The State of Global Peace, presented at Sundance New Frontier 2022, is a VR piece that democratizes the conversation around global issues, making us aware of them through the role it asks us to play: that of a Prime Minister about to address the United Nations.
The State of Global Peace is a work that immediately grabs the attention: not so much for the social issues it presents, which are relevant per se, but for the original way in which it asks its audience to address them. In this VR experience you play the role of a prime minister who is about to speak at a virtual UN conference but is interrupted by a group of students who hijack the security system and take control of the screens.
This premise, which asks you to confront the issues that students present to you and give them an answer, was quite interesting to me even before I discovered that Daanish Masood Alavi, the lead artist of this piece, actually works for the United Nations as a political analyst in peace and security, specifically in the United Nations DPPA Innovation Cell that produced The State of Global Peace together with Superbright.
I was terribly fascinated by this discovery and some aspects of this work that represent an interesting approach to creating a narrative. It starts with the opening scene, which puts you in a fancy waiting room where you are watching on TV recorded speeches of people who have tried to change the world – to find inspiration for your own speech, if you watch it from the your character’s point of view; to remember that there is a call to action for you, the user, too, if you watch them as yourself.
Even the fact that you can’t do anything else in this scene except wait for what comes next works because that’s what you’re doing as a character too. And this is followed by the UN conference: a virtual conference, which therefore specifically implies the need for your character to wear a headset, in a narrative choice that is almost meta-cinema, or rather meta-VR. It makes everything that follows (the video calls of the students, the statistics that appear, talking to your assistant) more believable because you are in VR even inside the work, so everything visually becomes possible. And as Daanish himself said during the interview, all these elements make you uncomfortable, and this uneasiness takes a physical form with the water rising up and submerging everything around you in the final scenes of the piece.
If I can mention one dream I have for this experience it is that, one day, it will become “live”: more than once, when students asked me to participate in the conversation, I was thinking how the sense of immersivity could be helped by forcing you to give a real-time answer to real people. Certainly awkward, potentially upsetting for some users, but even more impactful in making you feel part of the problem… and part of the solution.
Upending conventional structures of power
AGNESE – How did The State of Global Peace come about? What is the story behind it?
DAANISH MASOOD ALAVI – State of Global Peace, at its core, is a call to action. We started by asking: how does one overcome inertia in addressing species-level problems? These issues can be read about and even seen in day to day life, but what instigates meaningful change?
This can be deconstructed into two parts: who lacks the power to make critical decisions, and what would they do if they were granted that power? The viewer is placed in a position of authority and vulnerability as a Prime Minister that is forced to reckon with the demands of students. The piece is transgressive in that it upends conventional structures of power and suggests that the younger generation is equally, if not more important, in architecting our future. Therefore, the work is meant to place youth at the center while forcing the viewer to viscerally feel the weight of global challenges. It is not meant to be comfortable.
On the use of immersive techniques to encourage collective action for social issues
A. – What elements do you think are essential in immersive works in order for them to have a more effective impact on the audience, one that extends beyond the end of the experience itself?
D. M. A. – In our view, one of the things that makes a piece of art effective is when it is co-created with different communities. In the creation of this piece, we worked with students directly to understand their perspective on planetary-level challenges. We wanted to design the experience in a way that speaks their truth to power.
A. – In your Sundance “Meet the artist” video you mention a question that I would like to ask you back: how do you tell a story that we can all share? What does it take to really engage people in a conversation about certain topics today but also convince them to act for them??
D. M. A. – This begins with identifying collective vulnerability, which requires that one takes a leap of faith and presents and opens oneself. This in turn helps others recognize their stories and their own vulnerability in one’s own.
The advent of the global pandemic and natural disasters exacerbated by climate change as lived through the lives of individuals are examples of this. We touch on these issues in the piece because they have serious implications for the security of populations everywhere. So the story begins with highlighting the challenges threaded between us all. The next step is encouraging collective action. This can only be achieved by democratizing the ability to change them. To translate awareness into action, we must minimize barriers to access, absorb, and act on information. We must ask ourselves: how can we use immersive techniques to facilitate an intimate relationship between the viewer and these issues? What should be built into the experience to actively engage the viewer and enable them to reimagine themselves as agents of change in real life?
