The young woman in front of me looks like she’s not fully downloaded.
She’s a hologram, but still, she looks more pixelated than she has to be. She consists of what appears to be green rays of light and moving boxes of pixels. She’s gradually losing and gaining physical form, going from almost transparent to nearly tactile before my eyes.
My first impulse is to say, “Hi! Where are you from?” but I stick to the script and ask to see her passport instead. I’m playing the part of a U.S. immigration officer in an airport. The hologram I’m interviewing is called Aisha.
All of this is taking place in a sterile white room in the Barbican Centre in central London. But the real action is taking place inside a Microsoft HoloLens. I’m experiencing ‘Terminal 3’, an interactive augmented reality documentary created and directed by AR artist Asad J. Malik.
The objective of ‘Terminal 3’ is to explore contemporary Muslim identities in the U.S. as well as the power dynamic at play in immigration interrogations, 22-year-old Malik told Mashable
The headset keeps making me choose between two lines to say to the holographic woman who just walked into my field of vision. I choose “How did your parents meet?” over “What is that on your arm?”
Aisha responds with the story of how her parents met in a restaurant, and it sounds like she’s right there in front of me.
This advanced augmented reality (AR) technology allows for an interactive experience where the viewer (in this case, me) is in control of the narrative. It’s different from virtual reality (VR) because it introduces virtual elements into a “real” setting, rather than immersing the viewer in a virtual world.
The inspiration comes from Malik’s own experience of being questioned by airport immigration officers. “I’m from Pakistan and I travel a good bit, and frequently I’m taken into a secondary screening room to figure out more about why I’m traveling to a certain country,” says Malik.
He calls his experiences with airport interrogations “generally uncomfortable.” “You’re put in this position where you have to prove yourself, you kind of have to prove your own humanity.”
The evidence that Muslims face discrimination when travelling by airplane is not just anecdotal. According to the UK organisation Faith Matters, which works to reduce extremism, people of colour are at least 37 times more likely to be detained at a port or airport in Britain than a white person. And an Asian person is 79 times more likely to be detained. That’s based on figure released in 2015 by the Home Office.
The perils of what has been dubbed “flying while muslim” are not just limited to hour-long interrogations. There are examples of Muslims being asked to leave aircrafts, allegedly for things like sending texts in Arabic, wearing headscarves or even sweating.
But for Malik, his airport experiences have not always been negative, he insists. “It’s also something I look forward to at times,” he says. “It’s interesting being able to sit down and talk about yourself to someone who’s professionally supposed to figure you out. Those moments are just so interesting that I wanted to recreate them.”
“It’s interesting being able to sit down and talk about yourself to someone who’s professionally supposed to figure you out.
While Malik’s own story isn’t featured in the documentary, all the stories presented by the holograms in ‘Terminal 3’ are based on real-life interactions. None of it is scripted, says Malik.
The holograms are all of people “perceived to be Muslim,” meaning that they are people from Muslim-majority countries or have parents that grew up there, Malik explains. “You go in with this expectation of them being Muslim.”
The timing of the piece seems almost too pointed to be coincidental, given the Trump administration’s radical immigration policies of family separation not to mention the travel ban which prohibited travellers from selected Muslim majority countries entry into the U.S.
But Malik insists that ‘Terminal 3’ is not a response to the current political situation. “I usually don’t like to talk about Trump directly, but that is something that comes to people’s minds when they experience the piece,” he says.
While the topic of airport immigration might not be triggering to the average viewer, the responses from audience members have been emotional, according to Malik. “A lot of people come out really moved after going through the whole experience and all the shifts in the power dynamic,” Malik explains.
When forced by the headset to subject their hologram interviewees to all sorts of personal questions, people really feel like they get to know their virtual interviewees, Malik explains.
“People come out feeling that they know some intimate details about them and then here they were, asking all these questions that were incredibly prejudiced,” he said. ‘“A lot of people would come out and say: ‘Oh, I would never want this job.’”
Admittedly, that’s precisely what I’m thinking as I get deeper and deeper into ‘Terminal 3’ and my interview with Aisha. We’re eight minutes into the interrogation and I know how her parents met, that she identifies as a spiritual Muslim. We even covered the subject of poetry.
The further we delve into our conversation, the more out of place it feels when the headset suddenly tells me to ask Aisha about whether she is connected to the Taliban. It feels searing and insensitive.
The longer we talk, I notice, the more opaque and less blurred my holographic interviewee becomes. This symbolism is simple yet powerful — she’s becoming more real, more tangible, more human.
Aisha isn’t just rays of light and blobs of pixels. She’s human.
‘Terminal 3’ is running at the Barbican Centre until 16 Sep 2018.
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