Meet Miriam Hillawi: AR/VR Artist & Educator

Gray Area Foundation
Aug 5 · 8 min read
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Meet Miriam Hillawi: artist, educator, and 2020 Zachary Watson Fellow at Gray Area. Through her creative practice exploring virtual space through architecture and game design, Miriam creates augmented and mixed reality experiences that explore innovative forms and alternative futures.

On August 15 & 16, Miriam will lead an Worldbuilding Workshop on 3D Augmented Reality to empower the next generation of creators. In this exclusive interview, we spoke with Miriam about her practice, how technologies like AR/VR (Augmented Reality & Virtual Reality) are shaped by the cultures that surround them, and how they in turn shape our unique perspectives on the world.


Tell us about your background as an artist and architect.

I hail from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I grew up with the hope and sense of responsibility to change the city I was raised in and to help move my country and my continent into the future. Thus I was drawn to architecture, and in 2016 I graduated with a B’Arch from the Glasgow School of Art. I then worked at a rural to urban planning initiative while I freelanced as a landscape architect. Following that, I joined the California College of the Arts to pursue my MFA in Design where I hoped to merge architectural practice with industrial design and creative computation. Since then I’ve worked as the Game Design instructor at Bay Area Video Coalition, and have continued to freelance in architectural design and research.

A 3D digital rendering of Ethiopian heritage sites, specifically the Lalibela Churches.
A 3D digital rendering of Ethiopian heritage sites, specifically the Lalibela Churches.
Abyssinian Cyber Vernaculus by Miriam Hillawi. The project was a 3-part narrative series that involved mapping the Lalibela Churches, an Ethiopian cultural site, and making them available in virtual reality.

Your work explores recreating and designing new spaces in game design, architecture, and AR/VR. How do you see these technologies intersecting and developing their respective fields?

Game design presents us with the opportunity of enactivism, sometimes embodiment, and also agency through interactivity. Because games are often narrative or action driven, you have a different understanding of space when you’re gaming, like fulfilling a quest or when you’re exploring an environment. There’s a kind of wonder to it. So from that perspective, there could be more of this sense of whimsy in architecture, or this invitation to explore.

The principles and mechanisms of game design could then expand this intersection: as games and architectural designs alike both exist within space, and can be scaled to the user. And so, if you want them to intersect, it can be really useful to explore new forms through interactivity. And this new practice can allow for collaborative and participatory approaches to design within communities.

I’m also really interested in VR as a method of experiencing and conserving heritage sites and artifacts in an experimental way that can be critical: critical of its past, critical of its current use or intended use, and also infusing a multiplicity of stories and purposes. So there are projects that are looking at photogrammetry or 3D scanning and experiencing in VR as a way of gaining and providing access to otherwise inaccessible architectural sites. This emerging practice can continue to entwine with narratives, critical analysis, and speculative futures.

A hand holds up an iphone. The screen shows a mountain lake with 3D augmented reality elements superimposed on it.
A hand holds up an iphone. The screen shows a mountain lake with 3D augmented reality elements superimposed on it.
Worldbuilding: 3D Augmented Reality Workshop taught by Miriam will begin on August 15.

Your upcoming workshop at Gray Area introduces augmented reality as a tool to shape worlds through memory of place. What do you feel are the advantages of AR/VR, especially in terms of access?

AR has become more accessible because quite a lot of people now have access to smartphones, and almost all smartphones are capable of viewing AR filters. And because of platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat taking over this wave, AR has become more widespread and entered the frame of pop-culture. But there’s a huge limitation of experience. Whereas VR is completely immersive, AR has us looking through a tiny screen on our phone. So there’s always this break in reality where you’re always aware of the edges of the interface.

Yet there’s an opportunity for worldbuilding with AR. We normally get this through VR, or through game design, but because of how quickly and easily prototypable AR is, it offers a really fun way to overlay culture and create a world that exists within your current reality. You can see it placed in a physical location like in your room, or in your immediate surroundings.

Worldbuilding is a really interesting way to engage with this tension or deadlock of wills we have about the future we’re almost inevitably moving towards. A lot of us feel this cynicism towards our world, towards big companies and corporations using surveillance and data against us, or even our planet’s demise. We feel like we’re losing control. And so, if we use world building and dwell within these worlds light-heartedly, in order to explore new cosmologies or explore our own ideas of them, I think it could be a fun way to break through that dread and come to engage with each other’s ideas of what the future could look like, or what we want our present to look like.

What do you see as the potential for AR/VR, particularly for underrepresented communities?

