Written by Mark Hiew, with additional reporting by Pamela Kaye.
Call me cynical, but when’s the last time you saw someone on the street actually pull out their smartphone and scan a QR code on a mural?
In my case, that would be never. So forgive me for raising a skeptical eyebrow at the effectiveness of “transmedia,” defined as a story that exists only as told in chunks across multiple platforms (from online video to billboard.) But on Wednesday, September 24 at the WeWork Wonder Bread Factory co-working space, three D.C. artists got an audience excited at the possibilities of transmedia storytelling–and for social impact, no less.
WeWork’s communal gathering space made for a relaxed, collaborative atmosphere for about 30 creatives, media professionals and activists. Photographer and “jack-of-all-creative-trades” Makini Allwood of Embassy Camera said he attended to get in touch with the city’s creative scene. Freelance photographer and coffee barista Ryan Florig, who explores D.C.’s vibrant underground subcultures, said he was there to be inspired for social change. The audience even had the chance to beta-test Table Tribes, a new networking platform to aid real-life connections with potential collaborators.
Special guest Pierre Bagley, director of the DC Motion Picture & Television Department, kicked things off with a warm speech, calling D.C. “the most creatively fertile place I’ve ever lived.” He described video or photography as just the medium on which a story is told–nothing more than a canvas.
“Between Ferguson and ISIS, there are so many stories to tell that affect people’s lives,” he said.
The three projects could easily be seen through the worn narratives of race relations and gentrification in D.C. But each presenter reframed these issues through nuanced and refreshing perspectives.
CELEBRATING BLACK MEN
Kelli Anderson introduced the mural series Ceremonies of Dark Men, part of The 5×5 Project, featuring large-scale photography and poetry that challenges perceptions of African-American men. The outdoor billboards are brought to life with an augmented reality mobile app called Layar. When the images are scanned, Layar shows more information on the artists, the background of the project, and an audio recitation of the featured poem. The call-to-action button prompts social media sharing and sparks a virtual discourse.
“It was ironic that Ferguson happened at the same time,” she said, explaining that her original vision of interactive print media “took a while” before people began to understand it. The project’s timely mission is to empower black men in D.C. to celebrate and participate in a dialogue regarding issues of identity and manhood.
When Kelli asked the audience about their impressions of one of the murals prominently at the intersection of 14th and U streets, featuring a young black man wearing a graduation cap and gown, a fellow visual artist admitted, “My friends thought it might have been an ad for a community college.”
“That’s the whole point,” Kelli explained. “We want to challenge viewers to examine how we expect black men in college to look, to behave.”
Photo by Celene di Stasio.
BEFORE HARLEM, THERE WAS U STREET
Third-generation Washingtonian Shellée Haynesworth presented her transmedia project Black Broadway on U, involving a dizzying array of platforms, such as documentary film, an interactive website, mobile app, “pop-up” performances, an annual symposium, museum and cultural arts center. To help connect its glamorous 1940s hey-day with today’s booming condo district era, Shellée is also planning to juxtapose past and present performances by D.C. musicians at the Lincoln Theater. An element of intrigue runs through her approach, generating interest by giving “clues” to the audience about upcoming surprise performances.
She explained that by archiving and sharing the stories of U Street can people truly understand the history and development of D.C.
“A lot of locals have lost their inspiration,” Shellée remarked. “They’ve lost touch with their city’s proud history.”
It’s a rich history that she is intent on preserving, while also educating the city’s many newcomers.
“Let’s change the narrative of black people in Washington D.C. from ‘murder capital’ and Marion Barry to something more positive,” she said.
BREAKING DOWN WALLS
Artist and curator Bruce McKaig of This Place Has a Voice closed out the night discussing the politics of investor engagement, artist involvement, and the funding of large-scale transmedia projects.
“If you remove history from geography, you are left with only divisive structures,” he said. “History illuminates – it creates a foundation and space for diversity and inclusivity.”
As artistic director of This Place Has a Voice, he has created a remarkably inclusive project about the Canal Park area in near-Southeast D.C. It features sculptural installations, performances, and digital projections on a 20-foot cube located in the park.
He said the project “helps individuals feel they have a valued presence.”
The speakers had some practical advice for aspiring transmedia makers, in terms of raising funds and executing their projects:
Be flexible in how you portray yourself to donors: In order to appeal to donors’ specific interests, each of the artists affirmed the importance of being comfortable and ready to present themselves in myriad ways, as in: “You want a digital media curator?…Sure, I’ll wear that hat!”
Always pay for tech support: Kelli realized this when she was having problems with the augmented reality Layar app, which provides her Ceremonies of Dark Men mural viewers with audio and recitations of the full poems. “I wish I’d included it in the budget to begin with,” she lamented.
Include all your stakeholders in the art itself: Tired of schlepping through bureaucratic stakeholder purgatory, Bruce started bringing blown-up posters of the project art into meetings. Sure enough, he said administrative productivity began to improve. He found similar improvements when engaging neighborhood residents directly in the art itself.
A couple of activists in the room asked “Sure, these projects sound cool and all, but is your art actually creating positive impact?”
Thankfully, the answer is yes.
Bruce explained how buildings in his project’s neighborhood that were to be torn down will now be used to house the homeless. And while some of the speakers seemed unenthused about the sort of quantifiable metrics that wonky donors crave, they also pointed out the longitudinal nature of impact.
“You might later discover impacts through your art that you’d never imagined originally,” Kelli said.