Alexa Steinbrück
Feb 24, 2019 · 9 min read

Storytellers United is a diverse and inclusive community of creatives working on innovative forms of storytelling. We connect from across many different time zones and even more backgrounds to share ideas, projects and inspiration. We felt it would be nice to provide space beyond chat channels to have a deeper look at what people in the community are working on. This is the second interview in an interview series with Storytellers United members. You can read the first interview here.

Nomad — Reconnecting with Somali Heritage

Centered on workshops engaging Somali communities in London, Nomad explores the creative use of immersive and web-based technology to contextualise archival Somali objects with the people and traditions to which they belong. Nomad is a collaborative project by Mnemoscene and Abira Hussein. The project is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and premiered at the British Library and British Museum during Somali Week Festival 2018.

I interviewed Sophie from Mnemoscene about this rich project that combines many different artistic approaches and strategies: Bringing people together by giving workshops that involve digitization and oral histories, building up and augmenting existing archives of cultural heritage and encouraging new narratives around those archives by using immersive technology.

What was the motivation to start this project?

Nomad’s story began with three objects of Somali heritage: a headrest, a bowl, and an incense burner — all digitised by the British Museum. Thanks to Object Journeys, another project of Abira Hussein, these objects were freely available to use under a Creative Commons license.

Now digitised, these objects were no longer restricted by the physical confines of a museum and could instead be freely manipulated. Our goal was to exploit the mobility of these highly realistic digital models, transforming them from static objects for display to everyday objects experienced in everyday spaces full of sound and movement. When silently mounted behind security glass in a museum, it is hard to imagine such objects as they were really used, as durable objects and vital elements of survival in nomadic life. For example, the purpose of the headrest is almost indiscernible in isolation. With our Mixed Reality experience, the headrest is placed in its living context and its purpose is immediately clear; supporting the head of a resting herdsman as he falls asleep gently singing lullabies to his camels.

A Somali headrest digitised using photogrammetry

Indeed, the sounds of song and poetry carry a central significance in Somali culture and Nomad was specifically designed to explore ways in which these intangible elements of heritable could be reconnected with the physical objects they would have accompanied. From the project’s inception we planned to use the British Library’s John Low collection as the source for the sounds you hear in the Mixed Reality experience. Between 1983 and 1986, John Low travelled across Somalia between working for an NGO to support community development. In his spare time he made field recordings with different tribes and dialects, many of which are working songs that would have been sung when using the very nomadic objects we were working with. We were delighted to be awarded the runner up prize in the British Library Lab’s artistic category for our use of this audio archive within the Nomad project.

What was your role in the project?

At Mnemoscene, Ed Silverton and I worked closely with Abira Hussein throughout the project. We initially met at a briefing event and soon discovered a shared interest in archives, collective memory, community stories, and immersive technology. After our meeting, we started to think about the ways in which we could use immersive technology to explore, present and experience Somali culture.

Abira referred to ‘breaking free of glass cases’ when we discussed the nature of museum objects and the potential for immersive technologies to contextualise them in innovative new ways. This expression stuck with us throughout, and became a key concept underlying our use of Mixed Reality.

In the early days of the project, we created a 3D image showing a young Somali girl herding goats in the British Library. This was the project’s ‘what if?’ moment — what if we could really see everyday nomadic life in front of us, permeating public spaces?

Initial ideas — What if?

My role in the project is primarily concerned with providing the creative treatment, asset creation, and workshop delivery. At the project’s launch, I had recently completed an MA at the Netherlands Film Academy where I had turned my attention towards immersive technologies. To create my graduation piece, The Chorus, Ed and I had used the HoloLens to spatially represent voices and artefacts of a Czech-German village that had ceased to exist after the events following the Second World War. In that project, I had created assets using photogrammetry and video, and it was this experience that I built upon to create content for Nomad. Where Nomad is concerned, however, the major difference is in our desire to use life-sized characters, something that required me to work with motion capture to animate 3D character models.

How did the use of Mixed Reality (MR) help in telling your story?

Going back to our initial ideas, we wanted to contextualise Somali heritage inside everyday spaces and so, from an early stage, we identified Mixed Reality(MR) as our medium. Unlike Virtual Reality, when you wear an MR headset such as the HoloLens you see your everyday environment transformed with a virtual overlay.

Mixed Reality is such an exciting medium precisely because you can’t control everything; there is always a tension between the real environment and the virtual augmentation. We didn’t want people to believe they were in Somalia with a nomadic Somali family, rather, we wanted them to see themselves with those characters, to experience the objects in environments they themselves can identify with. We wanted to compare and contrast the quotidian of both cultures in a novel way with the hope this would transform Somali objects from being precious artefacts to something everyday that the user could connect with.

