Virtual Reality producer Alex Pearson rebuilds Aleppo
Inside Future Aleppo
2nd March 2018
With the help of Syrian refugee children, Pearson has created a virtual version of their bombed city. He explains the process of bringing Aleppo back to life.
One of the best things about working with Virtual Reality is that it is entirely formless. To date VR has done a wonderful job of dodging definition, as typified by the ever-evolving experiences exhibited at festivals, each exploring new approaches to the medium.
In spite of being a big fan of the work being produced, I was initially hesitant about working with Virtual Reality, as I felt the barriers to entry were far too high for those for whom the projects were intended to serve.
The "transmedia" producer in me maintains that for our project Future Aleppo, the audience, subject and creators are one and the same. The project has been developed with, for and by children taking refuge from the conflict in Syria.
From a producer’s perspective, the other benefit to VR being such an unknown is that festivals will often offer you total freedom regarding the exhibition of the work. The headsets and computers are ever-present, but beyond the technology is the potential to create an installation that not only provides context but can enhance the experience. In that respect, Future Aleppo tours with a hand-built cityscape by inspirational teenager Mohammed Kteish.
Mohammed and his cityscape
Mohammed's maquette is two meters square when assembled and sits upon a custom-built table, meaning that transporting everything can be expensive and cumbersome. The cityscape features many of Aleppo’s most recognisable landmarks, including the Citadel and Umayyad Mosque, as well as many lesser-known buildings that have tremendous personal resonance for our young architect-in-chief.
Mohammed began reconstructing his besieged city on the rooftop of his apartment, using whatever materials he could salvage from the debris. Each day he would perilously source whatever he could to resurrect the fallen landmarks, sometimes including bomb shells and bullet casings in his reconstruction work. Before long he was discovered by his father atop the tenement building. Terrified for his son’s safety – snipers were well within range and barrel bombs had already flattened most of his neighbourhood – he gave his garage over to Mohammed’s ever-expanding project.
In January 2016 that original cityscape was abandoned as the violence escalated and Mohammed fled to Turkey with his family. There he was determined to create an even greater testament to Aleppo than before and that's when we joined him and started looking at ways in which we might introduce interactive elements that would reveal more of the city than the architecture alone.
We began by using Bare Conductive ink – a kind of electric paint – to create physical interactions within Mohammed's model. This allowed us to embed audio of spoken-word testimony and sound effects within buildings that could be triggered by touching various points in the city. I have since learnt that the fancy word for what we were doing is "psychogeography", which for us meant including personal chronicles from the city’s inhabitants alongside the more familiar and authored histories.
We had an epiphany when Mohammed’s four-year-old sister, Limar, tried the Google Cardboard I’d brought and was completely liberated by the sensation of being inside a friendly cartoon world rather than the real world where she had witnessed such violence.
Alex leading a kids' workshop
As a fully immersed Limar bounced off the walls with glee, it was evident that perhaps a true calling for Virtual Reality was to offer a reprieve to those suffering war and conflict. So we set about designing a way in which anyone could emulate Mohammed by paper crafting their own vision for Future Aleppo and then transporting their contribution, alongside an accompanying audio testimony, into a Virtual Reality environment.
Over the next couple of years, a workshop was developed across festivals and events in the UK – another perk of being granted carte blanche by festival organisers is that I could often twist their arms to set up Future Aleppo workshops with nearby schools, enabling local children to reimagine their own cities, craft them using paper and glue, and then embed in them their unbridled stories.
Most recently we were fortunate to fulfill our dream to take these workshops into the container camps of Kahramanmaras in southern Turkey. We worked with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the OPEC Fund for International Development as well as a private donor which enabled us to take a full team to work with both Syrian and Iraqi children. It was Mohammed’s first experience with such a large group of kids and from the moment we entered the workshop space his influence spread across children affected by so many conflicts throughout the Middle East.
Rebuilding the city
Together the children created an entire city borne of their memories of the homes they had fled. It was remarkable just how hopeful and colorful their work was, given how grey the camp was and how much each child had been through to reach Turkey. From their models, we created a unique mobile VR app so that they could carry their city with them wherever they went and could also share their city with friends and family.
As much as anything, we wanted to restore a sense of agency in the children, as exemplified by Mohammed, and provide them with a shared mission for the future which they could imagine and dream about until the day that they can start rebuilding in actuality.
We will continue to run these workshops wherever they might be needed and are extremely grateful that the British Council will be supporting us as we venture next to Stockholm to work with children who have resettled there alongside their native classmates as part of the Tempo Documentary Film Festival.