Striving to find his place, Selim is a traveler, a digital nomad, until he realized that art is his only space and home to fulfill himself. Rooted in the North African culture, Selim Harbi is a Tunisian director, and transmedia storyteller, based in Berlin since 17 years.
His first steps into immersive media and Virtual Reality were in 2014 when his friend, the war photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa, back then, visiting artist at MIT, trying to reinvent journalism, involved him in “something-new-that-nobody-knows”. Selim becomes the assistant director of the award-winning VR experience, THE ENEMY. A groundbreaking project, bringing the user in a face-to-face with combatants from different conflict zones. The conversation with them allows the understanding of motivations and brings their humanity back.
After this first experience, Selim decided to experiment further that medium.
“How would a user experience music in VR?
How would be the reception of music in the space with this medium?
What impact could sound have to immerse users?”
These were some questions from Selim’s mind that led him to AFROROUTES. An immersive music VR experience retracing the three slavery legacies: the Trans-Saharian, the Trans-Atlantic, and the Trans-Pacific one, making visible a previously, invisible connection through sound and music, to descendants of African slavery and the cultural practice of their countries of origin.
Selim: I started with something very basic, which are traditional ceremonies, and rituals. I grew up experiencing different ceremonies in Tunisia, celebrations, weddings. In terms of energy and performance, I know how powerful those manifestations are, you have all mediums: sound, visuals, you have rhythm, dance, colors, history, anthropological manifestation at the same time. So for me, it was the best space to experiment with virtual reality.
So in Afroroutes, users are taken to some burning key destinations where African culture has been displaced through slavery and then, rooted again.
From Salvador to Bahia to Gujarat through Tangier, Afroroutes is connecting, via character-driven and within displaced cultural manifestations, this invisible memory of African descendants, exploring the narration possibilities enabled with VR combined with unique, amazing, and intuitive sound design. The displaced African communities through slavery took with them their music and cultural practices as heritage. As intangible memory form, deep-rooted in their mind and subconscious. For me it is more than music or oral tradition, it’s a powerful expression of resilience, a way to remember from were they coming from “We still exist, we are here”. It is a way to manifest this memory of displacement and building communities.
TVA: Is it a parallel or metaphor for transporting art? When you are forced to move from one place to another, all that you have is your knowledge, deeply rooted in culture. So, this project is also a way of transporting art – dance, music, stories, so on.
Selim: More than transporting art, it is a way to create new archives. It is a new way to crystallize an ancestral practice into the digital era. Especially if we know that in the African continent, the access to archives could be very limited. Many of those archives, memory forms, and artifacts are “jailed” in western institutions. If you look at the debate happening right now about artifact restitution, many Western museums lost their credibility as spaces where knowledge and history happens.
A lot of voices from the global south are claiming their arts back.
It is a huge dilemma, a real political issue because once an institution agrees to repatriate a tangible memory form as artifacts, it’s a way to say “yes, we looted actually”. And that is very complicated. To some extent, we can say that the wealth we have nowadays in our society, has been built with slave’s workforces.
Afroroutes is pointing out those displaced communities and their role in building the narrative of the modern world. It’s not a folkloric representation. It’s an eye-opener, and a marker saying “People, Think! Those are stories that matter”.
TVA: What about the communities you filmed, how they reacted?
Selim: At the beginning, I started in 2016 with my own community in North Africa – the Stambeli, the slaves that have been transported from Sub Saharan Africa. The access was quite simple. As it was the first prototyping attempt, I wanted to see if it is actually working or not. We went to several ceremonies, we captured 360° videos, recorded ambisonic sound, and wow…indeed it worked gorgeously, it was really powerful! like you close your eyes, you feel the images, the scenes, just through the sound. Then I decided to enlarge the concept, to make a trilogy, to connect the same stories in different continents.
First of all, I wanted to approach the Brazilian Afro-community, I really had to go there twice. after a first showcase at the Berlinale festival, I could get in touch with the Goethe Institute in Brazil. The access was a little bit hard but at the same time, I have one magical formula which is “TT”: “Time and Trust”.
The more you spend time the more you establish trust, the more you explain what is about really. So from there, we had a more elaborate prototype, coherent, aligned with the vision of the project. Telling a story in VR is totally different from a classical 2D film, you are in a 360° environment, your brain is assimilating much more information.
