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Losing Winter

Capturing memories before they melt away

A triptych of icy raindrops on different outside background. In the middle raindrops is a person's face.

In late 2019, Visual Arts Professor Lynn Cazabon approached the IRC with a project to help address climate change by capturing and sharing people's memories of winter and the sense of loss they might feel because their experience of winters might have changed, become inaccessible, or vanished altogether, and the emotional impact of global warming. We determined this to be an excellent match for IRC. While our nation and others around the world commit significant resources to the science of climate change, far fewer resources are devoted to addressing the cultural dimensions of the problem. The science is already advanced and convincing, and policy recommendations seem clear, but we struggle to make the necessary changes because the political will is linked to culturally embedded stories that deny and deflect responsibility. The IRC is committed to seeking culture-based solutions that leverage the digital media datasphere.

Lynn had conceived of her project as a mobile phone app that would use augmented reality in some way. We worked with her to imagine and design a way of placing selfie videos of people telling their stories into frozen ice drops that would melt, as the stories unfolded, into a liquid drop before falling away. People from around the globe would be able to participate.

In the summer of 2020, we completed the design document and some concept images. The plan was to use Unreal Engine, a software application used to for computer games, to render an Augmented Reality scenario in which users would see their current surroundings displayed on their smartphones using their device’s camera, and the frozen and melting drops that contain video stories would appear to be suspended in the air, as if in the same space with them.

Even these broad strokes of the plan reflect what often happens when artists, historians, scientists and others collaborate with the IRC. The initial vision is shaped not only by what is technically possible but the shifts in meaning and aesthetic experience each technical or design decision will inevitably cause. The collaboration continued for nearly a year, during which dozens of small decisions were made through an iterative development process where ideas evolve as the visual assets and programming are implemented, then seen and experienced. What does it feel like when the ice is nearly opaque? What does it mean for how a viewer might interpret the work if the water drop falls away too quickly at the end? How many drops should be around the user at any given time? Do we want people to have to chase the drop they want to pick?

There are plenty of surprises in building a work like this, and not all of them welcome (e.g. learning that Apple doesn't provide third party applications full access to their camera's image processing controls causing images to be overexposed or "blown out," etc.)

The grant that Lynn had would only support building a prototype of the app for people to get a sense of what it can become, but the prototype works well and is now part of the exhibition, Losing Winter, at the Maryland Center for History and Culture, that is up until July of 2022. The plan is to raise the funds to complete the application so that users can upload their own selfie videos and they automatically appear in the app with video and sound optimized for whatever device users have. That is a large project, but the hope is that the value in this ongoing expression of this highly personal dimension of a changing climate will be seen by those who support climate action, and consequently, funded.

The application is a part of Cazabon’s exhibition Losing Winter at the Maryland Center for History and Culture. Funding provided by the Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund.

Download the application: (iOS)

Learn more about the full Losing Winter project here

Credits

Original Concept and Creative Lead Lynn Cazabon, Professor of Visual Arts
Project Oversight Lee Boot, Director of the Imaging Research Center
Co-Investigators Mark Jarzynksi, IRC Technical Director for Software Engineering
Ryan Zuber, IRC Technical Director for Modeling and Animation
Tristan King, Interactivity Programmer
Sponsorship Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund