Arts virtual reality exhibit review

Face-to-face with ‘The Enemy’

Virtual reality exhibit humanizes global conflicts

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Two interviewees from the Israel/Palestine conflict in 'The Enemy.'
Courtesy of Karim Ben Khelifa

The Enemy
MIT Museum, Cambridge, MA
Oct. 5 – Dec. 31, 2017

Walking by the MIT Museum is intriguing this fall — a quick peek through its Mass Ave windows shows patrons decked out in heavy goggles and backpacks meandering through a mostly empty space. They’re participating in The Enemy, a virtual reality (VR) experience intended to inform people about perspectives of war. We are about to join them.

Before entering the exhibit, we take a survey that determines how it will be set up for us: the VR world of The Enemy contains three rooms which appear in a user-tailored order. Even the lighting in the virtual museum is determined by the survey answers and contributes to the interactive journalism.

Inside, we meet and interact with the holograms of six real fighters — one from each side — in three ongoing conflicts (those of Israel/Palestine, the Congo, and El Salvador). We hear back-and-forth interviews wherein they discuss their history with violence, their thoughts about enemies, and their simple hopes and fears in life. The experience is meant to encourage discussion on violence, humanizing the people involved in these conflicts.

The voice on the other side of the interviews is photojournalist Karim Ben Khelifa, who developed the project during his artist residency at MIT. Khelifa collaborated with MIT Professor Fox Harrell to bring his idea to life; beyond the VR exhibit, The Enemy exists in an augmented-reality smartphone application.

Though undergoing The Enemy is stressful at times, it is ultimately inspiring. By virtual interactions with the interviewees, we gained a glimpse of how it is to live in a real conflict. Empathy is so important in this period when cultural misunderstandings run rampant. The Enemy gives names and faces to statistics in the news, making current conflicts much more personal.

We encourage you to experience The Enemy, which premieres in North America at the MIT Museum this October.