As I continued to probe her about her religious beliefs, it became apparent that Ayesha, the woman seated across from me, was a fairly secular Muslim and not the extremist threat I was meant to be sniffing out.
She indulged my prying questions with the resigned pleasantness of someone very familiar with our uneven power dynamic. But when I got her talking about a spiritual sunset experience atop a sand dune in the Sahara, she finally began to speak with excited earnestness. Only then did the green wave lines that formed her body tighten and colorize to reveal a complete picture of this woman’s humanity.
Though I had only been interrogating her pre-recorded augmented reality (AR) hologram, Ayesha and her unscripted answers to the questions I threw at her were quite real. She is one of six people digitized for artist Asad Malik’s new intentionally uncomfortable AR experience, Terminal 3.
Developed in partnership with immersive media experience company, RYOT, and bolstered by a $25,000 Unity for Humanity grant from game engine company, Unity, Terminal 3 premiered at last month's Tribeca Film Festival. The AR experience asks festival-goers to assume the role of an airport border officer screening people who appear to be Muslim as they return to the US from indeterminate nations. After asking your traveler a dozen or so questions and weighing their answers, you’re left with one final decision: let them into the country or detain them for further questioning.
Seated across from an empty chair, Terminal 3 participants don a Microsoft HoloLens headset that seats a glitchy, jagged holographic body across from them. Aside from this interviewee, the only graphics that appear on the lens for the duration of the experience are text questions that need to be asked aloud to proceed. The interactivity is limited, with only two questions to choose from for each round of inquiry, one typically more sterile and the other more personal. But one never feels handcuffed by the lack of options as this interactive element is merely a vehicle to the subject's answers, the focal point of the experience.
While, for narrative purposes, each of the people digitized for the project had a few cues to hit during their hologram recording, Malik explains that they were primarily answering their interrogator’s questions honestly during recording.
To facilitate these divulgences and ratchet up the realism of these mock-interviews, Malik and his team drew inspiration from their own experiences and consulted with real border officers to formulate authentic questions for their detainees and attempt to replicate the foreboding tone and setting of an actual interview.
Malik is keen to drive home the point that, in an era where Muslims face more travel scrutiny than ever, they are not simply one homogenous and easily categorized group. Just as in real life, each of the travelers screened in the Terminal 3 experience has their own unique and oftentimes unexpected personality. (There’s even a Trump-supporting Muslim in the mix.) On top of that, these characters cover a wide spectrum of religiosity and a viewer can encounter anyone from a devout believer to a borderline atheist to—as was the case for the LA-born Ayesha I screened—someone who holds a mixture of traditional beliefs and new age-y crystal-infused mysticism.
"The whole idea with this piece for me has not been like, oh look, good Muslim, or not a good Muslim," Malik told me during a recent call. "The whole idea is more about showing a complex identity, it’s about showing contradictions in people themselves."
Hoping to highlight the "shared humanity" of his ensemble by subverting the audience’s expectations about "what it means to be a modern Muslim," Malik said he “couldn’t have done it in anything but AR.
Malik is no newcomer to the medium, having worked with it on his previous project,
"Holograms from Syria."
He feels augmented reality is an under-appreciated creative platform and wants to use his content to help push back against a forming industry bias where “VR gets treated as the narrative, immersive, storytelling medium and AR gets treated as more of a computing medium.”
Beyond the experiential mechanic of “placing that other person in your presence" offered by AR, Malik said he also appreciates some of the aesthetic elements that stemmed from the graphical limitations of the still green medium that found their way into his final product.
"With this technology […] people are typically working hard to get rid of the artifacts that are left behind in scanning things and trying to make it as realistic as possible,” said Malik. “But, for this project, it makes perfect sense to really embrace those glitches and that idea of [both AR and security] scanning because, at the end of the day, what we’re trying to portray is: are these Muslim-seeming bodies that are being scanned and surveyed throughout their lives even able to be figured out? It’s almost a constant battle between obstruction and being a real human.”
Through no fault of his own, this constant battle has become an ever-present part of Malik’s personal identity and politics. Born and raised in Pakistan, Malik conceived of Terminal 3 after frequent travels rendered airport interrogations a regular occurrence. The project's title comes from a real terminal at Abu Dhabi International Airport where, during a layover on first trip to the US, Malik says he was detained for hours, despite having his visa and other paperwork sorted. After raising concerns that this delay might cause him to miss his flight, he says he was shouted down by a security officer who made it clear to both Malik and the other detainees in the holding room that only he would be deciding when anyone went anywhere.
Despite its unpleasant origin story, Malik insists that Terminal 3 is intended to be more of an exploration of the systemic political issues that brought us to this moment than an indictment of the foot soldiers performing the screenings. When I asked if working on this project helped him gain any empathy for the border officers forced to do this, Malik was quick to point out that he was already sympathetic to the plight of his interviewers and that most of the agents he's encountered over the years are “super nice” people.
“I’ve met people who are supposed to conduct secondary screening who are incredibly helpful, and kind,” said Malik. “They’re like ‘I’m sorry you have to go through this, trust me I have to go through this as well every time I travel, so let’s make this as effortless for you and get some of the questions out of the way.’”
Malik also told me that, after getting used to them, he eventually grew to appreciate these airport exchanges as an excuse to vent and talk about himself.
“I would actually get really excited about interrogations,” recalled Malik. “Once you strip down the power structure and the institutionalized reasons behind why it’s happening, it’s essentially just two people sitting in a room and talking about one person’s story. And that’s kind of what I wanted to channel in the piece. I think it just made perfect sense to explore this kind of identity, what it means to be Muslim in America right now, and to explore the big questions around immigration and being able to move around borders.”
Those who were unable to make it to Tribeca to experience Terminal 3 firsthand, fear not. A cross country museum tour is slated for the exhibit and, following that, Malik hopes to a mobile version. While that platform won't be able to visually replicate the HoloLens effect, Malik feels the opportunity to share his narrative-driven work on smartphones, the largest AR platform currently out there, is too good to pass up.
“It’s an insane opportunity to reach out to millions of people with good content and good narrative content does not yet really exist with AR,” says Malik. “I’m excited for this to hopefully be that first thing where people will recognize [AR] as a new form of storytelling where a character can live in your space.”
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