In Afroroutes, you are almost in a gamified setting where you choose a character, it is a very individual experience. Experiences are different, it depends on how you move in the space based on your body language, and your cognitive reflexes. From Brazil, I went to India, after I received a research grant from Robert Bosch Stiftung.
TVA: Why India?
Selim: Because, I heard about and uncredible story there, a very unknown Afro-community, an almost untold story. The Siddi is a small Afro-community who moved to India 784 years ago. They’ve missionaries first before been enslaved by the British who came to India, so for me, it was a fascinating story, the missing piece of the puzzle. So I went there and I was able to round up the project.
TVA: So, you also had access to funding. And I know that you are also part of the Kaleidoscope community and winner of the Creative Challenge Grant.
Selim: Kaleidoscope is a platform that is gathering a lot of XR media artists and doers. And it is a very good one, especially in COVID times, when people are struggling to get their project funded, Kaleidoscope offers an alternative way of production and distribution while having valuable network access. Even if we are not talking about huge amounts of money, the support that you can have through the community, by monthly upvoting the project, that resonates the most with its target audience, is a brilliant idea. I had indeed a chance to have my project there, and it was welcomed very nicely.
TVA: Coming back to the communities. It must be interesting to have access to these communities from different continents? What are the differences in the pattern at the rituals, music, movement?
Selim: It by essence the same story. If you look at all those ceremonies, you will find the same circular configuration of ceremonies, music, people, musical instruments, dance rituals, vocals, colors, it is always an explosion of beauty, of esthetics, of sounds. Each displaced culture is a complementary piece for the whole narrative.
If you look at all those ceremonies, you will find the same circular configuration of ceremonies, music, people, musical instruments, dance rituals, vocals, colors, it is always an explosion of beauty, of esthetics, of sounds. Each displaced culture is a complementary piece for the whole narrative.
I had a lot of meetings with musicologists and anthropologists and diaspora experts, and I made them listen to a lot of audio samples from the three destinations, we found out that it’s the same pattern. Either it is based on the African belief system or rooted in African mythology, chapter by chapter, the music always shoots up and then breaks down.
In terms of music, we weren’t surprised to found out the same rhythmic structure. I call it the sounds of displaced people, manifesting their presence in the world with all the suffering, dispatched memory, beauty, and detachment.
TVA: In 2014 you propose an interesting Photo expo. In the exhibition, you capture people from West Africa. The special element of your vision was the Masks. When I saw the photo I was impressed with the strong message that transcends from pictures.
Selim: “Woongo, behind the masks”, is a photographic project around African masks. The purpose of that project is also somehow to deconstruct and demystify the clichés that we build years-long, about Africa. I spent almost six months moving from Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Ghana, researching, gathering, and exploring African masks.
The idea behind is an attempt to understand what is the purpose and the cultural symbolism of those masks, where are they coming from, what is their sacrality, and try to find ordinary people that could be ready to engage with me, while telling their own story and posing with the selected masks.
I wanted through this process to challenge our approach of those objects, and more than this, to open a space of criticism regarding identity, ancestrality, and future. Mainly, this object -African masks- is seen from the western audience as, an exotic representation, as an ornament, or just through its esthetic, denying its social, cultural, spiritual dimension. Even Picasso was inspired by the representative force of African masks.
TVA: The power of the mask or the power behind a mask. Historically the mask has acquired various values. We usually use this object to hide the real face or People wear masks to look more important, be more imposing. In your exhibition, the mask represents the symbol of cultural identity but behind the mask there hides the real person with their uniqueness that can be good or bad, accepted, or rejected by society.
Selim: Yes, my goal was also to present the masks as an entry door to the contemporary African realities, with people that are today trying to find their place in society, trying to find their voices, their dreams, trying to reconnect with their heritage. It could be something that is a call for freedom, a gate to fulfillment. To be behind the mask is also dramaturgically to reverse the temporality and be yourself, for a photographic momentum, appealing a far past and a near the future at the same time.
TVA: Behind the masks of the society, how does a story that really matters look like?
Selim: In an ideologically collapsing world, I think there are no rules anymore to tell a story that matter, you need to have a sense of urgency, and dare to go to the unknown, so you can do everything as long as it is consequent, as long as it works at the end.
So I think it’s time to tell stories out of the privileges, telling stories while listening to the pulse of the world and avoid entertainment. As we are too much into visuals. Images become monotonic and don’t have a real impact anymore, we all scrolling the world with our fingers, in our smartphones. We watch everyday videos and pictures. But what are those images really telling us?