I’ve found that virtual reality presents the othered with the opportunity to self actualize and take up space that they otherwise could not within their patriarchal and white centered realities. Identity is a spatial praxis and we can explore it through embodiment and enactivism. While the institutionalized practice of architecture effectively excludes the black subject from determining and constructing self invented forms, virtual reality is a new unclaimed territory for black and brown radical imagination. AR/VR and other interactive modes of play like game design are inclusive and inviting mediums that can create entry points to more meaningful concepts and ideals. The dissemination of these technologies, particularly AR and online gaming, through online platforms also allows us to reach a wider and unexpected audience.

Do you see the structures of oppression and violence within our world as being carried over into AR/VR practice? Is that a sociocultural limitation of these technologies?

The industry, much like many design practices, prefers to present itself as neutral ground. I think game design is seen as more contentious now. Similarly, architecture has also begun to see a reckoning. But now VR and AR are both seen as very charming, gimmicky, so there isn’t that much criticality going into why are you doing this, who is this for, and whose gaze it casts. So that’s something that’s really worrying about the medium moving forward. But in this ambiguity, the possibility of worlding or occupying virtual space is something I’m always interested in, especially in the lens of Afrofuturism, or speculative futures.

So I see AR/VR as two things: a tool of representation and a virtual territory for self-actualization. If you think about how cameras were used against the Other by the Occident, the ideology of the “exotic” emerged from the white male gaze being cast through a camera lens at naked indigenous women. So if a tool of representation isn’t quickly democratized, and held by anyone in particular, it could easily be used against you as another tool for exoticizing, othering, and vilifying. So that’s one thing that I’m super wary of.

A couple of projects in VR have made me quite uncomfortable — this practice is already happening. One such project went into Syria and created a VR experience of a family’s house in the midst of a war zone. And it was like poverty porn with a white savior complex, but immersive! And the subjects of this work don’t necessarily have the privilege of privacy or dignity, so we get to experience it as this gamified gimmick. I hated it.

The notion of worldbuilding carries such power because it imagines a world of the future. In many respects, our conception of the future has been colonized via the white hegemony in media and entertainment. How can we use tools like AR/VR to counteract this?

A picture from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. A astronaut floats in a futuristic white corridor while on a spaceship.
A picture from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. A astronaut floats in a futuristic white corridor while on a spaceship.
2001: A Space Odyssey, using the monochromatic color palette trope commonly seen in Sci-Fi productions.

Just thinking about sci-fi throughout the decades, one topic I keep returning to is the dominance of outer-space, or attempts to dominate space by companies like SpaceX. They’re taking this concept of white flight but taking it into outer space. And they’re like, “Okay, we’ve trashed this planet, let’s try to create a domestic version of outer space where the rich will live, like a white suburb, a sanitized modernist environment.”

And again, it takes me back to how sci-fi during my childhood was always visualized as monochromatic, with not a single person of color in frame, no mention of Africa or her diaspora. As if to say there are no black people in the future; there are no Africans in the future.

There are such few examples of a future that has a touch of the continent of Africa, South America, and the Global South overall, unless it’s framed in a way that’s grimey, worn and chaotic. And it’s really important for us to have a vision of what we’re moving towards. In many ways, Africa was and continues to be seen as a testing ground for a lot of ideas — often very dangerous ideas — by colonial agents. So, it is important to visualize: what are we moving towards? Are we moving towards a dystopia that we should be wary of?

I do have a couple of examples where some artists of color have used VR in very impactful and stunning ways. But we need that body to expand more to be its own genre almost, like Afrofuturist VR, or VR for the Other, similar to how games are broken up into genres for us to be able to visualize and critique our future, present, and our past. Because we don’t really have the opportunity to do that, and we’ve seen how sci-fi is always framed. It’s always been from a white lens with a couple of people of color in supporting roles where you’re like, what’s their backstory, why are they there, where are they from?

We need to unify and use our own agency, our own autonomy, to actualize futures that not only include but center us.

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A 3D Virtual Reality rendering of a futuristic setting. Brightly lit buildings are supported by stilts over an ocean.
A 3D Virtual Reality rendering of a futuristic setting. Brightly lit buildings are supported by stilts over an ocean.
Work by Hyphen Labs, Jacolby Satterwhite, and Olaleken Jeyifus; clockwise from top left. Afrofuturist work by AR/VR artists of color, selected by Miriam Hillawi.

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Miriam Hillawi Abraham is a multi-disciplinary designer and artist from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Her work is centered on the themes of social justice through speculative fiction and design, focusing on Afrofuturism and intersectional feminism. She holds an MFA Interaction Design 2019 at the California College of the Arts, has received a B’Arch in Architecture from the Glasgow School of Art in 2016, as well as Part I of The Royal Institute of British Architects License, and is a Game Design instructor at BAVC.

On August 15, Miriam will lead an AR Workshop on Worldbuilding with Gray Area— sign up now! You can also check out more of Miriam’s work on her website and Instagram.


This interview was conducted by Tiffany Yau, Content and Editorial, and
edited by Sam Silverman, Editorial Intern at Gray Area.

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