Last Week at ODL: September 1955 by Deniz Tortum, Cagri Zaman and Nil Tuzcu

Last Week at ODL: September 1955 by Deniz Tortum, Cagri Zaman and Nil Tuzcu

Last Week at ODL: September 1955 by Deniz Tortum, Cagri Zaman and Nil Tuzcu

by Beyza Boyacioglu

Open Documentary Lab and Comparative Media Studies alumnus Deniz Tortum, together with his collaborator Cagri Zaman, visited our lab on Tuesday and spoke about the creative process behind their recent VR project September 1955.

September 1955 is a 10-minute virtual reality documentary about the Istanbul Pogrom, a government-initiated attack on the minorities of Istanbul on September 6 and 7, 1955. The project uses Kinect and Brekel for motion capture, Unreal game engine and VIVE headset. It is a real-time virtual reality experience that allows the user to move inside a room-scale installation.

On September 6, 1955, mobs in Istanbul took to the streets and raided the shops of non-Muslims. The attack was a result of the escalating tension between Greece and Turkey over the Cyprus crisis, and was triggered by false news that said Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s house in Thessaloniki had been bombed. Following the violent events on September 6 and 7, many non-Muslims chose to emigrate from Istanbul. The creators of September 1955 decided to speak about the Istanbul Pogrom in a VR piece because they believe it is not too distant of a history, and it can easily happen again.


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In this embodied retelling of a nightmarish event, the user is situated inside a photography studio which was modelled after the actual studios of Maryam Sahinyan (1911-1996) and Osep Minasoglu (1929-2013), two Armenian photographers who lived in Istanbul during the events. Through the comprehensive archival research undertaken by Nil Tuzcu, co-creator of the project, September 1955 creates a mash up of Sahinyan and Minasoglu studios. Tortum and Zaman explained that even though this virtual studio references a historical space, it does not pretend to reconstruct history in an exact replica. Instead, the piece creates a unique virtual studio that holds a window to 1950s Istanbul through collaged architecture and objects, and the photography archive that can be explored on the virtual walls.

Tortum and Zaman spoke about how they took a similar – semi-realistic – approach in representing people in VR. For instance, in the scene of a group photo shoot, they prioritized achieving organic movement over photorealistic imagery. They used a pink solid overlay as the texture of 3D models which turned virtual people into ghostly, abstract shapes. On the other hand, they captured people’s movement in a highly accurate way. The team said they could have used computer generated imagery (CGI) to render photorealistic models but organic movements are hard to achieve in CGI. Instead, they used Kinect to capture the most accurate movement and compromising realism in texture was not a problem for them. With such decisions, September 1955 reminds us of the the affordances of the VR medium, and yet is a great example of how its limitations can be used to one’s own advantage.

During the discussion, two other elements from September 55 were mentioned as sources of realism and emotional impact: the soundscape in the VR experience – the conversation amongst the group of people during the photo shoot, the newscast on the radio, the sound of the approaching mob – and the juxtaposition of the VR aesthetic with the archival imagery. In the last scene of September 1955, the user is stuck in the ground-level studio while the mob begins banging on the storefront. Tortum and Zaman mentioned that the feeling of being trapped and facing a mob attack parallels being stuck inside a VR experience. They ended the VR experience with this scene – without any peaceful resolution – because they wanted the user to leave the VR piece with a feeling of entrapment. When the user takes off the VR headset, in lieu of the pleasant photographs on the virtual walls, s/he sees photographs from the aftermath of the attacks. Through this mixed reality transition, they aimed to provide a moment for the user to recalibrate after an unsettling experience, and accomplish a stronger emotional impact.

Some recommended references to the September 55 team were the new prosumer LIDAR scanner, the history of Kinect, Johnny Chung Lee’s blog on Project Tango, David Holz’s talk on Future of Wearable Displays, Chameleon and Treehugger by Marshmallow Laser Feast as examples of mixed-reality (combining photogrammetry, point-cloud, and physical structures), and VVVV toolkit (as an alternative to Unreal game engine).

Cagri Zaman (co-creator) is a doctoral candidate in Computational Architecture, and a researcher in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. His research specializes in spatial computing.

Nil Tuzcu (co-creator) is a technologist, designer and researcher working on data-driven urban representations, digital humanities and urban history. She builds visual and digital tools for urban research particularly to examine dynamics of geographical circulations of culture, identity, information, and their implications for the urban environment. She currently works as a digital humanities researcher at the Mellon Urban Initiative at Harvard University, and as a Research Fellow/Technology Lead at DRAN at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Deniz Tortum (co-creator) is a filmmaker and a designer. He graduated from MIT Comparative Media Studies and he was a research assistant at MIT Open Documentary Lab. His thesis and recent work focus on virtual reality and full-body interaction.