Participants trying the Mixed Reality in a workshop

While wearing the headset you are first presented with three objects. “Air tapping” them causes them to float downwards and reveal a character using the object in an authentic manner. We used the HoloLens’ spatial sound capabilities to create a soundscape of location recordings and songs from the British Library archives. In keeping with the subject matter, we wanted the nomadic family to be able to visit different museums and community spaces. The HoloLens was well suited for this due to its portability.

We toured the experience within workshops where one person could use the headset at any time. It was well received, however we also wanted to show the digital objects and sounds in a more accessible way that everyone — even those who couldn’t attend the events — could experience. Our approach was to create postcards using web-based Augmented Reality. Rather than downloading an app, the user can simply enter a URL into their phone’s browser and then point their camera at a marker to see an object and hear the associated song. The postcards were hugely popular and became an excellent conversational point during the workshops. Here’s a video showing the web-based Augmented reality postcards: https://vimeo.com/298873547.
We’re hoping that as the archive continues to grow we can continue to expand this postcard collection.

Workshop participants using the Augmented Reality postcards

What happened at the workshops?

As a nomadic experience, the project itself traveled as a workshop to different public spaces during Somali week. These workshops were exciting events in which participants, inspired by the experience, were also able to digitise their own heritage objects. We used a light tent and turntable-based photogrammetry process for the digitisation, alongside oral history recordings to capture the stories of their owners.

Workshop at the British Museum during Somali Week Festival
Photogrammetry taking place during the workshops

The events were a great way to bring people together and we were overwhelmed with the number of objects people contributed. Thanks to the HLF funding we were able to create an online archive to display the 3D objects and stories at www.nomad-project.co.uk. We’re currently in the processing of curating what we have so far and plan to carry out more workshops to extend the archive further.

The following diagram illustrates the relationship between the archive, the immersive experience, and the workshops. Objects that begin in the archive are used to create immersive experiences, which in turn inspire people at the workshops to create completely new objects and stories to be added back into the archive. The feedback loop requires archival objects to be freely available to download and re-use. The Nomad project will distribute the archived items under a Creative Commons license to ensure this is possible.

Diagram to show the relationship between archive, immersive experience, and workshops

What was the biggest challenge?

For us, some of the greatest challenges faced emerged when creating the Mixed Reality experience. While the concept came to us very easily, turning that into an immersive experience took much longer. It was important for us that the characters looked ephemeral enough as so not to distract attention from the objects, yet still be identifiably Somali. We had a very clear idea of how we wanted the experience to look and went through many iterations to achieve it. In addition, we also faced UX challenges as, in particular, the HoloLens currently has quite a restricted field of view. To overcome this challenge, we used motion and sound to guide the users’ gaze to ensure they didn’t miss anything.

Was there something specific you learned about collaboration?

Given that immersive technologies are still relatively nascent, there’s always an aspect of discovery and experimentation. In my experience, it seems that if you’re not careful you can lose sight of why you’re using the technology and become preoccupied with what you’re making and how you’re making it . From experience, I’ve found that collaborating with people from different backgrounds and skill-sets can mitigate against this as you’re having to re-establish the project goals and meet on common ground in every conversation. Abira, Ed, and I approached Nomad from very different perspectives and as a result, our differences in opinion would always lead to a solution that had been thoroughly interrogated. For every idea that came to fruition, there were many which we left behind.

What does the term “storytelling” mean to you?

Nomad is about showing not telling. With the exception of a short intro video, the Mixed Reality experience doesn’t have a voiceover telling you about the objects, sounds, or people. It was a response to the restrictions that can come when we attempt to label things, when we attempt to impose narratives onto objects which we ourselves have not directly experienced. We invite people who try the experience to fill the absences with their own interpretations and questions. We acted as facilitators during the workshops to record the stories of people who had brought objects to be added to the archive and in that regard, Nomad is an experiment in “bringing your own narrative”. It’s an exploration in finding out ways in which immersive technologies can be used to encourage new narratives about the past to emerge in the present.

Thank you for the interview, Sophie!

Sophie Dixon, co-founder of Mnemoscene, is a visual artist and educator working with film and immersive media. She has taken up residencies in the UK and Europe, and has exhibited in solo and group shows at events including the EYE Film Museum in Amsterdam and the Turner Contemporary in the UK.

Would you like to join 300+ Storytellers — including Sophie — chatting about innovative projects, ideas and opportunities? Request your invite at http://storytellers.link

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