BPM Launches New Residency with the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts
by Lisa Osborne
The rental car was 101 degrees, and the crickets were on full blast in the field beside my hotel. I had flown from Atlanta to Nebraska to launch the Black Public Media Residency at the Johnny Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts. The first cohort of residents would arrive the next day: Johannes Barfield, an artist based in Albuquerque, N.M.; Rae Phillips, an educator based in Shreveport, La., and Andrea Walls, a conceptual artist and poet from Philadelphia.
Johannes, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of New Mexico, is developing Ancestral Plane, a third-person, action-adventure video game about a former archeologist who returns looted artifacts to the communities from which they originated. Inspired by games like Journey, he is aiming for an arthouse feel to his project.
Rae is already in production on School Sagas, an oral history project that features interviews with students from formerly segregated schools. The project exposes continuing disparities in the U.S. education system and includes a traveling exhibition and a documentary (format TBD). It has received support from the National Park Service, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Bishop Blue Foundation, and Red River Radio.
Andrea is the curator of the Museum of Black Joy, an archive and hybrid exhibition space “of non-traumatic Black life in Philadelphia and beyond.” Her street photography and video collages are featured on the museum website, which uses traditional storytelling and emerging tech to acknowledge and advance experiences rooted in Black joy.
It took a year for me and my partners in crime — Megan Elliott, director of the Carson Center; Leslie Fields-Cruz, executive director of Black Public Media; and Aja Evans, immersive producer at BPM — to create this residency. The National Endowment for the Arts generously provided startup capital, which enabled BPM and the Carson Center to cover lodging, transportation, and some meals for the three artists and two BPM staffers. In addition, BPM will award each artist $5K-10K in project funding and work with them as producers for the next five months to develop a package of pitch materials. Some may even receive an invitation to compete at PitchBLACK 2023.
Most talent development programs of this type usually require recipients to cover unsexy basics, such as lodging and transportation. But if the artist can’t afford the $2K in flights, ground travel and hotel expenses, in addition to paying rent at home while they’re gone, it doesn’t matter whether the residency is in a French villa or on a Midwest college campus. They’re not likely to apply, no matter how prestigious it is. These sorts of barriers have become invisible to many well-meaning arts organizations. We created the BPM Residency at the Carson Center with these factors in mind, intentionally removing hidden barriers to participation and success.
Initially, the residency offered three things that can be quite expensive for independent filmmakers and artists to access: Specialized equipment, studio facilities, and workspace. After reviewing the applications and seeing that the majority of the applicants would be first-time tech makers with little-to-no Unity, Unreal, Python, Maya, or Blender skills, Megan and I decided to add a fourth component to the program: Instructors and formal classes. Halfway through week one, a cool program started to emerge that focused on skills development, content education, and individual, customized coaching.
The residency lasted for two weeks in August, during which the Carson Center building was empty of both students and faculty. So the three BPM artists pretty much had their run of the place. We jokingly called it summer camp. Every morning, Associate Professor Dan Novy would show our residents the basics of a specific game engine or 3D animation tool for 90 minutes. Teaching assistants Kayla LaPoure and Ebben Taylor would then help the artists during their independent work period. By the end of the program, we wanted all the residents to understand the interfaces and basic functionality for Unity, Blender, and Lens Studio.
In addition to the main tracks, we created side lessons on the fly. The Carson Center team was up for pretty much anything. Since school wasn’t in session yet, we were able to squeeze in three motion capture tutorials, taught by Ebben and Kayla, in the center’s 2,000-square-foot studio upstairs. Johannes, was able to see what it was like to direct someone wearing a mocap suit and then manipulate the capture file afterward. Ebben also showed him how to do a LiDAR capture (a type of laser scan). When Andrea mentioned that she wanted to learn how to mocap (motion capture) a dancer for one of her projects, Megan and Kayla reached out to a local dancer to participate in a test session. Rae asked Sean Strough, a technology associate at the center, if he could recommend a grab-and-go documentary kit for her. The request turned into a one-hour Q&A session, during which Sean suggested budget, mid-range, and professional options for lighting, audio, projectors, and cameras. When the others heard about it, they joined in as well. Aja and I attended for, ahem, “research.”
Binge-Watching XR Content
Each afternoon, the residents focused on their daily content binge. We put together a watchlist of extended reality (XR) titles from 2015 to present. We thought it was important for the artists to understand how augmented and virtual reality storytelling had evolved since they took off in 2014, with a particular emphasis on how the Black experience has been depicted. We also wanted them to see XR work by other Black creatives, as they were beginning R&D on their own creative technology projects. They watched everything from NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism (2017) and Lustration (2021) to pieces by fellow BPMplus grantees, Bayeté Ross Smith (Red Summers VR (which has an episode on the 1919 race massacre in Omaha, Neb.), and Tamara Shogaolu (Another Dream). Aja and I were constantly adding things to the list after each day’s conversation/debate about the merits of each piece. It was fascinating to hear the artists’ perspectives on XR experiences and films, some of which are now considered seminal pieces.
I look forward to seeing how their Carson Center experience shapes their respective projects. In five months, how will Johannes’ game develop? What kind of installation will Rae design? And what kind of exhibition will Andrea curate? Stay tuned …
— Osborne is Black Public Media’s director of emerging media
Follow these artists on instagram: