ALLEN HAHN, FORMER IDAH SUMMER INCUBATOR AWARDEE AND FACULTY FELLOW
Q. What is Palimpsest about?
At Bloomington's farmer’s market and at the University only last semester, voices proclaimed that some members of society are more deserving of citizenship, employment, or rights of another kind while others are less so, if at all. Despite its repugnance, this should come as a welcome reminder that intolerance can’t be dismissed as history, and isn’t geographically distant, or the province of the poorly educated. It’s a call to action.
Palimpsest makes the case that the promise of Indiana University’s motto, Lux et Veritas, resides in the everyday acts of heroism of members of its community, and are not to be relegated to an embroidered pillow in the gift shop. The project will mine the University’s archive for tales of earlier generations of University community members who took a principled stand in times where IU's core values of openness and enlightenment were threatened by a seemingly larger tide of cultural discord and disenfranchisement.
The project will deploy mediated content from simple pre-recorded audio and video, to mixed reality (Augmented and Virtual Reality), to live performance that imaginatively engages the past around IU’s Bloomington campus. This hybrid game/narrative/performance hopes to engage today’s University community in compelling experiences tied to a larger narrative about the University’s future. The project will make it clear that even those of us destined not to have our names adorn buildings one day have an important role to play in assuring the University’s foundation remains strong.
More than a decade ago, I did a prototype project which married a sketch of a historical fiction narrative to a 200-year old library outside of Pittsburgh. The use of crude cell phone technology to route text messages and audio among players as they navigated the space made for safe but transgressive urban exploration in a fictional frame. While short-lived and primitive, those who took part in one of its several iterations agreed the project was compelling for awakening in them a sense of history and the era in which the building was built.
With no resources behind it past its initial investment of time and technology, that project petered out before it could be developed further. When I came to IU in 2014, I had hoped to revisit the work in a different context, though it took a while before conditions were ripe to do that. The results of the 2016 presidential election came as a shock, and made me look hard at the work I do in the world as a storyteller (I am a theatrical lighting designer and Associate Professor by day). I made the realization that now more than ever, the stories I told had to have cultural impact as directly as possible and began to consider ways to do that.
Q. How did IDAH help you with the project?
The IDAH Summer Incubator, and Faculty Fellowship gave me the framework of organizational and financial support I needed to begin to conceive Palimpsest. In my field of Theatrical design, the development of a production follows a well-defined path from conception to completion that is well-known to me after a career spanning decades. But Palimpsest places me in the position of a generative artist for one of the few times in my life, and demands that I develop not only the project, but the means to achieve it.
The Incubator introduced me to best practices for organizing and growing a research project which were altogether unknown to me. The Incubator format of presentations by community experts in a range of topics, combined with demonstrations in and access to a number of different technologies and the people who know how to use them helped me imagine possibilities. This was no cookie-cutter approach either. The IDAH team were extraordinary in the specificity they brought to organizing the Incubator so that it included people and technologies tailored to the roster of projects they had selected for participation.
The multi-tiered levels of support offered thinkers and technologists from a wide range of backgrounds, and the structure of the weeklong workshop allowed for breakout sessions to focus on macro and micro issues alike. The larger arc of the Incubator put participants on track to produce a tangible representation of the ideas being developed by each of its participants. Although the material I generated for that was only a proof of concept, it did foster discovery of how navigating architectural space can be made parallel to the content of a brief narrative passage and be mapped onto a game engine structure along a branching path.
So, the Incubator primed the pump, and subsequent access in the Fellowship to IDAH personnel and other resources have helped me develop additional grant language and objectives in support of the longer-term project. That support has helped me build bridges to other University initiatives and spaces, other artists and research tools. Through this support, I've developed partnerships elsewhere in the US and Canada, as well as both internal and external grants for a scaffolded series of project development goals. Continuing on the path IDAH has helped define has me on target to bring Palimpsest to life in a series of workshops, demonstrations and symposia in the next 12 months.
Q. What has your overall research experience been like?
To be honest, it’s been an extraordinary challenge for me to do the work I’ve done so far, which still feels like only the beginning. My responsibilities to my department to mentor my graduate students in production often require that I am in rehearsal by evening. Any University faculty will tell you the commitment necessary to succeed is major. But the additional time commitment of my position has felt overwhelming at times. Carving out the bandwidth to be creative as this project has required me to has been extremely difficult. But in fits and starts, I have managed to grow the ideas to the point where there are enough other people involved, and a solid development timeline sketched out that now it’s just got to happen. This is important not only to the project, but as a model for my graduate students, who face the same challenges of bandwidth and time management themselves in the development of their own work.
Q. What have you taken away from your research experience and your work with IDAH?
At the risk of sounding grandiose, perhaps what I've taken away so far in developing Palimpsest is that I’m living my own version of the core story. Lofty ideals like those at the core of the University’s mission can feel immense in scale or distant and abstract—it’s easy to lose track of their importance or feel like it’s beyond you to make a difference. Working to create something that is true to those ideals requires personal dedication and focus that’s not always easy to muster in the onslaught of a busy life. However, our work as individuals is more easily undertaken when we can count on the support of a dedicated community like the leadership and staff of IDAH.