Faculty Profile: Joseph Amodei & Immersive Media
The ability to inhabit different spaces and points of view is not just a fun pandemic reprieve—it’s a needful way to comprehend issues that affect us all. No one understands this better than new faculty member and Assistant Professor of Immersive Media Joseph Amodei, who uses their skills to address gerrymandering in Packing and Cracking, an interactive mapmaking event. We chat with Joseph about the endless possibilities of the field, and how their art and activism go hand-in-hand.
This story was originally published on Pulse@ChathamU, Chatham's hub for the latest news, stories and community profiles.
You started teaching your first semester at Chatham during a pandemic... How has that been for you?
It’s been pretty good, really busy, and a little weird not being physically on campus— I myself am teaching all virtual learning. The students are really excited about the material. I think we’re all grateful for a little bit of structure, to make things and learn about things together at like month eight of the pandemic. Every Friday we have an Immersive Media department “gather and round up” where we try out different things—sometimes its news items, sometimes we’ll game-jam, sometimes we’ll talk about tips and tricks and what we’re working on, but the other day we all met up in virtual reality and walked around and hung out and played VR paintball together.
You can’t see it, but my desk and work station is a pile of monitors and cables and screens so that I’m able to offer as dynamic of a teaching and creative environment as possible. I have some tricks up my sleeve here— we teach out students this as well, but you can make face filters through snapchat and run them through Zoom— [Editor’s note: at this point, Joseph leans in closer to the Zoom screen to show they’re sporting a digital headband that says “Free the Vaccine for COVID-19” in brightly colored letters] so I do some medicine access-related activism through this organization called Free the Vaccine, so I made this digital headband to sort of wear in zoom meetings so people can ask me what’s on my forehead and then I’ll be able to talk about how we’re trying to make the vaccine free and accessible to everyone.
The shorthand for immersive media is often couched as “virtual reality” and people may not think about it any further than that. How do you define Immersive Media?
Something that’s really exciting about immersive media is that there’s an intentionally broad definition of what that can be, and where that will be, because it’s a constantly evolving field dealing with the forefront of emerging experiences and how that can carry forward. That’s both with technology and also without technology, just thinking about things in a more 3D way that the technology is pushing our normal everyday interactions to anyways. For example, people are like “Oh immersive media, you do virtual reality stuff,” and yes, we do work with virtual reality headsets and augmented reality development, but we also just try to have our students think about and be aware of what the current state of technological options are, and what that does in a social and design context, so they can be prepared for the future of immersive media.
Right now headsets are having a big breakthrough; they’re relatively inexpensive compared to what they used to be, and people hang out in VR all the time. Most people know what Pokemon Go is, they’ve had experience with an augmented reality app, and that just wasn’t true even two, three, five years ago. We’re trying to prepare students to work in this way that, yes, is in the tradition of game design and games development, but also very much in this tradition of universal architectural design and cultural ramifications of technology, the social intersections of culture and technology, and the ways in which that can expand into other spaces beyond games.
One thing that people are excited about is how to use virtual reality as workplace safety training, using the strategies of gamification to engage learning, but you want to spend as many hours as possible practicing underwater welding in virtual reality before you actually go do it. One of my students was telling me they were interested in developing VR experiences for people in hospitals who can’t leave, and that can potentially be really needed more than ever, especially now that hospitals are an even more lonely place than they already can be with visitor limitations and such. So thinking about how these technologies can sort of bleed into these different other parts of the world where you could augment, adapt, or further mediate to create more meaningful experience.
Tell us about your gerrymandering project “Packing and Cracking.”
So this is a show about gerrymandering, which is the practice of politicians choosing their voters instead of the other way around. North Carolina and Pennsylvania are some of the most gerrymandered states in the country. It does happen everywhere, particularly on the local levels. This project is a game-based experience, so I used immersive design techniques to create this performance event.
A screenshot from the online Zoom space iteration of Packing and Cracking.
The reason it focuses on games is based on game theorist Mary Flanagan’s idea of critical play, which is this idea that game play offers this space where social norms and possibilities can be rehearsed into future states of existence. So I take that idea and combine it with other ideas about psychology and how information is retained and trusted to create this series of drawing, map-based, round-robin writing, and discussion games that comprise the thirteen-game experience of Packing and Cracking for people to learn about the power that these maps have, and at the end of that, what if anything they want to do with this knowledge in terms of lines that exist around them, all the time.
