Many of the Civic Media Fellows see themselves as storytellers who work to cultivate dialogue, empathy and communal action through the use of compelling narratives. They work with community members in order to chart the histories of cities, movements, and acts of resilience in the midst of systemic oppression, and they push the boundaries of technological tools and media in order to provide narrative experiences that are interactive and immersive. The fellows also recognize the importance of situating storytelling within longer lineages of communal struggles for social justice. They understand that archives are living and continuously evolving, and they create methods for communities to engage with and contribute to dynamic archival practices. In some cases, this also means considering spaces as primary documents and understanding the intersection between storytelling and spacemaking.
Documenting the spread of COVID-19 in prisons through the words of prisoners, their families, and advocates
Erik Loyer is a media artist who designs apps and tools that help people to connect emotionally with ideas and stories that might be challenging. He often incorporates tactility, musical play, and animation into the interfaces he designs in order to make the ideas that people are experiencing visceral. In digital tools he has created such as Stepworks, which enables users to turn their stories into playable, interactive instruments, he says he is interested in “how to make a storytelling space that is more honest to the digital environment in its building blocks.” Loyer says that by creating tools that enable different types of tactile, rhythmic engagements with narratives and by allowing participants to “perform the story” as they click or scroll through the interface, participants can cultivate intimate, visceral relationships with the material at hand. He has worked on a variety of projects including Upgrade Soul, an immersive science fiction graphic novel, and Freedom’s Ring, an interactive project that allows users to explore the history of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream Speech.” For a recent project, he and his collaborator Sharon Daniel worked on a project called Exposed, which is about the spread of COVID-19 in prisons. Commenting on the project, Loyer said:
Sharon has been sourcing all these different news accounts from podcasts, different news sites—both mainstream and alternative—and statements from prisoners themselves, and I’ve designed an interface to for you to navigate those statements, so you can see each statement almost as a headline style as you’re stepping through either on your phone or on your laptop. You are literally stepping through the words of prisoners or their advocates on a timeline that is going day by day through the pandemic. So you see how things evolve at first when there are whispers of “this might be spreading in prisons,” and then you get to see it evolve and grow. You see the fact that a lot of these folks are left with no one to do anything about it. There have been calls for releases. Some of it has happened but a lot of it hasn’t, and it’s just folks who are forgotten. So we are trying to make the topic more accessible by making it visually more accessible. Many people know it’s something they are supposed to care about, but they don’t have a way to enter it or they are scared to enter it, and so we’re trying to provide a way for people to experience it and hopefully it motivates action.
Narratives of Public Spaces and Design Justice
For Bryan C. Lee Jr, founder of Colloqate Design in New Orleans, it is critical to better understand the stories we tell about public spaces. Colloqate is a nonprofit design practice that is centered on racial, social and cultural equity within the built environment. Lee reflects, “The work itself starts to lean into how we challenge privilege and the power structures that use architecture and design as a means to perpetuate injustice in the physical environment, and to find opportunities for creativity and for design to be a catalyst for social change moving forward.” Colloqate has worked on the Black Lives Matter’s space in Toronto, and other projects that have focused on designing spaces that are biased towards action and movement work. They have launched the Design as Protest Collective in order to mobilize designers and organizers around design justice in urban spaces through a series of workshops, summits and initiatives. Since 2017, Lee’s design practice also worked on the Paper Monuments project, which was a citywide collective planning process to help define and determine how the people of New Orleans can imagine new monuments in a way that centers racial and social equity. Lee commented:
What are the stories, the narratives, the people, places, events, and movements that are resonant within the population, and how might those serve to create and build a better dialogue for people? The stories we tell are extremely important. They’re all bound to the culture that we exist within, right? And so seeing architecture as a language, seeing the ways in which the visuals, the process of creating architecture, can be represented, whether that's through video, whether that's through social media, when you uplift spaces that are historically disinherited, there's a schism in the narrative about what's valuable, what spaces are valuable.
An Interactive Documentary Experience at Manzanar
Sue Ding, a documentary filmmaker and new media creator, is similarly focused on not only capturing the stories of communities, but also exploring how those stories interact with spaces. Whether that means creating 360 videos about Hmong rice farmers in Sapa, Vietnam or curating exhibitions that feature VR and immersive experiences for the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, she is interested in storytelling that embraces interactivity in order to explore issues of identity and social justice. Her project One Square Mile, 10,000 Voices at Manzanar National Historic Site functions as an immersive oral history of the Japanese Americans who were incarcerated at the camp during WWII. As visitors explore the site, they can use the One Square Mile app to listen to the memories of former incarcerees, indigenous elders and current activists and add their own stories as well. Ding reflects:
On a storytelling level, I'm excited to think about ways to bring out people's voices into this physical landscape and ways of activating physical spaces as primary documents—really amplifying not only the power of the space itself, but also the power of people's voices in that space [...] The fellows, we talk a lot about archives. It's a concept that I think has a lot of power for people right now. And thinking about this kind of evolving archive, right? Rather than writing down history as if it's done and putting it away in a library, it's thinking about the past and thinking about the struggle for justice as an ongoing conversation that's always evolving, that is always a dialogue between many different voices.