The 21st Biennale of Sydney

Belongings

Revealing the power of human resilience in an immersive interactive installation, powered by your phone.
For
With
Official Selection
I was impressed by Distil’s ability to enable each stakeholder to play to their collective strengths, including the individual participants and their communities, artists and art professionals, the public media production and multinational technology company involved.
Barbara Moore
CEO
Biennale of Sydney

Belongings is an interactive installation that shares stories of displacement, resilience, and hope from six refugees who took safe harbour in Australia.

Produced for the Biennale of Sydney with SBS and Google’s Creative Lab, this XR work reinterprets the documentary form as a large-scale, multi user immersive experience. Integrating traditional documentary storytelling with emerging technology, we harnessed the power of each medium to offer a contemporary take on how digital techniques can promote empathy between culturally and linguistically diverse groups in a surprisingly intimate way.

We took our inspiration from contemporary artist and activist Ai Weiwei and his Law of the Journey artwork which highlighted the scale of global refugee crises around the world and the inevitable loss of identities and histories.

We asked ourselves how we could convey the humanity of his imposing artwork to a broad audience while also giving it a local context. In developing our concept, we started with this high-level thesis: Over the past century, lengthy and large-scale waves of human displacement have stripped millions of people of their histories and identities. The refugee crisis – no matter where it transpires – is a problem so pervasive and seemingly unsolvable that it has detrimentally impacted Western perceptions of the asylum seekers themselves.

In Australia, there’s a very specific narrative around refugees. Now more so than ever, in the current political climate we live, it’s vital that unique, authentic experiences come to the fore in order to shift the debate and challenge people’s stereotypical ideas about what it means to be a refugee.

This helped to frame the project while also providing a lens through which to examine it. However, it was still too broad. We needed to find a hook to centre the concept, something relatable that a wide audience could immediately appreciate.

Countless news reports have documented the plight of refugees and one image kept reappearing during our initial research – that of bags, backpacks or suitcases being carried with what we could only imagine were priceless possessions. We wondered what stories or memories might be contained in these bags and whether they could be a catalyst to open a dialogue with displaced people about their personal experiences.

So we set out to connect with Australians who have a lived experience of being a refugee.

Our goal was to challenge many of the stereotypes that had formed around these communities and partnered with refugee community facilitators to run storytelling workshops. We invited participants to bring with them a possession that reminded them of their home or a loved one.

Production

Where technology meets film making

As we established a narrative direction, we turned our attention towards a creative execution that would bring an audience closer to the subject using a technology our friends at Google had been working on for the British Museum. Across a series of ideation sessions with our creative team and partners, we settled on a technical execution that is as intimate as a phone call with a loved one. Audiences receive the stories by connecting to a WiFi hotspot, magically turning their device into both a means of controlling the experience, and a means to lean into the audio of the monologues. Meticulous sketching, planning, prototyping, and test shoots were used to provide creative direction to a diverse team of filmmakers, AV technicians, and software developers across a three-month production cycle, from initial idea to final installation.

In many ways, this initiative embodied the mission of the public broadcaster which is to create a platform to tell important stories that appeal to broad audiences and which foster enduring relationships with industry partners.
Marshall Heald
Director of TV & Online
SBS
Impact

What we realised through our parallel storytelling workshops was that inadvertently, our possessions become everything to us. We collect things that represent who we are or what we care about. But what if you had to leave your home for good? What is the one thing you couldn’t live without?

The contributors we ended up working with in this installation were faced with that very decision. For one participant, their belonging is a memory eternally locked inside a purse; for another, it’s a necklace with protective powers; and for a third, the scent of a beloved family member left behind is soaked into cloth. Their possessions are a lifeline imbued with the spirit of ancestry, family, home, and belonging.

Technology

The technology underpinning Belongings is a massive orchestration of elements; at the heart is a Node server that delivers content to our audiences’ mobile phone, in no less than 7 different languages, and supporting hundreds of concurrent users. Combining interactivity, WebGL motion graphics and streaming media, across the physical space and the web. Available in English, Arabic, Vietnamese, Hindi, Punjabi, Mandarin, Cantonese and Spanish, the installation is a powerful implementation of our multiuser Storyteller technology.

Client
  • Biennale of Sydney
Delivery
  • Production
    • Creative Direction, Project Management, Editorial, Workshop Facilitation
  • Design
    • UX, Graphic Design
  • Video
    • Editting, Compositing, Motion Graphics
  • Software
    • WebGL GLSL, PixiJS, Javascript, Node
  • Hardware
    • Projection, Customised Open-WRT Firmware
Collaborators
  • Patrick Abboud
    • Co-creative Director
  • Google Creative Labs
  • Marcio Puga
    • Development
  • Daniel-Hartley Allen
    • Director of Photography
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