I drove all around Pennsylvania in the before times interviewing politicians and reform advocates, citizens who happen to get involved in lawsuits and picking up the cause, so there are all these primary sources, fun animations, games, drawing, breakout rooms. It was originally an in-person experience but back in April, I converted it to a sort of all-online, interactive Zoom space. It actually premiered in Philadelphia at the Fringe Arts Festival. And we try to make it fun! When I say interactive theatre, people can get scared, like, “Oh no, is someone going to heckle me and make me get up on stage?” This is interactive theatre that’s like game night.
Why is it so vital to understand gerrymandering’s effects in general, and in this election year in particular?
Gerrymandering is a meta-political issue that affects the issues that are closest to people’s heartstrings. So if you care about anything, gerrymandering is probably connected to what you care about, whether you realize it or not. It’s bad for everyone. One of the really devastating side effects is that if a district is guaranteed republican or democrat, it means the race for that seat is in the primary, and if more and more races are in the primary, that means you get more and more extreme candidates because more people in the base are who show up [to vote] and that trickles back up to the divisive hyper-partisan national politics that starts at a local gerrymandered level.
The election is important for a variety of reasons, but one of them is the people elected around the country now are the ones drawing maps that will be in place for the next decade. So every year after the census, all the districts around the country are drawn, and in many, many places it’s elected politicians who have their own vested interests who draw those maps. No matter what happens in the election, there will be a lot of political fatigue, so I’ll be continuing this work throughout 2021 to make sure there’s pressure still on these maps that will affect democracy for the next ten years.
Gerrymandering has been around since the very first congressional congress in our country, it’s always there, but starting in 2010 part of what was so devastating was people were able to use computers and big data sets to be able to draw lines down to the very house-level of where people lived, who people voted for, how much money they make, all sorts of information to determine how they might vote. And not only that, they used this information to sort of model the way that people might move based on that information to make it so that there were these veto-proof, gerrymandered distracts that wouldn’t even be able to be affected my natural movements over time, of people moving in and out of suburbs, rural areas, cities, etc. So it’s really pernicious.
What roles do you see art and particularly immersive experiences in art playing in the ongoing struggle for racial and social justice?
I think immersive media does have an important role to play, for sure. On the institutional side of things, a big part of that is thinking about how to promote access to the discipline, to give these tools to more people. There are a lot class, race, and gender-based preconceived notions about how “these things are hard” or “they’re not for me,” and I don’t think that’s true. It’s a cultural knowledge that [immersive media] isn’t right for certain people that’s actually rooted in power, patriarchy, and racism, and I think we can work to make the ways we introduce people to [immersive media] more equitable. So saying those things is really nice, but it’s about how an institution can put the wealth of their situation and resources to actually make that happen. That’s work I’m interested in doing at Chatham, I’m not sure what shape that will take since I’m just starting out.
Something that we do that I’m really proud of and think is really cool, when a student joins Chatham, all the [undergraduate] students get new computers when they come to school, so particularly we’ve worked with the IT department so we get Immersive Media majors a gaming computer and an oculus headset, so they have the tools to immediately start making immersive experiences, before they sort of have the technical know-how of “what’s the right thing to buy,” or “welcome to school, now go buy $3000 worth of equipment.” It’s built into our fee specifically.
How has your activism informed your creative practice?
At this point, all of my creative artwork is connected to social and activist related causes. I think of that in a broad way, maybe connected in a more direct way that people think about activism, like my work for The Center for Artistic Activism, trying to get universities to do COVID research, which comes from public money, to make sure that the intellectual property that’s developed is widely distributed because it’s publicly funded, versus the normal pathway where it just goes to a single private pharmaceutical company.
Some of my work deals with activism in a more culturally structural way—I make work about attention and memory, and the dangers and potential pitfalls of optimization and how everything tries to consume our attention, so I make work that returns awareness and attention back to the person who’s experiencing it, and that’s a radical political perspective.
I did this project called Looking for the Horizon which was an installation where people sit in a projection-mapped space and go with guided meditation, and this meditation would ask them really simple questions about who they last hugged, what makes them laugh, things like that, and then this installation would capture the words you said, and then re-amalgamate them into a visual piece of poetry, and then it would print it out for you as a takeaway, in a little receipt printer. So you hopefully get this little moment for yourself, and it becomes this poetic transaction with your information, instead of a monetary transaction.