A. – This piece is an example of how technology can come forward to help a dialogue between parties, which is something you’re working a lot on with the DPPA (UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs). Can you tell us more about the methods and ideas your team are working on?
D. M. A. – The State of Global Peace upends conventional power hierarchies between decision makers and those who absorb the costs of those decisions. By embodying a political figurehead that is confronted with demands from the younger generation, the viewer is able to feel the authority of being in a position of power while simultaneously questioning that legitimacy. This perspective switching urges the viewer to think critically about the divide between actor-audience paradigms. Those conventionally excluded from the decision-making table – specifically, the younger generation – are thereby reintroduced as valid and valuable delegates of security.
We are experimenting with embodiment exercises in some of our other VR projects as a method of building empathy and receptiveness to new perspectives. A bonus of this is measurable reductions in implicit bias, which is important for high-stakes negotiations between parties that may not like or respect one another.
We are exploring other ways to apply VR to peacebuilding and conflict mediation by engaging with a cohort of leading neuroscientists, behavioral psychologists, XR creatives, and other technical experts. This group will help shape physical spaces within the Metaverse as well as simulations and experiments. In fact, three of them presented their latest research and prototypes during our spotlight feature on the Sundance Spaceship’s Cinema House.
A – Have you ever cultivated the idea of making The State of Global Peace a live performance? Because I’d definitely support it.
IGAL NASSIMA – A lot of our immersive installations and festivals have a physical component that bridges the installation, the experience and onboarding & offboarding into a whole package. I think this particular experience would actually be a great example of a project that would benefit from a physical installation component, so the person who’s coming to the installation, can really feel like they’re entering a green room, entering the UN, and really embody this feeling of preparing for and having to give a really significant speech.
When we did the Traverse installation in SXSW in 2019, the users who were embodying Elvis and exploring the spatial audio space, would encounter a microphone in the middle of the room, there was no sign, no explicit instructions, the lyrics would show up on their application and people would hold the microphone and start to sing. So we could use these subtle installation elements to actually design an experience around The state of Global Peace to actually make this a theatrical experience in the future.
A. – The content of this work is very significant and certainly this piece should run beyond the festival circuit and be discussed at higher levels, where big decisions are made. Do you have any plans in this respect for The State of Global Peace?
D. M. A. – Virtual Reality is very new for the UN. You could call The State of Global Peace unorthodox with respect to most projects and attitudes within the UN system. Because this technology is not applied widely across other agencies and programs – and the utility of it is, in large part, yet to be understood – we hope this piece catalyzes interest in VR and showcases its impact.
Our team is exploring ways to pilot VR technology for Security Council briefings, to gamify negotiations, and to prepare for on-the-ground interventions like conflict mediation through simulation. We see many potential use-cases for VR to enhance the work of UN on the ground in a wide range of settings.
We also hope a wider audience outside of the UN system not only enjoys the piece, but internalizes it. The purpose of this work was to invoke a deep sense of urgency and passion for confronting global challenges. If the viewer is moved to do anything, no matter how big or how small, we have succeeded. The piece was created, in part, to raise awareness for security challenges. Perhaps more important, is its larger aim to empower the viewer to instigate change.
I. N. – As part of our relationship with the UN DPPA Innovation Group, SUPERBRIGHT is working on a larger strategy to establish immersive aka Metaverse as a vital tool for both education and diplomacy. We are aiming to deploying a social VR platform that allows anybody globally to access the UN and experience different projects that will be built in collaboration with us or a range of academic partners.
On a personal note, I do empathise with this idea that we see all these beautiful experiences at festivals and they often get buried and disappear after the festival, it’s really hard to access them for the general public who don’t pay for tickets or attend physically. One of our efforts in the studio is to really work with clients to build a strategy about how immersive / interactive fits into their business or institutions in a more accessible and sustainable way.