IIn mid-November, several striking monuments rose from the ground in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. One paid homage to Gaspar Yanga, a slave-turned-liberator who led a successful uprising against Spanish colonizers in the 16th century. Yanga does not appear in many American textbooks, and the Los Angeles City Council did not pay for the statue.
Instead, Yanga’s statue appeared in augmented reality, via an app called Kinfolk. Using technology similar to Pokémon Go, users can place and view monuments of often-forgotten historical figures like Yanga in public spaces. The app then displays historical context through text, music, and video.
The launch of the Kinfolk app comes as a fierce debate rages over which monuments gaze down at us from downtowns: those that pay homage to Confederate leaders, slave owners or other once-tarnished heroes.
Monuments to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Robert E. Lee and many more were ripped from their perches in the summer of 2020, in turn sparking a backlash in which some conservatives felt their history and values were desecrated . The tensions have exposed the deep fractures in America’s self-perception and the fundamental gaps in what we collectively know and understand about our own country.
Idris Brewster, the co-founder of Kinfolk, hopes augmented reality can be part of solving the age-old problem of how history remembers heroes. With the Kinfolk app, available for Apple and Android, Brewster hopes to make virtual monuments visible across the country. In doing so, he hopes to help people reimagine civic spaces, engage students in interactive learning, and enable those who have never seen themselves reflected in their city’s landmarks to do so for the first time.
“If we want an equitable future, we need to ensure that our collective consciousness includes the stories of those people who were somehow deliberately erased from the canon of American history,” he says.
A Biddy Mason monument, as seen in the Kinfolk app.
“Public spaces are not built for us”
Brewster has long worked at the intersection of technology and equity: He previously worked on Google’s Code Next, which offered free computer science courses for black and brown students. He founded Kinfolk, formerly known as Movers and Shakers NYC, in 2017 when he and his creative partner Glenn Cantave participated in a social media dialogue about New York’s historic statues and the need to diversify them. . For example, of the approximately 150 historical statues in the city, historians have counted only 5 women among them.
For Brewster, this discrepancy matters because monuments “show the values of a society: which people they revered, which stories are important,” he says. “And at the point where we are now, these public spaces are not built for us.”
While Brewster campaigned for the removal of problematic monuments – including the statue of Christopher Columbus in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, which he said represents an ‘oppressive figure’ and a ‘tool of white supremacist history’ – he also dreamed of erecting a new complex of monuments of long-forgotten historical figures. But building new monuments requires “a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of paperwork, a lot of hurdles to jump through,” he says.
Read more: Confederate monuments and other disputed memorials have fallen in cities across America. What should take their place?
At the time, the AR game Pokémon Go was sweeping the country, inspiring millions to hunt cartoon monsters as they ventured through their cities and towns and across the world.
Brewster saw technology as a potential way around some of his challenges. “With AR, we can create as many monuments as we want for the price of a physical monument, and we could put them anywhere,” he says.
The Kinfolk app works using the camera function of your smartphone. Open the app and “place” an image of a monument wherever you want. You can then walk around the monument, read the story of this historical figure and listen to music or interviews about him. For now, monuments only appear on your phone’s version of the app and disappear when you close the app. Each virtual monument is carefully designed. Kinfolk selected handpicked artists to collaborate on the appearance of the monuments in augmented reality. There are currently over a dozen monuments available in the app, including those of Harry Belafonte and Maya Angelou.
Brewster and Kinfolk have unveiled various AR projects over the past few years, but the November LA launch, presented in collaboration with The Music Center and artist collective For Freedoms, is their biggest yet. . He honored Yanga as well as Biddy Mason, who co-founded the city’s oldest African-American church, and Beatrice Alva, who helped preserve the history of the Californian Gabrielino-Tongva tribe.
This version of Kinfolk added a geo-specific element to the app: last weekend, the only place you could see the monuments of Yanga, Biddy Mason and Beatrice Alva was Grand Park in Los Angeles, where Kinfolk organized a public party with live music, DJ sets and digital art. (These monuments are now available to the general public and can be placed anywhere users want in the world.)
The Black Fist Brass Band at the Kinfolk’s Grand Park event in Los Angeles in November.
The geo-specific element both makes the app more interactive – in that you are forced to venture out into the world and engage with the story in the context of public spaces – and also emphasizes on community-specific history learning.
Brewster hopes to elevate local history in cities across the country. After Los Angeles, he and Kinfolk will embark on a nationwide tour to stage virtual landmarks and in-person events. In Alabama, for example, Brewster plans to partner with community organization Project Say Something to both protest Confederate monuments while creating new digital monuments in collaboration with local artists. As a whole, he hopes Kinfolk will serve as a digital archival project, in which all kinds of stories will be unearthed and preserved.
Brewster expects to meet resistance, especially at a time when school boards and local leaders are increasingly rejecting the spread of black history. “We’re going to try to go to Richmond, New Orleans and other cities that have deep roots in this. It’s definitely going to increase the number of angry emails we’re going to get,” he says.
Idris Brewster, left, and Glenn Cantave, the founders of Kinfolk. The recently unveiled an augmented reality app that teaches black history.
An interactive way to explore history
While Brewster knows some people will dismiss his mission out of hand, he hopes the app will be particularly useful for Gen Z students who respond better to more immersive forms of learning. “Children are visual learners. They’re playing Fortnite, they’re on TikTok, they’re editing videos; they don’t like to read,” he says. “We want to give kids an interactive way to engage; being able to create more links for themselves and explore, much like a video game.
He hopes Kinfolk will especially be a resource for students in schools who have blocked lessons related to black history due to the greater backlash around critical race theory. “I think it’s really important that teachers have the tools to be able to easily integrate these stories into their classroom,” he says.
And while he can never change the minds of those who vehemently oppose him, Brewster is optimistic that his application can make a difference, especially for a younger generation ready to embrace new ways of learning that use interactive technology, a familiar way to engage with the world. “There’s no way to move forward to a more equitable place if we can’t acknowledge the sins of our past – if we can’t acknowledge how black and brown culture has been exploited and killed to get to where we are. are now,” he said. . “Monuments are really a tool to be able to have that conversation.”
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