XR HISTORY AWARD 2022

Your extended view of history!

Representations of history are powerful means, too often and too easily manipulated. Now, more than ever, is the time to tell fact-based stories about the past in new formats. This year we were, for the first time, searching for a creative XR project that provides an opportunity to experience history from a different angle, for an idea that opens up our view of the past and allows us to hear those voices that often remain unheard.

Together with VRHAM! Festival, Körber-Stiftung initiated the XR History Award to honour a project that uses immersive technology to explore history, history education or commemorative culture. Until April 2022, teams from all over the world were invited to submit their XR project. We wanted to find projects, which use various approaches towards innovative perspectives of history – in the format of either documentaries, stories or art.

The winning project is rewarded with 5.000 Euro and an international jury of experts, coming from different fields of expertise, determined the winner.

Calling for submissions for the first ever XR History Award, we received more than 80 submissions from 22 different countries. Now, a winner has been chosen. The awarded project was presented at the opening ceremony of the „ULTRAMARIN – An immersive Exhibition“ of VRHAM! Festival on 2 June, 2022 in Hamburg. The laudatory speech was given by journalist Joachim Telgenbüscher, who works as head of the history department at Gruner & Jahr and writes about peculiar historical facts on Twitter, where he has 160k followers.

Winner of the XR History Award - Child of Empire

The largest forced migration in recorded history

The first XR History Award goes to Child of Empire by Project Dastaan. The animated Virtual Reality documentary deals with the 1947 Partition of British India into India and Pakistan. A historical event that until today counts as the largest forced migration in human history – forcing 14 million people to leave their homes, while over one million more perished. Child of Empire puts you in the shoes of two refugees in 1947, experiencing the true stories of two survivors from different sides of the border. The VR experience allows a new perspective on forced migration and on its consequences for individuals. The 75th anniversary of the Partition and a time where forced migration during war is ubiquitous, make this project even more relevant today.

Child of Empire is not only a VR documentary, but part of the peace project Dastaan that aims to connect people across borders. While years have gone by, the Partition continues to be a lived experience for many across the subcontinent. Political relations between India and Pakistan are hostile, plagued by the legacy of the Partition and the four wars that followed it. Project Dastaan tries to bring people together on both sides - for example, they reconnect survivors with their childhood homes by making it possible to revisit them through a 360 VR experience. For most of the survivors this marks the first time they are able to see the homes they fled 75 years ago.

Co-founder Sparsh Ahuja came to Hamburg from Melbourne, Australia, to accept the XR History Award on behalf of his international team, which hails from England, Pakistan, India and Iran. Some of Project Dastaan's team members have a very personal connection to the partition of British India, and Ahuja himself retells the story of his two grandfathers in Child of Empire.

In his acceptance speech, Ahuja underlined the special nature of the stories told, and what unites both perspectives in the VR film is that supposedly hostile sides protected each other - the Muslim the Hindu and vice versa. Child of Empire is a lesson in how VR can truly bring history to life. And in order to share their idea with even more people, Project Dastaan is now touring different countries, including Pakistan and the Punjab region.

Photo: Körber-Stiftung

Jury

Laudatio by Joachim Telgenbüscher

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

to begin with I want to say how honoured I am to be given the opportunity tonight to say some words of appreciation about the winner of the very first XR History Award. “Child of Empire” by Project Dastaan.

I don’t think I give too much away, if I say, that this is a truly well-deserved win. So congratulations to Sparsh who is with us tonight. But let me also offer a warm thank you to his collaborators. To co-creator Erfan Saadati, art-director Stephen Stephenson, writer Omi Zola Gupta and the two producers Sam Dalrymple and Saadia Gardezi. Child of Empire, like most good things in life, is a team effort.

Some people I talked to have praised it as a lighthouse project. And you can see why they chose this term: Like a lighthouse it stands out and shows us the way. In this case to a new way of experiencing and telling history. On the other hand, I guess, lighthouses are pretty much outdated. So “lighthouse project” might be a bit of a misnomer. “Child of Empire” is more like a satellite navigation system. A feat of high-tech. And at the same time a piece of art.

Most of all, however, it is hugely relevant. Although it deals with events that took place 75 years ago it still resonates. In a way, it tells a story that is sadly being repeated at this very moment. And you can sum up this relevance in one neat, but horrible number: One hundred million. This is the number of forcibly displaced people in the world today. A record-breaking figure only recently reported by the UNHCR.

