Peek into the MIT Museum on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge, and you may glimpse a slightly odd scene: a group of people huddled together, wearing sci-fi-looking headsets.
They’re not crazy; they’re experiencing the North American premiere of “The Enemy,” the museum’s first virtual reality exhibit.
“The Enemy” places visitors face to face with fighters who’ve experienced lifelong conflicts. It focuses on rival groups from El Salvador, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Israel — all countries torn by years of internal conflicts.
In their native languages, the fighters share stories of how they got involved in these conflicts, of violence, of peace, of encounters with their enemies.
Karim Ben Khelifa, a war photojournalist who’s covered conflict zones for years, originally conceived “The Enemy” as a photo exhibit. It would feature portraits of rival fighters on opposite sides of the room.
But when he began his artist residency at MIT, Khelifa quickly discovered virtual reality.
“I was wondering what would happen," Khelifa says, "if instead of a photograph you actually had a fighter there” -- a fighter who would speak directly to the viewer, because there are some emotions that can’t be conveyed through photographs.
“You’re figuring out who were those fighters as much as through what they say than the way they move, the way they engage the questions,” Khelifa says.
Virtual reality provides a different and dynamic storytelling platform. Fox Harrell, an MIT professor of digital media and artificial intelligence, says certain stories are better told through the platform of VR, and “The Enemy” is one of them.
“The aim was to go for more kind of intimate conversations that you wouldn’t normally have access to, with people from diverse sides of these diverse conflicts,” says Harrell.
It’s a big step for a museum to pull off a 50-minute virtual reality experience. Museums have been trying to use the technology for about two decades, often without success.
That’s partly because the technology hadn’t quite been glitch-proofed. More important, though, is a crucial difference between the experiences that VR and museums deliver.
Attending museums is, by nature, a social experience. Putting on a VR headset, on the other hand, isn’t. Once people put the headsets on, they enter into their own private worlds.
Museum director John Durant believes “The Enemy” is helping change that.
“We actually have visitors moving around inside a gallery together, having a kind of joint virtual reality experience,” says Durant.
When you experience “The Enemy” through your headset, you’re doing it next to several other people in their headsets. Together, you walk around the stark white virtual gallery. And you see virtual representations of one another -- robotlike avatars that move in sync with the actual visitors’ movements. VR is no longer a lonely technology.
That’s a breakthrough for museums — one that could make institutions more willing to experiment with the technology in their exhibits.
“We’re beginning to see VR moving into the territory of being a social or a shared experience,” says Durant. “And once you get to that point, in my view, museums can take a much more serious interest in the potential for VR.”
The exhibit, a collaboration between Camera Lucida Productions, Emissive and the MIT Center for Art, Science and Technology, premiered at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris in May. After it closes at MIT on Dec. 31, it will travel to several cities in Canada.
Khelifa’s ultimate goal for "The Enemy," however, is for it to reach the right people: those who are directly affected by the conflicts the exhibit focuses on.
When it appeared at the International Student Film Festival in Tel Aviv in June, Khelifa was moved by viewers’ reactions. And he hopes that if younger generations experience “The Enemy,” those who would one day become fighters in the very conflicts it highlights will gain new perspectives on longstanding conflicts.
“For them it would be walking towards the enemy,” Khelifa says. “It would be walking towards the other. It’s more than a stereotype; it’s something under the skin.”
Karim Ben Khelifa's "The Enemy" is at MIT through Dec. 31.
This segment aired on November 30, 2017.