Review of Belongings, by John Paul Marin
One of the more interesting projects I saw at Sheffield DocFest 2018 was Belongings, by John Paul Marin. The experience is made up of a big projector screen, where you see 6 people sitting on stools, most of them holding some possession in their hands. You connect to a specific Wifi network on your phone, then use it to point at the screen like you are using a television remote. A cursor appears, and you use it to select one of the 6 people. The one you select will get up from their stool and tell you about the possession, or “belonging”, they are holding, and how it relates to their life and journey immigrating to Australia. You can listen to as many or as few of the stories as you’d like, in any order you’d prefer. For optimal experience, however, I’d suggest listening to all of them, and especially saving Amou’s story for last. A good way to accomplish that is by simply going left to right with selecting speakers.
From a design perspective, the project is relatively simple. Compared to all these other AR and VR projects I’ve seen while at DocFest, this one is rather elegant in its simplicity. No headsets, no controllers, just take out your phone and a pair of headphones, either your own or the ones they provide. This simplicity actually works really well, as it creates a level of accessibility not seen in most other projects. Headsets make some people uncomfortable, but seemingly everyone these days has a phone and is totally comfortable around them, so using that as the primary method of interaction is easy and effective. Time is used in a very casual manner in this piece. When a speaker gets off their stool, a little progress bar appears below them, representing how far they are into their story. Once the bar fills up, they sit back down on their stool. Because there is no background music and no time pressure, the whole project has an air of peacefulness to it, as you can sit down and engage with these peoples’ stories at your leisure. The level of interactivity this project uses is also intriguing, in that it is both choice-driven and linear at the same time. You cannot affect any of the stories told, but you have complete freedom over which stories you’d like to hear and in what order. This gives the user just enough control to be engaged, but also enough room for the project to speak for itself, which I find fascinating.
I think the point of this project is the fact that everyone has a unique story. Each person ended up in Australia, but their stories on why and how they came are vastly different. The items also factored into their stories. They all seem like common, household items, but they all provide an element of humanity and personal touch to each story. This is especially true of Amou’s story, but I would rather not spoil what item she has and instead encourage you to seek out the experience yourself to find out. I think what Marin wants to say with this piece is that your initial judgment of someone does not really capture anything about them. The way you learn about someone is through the stories they choose to tell you, which this piece is all about.
I think this piece is very successful in what it sets out to do. It asks you to sit and listen to these 6 people and the stories they have to tell you about their belongings and how they relate to their immigration journeys. The way the project is put together with phone-selection is also genius in how it ties back to the narrative. Phones are our method of communication and storytelling on a day-to-day basis, so this project makes you use that storytelling tool to hear the stories of these 6 people. It is a very simple concept, and not a very complicated project when all fleshed-out either, but I believe that works to its advantage. You can open your phone, listen to the 6 stories, and be done within 10 minutes. The project takes just enough time for you to hear some insightful stories, and then gives you plenty of time to engage and go out into the world to tell stories of your own. Belongings is a very simple yet effective project, and one I encourage you to see if you have the opportunity.