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09 ноября 2016, 05:18

Meeting ‘the Other’ Face to Face

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Sitting in a conference room at a hotel near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology here, I slip on large headphones and an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and wriggle into the straps of a backpack, weighed down with a computer and a battery. It feels as if I were getting ready for a spacewalk or a deep-sea dive.

But when I stand, I quickly find myself in a featureless all-white room, a kind of Platonic vestibule. On the walls at either end are striking poster-size black-and-white portraits taken by the noted Belgian-Tunisian photographer Karim Ben Khelifa, one showing a young Israeli soldier and another a Palestinian fighter about the same age, whose face is almost completely hidden by a black hood.

Then the portraits disappear, replaced by doors, which open. In walk the two combatants — Abu Khaled, a fighter for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Gilad Peled, an Israeli soldier — seeming, except for a little pixelation and rigid body movement, like flesh-and-blood people who are actually in the room with me.

Their presence, in a deeply affecting experiment in communication, called “The Enemy,” underway at M.I.T., is the result of a collaboration between Mr. Ben Khelifa and Fox Harrell, an associate professor of digital media. It holds the promise of opening up new frontiers for the integration of journalism and art in a socially oriented 21st-century performance piece poised at technology’s cutting edge.

The Enemy - Teaser VR, mixed and AR experiences - english and french subtitles Video by The Enemy is here

The work grows out of more than half a century of collaborations between the world of art and the worlds of science and technology, spurred by pioneers like Experiments in Art and Technology, begun in 1967 by the Bell Labs engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer and the artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman. M.I.T. has been at the forefront of such cross-pollination, which has taken off at schools around the world in recent years.

In an interview before I experienced the virtual reality environment, Mr. Ben Khelifa, 44, said the idea emerged from a frustration that deepened over almost 20 years he spent as a photojournalist covering strife — often entrenched, interminable warfare — mostly in the Middle East. “Being a Tunisian growing up in Belgium, I think I always felt like I was wearing two different kinds of shoes,” he said. “In Iraq and Afghanistan, I could sometimes see things about fighters on both sides of the conflict that some other Europeans couldn’t.”

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