Pew Fellows of the Week: An Interview with Media Artists Michael Kuetemeyer & Anula Shetty

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Michael Kuetemeyer & Anula Shetty, 2017 Pew Fellows. Photo by Ryan Collerd.

Our Pew Fellows interview series focuses on the artistic lives of our Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.

This week, we speak to media artists Michael Kuetemeyer and Anula Shetty (2017) who combine new media storytelling and immersive documentary forms with socially engaged art-making practices to explore themes of place, cultural identity, memory, and hidden histories. The collaborative team is interested in expanding access and use of emerging technologies such as mobile apps, augmented reality, and virtual reality while, as they explain, “creating socially impactful work with communities.” They are currently at work on Places of Power, an immersive web and virtual reality project, created in collaboration with community residents, that invites viewers to experience a shifting North Philadelphia neighborhood.

Kuetemeyer & Shetty Q&A: Content Block 1

Your artistic practice is collaborative. Can you explain each of your roles and your distinctive contributions? What are the benefits of working as an artistic team?

Our first collaboration was Kamaka’eha Aching Eye, a poetic documentary about six native Hawaiians and their relationship to Hawaii’s cultural, geological, and political history. In the process of making the film, we discovered that by combining our creative visions, we were able to create a much more layered and complex work. Mike’s background is in meteorology. He is interested in media’s ability to be both a physical, chemical, and electronic record of reality, as well as a creative dance of images, sounds, and time. Anula’s background is in literature and performance. What fascinates her about storytelling is the ability to share an experience and create meaningful connections.

We are both involved in all aspects of our productions. Most of our work is filmed, edited, and authored by us, and collaboration is key to our artistic practice. One of the most exciting aspects of our work has been our interactions with fellow artists, and the synergy of ideas our collaboration facilitates. We are both long-term members of Termite TV, an artist-run media arts collective.

You are currently at work on Places of Power, an immersive web and virtual reality project that invites viewers to experience a shifting North Philadelphia neighborhood. What interests you about the realm of virtual reality? What can new media technologies bring to your storytelling as artists?

We are in a unique era where media can be used to explore specific locations in their multi-temporal forms. Virtual reality (VR) can bring an immersive representation of a location to a remote viewer, and augmented reality (AR) can add layers of information to the viewer’s current location.

In our “geolocative” projects, such as Time Lens – Pearl Street and our current project Places of Power, we are creating works that explore urban spaces through multiple layers of time and community stories. We are fascinated by the immersive 360-degree panoramic space and its potential to allow viewers to experience place and story in a different way. As we continue to work on Places of Power, we want to further explore how VR can amplify community members’ sense of memory, kinship, connection, and empathy.

In May 2017, we worked with community groups in Phnom Penh, Cambodia to create new media projects about environmental sustainability as part of the American Arts Incubator international creative exchange program. Understanding sustainability and climate change requires seeing broader spans of time. New media technologies that use AR and VR allow us to tap into this idea of seeing the past, present, and future at the same time. This enables a deeper understanding of the ways in which our actions today determine how the environment is affected in the future.

The exciting potential of new media technologies is that peoples' use of it has not been trained by a lifetime of cultural influence. Through our collaborative community projects, participants are able have a more pure and personally pioneering experience in imagining the potential for AR and VR as tools for art-making and creating social change.

You’ve said that your work is interested in “creating socially impactful work with communities.” What role do you think artists can play in communities and in society?

We are strong believers in the transformative power of art—the power to inspire, to move people to action, and to create positive change. Our work is an evolving combination of experimental documentary film and socially engaged participatory media. As artists, we introduce the elements of creativity, mystery, poetry, and innovation; we invite communities to think of approaching a social issue through a different lens. The community members that we collaborate with—such as the dozens of North Philadelphia residents and artists who are participating in our current project Places of Power—are often long-time residents who are deeply committed to their neighborhood’s history, memories, and relationships. As artists, we create an environment where community members’ first experiences with AR and VR technologies are as tools to create art projects for social change, rather than simply commercial applications for a corporate product. Through our collaborative projects, we support community groups to realize their potential as makers and innovators.

Kuetemeyer & Shetty Q&A: Content Block 2

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