TVA: Who is the target audience, what is the impact on them?
Selim: I realized that when it comes to VR, but also for other formats and mediums, it is very important to identify your audience.
Afroroutes was a great learning process for me, as I realized, unfortunately, that very little Western audience was interested in topics about African heritage, colonization…etc. I’ve been invited by many institutions to do VR workshops, and for me, it was really important to see that my audience is basically an audience that is thirsty for those south-south stories.
The audience interested in my stories was the Afro-diaspora, people who are impacted by this displacement, or people who recognize themselves in the music, ceremony, in the culture. Audiences engage if they see themself represented as actors not subject to the narratives, in the case of Afroroutes it is the moral restitution aspect, that engages the most.
TVA: VR is indeed a fascinating medium, and it has huge potential, it is a new way of telling stories, and experimenting stories. But, it is also in the beginning. So, what are the challenges you are facing? It is production, distribution….?
Selim: Indeed the Immersive Era, has begun, and it is highly exciting, It is to notice that the huge technological progress, and especially in processors and CPU’s enabled that. It is to distinguish between 2 aspects, the storytelling aspect, the tech aspect. It is clear that the technology is evolving super fast, while the storytelling is very experimental and evolving slowly. Besides that, I think that the VR environment and the economy around it are building slowly, let’s say it is a ‘work-in-progress’.
The headsets are more and more sophisticated, but still, the end-users should be able to have access to it at reasonable prices. Also, I think distribution could be problematic. If it’s not in festivals or VR online platforms, there is limited room to monetize your VR works and to distribute it.
I remember the first time, when I pitched a VR project, in a pitch-panel, people were looking at me as an Alien, like: “what’s this? what is the beginning? where’s the end? And what are you talking about?”.
I think the upcoming generation of VR artists or directors, should focus more on the storytelling aspect and enhance more creative user experiences, and not let the technology be the predominant part. Also, we will need producers, curators are who really understand this medium and all aspects related to it.
TVA: What are your advices to someone who is just starting with this medium
Selim: So if someone wants to start I’d say just go ahead. Do it, prototype it, test it, adjust it! You’re gonna just learn and learn and learn, you have nothing to lose, In the beginning, you’re not going to do any money out of it anyways. So, just go!
TVA: What was the impact of a pandemic on creators?
Selim: For a lot of people, COVID was a catastrophe because they saw all theirs plans smashed, others needed this break to slow down everything, to focus on themselves, to reconsider your inner thoughts, and adjust to a more natural life rhythm, which was a little bit my case. But once you slow down, you do everything- practice yoga, plant your own tomatoes, read all the dusty books you left on your desk…etc, you start to say, “well, what next, I need some money I need to get back in business”. On one hand, we needed a break to breathe, just TO BE again, reconnecting with ourselves, to slow down… But on the other hand, we are somehow the perfect product of an oppressive system that shaped our behavior, our reflexes, and our attitude of consuming and running behind money, career, etc. So we are stuck in this paradigm.
During the confinement, we saw the online content exploding, Personally, I cannot see any streams anymore. I mean, the online stuff is overwhelming, it’s too much, it’s annoying. I hope that we can come back to a reasonable way of life, without a huge, brutal shift, honestly, we still not ready to give up our urban way of life, it’s bigger than us.
Let me tell you a small anecdote. A lot of creators in Germany when COVID started, a lot of freelancers had just to give the name and ID number and received within a few hours 5000 EUR of that account. What does it mean? It means it is possible. The western world is rich, the money is there, Why don’t we have a regular income for whatever happens? COVID, storms, whatever, everybody should have a basic income monthly, forever, and it’s possible, it’s just a click.
TVA: Since the pandemic, there have been a lot of debates about the necessity of changing, questioning, innovating, finding new values or systems, letting go of the old ways, finding new ones, and so on. In your opinion, this period is one of the Revolutions, one that Revolutionizes the world or a Revolt?
Selim: Look, I will tell you something. I’m coming from Tunisia. And we made a real revolution in the world. After that, all the revolutions weren’t spontaneous didn’t come from the bottom of the society like ours, it was more triggered by geopolitical agendas.
This is the real revolution beyond slogans and logos and pictures on T-shirts.
We need to embed revolutionary values in our daily life, by showing more our human side,
being critical, being more empathetic.
We don’t need to see thousands of people dying in the Mediterranean sea, borders are just in our imagination.