Camosun College is Working to Make Witness Blanket Accessible to the World

Camosun College is sending an expert team from its applied research centre to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) in Winnipeg, where they will spend several days scanning Victoria artist Carey Newman’s Witness Blanket as they prepare to create a universally accessible experience in virtual reality (VR).

Inspired by traditional woven blankets, The Witness Blanket is a large-scale art installation (twelve meters long) made from over 800 items reclaimed from residential schools, churches, government buildings, friendship centres, treatment centres, and post secondary institutions across Canada. It is a national monument designed to recognise and commemorate the trauma of the residential school era (1870 to 1996) and to support ongoing efforts towards truth, justice and reconciliation.

Camosun Innovates, the regional applied research and development hub within Camosun College, is sending a team that includes Applied Research Technologist Matt Zeleny and Visual Arts student Louise Black, a member of the Tsawout First Nation. They will be on the ground in Winnipeg scanning the artwork the week of Feb. 17.

The result will be a point-cloud rendering of the original, which will be used to create a VR experience that enables people to engage with the rich narratives embedded within each of the blanket’s artifacts and objects.

“It’s an enormous project, and comes with great honour and great weight,” says Black. “It is important to reach an understanding of present and future, through an understanding of the past. It is a principle that carries through in my own artwork and one that is central to The Witness Blanket.”

“We are privileged to be involved with The Witness Blanket, which is not only a powerful work of art, but also a visceral and moving vehicle for knowing and understanding the residential schools experience,” says Dr. Richard Gale, Director of Camosun Innovates. “Our team has been planning this project for more than a year, collaborating with Carey Newman, Media One, and the museum, to create a new kind of experience of the entire artwork and its artifacts. By harnessing the power of virtual reality, more people than ever before can interact with the Witness Blanket and learn about the dark legacy of residential schools and the restorative power of reconciliation.”

Artist and University of Victoria professor Carey Newman, whose traditional name is Hayalthkin’geme, is the creative force behind the Witness Blanket. His voice and experience has been present in the museum installation and the online presence, and he is key to the success of Camosun’s VR project.

“As I was making this work, I dreamt of bringing it back to every community that the pieces came from, but even after over four years of touring there are still many places left to go,” says Newman. “When I was approached about this idea, I was excited, because not only do I think that creating a virtual 3D model and environment of this artwork is extremely cool on a technical level, I could immediately see the potential to follow through on that initial dream. This project has always been about sharing truth, and this will help to further that goal.”

Media One, a Victoria-based full-scale video production and design agency, has created a documentary film and an interactive website for viewing the work, and they continue to be involved in developing additional content that will be included as part of the VR experience. CMHR has a team dedicated to the preservation and display of The Witness Blanket, and they are working with Camosun Innovates to offer the VR experience in both official languages.

To bear witness, or to honour by one’s presence, is a form of paying tribute. Experiencing the Witness Blanket, now part of the permanent collection of the CMHR, is a way of honouring the memories of residential school survivors and their families.

“I had the good fortune to see The Witness Blanket when it first toured the country, to stand before it and marvel at its scale, to sit beside it and feel the impact of its stories,” says Dr. Gale.

“We have an opportunity to bring this experience to all Canadians, all Indigenous peoples, and in so doing to promote the values of truth and reconciliation around the world. This is more than a collaborative VR project; it is a dramatic opportunity to change our collective future.”

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Original article from Camosun College