As Chris Milk said in his TED talk all those years ago, VR/AR is an empathy machine; maybe the most effective empathy machine we’ve ever had.
I was so inspired by what Chris was saying as I got started on cofounding Oculus Story Studio, which created ‘Lost’, ‘Henry’, ‘Quill’, ‘Dear Angelica’ and the Virtual Beings piece ‘Wolves in the Walls’. We created an empathetic relationship between a fictional character – Henry, Angelica, Lucy – and the audience.
But I had seen the incredible documentary work of Gabo Arora – at the UN, with the Nobel Prize Committee, with Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. He showed me that immersive art is even more powerful when creating empathy with real people, seeing through someone else’s eyes.
We started talking about a piece based on Matthew Desmond’s book ‘Evicted’, one of Bill Gates and President Obama’s top books of 2017. We began talking about doing something we hadn’t seen before – creating a piece of public Agitart (or agitARt – I know I know it’s terrible!) that could, in cities around America give people a sense of the Eviction crisis from the people on the front lines of it – the movers, eviction court judges, the evicted.
I created a group ‘The Next Amendment’ to fund the project with a goal of raising $1m for a right to shelter in the US (the-next-amendment.com). The core idea of The Next Amendment is the concept that is now working in several cities in the US and Europe ‘Housing First’ that to combat homelessness we need to provide housing first – not as an incentive for sobriety, mental stability and socially acceptable behaviour. This isn’t affordable housing for all, this really is just shelter.
A good example project that we want to raise money for is Oakland’s Tuff Shed project: which houses homeless people in ‘community cabins’. Instead of the dangers on the street, homeless people are given baseline stability of a small insulated cabin where they can store their belongings, sleep, come and go as they please. It fits two people to a cabin, rather than the large dormitories common in some shelters. In total these are small communities of up to 50 people; with 2 meals a day, showers and electricity. Since beginning the project, Oakland is investing millions more as it sees good signs in transition from homelessness.
As Gabo and I talked about how to draw attention to the eviction crisis and to raise funds for right to shelter projects we started to think about a physical object that could tell that story – the whole topic was about providing four walls for people so he hit on the idea of a cube navigated in augmented reality (AR). He and Barry Pousman his producer began to interview folks in Milwaukee (where Matthee Desmond’s Evicted is set) and find stories and place these in AR.
At Venice you wear a Magic Leap One and walk the four sides of a cube activating spatial audio and video and AR objects related to a story of eviction:
Side 1 of the cube: Eviction notice in the mail
Side 2: Eviction court day
Side 3: Eviction day
Side 4: Looking back on the impact of Eviction
The cube in Venice is obviously not made of metal, but after Venice we plan to make the piece a public work of agitart, a metal cube in SF, Milwaukee and DC where users can experience These Sleepless Nights on their iPhone and immediately donate to the right to shelter and housing first cause.
I have never done agitart before; the complexities of a piece of public art in our cities that draws attention to something we’d rather not think about may not work to help raise funds for a right to shelter. The characters I’ve wanted an audience to connect with and have empathy for have always been cartoons! But what Gabo has created with These Sleepless Nights is truly special and I hope that it will get us to $1m for this cause!