Ghosts of Solid Air is an innovative public engagement project that aims to provide a new Augmented Reality experience enabling diverse audiences to understand and participate in discussions around contested memorials. The project is being developed by award-winning immersive design specialists We Are Anagram. As Gary Younge has recently argued, statues and monuments do not just give a ‘misleading idea about particular people or particular historical events – they also skew how we understand history itself. For when you put up a statue to honour a historical moment, you reduce that moment to a single person’ (‘Why every single statue should come down’, The Guardian 1 June 2021). Ghosts of Solid Air aims to address this distorted view of the past by digitally (re)populating the streets and squares that statues inhabit with the voices of those who are not remembered.
While debates over public commemoration and memorialisation are nothing new, recent events in the UK and around the world have brought into sharp focus the need for more nuanced and pluralistic stories to be told in and through the historic built environment. This is not just a question of what histories are represented in public space, and how, but also who gets to play a role in telling these stories, and what agency they have to shape new narratives. As Nancy Fraser argued in her seminal paper ‘Rethinking Recognition’, ‘culture … is a legitimate, even necessary, terrain of struggle [and] a site of injustice in its own right’. For Fraser, confronting these injustices means ‘changing the values that regulate interaction, entrenching new value patterns that will promote parity of participation in social life’. Participatory parity in this context seeks to avoid both authoritarianism and separatist identity politics, aiming instead for a form of democratised ‘transcultural interaction’. Heritage and memory are key focal points for such interaction, but they are also terrains of struggle and – all-too-often – sites of ongoing injustice. How to foster participatory parity therefore remains an urgent question for the field: one that reaches far beyond academic discourse to impact on issues of access, inclusion and the politics of representation.
Responding to this concern – and building on a process of co-creation developed by the project team over a period of twelve months – the Ghosts of Solid Air experience has been developed in close collaboration with a group of young people (18-25) from London who are not typically engaged with heritage practice or discourse. They will help to shape the research, design and curatorial strategy of the experience. Furthermore, audiences using the Ghosts of Solid Air AR app will encounter a multitude of historical ‘ghosts’ jostling for their attention: a stark reminder of the many stories overshadowed by one-dimensional statues and monuments. They will then be invited to contribute their own experiences and sentiments to this digital assembly, helping to build a record of contemporary public debate on the memorial landscape. Through this approach the project will emphasise the importance of ‘participatory parity’ at all stages of experience design.
Ghosts of Solid Air was initiated during my New Trajectories in Curatorial Experience Design fellowship. Its second phase has been funded through an AHRC Follow-on-funding for Impact and Engagement Award (AH/W006146/1, Principal Investigator: Rodney Harrison, UCL Institute of Archaeology).