument. This piece is starting with that point where you're already confined within the prison and it's up to you to read into that symbol and what the deeper context of that symbol might be. As Shola was talking about this as an experience, he said, you know, his ideal situation would be people would watch this experience and then come out of it and then be exposed to all sorts of additional context and history and artists and seminars and discussion and interactive projects where you have all sorts of opportunities to engage in conversation and to engage in continuing education. And so this is like one step of a much larger journey, you know, as we, we talked about, it's like. unreasonable for any one piece of media to be able to convey the complexity of all these variety of different issues. But I think the genius about this piece is that he's trying to be very efficient in terms of the metaphoric and symbolic communication and to set up this questionnaire at the beginning that is asking a number of different questions, trying to get at the heart of somebody's existing perceptions and preconceived notions, and then to have this experience to see if it's able to actually bring about any shift by exploring these extremes of the polar opposites. So I do think that You know, there's other polarities that are playing out during the civil rights era with Martin Luther King, as well as Malcolm X that are getting into the nuances of the ethics of violence as a tactic for change. And this piece is not diving into that, but it catalyzed a deeper conversation with me and Shola because I really wanted to sort of get his sense of that. And, you know, he's saying that he really sees that they work at hand in hand and you can't have one without the other. And that from his piece, he's trying to contrast the rhetoric that's coming from Margaret Thatcher and contrasting that with Malcolm X. But within that polarity, it's embedded within the experiential design itself of having this really frenetic pace and then it's having this moment of pause and exhaustion and then exploding again to the point where you have this breakthrough to this point of liberation and that you get that experience. But I think the other thing that Scholl is advocating for is just a deeper context that, you know, some of this revolutionary rhetoric is from a lineage of people like Maklum X. And, you know, one of the things he said was violence out of context is something that, you know, he pretty much sees anybody would be uncomfortable with, but that in the context of oppressed groups, of oppressed people trying to breathe, trying to have a say, trying to self-actualize or be considered human, that you can understand Malcolm's quote a lot more keenly in that context. And so I think the overall theme that keeps coming up over and over again is that these issues have a lot of deep context. And so what is the process of building up that context and getting people onto the same page of what that context is as a part of I think what the artist's role is to start to catalyze these conversations and to have people to have their own direct experience and then to perhaps create a catalyst for people to start to dig in and to learn more about that larger context that some of these violent protests are in response to a larger systemic violence. It's a very powerful piece and there is a bit of a timeliness to this piece in terms of, you know, he's been working on it for the past year, but it's just become a part of the zeitgeist with all the protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement that has been really catalyzed around the world. So, that's all that I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoyed the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So, you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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