With every year that passes, the memory of historical events and people grows further away from our modern lives. Museums, books, and media like films or podcasts help preserve these stories, but one New Orleans artist is taking our understanding of history a step further into the future.
Artist Marcus Brown is bringing history onto the streets of New Orleans by using augmented reality technology to tell the stories of enslaved people in his project, “AR Slavery Trails.”
In one of his first digital installations, Brown is honoring the 170th-year anniversary of Solomon Northup’s freedom from slavery. Northup’s story is compelling. He was a freeman and professional violinist in New York who was deceived by slave catchers who convinced him to travel to Washington, D.C., under the guise of offering him a gig playing violin. There, he was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery, where he spent 12 years enslaved in northern Louisiana before regaining his freedom.
Brown created an augmented reality sculpture of Northup that can be seen through a smartphone. It is Brown’s latest effort to tell the stories of enslaved people, the first in the “AR Slavery Trails” project. It is located on the edge of the Marigny, the neutral ground that hosts two historical markers, one about the domestic slave trade in New Orleans and the other about Northup.
Augmented reality is an interactive experience that combines the real world and computer-generated content that can include visual images, audio, touch, and even smell.
Brown officially unveiled the “musically interactive augmented reality” installation on Jan. 4. In attendance at the launch were students from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where Brown teaches visual arts.
“My biggest inspiration was that I don’t understand why there isn’t already a sculpture here,” Brown said about the neutral grounds at the intersection of Chartres Street and Esplanade Avenue, which historians have pinpointed as the “notorious slave pen” from which Northup was sold.
At first glance, the markers look similar to others found across the city, but after scanning the QR code on the markers’ bases with a smartphone, Brown’s augmented reality comes to life.
From the view of a cellphone screen, 41 enslaved people are digitally depicted on the neutral ground with a somber tune accompanying them.
Ranging from children to adults, including a pregnant woman based on Brown’s stepsister, the renderings are representations of the 41 names listed in the 1841 manifest of the Brig Orleans slave ship which transported Northup, who was listed as “Plat Hamilton.”
The AR exhibit can only be accessed by downloading the Adobe Aero app on an iPhone X and Samsung 20 or later model smartphones.
“People choose not to even think about [chattel slavery]. They choose not to teach it in schools. So I decided to make an art piece where people can choose to see it or not,” Brown said of his decision to do a digital installation instead of a physical exhibit.
Brown said the goal of “AR Slavery Trails” is to create a “decentralized memorial, that is accessible to people, about slavery.” Next on his list is to create an augmented reality version of the Brig Orleans next to the Steamboat Natchez at the riverfront. In this installation, Brown aims to transport viewers into the claustrophobic setting of a slave transport ship.
Through augmented reality technology, Brown is hoping to get viewers “interested in subject matter that they may not be interested in otherwise.” He’s certainly found a creative way to reach a new plugged-in generation who may not have heard of Northup’s story and now have a unique way of accessing history.
Miracle Nixon, 18, a creative writing student at NOCCA, sees history differently through Brown’s exhibit.
“This [exhibit] speaks to how stories are hidden. They’re here but they haven’t been accessible to us, either in the proper way or just at all,” Nixon said. “But they’re still here, a part of the Black community and part of history.”
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