Meet the Art Co-Op Amplifying Black Voices in VR
What do earthquakes and indigenous oral traditions have to do with funding gaps faced by Black virtual-reality artists? As Lauren Ruffin, founder of Black VR organization Crux, will tell you, more than you might think.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, a series of discoveries allowed geologists and seismologists to pinpoint one of the largest earthquakes in history down to its date, magnitude and duration, despite it having hit nearly 300 years prior. It was only years later that researchers decided to analyze Native American stories of earthquakes in the same region, handed down orally by generation — studies that pointed them to a remarkably accurate date range.
Clearly, they should have considered those stories much sooner.
For Ruffin, the tale illustrates a failure on the part of researchers to expand their frameworks, to recognize relevance where it plainly stands. It’s a shortcoming she sees in her own field, as someone committed to helping VR, XR and AR creators from marginalized communities secure funding for their projects.
“When do we get to a place when Black, brown and queer creators don’t have to make our stories legible to white funders?” she said. “I think half the time people get no’s because white people can’t see themselves in the story, or they can’t see where the audience is.”
A Note About Terminology:
- Virtual reality (VR) refers to fully immersive virtual experiences. It’s the one that requires a headset.
- Augmented reality (AR) refers to computer-generated visuals blended with real-world environments. Pokémon GO remains the most famous example.
- Extended reality (XR) reality is a catchall term for any combination of real-world and virtual environments. It encompasses both virtual reality and augmented reality.
From Roger Ross Williams’ Traveling While Black to Hyphen Labs’ NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, virtual reality projects by Black creators have received notable coverage and accolades in recent years, but making those projects happen can be difficult.
The watershed 2011 report Fusing Art, Culture and Social Change found that distribution of funds to arts institutions was “demonstrably out of balance” with demographics. A 2017 follow-up determined that the problem had only worsened.
A 15-year fundraising veteran, who also heads up marketing and underwriting for Fractured Atlas, the country’s largest arts sponsor, Ruffin has seen the problem firsthand.
“That kind of fuzziness around how dollars end up in hands — those things are hard to see, but they’re there.”
One example? Scrutiny over debt when fundraising. “White organizations don’t get dinged [by program officers] for having debt,” she said. But organizations led by people of color face greater scrutiny for their debt, in her experience.
“That kind of fuzziness around how dollars end up in hands — those things are hard to see, but they’re there,” she added.
The Crux of the Mission
Crux takes a multi-pronged approach to supporting to Black virtual reality creators. It’s part producer, part virtual events platform and part fundraiser.
“Our work is not straightforward, because there’s so much need — and it’s a population of creators that, candidly, no one else is really focusing on doing the deep work with,” said Ruffin.
Inequity manifests itself in a few ways in the virtual-reality world, Ruffin said, including hardware design that suits certain facial structures better than others and — in some VR games — lingering bugs that allow for abusive interactions. But funding disparities top her list of concerns.
“Our work is not straightforward, because there’s so much need — and it’s a population of creators that, candidly, no one else is really focusing on doing the deep work with.”
Last year, the organization hosted two salons that brought together traditional philanthropic investors with Black artists. Crux has since been able to facilitate some $750,000 from funders to Black XR/VR creators. Among the projects in the works are a large-scale, immersive public-art project focused on radical Black movements in the U.S., in partnership with Metastage. Crux also functions as a cooperative, with a small percentage of member earnings going into a fund to support future projects.
One artist with whom Crux works is Alton Glass, the “godfather of Black VR,” as Ruffin describes him. Glass co-created The March, perhaps the most noteworthy virtual-reality experience of 2020, about Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the 1963 March on Washington. The project was co-produced by TIME magazine and Viola Davis’ JuVee Productions, and premiered at the DuSable Museum of African American History, in Chicago, in February. (The museum remains temporarily closed due to the pandemic. Chicago museums can reopen with attendance restrictions as of June 26, but DuSable has not yet announced its return date.)
Glass said Crux has been instrumental in helping him fine-tune his approach to fundraising and finding best-fit partnerships.
“One thing I learned from them is, if I really think about my project carefully and who’s in alignment with a particular type of project, funding is a lot more clear,” he said.
“Being just an artist — I respect just an artist — but if you want to get your projects funded, you want to think like a business, so that you can properly align your projects, get the right funding and not spend five years working on something,” he said.
It’s easier than ever to get work done from a nuts-and-bolts perspective. Technological advances and tools like Adobe Aero have helped democratize production and lowered barriers of entry in XR. There are even numerous potential avenues for funding. But finding those opportunities for “alignment” remains critical, he said.
Glass knows a thing or two about entrepreneurial self-motivation. He founded his own janitorial company after moving to Los Angeles, where he studied cinematography while also networking, volunteering on projects and running the business. He even convinced decision-makers at DreamWorks, where he was contracted to clean a set, to let him work with the director of photography on the film in production.
But he also knows the importance of community support and direction. Director Michael Schultz (Cooley High, Car Wash) was an early mentor, and Glass owes his transition from traditional filmmaking to VR to one particularly strong-minded former manager. He dropped Glass as a client when he didn’t immediately take his advice to shift to VR.
Now he finds (far more constructive) support with Crux, which he describes as a “thinkubator.” “They’ve really been instrumental in bringing artists together, so you can hack away at different solutions, find the right collaborations or help you raise funding.”
A New Reality
Crux, as initially conceived, was to be more distribution-focused. Ruffin envisioned “the BET of VR.” They were even close to inking a deal with Emmy-winning VR studio Secret Location to white label the content distribution platform VUSR.
“But then COVID hit,” she said. “And we pivoted to really thinking about how we can support the community and creators directly.”
Along with fundraising and producing, that means a greater focus on helping organizations stage virtual events. Crux is building a virtual space for Howard University’s Institute of intellectual property and social justice to host events that connect black creators with legal counsel specializing in intellectual property law. The collective also produced a piece for Black Public Media’s recent Story Summit.
Organizations that had little interest in virtualizing their events, but suddenly had no choice, are also beginning to see the long-term value, Ruffin said.
It altered Glass’ approach, too. He’s now working on ways to build engaging, interactive online experiences to supplement what was originally intended only to be a location-based experience, and TIME is exploring ways to create ancillary experiences for The March. “Now we’re thinking about how to build out a project’s universe,” he said. “What are your touchpoints beyond just VR?”
“I think it’s AR’s time to shine.”
On the whole, the pandemic has been good for the consumer-focused virtual-reality industry — no surprise — although a dearth of supply likely stunted what would have been even greater growth. And Ruffin, too, has seen a spike in inbound interest. But with some consumers holding on tight to any disposable income they might have and headsets still stuck in backorder limbo, she also sees a wider opening for augmented reality. “I think it’s AR’s time to shine,” she said, be it narrative, experiential, educational or other.
Whatever the future holds, Ruffin feels well-positioned having embedded her values into the business structure. “Building a community and audience at the same time as building a business, makes it really easy to find product market fit,” she said.