CripTech Metaverse Lab Engages Disabled Creators to Prototype the Future of Immersive Technologies
August 1, 2023 (San Francisco, CA) – Gray Area and Leonardo, a nonprofit enterprising think tank at the nexus of art, science, and technology, are excited to announce the premiere of three immersive artworks increasing accessibility in the metaverse, selected from the inaugural CripTech Metaverse Lab. Artists Indira Allegra, Nat Decker, and Melissa Malzkuhn were chosen to receive $20,000 each in development stipends with further technical support from industry production partners VIVE Arts, VIVERSE (HTC), and New Art City. The artwork prototypes will be unveiled at Gray Area Festival: Plural Prototypes, October 19-22nd, 2023.
Historically, disabled users and creators have been left out of design considerations for emerging technologies. By envisioning new creative pathways for people with disabilities to engage within immersive spaces, the selected projects enrich metaverse social and sensory experience for all. Two of the works will be developed on HTC’s VIVERSE, an immersive platform that empowers people to design their own virtual spaces. Malzkuhn's project reimagines the concept of the Deaf Club, a vital part of Deaf culture and storytelling globally, within the digital realm; a living weaving that sings, Allegra's Texere will be an immersive platform for collective grief and memorialization. Decker’s TOUCH, produced in collaboration with virtual art space New Art City, will be an interactive poem exploring narratives of the boundaries of physical intimacy and infraction from the perspective of a queer disabled person.
Lab member Melissa Malzkuhn says: “The concept of a metaverse is so new that there is no universal definition of it yet; this is what makes it exciting — I left the lab convinced that the best metaverse experience will start with the most marginalized. That is when people truly learn something new. It is beyond VR enabled avatars sitting in a meeting room. It is about world building and shifting the narrative.”
In February 2023, the CripTech Metaverse Lab convened to address accessibility challenges in virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and spatial audio by enabling disabled creators to actively shape the future of immersive technologies. This pioneering collaboration brought together ten disabled creatives — Panteha Abareshi, India Allegra, Nat Decker, Antoine Hunter, Melissa Malzkuhn, Maia Scott, Stephanie Sheriff, Andy Slater, Jennifer White-Johnson, and Iris Xie — to experience immersive artworks, engage in critical discussions, and create new speculative artworks. The Lab featured virtual and in-person events, facilitated by disabled usability researchers Jennifer Justice and Frank Mondelli, access doula Claudia Alick, teams from Leonardo/ISAST and Gray Area, and industry partners VIVE Arts, VIVERSE, and Meyer Sound. Results of the convenings will be shared through a white paper published in the Leonardo journal, an online research archive, and through programs at the 2023 Gray Area Festival.
Leonardo’s Disability and Access Lead, Lindsey D. Felt, says, “CripTech Metaverse Lab is an experiment in collective creative access. It is thrilling to witness and be in community with creators whose engagements as non-compliant users show us the importance of including everyone in virtual worlds. At this inflection point,we need to hold space for disability knowledge and artistry.”
The CripTech Metaverse Lab is part of Gray Area’s 15th anniversary focus on Access, which spans across events, education, and research programs. Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s survey of technological culture in Mexico, TECHS-MECHS, challenged prescribed notions of Latinx identity by complicating relationships between technologies, bodies, and borders. The exhibition Difference Machines explores how technology is a lens that structures our identity. The CripTech Metaverse Lab and C/Change Labs are prototyping how emerging technologies, when imbued with intentional design, can open up new pathways for connection and inclusion. Finally, the 2023 Gray Area Festival: Plural Prototypes will consider how we can build plurality into cultural infrastructure that will enable the future of creativity. All of these programs ask urgent questions about organization and governance, digital democracy, data sovereignty, the technical inaccessibility of creative tools, the role of the artist, the future of work, and planetary futures.
“At Gray Area we believe artists have a vital role to play in shaping an equitable and regenerative future for society,” said Barry Threw, Gray Area’s Executive and Artistic Director. “Our Access program centers artistic inquiry as a means to help us better understand our present, and envision a more inclusive future; and the CripTech Metaverse Lab demonstrates the power of this approach.”
Tickets to the 2023 Gray Area Festival will be available at grayareafestival.io.
Fearlessly pioneering since 1968, Leonardo serves as THE community forging a transdisciplinary network to convene, research, collaborate, and disseminate best practices at the nexus of arts, science and technology worldwide. Leonardo’ serves a network of transdisciplinary scholars, artists, scientists, technologists and thinkers, who experiment with cutting-edge, new approaches, practices, systems and solutions to tackle the most complex challenges facing humanity today. As a not-for-profit 501(c)3 enterprising think tank, Leonardo offers a global platform for creative exploration and collaboration reaching tens of thousands of people across 135 countries. Our flagship publication, Leonardo, the world’s leading scholarly journal on transdisciplinary art, anchors a robust publishing partnership with MIT Press; our partnership with ASU infuses educational innovation with digital art and media for lifelong learning; our creative programs span thought-provoking events, exhibits, residencies and fellowships, scholarship and social enterprise ventures.
