Blending Photography and the Diorama: Virtual Reality as the Future of the Archive & the Role of the Digital Humanities

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As Matthew Kirschenbaum asserts, Digital Humanities plays a pivotal role in the study of archives, especially in regards to born-digital archives. It is no doubt the field will continue to play a role as our conceptualizations of the archive continues to expand. However, I am hesitant to refer to digital archives as the future of the archive. I believe digital archives are, indeed, gradually becoming the norm. A bevy of prestigious institutions have digital collections and online exhibitions. Harvard has over 50 online collections and exhibitions. The Library of Congress has hundreds of collections. Princeton has over 15, 000 collections. Yale has such an enormous online archive that it would be impossible to count the many collections and exhibitions their domain currently houses. The list could go on and on. We also consider YouTube and other popular social network sites to be archives. Therefore, are digital archives really the future of the archive or is it the current face of the archive? Or is it a supplement or addition rather than replacement? Can we continue to reflect on the role Digital Humanities plays when it’s beginning to be perspicuous?  

Regardless of one’s stance, we can all agree that archival research shouldn’t be limited to digital archives. Especially, considering that there are burgeoning technologies that warrant our attention due to the endless possibilities they afford regarding our conceptualizations of archives and archival research overall. Virtual reality, in particular, seems to hold much promise.

Virtual Reality as the Archive of the Future

By virtual reality (VR), I mean a “three-dimensional, computer-generated environment which can be explored or interacted” with via a VR headset and an appropriate smartphone or a PC gaming console (Virtual Reality Society, Cnet). Granted, the type of headset you purchase dictates the degree of interaction you will have (Cnet). However, most VR technology immerses users into fictive or “real” artificial worlds where they either inhabit a character or enter as themselves. For instance, in the VR short film Hard World for Small Things, users join a group of people driving around South Central Los Angeles where they witness a racist officer accosting a Black man. In another film entitled Perspective Chapter 2: The Misdemeanor, users, initially, inhabit the Black teenagers who are accused of theft and subsequently, the police officers who accuse them. Conversely, Dan Archer, graphic journalist and founder of Empathetic Media, recreated Michael Brown’s murder in an experimental film called Ferguson Firsthand. Here, users embody a few of the eyewitnesses to the shooting.

In a sense, these films are archives. Or, at least, they function as archives. Despite the lack of tangible materials, they do operate as a repository of some sort. Unlike traditional and, even, digital archives, “virtual archives” solely contain memory. These archives can, so far, house the memory of events, records, and characters. For instance, Ferguson Firsthand allows users to enter into a virtual representation of the Michael Brown shooting. Users may not be able to access physical or digital records of the event, but they can access the event by proxy. It’s sort of like photographs and the camera. If we consider photos to be materials of an archive, then why can’t we perceive the camera to be an archive? If photographers took photos of various Black Lives Matter protests all around the country, wouldn’t the camera count as a repository of some sort? Alternatively, “virtual archives” are also similar to the diorama. Dioramas are three-dimensional depictions of historical events, landscapes, wildlife, etc. They also function as a means of preservation and replication. Habitat dioramas, for instance, were designed to preserve the species that had been killed for display or to depict animals as they are in their natural environment. Essentially, dioramas offer viewers a “sense of place and… [a] sense of reality” (Mickens).“Virtual archives” would be a combination of the two. Like the camera, the VR headset functions as the actual receptacle. The contents act as both the photo and the diorama. Similar to the photo, “virtual archives” effectively capture events, people, places, etc. and freeze them in time. In all three of the films, users experience the same events, interact with the same characters, or inhabit the same characters. It is as if the user is physically living through the memories of said events, people, places, etc. Likewise, “virtual archives” provides the same a “sense of place”, “sense of reality”, and, dare I say, sense of wonder dioramas affords. Seeing a diorama in person at a museum is simply awe-inspiring. You feel as if you have been transplanted into a different world. Again, virtual reality has an analogous effect. Yet, with virtual reality, the feeling of awe is heightened. You are mentally transported to an artificial existence. It is possibly one of the most profound out of body experiences you will ever experience.

Positionality of the Digital Humanities

At first glance, the role Digital Humanities plays in these new “archives” may seem clear. Digital humanists have many “important lessons and insights to share in regards to cyberinfrastructures” as well as the ability to process them (Kirschenbaum). Thus, scholars might offer a number of discussions, analyses, and programs regarding the technical aspects of “virtual archives”. However, there are other affordances. For instance, based on the aforementioned films on police brutality, Black Digital Humanists might examine how the “material realities of blackness” are replicated in these spaces (Gallon). That is, researchers might question the ethical considerations of depicting and immersing users in settings where they will experience or witness racial violence. Or, they might critique whether there’s a chance users will be desensitized if they frequently partake in such simulations? Following from this, will users become engrossed in the violence perpetuated against black bodies? Is there a likelihood users will use these simulations as a way of vicariously committing violent acts against Black people? Equally, they may question if such stimulations strengthen racism as opposed to decreasing it.

Call for Further Study

Due to numerous contributions Digital Humanists have made in re-conceptualizing the archive, we now recognize there’s a plasticity of archives (Theimer). For many different people and in many different professions, archives mean many different things. Archives went from being solely defined as places “where documents and other materials of public or historical interests are preserved” to repositories of digital collections or information that invite participation from both users/researchers and archivists (Manoff, Ramsey-Tobienne). Thus, it is not a leap to suggest archives can also signify virtual containers of memory. Nevertheless, there is significant need for more research in this area.