W.A.N.T // We Are Not Them

Atif Ahmad

A large scale interactive video installation that explores the conversation around contemporary Muslim life in the U.S.

W.A.N.T, an acronym for We Are Not Them, is an experience that contributes positive imagery to the conversation of Muslims in contemporary America. Over a decade after September 11th, 2001, our community still struggles to break away from the negative associations of that tragic event. W.A.N.T aims to change that.

This project is an experiment in creating a better understanding of Muslims in America by asking people to recognized, engage and listen. W.A.N.T is designed to start a dialogue and in essence showcases the rich personality and diversity within this community through interactive video portraits and stories.

My research process started out by cataloging every instance of Muslim injustice in America post September 11th, 2001. As expected, there were a variety of different type of injustices and realized that I would have to narrow my focus. I started by talking to Muslim community leaders and educators. My most significant contact was Khalid Latif, the Executive Director and Chaplin at the NYU Islamic Center. He guided me and put me in touch with many people who helped shape this project. The most valuable feedback I received from him was that one of the biggest problems in the U.S. after 9/11 was that there was no strong Muslim organization that non Muslims could turn to in order to start a conversation that would result in easing tensions, creating a better understanding or collaborating in a way that would help us move in a positive direction. This is something that he is working on changing and I am inspired to as well.

I also learned that there isn't enough work being done by individuals in the Muslim community that add positive imagery to the diluted and mostly negative conversation around contemporary Muslims in America. This is mainly why I felt the responsibility to do this.

My research process continued by me conducting interviews, photographing and videotaping individuals from the Muslim community. All the content I gathered helped shape the way the project ended up being.

I knew very early on that this piece was going to be large as I wanted the characters in the projection to be life sized. I did not want to project on a wall because I feel it would take away from the feeling that you are standing in front of someone. Also standing infront of a projection meant that I would have to rear project.

It was clear to me that I would have to construct a large frame and wrap it in a fabric that I could rear project on. I used 2"x4" pieces of wood and constructed a frame that was 16 feet wide and 7 feet high and wrapped it with spandex that was thin enough the rear project on.

I used a processing sketch that did people tracking with the Kinect to identify which character the viewer will be standing in front. Once the sketch identified a viewer infront of one of the characters in the projection it would trigger Jitter to change the state of the video portrait from blurry to sharp.

I learned that you have to trust your process and take your time. Not to force inspiration and to be ready to act on it when it does come. Many times throughout this process I was forcing myself and knew that I was being counter productive. I also learned the value in exposing yourself to as much artwork as you can. To constantly be going to galleries and museums, not only to look at work but to also understand concept and process.

The topic of my project is very closely tied to politics and I was able to make a statement without being highly political. This was something I tried not to give much thought to but am very please it turned out the way it did.

The 5 characters in the projection were all friends and family of mine. I kept it this way for the first version so that I could take myself through the process from start to finish and work out any bugs I may have. The next set of characters will be prominent people from this community, mainly contributors, artists, activists, and community leader.

Because of the scale of the piece I was only able to keep it on display for a few hours. My next steps are to find it a home where it can live for a few weeks and get as much exposure as it can. Only a small group of people were able to test and use it and because of that what I learned was limited. I hope to continue to iterate on this project based on what I continue to learn.

Though I realized this a long time ago, thesis reiterated that there are very few things that are impossible. The limit of how far I can push myself is always further than I think it is.