Touching the Past (Virtually)

Curator's Note

As a documentarian, part of my role is to capture a specific place and time for a larger audience. In my current project, I’m using oral history interviews with World War II veterans as well as archival film footage and photographs to tell the story of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), the first women accepted into the Navy at the same rank and pay scale as men.

We’ve also shot contemporary footage at locations where the women served. But during filming we were struck by the lack of evidence of not just the women but the Navy overall in the contemporary world. One facility has been transformed into a park, another is a modern college, still another (while technically military property) is a “Club Fed”-style prison for nonviolent offenders.

Philosopher Edward Casey discusses the role of displacement within memories and storytelling, seeing nostaglia as not merely regret, but a longing for places encased in our memories. To compensate, he argues that historical narrators use a technique he’s dubbed “implacement” to negotiate the natural erasing of the past (the when) from the contemporary world (the where). Implacement is characterized by specificity, tying a location to a unique temporal space.  

As a documentarian, I can “fix” this problem of erasing the past from the world. But the film itself, shown on television screens and film festivals, is physically separated from the “where,” the actual historical/filmed locations. It’s an accepted limitation of the medium.

But what if the filmmaker could bring the “when” to the “where”? Augmented reality may offer a way to transform documentary storytelling. Mashable describes AR as digitally overlaying the virtual over real experience. In this project, my team is experimenting with using the AR platform TagWhat for place-based storytelling. We geo-tag various artifacts (a portion of an interview, a photograph, a film snippet, etc.) with the specific location where each occurred. A user of the smartphone-based app can then stumble across an unexpected story, seeing the traces of the Navy WAVES in the contemporary world. In this way we can help to solve the problem of displacement - while we will never completely erase the temporal divide between the past and present, we can at least allow the past to intrude upon the present and remind us of the rich history surrounding us.



What an exciting project, Kathleen.  Thank you for sharing it with us.  Your video clip richly demonstrates the possibilities of imbuing a particular place, though media, with its own history.  Through a quick leap, I can imagine how one place could hold multiple, even conflicting histories: Not just Margaret Thorngate’s or even the US’s “official” history, but one, for example, told from the perspective of the Japanese delegates.  And when I consider Thorngate’s as a personal history, the possibilities for additional stories in any one spot—Times Square, say—become dizzying and exciting.  It makes me wonder the extent to which platforms such as TagWhat can become a social medium in which users can develop and add personal content.  I’m thinking of projects, for example, like Broadcastr (“It turns your smartphone into a multimedia guide to the world, and everyone can contribute”) or author Dinty W. Moore’s personal essay on Google maps.  What histories, I’m wondering, become the stories that imbue a place, and how many of them can one place handle?    

My favorite aspect of AR for creative non-fiction work is how it displaces people from their media-bubbles by compelling them to explore.  The story only unfolds as one navigates the landscape of the story.  I agree that the temporal divide persists in this structure, but it flattens the difference between the spatial divide of storysite and storytelling.  Installation art and installation exhibits have done this successfully, but not to my mind with unfolding narratives that range across spaces.  Your tactic seems to address that lack.  Nice work.

 Thank you so much for the comments! The "problem" with this development is how it opens up storytelling. As a creator, you are forced to blow up all the previous notions of what makes a "good" story and instead tell a story in short blocks, non-linearly, and hope that the user comes along for the ride. But it's also a more participatory, and I would hope more engaging, experience.

For me, it's forced me to practice what I preach to my students: the developments don't fundamentally change what we do, but we have to tailor our stories to fit the medium.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.