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IMMERSE: Co-Creation During COVID-19

December 15, 2020

It is safe to say that 2020 has been a year filled with lessons. Lessons on our vulnerability as human beings as well as on our hidden inner strengths. 2020 has been the year of utter chaos, the year that the sudden outbreak of COVID-19 forced us into adopting new ways of living and exposing the gross racial injustices that can no longer be concealed. If there’s anything 2020 has taught us, it is the power of community that manifested itself in the most unusual ways.

In Spring 2020, Emerson College students from various disciplines partnered with the Nurturing Fatherhood Program at the US Probation Office to connect and amplify stories of fatherhood among Federal Probation Officers and previously incarcerated men. When we were told that our VR & 360 Video Class would be shifted entirely online, it was normal to panic. The fear of working with contaminated devices was on all of our minds. Our partnership with the Nurturing Fatherhood Program had originally meant in-person interactions where we could work collectively in a shared space. However, this quickly changed as we shifted online and our interactions resorted to virtual conversations over Zoom calls.

These two seemingly disparate groups came together to collectively create a virtual space in which remarkable stories of incarcerated individuals and probation officers who are fathers could be shared through the emerging technology platform. Challenging as it was to communicate with each other and produce a project collectively via remote and online means, more than anything it was rewarding. The level of trust and support everyone had in each other was the reason why we were able to create something so unexpected. Our biggest takeaway from this project is the sense of comradery that was built by everyone involved, which goes back to the power of a strong community, which really is the heart of this project.

THE PROCESS & CO-CREATION

Co-creation was at the forefront of this project. Instead of storytellers telling the stories, our focus was on the subjects telling their stories. The fathers were part of the whole production process as well as content providers for the project, which really broke the ice and traditional rules of storytelling. We were able to develop a connection with these fathers. As a result, we have collectively produced a collection of physical and digital postcards, each triggering an audio/visual Augmented Reality (AR), based on the fathers’ shared stories. Our intention was to develop a foundation in immersive storytelling techniques, as well as principles of co-creation and user experience design. The goal was to share stories regarding issues around mass incarceration from multiple perspectives (including data and personal stories) and utilize Augmented Reality (AR) as our platform to tell personal stories that focus on the effects of mass incarceration on families and lower-income communities.

Even with the shift to online classes, our ambitions were not inhibited. Restricting the class for online collaborations allowed us to achieve new milestones that would have previously been impossible to do in the timeline we had — our shift was fully intentional. As a deliberate decision on professor Rashin Fahandej’s part, she shifted the entire project to Augmented Reality (AR) for accessibility in production as well as the distribution of the work. The decision to switch to AR technology was to make storytelling a dialogue that is happening right in front of you, in real-time. With this close proximity, you are able to listen in on intimate conversations between the fathers and their children. The intention is to tell the story in an embodied form, one in which the viewer is fully immersed in the story. Choosing AR as the platform for these stories makes the experience even more powerful as it bridges the gap between physical reality and the virtual world, reducing the distance between the subject and the witness. While a VR project would require audiences to own a headset, our intentional changeover to AR allowed us to expand our audiences because only a phone would be required, never mind old or new — our project would be accessible.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mehvish Ali is a visual artist who believes in pushing the boundaries of storytelling to create works of art that can move an audience. She is a film buff with a passion for art and music. She loves to draw, sketch, and take pictures of anything that pleases her aesthetically. She is a restless music aficionado — constantly searching for a new song to get obsessed with. She loves the world of fashion and likes to create different styles for herself. Currently, she is in a Master's program at Emerson College studying Film and Media Art and hopes to use all kinds of media — film, art, photography, digital technology, and fashion in her creative journey.

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