Alternative Narratives, Memory & Healing Through Dance and the Digital Civic Space

Can technologies of virtual and augmented reality re-inscribe historical sites with an alternative history and become a moment of celebration for the cultures that were damaged by this history?

This Ideas Exchange was prompted by the drive to share knowledge, inform, challenge, and create an alternative perspective and narrative regarding Bristol and its connection to Transatlantic enslavement and its legacy. The aim was to approach memorialisation, memory, and healing through dance to address the contested histories of Bristol, one of considerable note being the Colston Statue which was almost awarded a new plaque during the year of this Ideas Exchange (2019).

What did the project involve? 

The researchers sought to utilise technology and content to demonstrate alternative narratives and visual options. An example of this the team considered was to create a virtual alternative to the proposed Colston plaque. Through an app and a user’s phone camera the text of the plaque could be re-inscribed with an alternative history and become a moment of celebration for the cultures that were damaged by this history by prompting a video of various West African dance. This could be trialed and tested at other sites/monuments/objects/spaces all included together to form a mini tour.

The researchers intended to form a partnership with Legon to work with a specialist in African dance and would sit on the project with the context of the UN Decade of People of African Descent. The hope was to not only have cultural dance forms represented on film but also to encourage viewers to partake in the movement inspired by what they see to use active movement to contest the passive historic narratives of memorialisation.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Jessica Moody (History, University of Bristol) expert in the field of memory, public history, and heritage particularly in histories of enslavement, empire, and colonialism, as well as creative forms of memorialisation and counter-memorialisation. Find her research profile here.
  • Cleo Lake (Black* Artists on the Move) politician, former Mayor of Bristol, councillor, social justice activist and campaigner. She brings civic overview as well as creative brokerage and project management capabilities to the project. Cleo Lake’s Website.
  • Olivette Otele (History, University of Bristol) Professor of the History of Slavery, Vice President of the Royal Historical Society and Chair of Bristol’s Race Equality Commission. She is an expert in French and British colonial pasts and the interactions of history, memory, and geopolitics. Olivette Otele’s Website.
  • Kwesi Johnson (The Cultural Assembly) Creative Director and Movement Specialist with over 25 years of dance and choreography experience. His role involves structural, digital, technical, and creative direction.  Kwesi Johnson’s Website.

What were the results?

The team were able to develop this idea and were successful in being awarded a UKRI Citizen Science Grant to carry out the project (alongside three other projects).

UK Research and Innovation: We are Bristol Reparative justice through collaborative research.

This research in turn led to the We Are Bristol History Commission, which conducted a Colston statue and plinth report, surveying nearly 14,000 people on their “views to help shape the future of the statue, the plinth, and the city’s efforts to process and understand recent history as well as the events that have led us to who we are today”.