When the filmmaking pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière screened their 1895 film, “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” audiences were so frightened by the real appearance of the image that they screamed and got out of the way — or so a well-known anecdote goes. Today, as one enters a virtual reality (VR) space — such as that conjured by MIT Visiting Artist Karim Ben Khelifa in his vanguard project “The Enemy” — it is not uncommon for participants to experience a similar shock at the sounds of footsteps, then sudden presence of two soldiers in the room. Like that early film audience, our response to “The Enemy” has something to do with the novel technology, and everything to do with human nature.
“The Enemy” introduces participants to combatants from opposing sides in contemporary conflicts, including soldiers from Israel and Palestine and soldiers from the Congo and opposing gangs members from El Salvador. This VR project is rooted in Ben Khelifa’s experiences as a conflict photographer, working extensively in the Middle East over the last 18 years, covering insurgent sides in the Iraq and Afghan wars. Together with Professor Fox Harrell, an MIT faculty member joint in both the Comparative Media Studies/Writing Program and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), they are combining interviews and photography with the latest research in artificial intelligence (AI) and digital media arts in order to explore VR’s potential not only to engender empathy, but also to make us more self-aware. Ultimately, they hope that understanding yourself and humanizing your enemy may thwart recruitment efforts and help end fighting.
The prototype of “The Enemy,” which has been tested at MIT on multiple occasions, begins with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict before moving on to the next conflict in East Congo. The experience begins in a neutral space where photographs of our protagonists, Gilad and Abu Khaled, adorn the walls. The space feels familiar, so we know how to behave without instructions, and more importantly, so we feel comfortable. We are not in a combat zone, but in a peaceful space conducive to personal reflection. As we look at the images and listen to each man’s life story being told to us by the author a door slams. Two uniformed men enter and stand on opposite sides of the room; one is tall with dark hair and five o’clock shadow, the other, a slight man in a black hood revealing only his eyes. We can walk up to each soldier; his body language tells us whether we make him nervous or relaxed. Gilad and Abu Khaled react to us, as we do to them. We listen as each shares, in his mother tongue, his reasons for fighting, his ideas about his enemy, and his fears, hopes and dreams. Their responses (which are translated to English for us via voiceover) are strikingly similar.
“When we started the project,” says Ben Khelifa, “it was clear for me that this would not be a sitting experience. My instincts told me it would be more powerful if you walk the space. The conflict in Israel and Palestine is highly charged, and everyone has an opinion about it.” Regardless of your personal views, he notes, the project forces you “to face a stereotype in one form or another. And the fact that you’re getting physically closer to that stereotype, to listen to him, is something that opens up the story in a very different way.”
Ben Khelifa’s shift from conflict photography to VR came about gradually. First, there was a mounting frustration with the limitations of photojournalism and the publishing process. He explains, “When you go to war on the front lines, or when you share the plight of civilians as they go about the worst time of their lives, and they are welcoming you as a journalist, there is an unspoken contract. You’re here, you’re a journalist, and you’re going to make a difference — a difference that we can actually see at some point. And that is why they are actually letting us work on the ground, because they hope, and they really believe, we can bring change. … I couldn’t see that change happening. When I’m in Baghdad or Kabul or other places and I work for a magazine, I send them over 50 photos per week around a story. They’ll run one, two, three, maybe four photographs.”
His search for a more effective way to document the lives of the fighters led to a multimedia project, called “Portrait of the Enemies,” in which portrait photographs of soldiers were placed on opposite walls in a gallery and accompanied by audio recordings of their answers to six poignant questions. This project became the basis for “The Enemy.” Being exposed to VR as a resident in the MIT Open Documentary Lab, Ben Khelifa decided this technology was perfectly suited to these soldiers’ narratives. He first donned a VR headset for a virtual mountain climbing experience and had an epiphany: “I was on the side of a mountain and I had vertigo even though I was sitting at MIT. I really understood that this medium was tricking my mind.” He thought, “What would happen to my storytelling if I add that layer of understanding?”
“We make sense of the world through stories, and we remember the world through experience. That’s how it works as human beings. I am telling a story and making people live an experience at the same time. I think the combination of the two might stick with you longer,” he adds. This concern for triggering critical awareness and self-reflection is what sets “The Enemy” apart from a lot of other VR projects, and incidentally, what led him to collaborate with Harrell, founder and director of the Imagination, Computation and Expression Laboratory (ICE Lab) at MIT.
Harrell had been researching how one’s identity can shift through gaming experiences and other types of interactive experiences. He explains how his ideas and ethos overlap with Ben Khelifa’s: “How do you model, let’s say, discrimination and bias? And here [Karim] is modeling dialogues on one of the grandest scales of discrimination and bias, which is a global conflict. And so we thought, can we use some of the models from these systems Ive been developing to implement change within a VR system? So as you go through the system, by the end, who you are is somebody different. If you’re nervous within it, that’s a certain affective identity. If you’re biased within it because you spend more time talking to somebody on one side than the other, that’s a part of your identity. And the VR experience can change and take all this into account as you progress in order to transform the space you are in and potentially your VR avatar itself.”
Harrell frequently asserts that “’The Enemy’ is not oriented around spectacle; rather, it uses VR to create intimacy and journalistic naturalism.” He points out: “Really, it is about the fidelity of the body language and the spatial engagement with people that are usually very far apart.” Recognizing these synergies in their work, he says, “it just became natural that we began collaborating.”
Now, they have been working together for nearly two years and will continue their collaboration with the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) in 2016-17. Ben Khelifa and Harrell will be working on the project’s scalability, using augmented reality (AR) to ensure the widest possible distribution. They want to bring “The Enemy” to places where, for political or logistic reasons, the full-scale installation cannot be exhibited. After all, the goal of the project is not only to share the stories of men like Gilad and Abu Khaled. It is also to make us examine our biases, in hopes that after we remove the VR headset, we will see reality differently.
“The Enemy” is a co-production of Camera Lucida Production, francetv Nouvelles écritures, the National Film Board of Canada, Dpt., and Emissive.