“The Enemy,” the first virtual reality exhibition at the MIT Museum, had begun. For the next hour, everything that I encountered, from the lighting of the room to the final image I would see before exiting the show, would be designed expressly for me, based in part on the pre-admission questionnaire I filled out measuring my attitude toward war, my knowledge of the conflicts in question, and whether I had more sympathy for one side. Custom-made according to those specifications, the virtual reality enveloping me was a one-woman reality: nothing from it would ever spill out, and nothing from the outside would ever get in. With one exception. The four other people in my cohort were still here, transformed into featureless avatars, to be sure, but hovering in my vicinity and moving through the exhibition at roughly the same pace, a link to the non-virtual world otherwise vanished.
It was planned that way. Viewers were admitted in groups of five at 15-minute intervals, so that at any point inside this feverishly non-referential capsule, some external reference points remained. The MIT Museum was being extra careful (“If you feel dizzy, or nauseous, take off your headsets right away!” we were told), and not just for our sake. The exhibition is above all an experiment testing the synthesis of art, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence, and all these groups of five were less museumgoers than test subjects, generating empirical and quantifiable data for understanding the nature of war, the making and unmaking of enemies, and why we take sides.
“The Enemy” was originally conceived as a photo exhibition by Karim Ben Khelifa, a Belgian-Tunisian journalist covering the Middle East for the past 15 years, freelancing regularly for Time, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, and Le Monde. Of late, he had been increasingly disenchanted with photography as a medium. As he explained in a 2016 MIT interview:
When you go to war on the front lines, or when you share the plight of civilians as they go about the worst time of their lives, and they are welcoming you as a journalist, there is an unspoken contract. You’re here, you’re a journalist, and you’re going to make a difference — a difference that we can actually see at some point. And that is why they are actually letting us work on the ground, because they hope, and they really believe, we can bring change … I couldn’t see that change happening. When I’m in Baghdad or Kabul or other places and I work for a magazine, I send them over 50 photos per week around a story. They’ll run one, two, three, maybe four photographs.
A virtual-reality platform would allow him to repay the trust of those he interviewed in a different way. It would make change not a pipedream but an experimental possibility based on this unique fusion of art, digital media, and artificial intelligence. The as yet untapped potential of VR began to dawn on Khelifa during his artist residency at MIT, first at the Open Documentary Lab from 2013 to 2015, and then as a long-term collaboration at the Center for Art, Science and Technology with D. Fox Harrell. A professor of digital media and artificial intelligence, Harrell is founder and director of MIT’s Imagination, Computation, and Expression Lab and the Human-Computer Interaction Producer on the project. The duo’s cognitive-computational approach to photojournalism meant that the reactions of the viewers — their nervousness, biases, and possible behavioral changes while wearing the VR headsets — would be a key part of the experiment. This is “long-form journalism in a new form,” Harrell said in a 2016 interview with The New York Times. Gone now is the static givenness of the photo exhibition. Computer-modeled interactivity changes the rules of the game, transforming the nature of journalism, the identities of the viewers, and possibly our collective relation to war itself.
Still, a project like this is easier said than done. Khelifa interviewed over 1,500 veteran fighters, eventually settling on six to represent the opposing sides in three war-torn regions: the Democratic Republic of Congo; El Salvador; and Gaza and Tel Aviv. Then began the arduous task of creating a virtual reality close enough to physical reality to register as a visceral fact. To give the avatars facial expression, body language, and eye movement, countless hours were spent on location, in makeshift studios, taking 3-D scans of the combatants. These 3-D scans were then painstakingly pieced together as sequences of bodily gestures and meshed with the recorded interviews “by each tenth of a second.” Only with this insane micro cross-stitching would the avatars become breathing, seething, gesticulating bodies, capable of irony and exasperation. Only then would they have a “kind of lush imaginative vitality,” a “kind of lyricism,” as Harrell said.
The exhibition consisted of four rooms, the first three featuring the three pairs of combatants, and the last room featuring a surprise custom-made for each viewer. Each of the combatants was asked the same six questions: Who is your enemy? Why is your enemy inhuman? Have you ever killed one of your enemies? What is peace for you? What is happiness? Where do you see yourself 20 years from now? At the end of each session a voice in my headset said: “Your reaction to each of them was the same.” While I had the headset on, I had not sided with anyone over and against his opponent — not with the Congolese army officer and the child soldier who had killed nine people by the age of 14; not with the two El Salvadoran gang members, one from MS-13 and the other from Barrio 18; and not with Gilad Peled, a Israeli soldier and tattoo artist, and Abu Khaled, a Palestinian fighter from Gaza, whose face was almost completely covered by a balaclava.
Apparently my headset was sending out infrared signals, picked up by the sensors embedded in the ceiling cameras. My degree of attention, how long I had stayed with each combatant, how long I lingered after their stories were over, whether I said goodbye and in what manner — all these were tracked and recorded. By the time I got to the fourth room, the show (not unlike Google, Facebook, and Twitter in this regard) had gathered enough information about me to offer one final exhibit. Looking into a “mirror,” the sole object in this room, I saw myself, dressed in the fatigues of Abu Khaled, with the same balaclava covering my face, becoming one with the fighter whose avatar I had been comfortable listening to, but whose skin it was still disconcerting to inhabit. That result would no doubt be interesting to Khelifa and Harrell; it certainly made visible an intangible truth about me. And, beyond this computer-generated outcome, there were other outcomes just as interesting, which I suspect the infrared sensors might not have been capable of picking up, at least not yet.
After all, what was most stunning about the exhibition, from my point of view, was not how cutting-edge it was, but how singularly primitive. There was nothing spectacular about it, nothing headline-grabbing. The avatars were just standing there, telling their stories, and we were doing the same, listening. While listening, I noticed the tattoo completely covering the arms of one El Salvadoran gang member, the one who had already spent 17 years in jail. His gang, his wife, and his child were all virtual presences of sorts on his arms, but the tattoo also looked amazingly like Mayan glyphs to my unpracticed eyes. Meanwhile, the other gang member, also tattooed but more modestly, simply didn’t answer at all when asked if he had ever killed. He didn’t exactly roll his eyes — Khelifa probably didn’t have the 3-D spans for that — but he kept on chewing and never opened his mouth. The future of war, our emotional relation to it, might turn out to have as much to do with such visceral details as with cleaner statistics. Virtual reality has taken us thus far and isn’t stopping any time soon. I’m holding my breath.
Wai Chee Dimock is William Lampson Professor of English and American studies at Yale University and the editor of PMLA.