Imaging Place

“Imaging Place” is a place-based virtual reality project that combines panoramic video, and three-dimensional virtual worlds to document situations where the forces of globalization are impacting the lives of individuals in local communities.

The goal of the project is to develop the technologies, the methodology and the content for truly immersive and navigable narrative, based in real places around the world.

This work has been ongoing since 1997 and includes hundreds of individual locations and hours of content from West Belfast, Wall Street, Fox Point/Cape Verde, Beijing, Taipei Taiwan, São Paulo Brazil, Imaging British Columbia: Weyerhaeuser, Imaging British Columbia: Kamloops Indian Residential School, Warsaw Poland, the U.S./Mexico Border, Fort Point MA, Lowell MA, the Miami River, Kaliningrad Russia, Haverhill MA, Niagara, New England, Appalachia, Florida and more.

Although the method borrows freely from the traditions of documentary still photography and filmmaking, it departs from those traditions by using nonlinear narrative structures made possible by computer technologies and telecommunications networks.

People can experience the “Imaging Place” work online or in its installation form in a gallery or museum, where it is projected in a darkened space. The interface enables the audience to control an avatar, or online character, in order to navigate from a global perspective to ground level virtual reality scenes made up of a network of spheres with panoramic video projected in the interiors. The avatar can walk to the center of one of these spheres and use a first person perspective to view the video from all directions, giving the user the sensation of being immersed in the actual location. The video is shot on location using a specially designed panoramic lens system. The story of the place unfolds as the user explores the space. Although the work addresses the social, historical and political situation unfolding at the site, the narrative content largely consists of the recollection of formative memory by the residents of the place. The result is a kind of multidimensional, inhabitable memory map.

“Imaging Place” documents sites of cultural significance that for political, social, economic, or environmental reasons are contested, undergoing substantial changes, or are at risk of destruction. This includes historic sites as well as sites of living culture that are being displaced by globalization. The project also seeks to expand the notion of documentary by exploring how place is internalized, mapping place as a state of mind.

“Imaging Place” is designed to accommodate interdisciplinary collaboration conducted across institutions and over distances. It uses new technology to bring disparate bodies of knowledge together in a single hybrid form. The method attempts to bridge the gaps in understanding that exist between esoteric disciplines that have developed as a result of academic and industrial specialization. The technological tools are now available for bringing the work of experts and stories of local denizens together without sacrificing the depth and dimension of specialized knowledge and to connect the abstraction of highly specialized thinking with the visceral experiences of people on the ground. In addition to providing a form for the generation, dissemination and accumulation of interdisciplinary research and artistic production, “Imaging Place” is designed as a model strategy for collaboration.

From 2006 till 2009, I implemented versions of the place-based virtual reality project “Imaging Place in Second Life.”

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