Inspired by internet cafe culture, Yemen: Say Hello to Connect is a travelling digital artwork exploring the interconnected themes of the humanitarian crisis through voice interactive storytelling and generative art. Commissioned by Imperial War Museum North and FutureEverything, the aim was to use digital technology to engage public audiences in dialogue about the crisis in public spaces across Manchester and encourage further visits to the ‘Yemen Inside a Crisis’ exhibition at IWMN exhibition.
The piece was a collaboration with spoken word artist Amerah Saleh and creative technologist Chris Ball, we also worked with KUNSTRUCT to realise the project within a physical pop-up structure. Reflecting curatorial content from the gallery exhibition and working closely with the IWMN team, the pop-up digital artwork explored interconnected themes of food and water insecurity, childhood and education, and transport and infrastructure through a storytelling narrative experienced through headphones and voice responsive visuals.
I undertook early research into Yemen’s digital infrastructure, learning that before the crisis there had been an explosion of internet cafe culture, a burgeoning economy for young independent business and how these cafes also acted as safe meeting spaces for women. Houthi rebels had seized control of internet pipelines in major cities across Yemen, so access and control of the internet was a contested and political area. Starting with the idea of an internet cafe, I wanted to somehow reflect this need for direct connection and create a physical pop up space people could come into and connect digitally via the network. Aesthetically I was inspired by nineties cyber cafe, vaporwave vistas and synthwave.
CONNECTING THROUGH STORYTELLING_
The conflict is an extremely complex and sensitive subject area and it was really important to consider tone and balance, working with Amerah and the Yemeni Community was key to thinking how we could best connect to the stories and realities experienced by everyday people. Amerah’s storytelling brought these experiences to life in a personal one on one dialogue, where we encouraged people to ‘take a moment out of their busy day’. The narrative journey begins when a user places headphones on and speaks into the microphone, saying ‘Hello’ to connect, triggering the opening narrative sequence that builds a picture of the crisis followed by an unfolding narrative with accompanying collage imagery.
LIVE POP UPS_
Pop up events took place at Piccadilly Train Station, Great Northern Warehouse, University of Manchester and HATCH. Each location had a different activations including with live performances and conversation cafes. We connected with the Yemeni Community Association in Manchester with Amerah Amerah running spoken word sessions with youth groups building towards a live performance at Manchester’s Piccadilly Train Station. Our partners Reform Radio supported us at our launch at HATCH and broadcast a live ‘Into Continental’ show hosted by Dr Mystery with live poetry, interviews and Yemeni soundtrack.
TECHNOLOGY & INTERACTIVITY_
The interactive aspect of the piece encouraged users to put themselves in the place of Yemeni citizens and answer provocations, simply questions such as “How do you use water everyday?” or “What would you stop doing first if your water was limited?”. Your verbal response used voice recognition to trigger images on screen, creating a uniquely personal generative sequence in real time. To construct the digital piece, ensure connectivity and create the voice response interactivity I worked with Chris Ball, we tested various modes of voice recognition, creating word libraries for possible word combinations and keywords that related to collaged imagery. User testing took place at Manchester Technology Centre and each pop up ran four stations using mobile wifi networks. This verbal dialogue with the narrator asks us to consider the complexity and interconnectedness of the issues Yemeni people are facing. To bring the reality of the situation home, the artwork poses difficult questions for us to consider in the context of our own lives:
The live pop up events took place between May and September 2019. The piece was shortlisted for SXSW 2020. You can read more about the project on the commissioners sites here: FutureEverything and Imperial War Museum North
Special thanks to the team Jacquie Reich, Claire Shaw, Joe Ford, Jez Houghton, Joe Whitmore, Irini Papadimitriou and Camilla Thomas.