2016-present Interactive Virtual Reality Experience Long before Henry Hudson’s arrival in 1609, Manhattan or Manaháhtaan, as originally named by the Indigenous Lenape people, was a place of gathering and exchange amongst diverse nations. Today, Broadway runs along a portion of the original matrix of trails that connected Manaháhtaan to the broader northeast region and the Great Lakes. Artist Beatrice Glow and The Wayfinding Project at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University partnered with Alexandre Girardeau of Highway101ETC to build Mannahatta VR, an interactive virtual reality experience which brings together the past and present of one Broadway block. This ongoing project is growing through conversations with Native culture bearers, ecologists, artists, educators and technologists. In the process, we ask ourselves how can we expand knowledge of Indigenous Manhattan? What does a sustainable Indigenous future look like? How do we ethically create a historically palpable digital storytelling experience? We approach the virtual reality experience not as a final product, but a platform for our collective envisioning that has the potential to evolve into an immersive oral history archive. Mannahatta VR was a supplement to Lenapeway, an installation that was on 24-hour view in the street-level windows of 715 Broadway (at Washington Place) from October 10, 2016 (Indigenous Peoples’ Day) to December 9, 2016. The location of the installation, which was viewable from the sidewalk 24/7 and was cosponsored by NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study and the A/P/A Institute, marks the intersection of the main Lenape trail and a side-trail that traverses through present-day Washington Square Park. Learn more at beatriceglow.org
What did you create?
With scholars, activists and students committed to expanding knowledge on Indigenous Manhattan’s past and future through digital storytelling and public history education, Artist Beatrice Glow and The Wayfinding Project at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University partnered with creative technologist Alexandre Girardeau of Highway101ETC to develop "Mannahatta VR" (2016-present), an interactive virtual reality experience that aims to make palpable the precolonial realities of New York, tell the histories of dispossession the Lunaapeew experienced while amplifying their cultural perspectives on sustainable futures. Given today's Broadway runs along a portion of the original matrix of trails that connected Mannahatta to the broader northeast region and the Great Lakes, "Mannahatta VR" begins on a digitally reconstructed Broadway block to convey that multiple historical realities persist in the present. The experience unpacks settler colonial markers; for example, participants can shoot down this 3D model of the Dutch monument "Purchase of Manhattan” that sits in Battery Park next to the former Fort Amsterdam to challenge the American founding myths that the Lunaapeew sold Manhattan for $24. One encounters volumetric scans of Native elders sharing oral traditions. Native plants, identified by Lunaapeew names, flourish within a reconstructed original ecology that suggests a possible green future.
Why did you make it?
We wanted to spur renewed consciousness on the layered histories of Manhattan. Mannahatta (original name of Manhattan), is part of the traditional homeland of the Lunaapeew people, which includes the areas that are presently known as New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania. Dispossession of the Lunaapeew began over four centuries ago under Dutch colonization and continues to impact their sovereignty. Today, they are spread out across North America. According to ecologist Eric Sanderson, Manhattan was once a biologically diverse place with over 55 ecosystems due to the careful environmental stewardship of the original peoples, yet today, it is an urban landscape. We seek to highlight the entangled histories and realities of dispossession, enslavement, migration and environmental devastation through supporting Lunaapeew communities with their cultural revitalization efforts through new media art. The Lunaapeew elders embrace new media as a long-term strategy for culture and language preservation to convey the power of oral traditions where the written word, especially English, often fails. We are preparing a foundation so that one day, Lunaapeew youth can take this project into their own hands given we, as non-Native allies, are placeholders while the communities deal with urgent internal matters.
How did you make it?
The virtual reality experience is built in Unity and uses 3D models sculpted in Oculus Medium and created with photogrammetry. We also include volumetric scans of oral history testimonies from Lunaapeew people. Began in 2016, this ongoing project is growing through a multi-year conversation with Native culture bearers, ecologists, artists, educators and technologists. In the process, we ask ourselves how can we expand knowledge of Indigenous Manhattan? “What does a sustainable reality under Indigenous environmental stewardship look like?” “How can we tell different stories?” How do we ethically create a historically palpable digital storytelling experience? We approach the virtual reality experience not as a final product, but a platform for our collective envisioning that has the potential to evolve into an immersive oral history archive. This multi-year process has taught my team and I how to activate virtual reality as a participatory medium and visualization tool. The VR experience is not a final product, but is part of an unfolding process that allows us to collectively envision together through gatherings and constant revisions after our listening and critique sessions.
Your entry’s specification
This is an interactive virtual reality experience. To experience it properly, the experience requires 4 meters x 4 meters floorspace so that users can freely walk around while being tethered to a headset. A projector and screen is also helpful so that passersby can see what is happening inside the headset. This can also be a multi-player experience if there is additional space for more VR stations to be setup.