Immersive stories to spur action on climate

The Penn Program in Environmental Humanities festival on Nov. 22 and 23 will explore how virtual reality and other innovative storytelling techniques might inspire audiences to respond to forces changing the climate.

Person wearing a virtual reality headset looks to the side, standing next to a statue facing the same direction
In one of four virtual reality pop-up stations around campus this week, sophomore Katie Collier of Orlando takes in a vignette from “The Altering Shores,” which will premier at the PPEH Environmental Storytelling and Virtual Reality festival on Saturday. (Image: Roderick Coover)

When it comes to considering how to act on climate change—a heavy, often grim subject—it can be hard to know where to start. 

“There are still a lot of powerful forces trying to silence dialogue about this issue—even though we’re already experiencing our climates changing,” says Meg Arenberg, managing director of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH). “One of the many things we need right now are more voices talking about it.” With a two-day festival this Friday and Saturday, “Environmental Storytelling and Virtual Reality,” Arenberg, PPEH Founding Director Bethany Wiggin, and partnering artists, filmmakers, gamers, and students are providing a way to do just that.

With panel discussions, lectures, interactive workshops, and a culminating video performance, the event will explore how innovative forms of storytelling, immersive art, and education—including video game design and virtual or augmented reality—might inspire the empathy and connectedness that can lead to action on climate. And it will do so with PPEH’s signature emphasis on bringing together diverse forms of research and understanding.

“The festival is a representation of our firm belief,” Wiggin says, “that what can catalyze action are these ‘third spaces,’ where humanistic modes of inquiry and natural science research can come together in ways that don’t look like conventional science and don’t look like conventional art or humanities either.”

Friday’s proceedings will kick off with opening remarks from Provost Wendell Pritchett, with a keynote address to follow from Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford University, whose work investigates whether virtual and augmented reality technologies can change how people perceive themselves and their surroundings.  

Person in red shirt stands in water looking out at the vast sea
Artist Sarah Cameron Sunde, whose work “36.5/A Durational Performance with the Sea” depicts her immersion in water over the course of a full tidal cycle in a variety of locations around the world, will join the event remotely from Nairobi. (Image: Sarah Cameron Sunde)

Panel discussions will bring in the perspectives of artists and filmmakers who have employed such technologies or other immersive techniques in their work exploring the environment. On Friday morning Sarah Cameron Sunde, whose work “36.5/A Durational Performance with the Sea” has taken her to six continents over seven years to literally immerse herself in the sea for a tidal cycle, will join the event remotely from Nairobi. She leads a discussion with Zane Griffin Talley Cooper, a doctoral candidate in the Annenberg School for Communication whose most recent work has taken him to Iceland to capture, using VR and other means, how cryptocurrency is impacting Iceland’s landscape and people.

Peter Decherney, a professor of cinema and media studies and English, will be sharing clips from his new virtual reality documentary, “The Heart of Puerto Rico,” an 11-part series which chronicles stories of artists in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. He’ll be joined by two of the artists featured in his film, Jaime and Javier Suárez Berrocal, whose art practice is based in San Juan.

On Saturday at the Van Pelt Information Commons, in one of a few hands-on experiences, Decherney will be presenting, together with senior Melisande McLaughlin, a workshop on creating and using VR.

“It’s almost like we are filmmakers working in 1902 or 1903,” says Decherney. “We’re just learning to tell stories and are starting to push the medium in new ways.”

A person wearing headphones crouches down to set up a camera on the sidewalk
Penn senior Melisande McLaughlin, who will be leading a virtual reality workshop on Saturday morning, sets up a virtual reality camera in Mayaquez, Puerto Rico. (Image: Peter Decherney)  

Most people are probably familiar with VR in video games, and an element of play will inject a lighter note into the festival on Saturday afternoon. Participants will have the opportunity to explore different environmentally themed video games, some of which challenge players to design a future shaped by the climate crisis. 

“With a panel of VR makers on Friday and the focus on game making and game design on Saturday,” says Arenberg, “we’ll be thinking about how play might help us to think through this notion of uncertainty about our future. There’s a productive tension between the somatic experience of using VR technology and the fantastic and imaginative aspects of some of these games.”

