Virtual MLK Review

Extra-Textual Project Review: NCSU’s VirtualMLK

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to look into a project from my own discipline, namely the ever so rare rhetoric Digital Humanities project. The VirtualMLK project is a historical recreation that utilizes 3-D visualization technology to map and recreating the audio from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “A Creative Protest” speech delivered in 1960 in Durham, North Carolina. The project exists in three phases, the audio, the website for circulation, and an immersive lab experience. The project included an installation to experience audio and visual of the speech, a reenactment, and audio and video recordings posted on the website. These recordings allows users to listen to recordings of audio that differs based on where in the Church audience members would have been sitting. Additional resources include historical background, and pedagogical resources based on the project.

As there was no audio record of the speech, the team worked from pamphlets of the speech and hired an audio actor who delivered the speech for the original congregation at White Rock Baptist. They recorded audio from this performance, where audience members were encouraged to participate, as well as from studio recordings. Research is Phase 3 has yet to be completed, but will involved a virtual model in the lab.

A litany of labor (and laborers) is both explicit and implicit in the description of the project. To the former, the VirtualMLK project emerges from collaboration between the Department of Communication at North Carolina State University, the North Carolina Humanities Council and the NCSU libraries, though the degree to which these agencies are involved were unclear. The about page lists Professor Victoria Gallagher as the principal investigator, along with another faculty member and two graduate students as part of the Research Team, though their role is not delineated. “Contributors” include the White Rock Church and three community members. Though not on the same page, the website also leverages the “authenticity” of audience participation in the recordings. The contextual background links to an article from Professor Gallagher, as well as another faculty member and graduate student who are not listed as part of Phase 1. Though the project website emphasizes the audio and visual techniques, reference to research weaves throughout the site but is not as clearly articulated as part of the labor. In general, it seems likely significant research would be need to find artifacts about the speech delivery, the study of other audio recordings of MLK, consultation with community members who were at the speech (as mentioned on the website). This kind of project is far outside the realm of my expertise, and I would be interested in what kinds of more traditional research (and non) would be necessary to attempt a kind of accurate recreation. It is unclear whether any specialists were involved in audio production, the website itself, or the visualizations.

Phase 2 of the project involved the creation of a website to share the audio for “scholars, students, and citizens to explore.” Interestingly though, the project seems to have circulated primarily through regional press. The speech they chose was delivered locally and phase three focuses on creating a lab space to create an “immersive experience” through which to interact with the speech aimed at local community members and students. Despite the digital component, the primary audience seems to be a substantially local one. The project has also involved public events for the local audience.

In the most simplistic sense, projects like VirtualMLK demonstrate a kind of success in use. The local emphasis might allow for a pedagogical use for student field trips, etc. In a more ambitious sense, projects like this have some potential to push forward our understanding of historical public address in interesting ways. The project is interesting for its capacity both to function as a tool for community and pedagogical outreach on a significant figure in the field, but also for what it might tell us about delivery in a historical event. The project coordinators emphasize the historical significance of the speech—for his endorsement of non-violent direct action, the local significance to the Church, and the potential it held to explore digital methods. Trying to merge digital humanities and rhetorical research questions is an explicit part of how the project is framed. Though the project and author escape me at the moment (help Paul!), there is another project that proceeded focused on a kind of digital public address that represents a strictly digital recreation of the visual and audio of a Roman forum. The common narrative about this project is that what it reveals is very few people would have actually been able to hear a speaker.