HTC VIVE ARTS
VIVE Arts' mission is to enable experimentation in preserving cultural heritage for the world and to democratize creation through digital innovation in the arts. VIVE Arts harnesses cutting-edge technology to transform the way culture is made, shared, and experienced. Over the past six years, VIVE Arts has pioneered the use of immersive technologies in the art and culture sector, inspiring boundary-pushing artists, creators and leading international institutions to use VR, AR, XR, AI and blockchain for the first time, creating ground-breaking digital artworks and experiences. A leader in the art and technology space, VIVE Arts develops digital innovation projects which preserve the world’s heritage and culture, offering new ways to engage and extend access to wider audiences.
VIVERSE is an open and user-centric 3D place that connects people from all walks of life to a boundless virtual world. We strive to empower as many people as possible to explore, work, and play in a safe environment. Every experience is unique, and your transactions and data are secure. VIVERSE provides an array of tools and services for individuals, creators, corporations, and developers to build and explore in this immersive space.
New Art City
New Art City is a virtual exhibition toolkit for new media art with a focus on copresence and experiencing digital art together. Shows are real-time multiplayer and accessed using a web browser on computer or mobile device, with no need to register, install extra software or enter any personal information. Using built-in tools to manage artworks and space layouts, curators and organizers can create a show and hold a virtual exhibition online. Participants can attend virtual openings together, chat and see each other moving around the space while experiencing digital art in its original format. Team Our creative team is d0n.xyz, Benny Lichtner, Martin Mudenda Bbela, Sammie Veeler and Kat Sung.
Meyer Sound was founded in 1979 to create the best sonic experiences possible, built on scientific innovation and quality engineering. At the heart is a passion for quality, ensuring that every paper cone, circuit board, and driver is handcrafted to meet our extremely demanding standard. We continuously analyze production methods and material selection and exercise exhaustive quality control behind the legendary unit-to-unit consistency, reliability, and longevity of Meyer Sound products. The end result? Pure, honest sound.
Indira Allegra is the founder of Indira Allegra Studio - a performative craft design studio using weaving as a ritual action and a conceptual framework to craft living structures off the loom and in the world. As a recognized leader within the field of performative craft, Allegra investigates cycles of death memorial and regeneration. A living structure can be performed as a memorial, a text or the movement of human and non-human behavior across a rolling planet. Allegra's work has been featured in ARTFORUM, Art Journal, BOMB Magazine, SF Chronicle and KQED and in exhibitions at the Museum of Arts and Design, the Arts Incubator in Chicago, Center for Craft Creativity and Design, John Michael Kohler Arts Center, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Museum of the African Diaspora among others. Allegra's writing has been featured in Theater, TEXTILE: Cloth and Culture, American Craft Magazine, Manual: A Journal About Art & Its Making, Cream City Review and Foglifter Journal among others. They have been the recipient of numerous awards including the United States Artists Fellowship, Burke Prize, Gerbode Choreographer Award, Art Matters Fellowship, Mike Kelley Artist Project Grant, Lambda Literary Fellowship and Joseph Henry Jackson Literary Award.
Melissa Malzkuhn is an activist, academic, artist, and digital strategist with a love for language play, interactive experiences, and community-based change. She founded and leads creative research and development at Motion Light Lab, at a Gallaudet University research center. The Lab uses creative literature and digital technology techniques to create immersive learning experiences- from storybook apps that have been translated into over 20 international languages to motion capture projects that build signing avatars- all of which expand the 3D experiences for deaf children, visual learners, and more. Melissa is a cofounder of CREST Network, focusing on equity and inclusion of deaf people in sign language technology. Her production company Ink & Salt developed an app to teach American Sign Language, The ASL App, which has been downloaded over 3 million times. Third-generation Deaf, she has organized deaf youth and worked with international deaf youth programs, fostering leadership and self-representation. Now, she collaborates with teams in different countries to support literacy development for deaf children and collaborates with multiple organizations. Melissa started a campaign, Hu - To Sign Is Human, through screen printing to continue positive advocacy for language access for all deaf children. Her work has been recognized nationally and internationally. She is an Obama Fellow, inaugural class 2018, and has been recognized as a leading social entrepreneur by Ashoka, in 2020. She resides in Maryland with her family.
Nat Decker (they/them) is a Chicago born, Los Angeles based artist. In June 2022 they graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles with a degree in Design/Media Arts and Disability Studies. Weaving these two fields, they work within the realm of disability arts as an inherently political practice, driven by the personal, and desires for care and collective liberation. Employing digital and sculptural mediums, they explore the aesthetics of access, the intimacies of lived experience, technology and crip fantasy. They use the mobility device as a site of crip narrative, reimagining the wheelchairs, walkers, scooters, canes they use each day with fluid impractical form, vivid celebratory color and questions about desirability. With Cielo Saucedo, they are creating a web archive of digital disabled embodiment, offering a repository of disability related 3D assets, avatars and motion-capture.
For more information about the artist cohort, please visit the CripTech Metaverse Lab website.
About Gray Area
Gray Area is a San Francisco-based nonprofit cultural incubator. Our mission is to cultivate, sustain, and apply antidisciplinary collaboration — integrating art, technology, science, and the humanities — towards a more sustainable and equitable future. Since our inception in 2008, Gray Area has established itself as a singular hub for critically engaging with technology in the Bay Area, while also reaching a global audience. Through our platform of public events, education, and research programs, we empower a diverse community of creative practitioners with the agency to produce meaningful, category-defying work.
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