A panel on environmental game design and the value of play will set up a workshop on game design, led by students including Caroline Lachanski, a master’s student in the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Computer Graphics and Game Technology Program and a member of Penn’s student chapter of SIGGRAPH, a group that fosters a community around game design and graphics. 

Lachanski, who has written guides for getting started with VR for the Penn Libraries, is eager to introduce more people to the practice. “I’m always excited to apply this technology beyond just video games,” she says. “The motion technology and immersive nature of VR can create some really interesting applications.” 

The festival’s culminating event Saturday evening at the Annenberg’s Prince Theatre will feature a video performance of “The Altering Shores,” by Roderick Coover, the 2019 PPEH Mellon Artist-in-Residence, poet Nick Montfort, and composer Adam Vidiksis. The work, which will appear on four disconnected screens and will be accompanied by live musicians and singers, will intersperse footage from the tidal Delaware River with river scenes from around the world, presenting “a kaleidoscope of climate futures.” The creators will lead a group of attendees, including Wiggin and student PPEH interns Piotr Wojcik and Katie Collier, through the four screens for a truly immersive experience.

As in Coover’s earlier work, “Toxi-City,” Coover, Montfort, and Vidikis use algorithms in the creation process generating text and sound elements that become part of the full and richly immersive cinematic work. Coover draws on several years filming environmental conditions in the Delaware watershed. The performance addresses difficulties of naming the threats posed by sea-level rise and industrial contamination.

A trombone player plays against a video screen lit with indecipherable text and images
A trombonist accompanies a video performance of “The Altering Shores” at a rehearsal this week. (Image: Roderick Coover)

“All through it there’s this exploration of how the machine—the computer that’s generating the algorithm—shapes our language,” Coover says. “Our attempts to find humanity in this machine is a really useful trope to work with while exploring this human-made and machine-made crisis of climate change.”

Near the entrance to the Prince Theater, Knar Gavin, a PPEH Graduate Fellow and English doctoral student, curated an installation including stills from “The Altering Shores” and a portion of one of Sunde’s tidal immersion videos. The installation will expand and be shown in additional venues over the coming months

To lead up to the festival, Coover worked with the PPEH Climate Storytelling team—faculty and students who also launched the My Climate Story initiative at this year’s 1.5* Minute Climate Lectures—to install and host VR headsets at four locations around campus. Starting a week before the screening of “The Altering Shores,” the pop-up exhibits around have invited members of the campus community and public passing through College Green an opportunity to don a headset and experience a three-minute vignette from “The Altering Shores,” transporting them, first with site-specific footage, to travel to one of a handful of locations, such as along the Schuylkill River by the Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery, or behind a Walmart, bordering the Delaware River.

“I staffed one of the stations on the first day and one of the people using the headset asked if he could take a knee,” says Grace Boroughs, a senior from South Africa majoring in environmental management and sustainability, who has been involved with PPEH in different capacities for the last two years, now as a Climate Storytelling intern. “He found it so involved that he wanted that stability. Other people wanted to speak to me, and sometimes they were in their own world with the experience. It was fascinating to see that variety of responses.”

More than a one-off event, Wiggin and Arenberg see the festival as part of an arc building upon many of PPEH’s current efforts. This includes the program’s multiple ways of telling stories, including the Data Remediations podcast and blog and the invitation to tell My Climate Story, a public storytelling initiative. Through these channels, PPEH Climate Storytellers will be responding to the festival over the coming months and working on the podcast’s seventh episode slated to feature some of the VR experiments conducted as part of the event. PPEH will continue its exploration of and invitation to tell climate stories in a year-end event in May, which, among other things, will put novelist Amitav Ghosh in conversation with Columbia University earth scientist Adam Sobel to probe the power of storytelling across art and science to overcome inertia and overwhelm when facing the climate crisis.

“We don’t always think of storytelling as disruptive,” says Wiggin, “but we can use it to disrupt business as usual. Powerful stories can draw people to disrupt what they’re doing in a positive way—and to take action on climate.”  

To learn more and register, visit the event website.