Child of Empire” resonates with our present because it brings to life one of the largest forced migrations in human history: the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan at the end of British colonial rule. Over 14 million people had to migrate, Hindus to India, Muslims to newly created Pakistan. This was an act of ethnic cleansing, a brutal postscript of imperial rule, that killed one million people – either by hunger, disease or outright violence. Those that did survive ended up in refugee camps. Even today, most of the refugees have not been able to return home.

In Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, which is also widely spoken in parts of India – Dastaan – as in Project Dastaan – simply means “story”. A very fitting name, I think. For Sparsh and his team are not only storytelling pioneers, they are also collectors of stories. They have conducted and filmed interviews with Partition survivors in the UK, India and Pakistan. This remarkable endeavour aims to build peace through remembrance. “Child of Empire” is the product of this work.

As such it gives rise to important questions. For example: How do we keep memories alive? How do we do justice to different perspectives? And most of all: How can we prevent that the memories of the past fuel the conflicts of the present? For the relationship between India and Pakistan has been troubled ever since the Partition.

But before I talk about “Child of Empire” in some more detail, please allow me to talk briefly about my thoughts, or even worries, when I first heard about the XR History Award. I was wondering: Do Extended Reality and History really fit together? Isn’t history meant to be written? Doesn’t it have to be enshrined in heavy monographs or well-curated museum exhibitions? And yes, there was another worry: nausea. I was seriously afraid, that the VR-experience would make me travel-sick. I’m a bit prone to that.

But then I visited the offices of the Körber-Stiftung, sat down on a wheeled chair, put on a VR-headset and dived headlong into the world that Project Dastaan has so brilliantly created. And brilliant it is.

First of all, it is a very personal experience.

Suddenly you are in the room with two old men having a hot drink by the light of a flickering candle. They both have experienced the Partition as children, both are refugees, but from different sides. One is an Indian Hindu, the other a Pakistani Muslim. They take you with them as they tell their story. The context – always a challenge in presenting history to a wider audience – is conveyed in a short, beautiful theatrical tour through Indian history leading up to independence.

One of the remarkable things about “Child of Empire” is exactly this sense of balance. We are not presented with one national narrative, but with two perspectives, that are treated with the same respect.

And all of this is fact-based. I cannot stress this enough. It is all based on the testimony of witnesses. One of them is – if I’m not mistaken – Sparsh Ahuja’s own granddad, who migrated from the West Punjab to New Delhi as a young boy.

Child of Empire” tells you their story. In the VR-World this means: You experience their story. You see the horrors of the Partition through the eyes of a seven-year-old child. Which makes it even more forceful. You are with them in the cramped train, on the move and in the dismal refugee camp. These are moments that really get to you and convey the story with a force that – I have to admit it – a print article never could.

At the same time “Child of Empire” creates some beautiful and also quite haunting images: Like dead people dissolving into writing. But it also uses the powers of the VR-engine to rather overwhelm you at times. The feeling when you are lifted up far above a map of the subcontinent, while the new borders appear like lava-filled cracks beneath you, these images will stay with you long after you’ve taken the VR-goggles off.

As a historical journalist I have a catch-phrase: “The telling of history is an industry of the future”. Believe me, it does sound nicer in German. “Geschichtsvermittlung ist eine Zukunftsbranche”. What I mean by that is that it will be increasingly important in the future to find new ways to engage with the past. And also to present a factual, balanced and sympathethic view of historical events. Just like “Child of Empire” does. We’re currently seeing how historical narratives are distorted by political players all around the world and how they are weaponized in current conflicts. We have to combat these lies. We have to put the record straight, we have to fight for reconciliation. More than ever.

That’s why the message of “Child of Empire” – its emphasis on factual correctness, its multi-perspective approach and its tone of reconciliation – is so crucial. That’s why this project deserves this award more than anything. That it is at the same time accessible to a generation which perhaps is no longer that familiar anymore with bulky monographs is great, too. It really does tell history in a new and refreshing way.

So congratulations again! And thank you very much, Sparsh Ahuja, for giving us “The Child of Empire”.

Images

  • Photos: Catrin-Anja Eichinger