Citation: Fisher, Caitlin and Tony Vieira. “Mother/Home/Heaven.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 14, 2016. doi:10.20415/hyp/014.f07
Abstract: Mother/Home/Heaven is a site-specific magic-mirror augmented reality installation for a Markham, Ontario, pioneer village's General Store that overlayed 3D models, video, poetic spoken word, and soundscape on objects from the period found at the Markham site. Originally mounted in 2013 as part of the large-scale public art exhibition Land|Slide Possible Futures.
Mother/Home/Heaven was originally mounted in 2013 as part of Land|Slide Possible Futures, a groundbreaking large-scale public art exhibition mounted "in response to a world in transition where the past, present and future collide." Curated by Dr. Janine Marchessault, the landscape of a Markham, Ontario, pioneer village, capturing experiences from the 1820-1920s, was transformed by interventions from over 30 Canadian and international artists exploring themes of multiculturalism, sustainability, and community.
For Land|Slide, Fisher and Vieira created a site-specific magic-mirror augmented reality installation for the village's General Store that overlayed digital assets — 3D models, video, poetic spoken word, and soundscape — on objects from the period found at the Markham site. Created with the Unity game engine and the Vuforia augmented reality plug-in and experienced on iPads, the experience used fractal and non-linear narrative to bring real objects and accounts — notably an archive of amazing diaries — to life, while also using fictional, whispered secrets and ghosts to suggest what might haunt the neatly ordered shelves of the Markham General Store.
Mother/Home/Heaven worked to position real world objects as living archival material. In the General Store, we encountered shelf after shelf of everyday objects relating to domestic material culture: teapots, kerosene lamps, spools of ribbon, a wood burning stove and parlour games, etc. And the first time we entered the space we were immediately struck by its regularity and stillness. It was impossible to resist imagining these mundane objects as haunted by a vocal, desperate, and less ordered narrative. We used the objects we found as a cypher, then, through which to conjure messy everyday lives, playing with the tension between the calm and regularity of the public objects on the shelves and the curious, lonely, worried, violent, in-love and sometimes desperate and forgotten hands we imagined might have touched them.
Having been given access to thousands of pages of diary entries allowed us a factual window into the lives of Markham residents in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century and we used these to structure our storytelling. The written reflections ranged from lists of daily chores, to discussions of the rhythms of pioneer life, to more lyric meditations on God and existence, birth and death. One particular entry from September of 1867 entitled "Heaven" became a guiding theme for the project. The opening line of this entry read:
Someone said that the three most beautiful words in the English language are Mother, Home, and Heaven. The three words bring to our notice three phases of life...
In response to this entry, we decided to organize our augmentations around temporality and gender, domesticity and riffs on immortality.
The shelves and objects of the General Store became visual "trackables" to be detected by the iPads' cameras. When visitors held up an iPad — their magic looking glass — they were positioned to see both the real world object and to unlock a series of connected story fragments we'd inferred and projected from the diaries: a rich imagined memoryscape held by and within these everyday objects for over a century, accessed through a magical eye.
Because the tension between the public space of the store and the private nature of the materials to which we were most attracted led us almost irresistibly, then, to issues of gender, space and place, private and public, loss, longing, and time something interesting happened during the course of this first exhibition. While it was true that our AR storytelling and the physical space were constitutive in meaning-making and that standing in that General Store full of genuine (and some not-so-genuine) artefacts had a profound impact on the story for some people, it was also true that our broad themes, and even the juxtaposition between voice-overs of pioneer diaries and ipads, engaged people in a way that went beyond understanding the Markham site and its documented and possible histories. We thought about how and if the exhibition would be understood if it were mounted in a different location and how that would work.
We were delighted to have the opportunity to remount the exhibition at the Electronic Literature Organization Media Arts Festival, "The End(s) of Electronic Literature," curated by Rod Coover in Bergen in 2014. Part of the "Hybridity and Synesthesia: Beyond Peripheries of Form and Consciousness" exhibition at the Lydgalleriet, Mother/Home/Heaven was reimagined in the context of a wide-open contemporary gallery space. In the service of both practicality and experimentation, we opted not to ship the trackable original objects we had used in Canada. Given that we were wrenching Mother/Home/Heaven out of its original geographic and cultural context (and, in any event, certainly couldn't ship the entire General Store and the pioneer Ontario moment it represented) an allegiance to the authenticity of the objects seemed odd. We opted, instead, to print out pictures of the original space and its haunted objects. We papered a corner of the gallery, put images on small pedestals, cut out a picture of a lantern to hang over the window so that a graveyard that had inhabited the Store might now be projected onto a Bergen alleyway.
We hoped the story itself would hold and were eager to think about the ways in which this new viewing situation might function either to connect Mother/Home/Heaven to the ELO viewers' own cultural contexts or the ways in which it might contrast with their stories. Our goal for the ELO show in Bergen was not so much to illuminate the reality of a 19th century Ontario town but, rather, as chaos and fear and longing bubble underneath the smooth photographs of doilies and birds, and spectators use computer vision to interrogate and old lantern and summon uneasy footsteps, to throw into relief the contemporary moment by playing with palimpsest.