Last year One to One Development Trust were commissioned by Platform8/Jumped Up Theatre to run an arts project and Virtual Reality experience we devised called The Dreamcatcher. The brief was to gather people’s aspirations and dreams about Peterborough – a cathedral city in Cambridgeshire, England – through audio, film, creative interventions and social media, and then to weave it all into an interactive digital art installation.

The project launched on Wednesday 8th November 2017 at the Undercroft in Hampton, a unique theatre space managed by Eastern Angles tucked away beneath Serpentine Green, an enormous shopping centre. Thanks to additional hardware support from the Innovation Lab at Allia Future Business Centre, it was also on exhibit via gaming laptops with glowing rainbow-coloured keyboards and VR headsets for several days afterwards – open to the public, free to view and experience.

The Dreamcatcher’s community-centric roots, unusual venue (which was beautifully decorated as part of the project by Rose Croft with enormous hanging hand-made dreamcatchers) and free-to-strap-to-your-face high-end VR tech attracted audiences that were often completely unfamiliar with digital art, never mind Virtual Reality.

From families who had been involved in the project through to interested local artists, musicians, producers and writers, to teens in hoodies who’d accidentally discovered the Undercroft by zoning down the wrong shopping centre escalator whilst gazing at their phone screens, we saw engagement with the installation we’d produced in unexpected and inspiring ways.

The Dreamcatcher is a realtime 3D application built with Unity that takes a series of films, texts, audio clips and scanned artworks – collected and curated thoughout the duration of the project via workshops, festivals and filming sessions – and displays them within a virtual environment divided into four aspirational ‘zones’.

An enormous floating Dreamcatcher riddled with interactive coloured ‘beads’ provides the central focus for triggering ‘experiences’ that could be made up of any one or more of these media components. The result is an often surreal but always smile-inducing medley of voices that start to build up a colourful and engaging picture of the collective dreams and aspirations of contributorsĀ from one the UK’s fastest growing and most diverse cities.

One school child’s dream was to simply ‘live in a house filled with pink butterflies’ – we managed to realise that. Another young person’s dream was to swim with sea creatures – we pulled that off too. These dreamers were able to attend the event with their families and experience the results for themselves.

More complex dreams and aspirations revolved around wanting to feel a sense of belonging and inclusion within local communities – we explored these issues. One atmospheric, wintry VR scene involves the appearance of a ‘red hand’ floating above clusters of houses, a symbol that was once, we discovered, painted on select doors of houses on a new 70’s housing estate to support an influx of 20,000 people moving to the ‘new city’ from London. The red hand symbol on doors in Bretton represented an openness of neighbours offering help if you needed it.

The exhibition pulled in a large cross-section of ages, backgrounds and abilities. The fact that the digital projection and VR experience required no goals to be won, no missions to be accomplished, to tasks to be completed – that it was simply an ‘exhibit’ in itself to float around and explore – seemed to work for it rather than against it.

Fascinatingly, even though we’d presented many of the gathered dreams and aspirations as swirling animated texts rather than every one of them as fully realised experiences (we had to draw the line somewhere and had accumulated over 450 dreams) we found that the majority of people actually took the time to read these texts – even quite young children – and that the flowing movement of language only encouraged reading to happen rather than distracted from it.Ā The ‘reader’ became physically immersed in the text as it literally weaved around their body,

What also struck us was that we weren’t seeing the same old faces in the crowd – this wasn’t an experience that was preaching to the converted or an academic conference where we were going to be asked what we thought about multimodal polylinear digital narratives. Our audience represented the demographic diversity of the local community and included experienced gamers like young men who play Resident Evil 7 on Playstation VR, through to older people who were curious, children and families and random shoppers. We were also pleased to welcome a group of deaf and hard of hearing adults.

There was a warm reception, a genuine interest, curiousness and enthusiasm, perhaps because of the pride, ownership and sense of inclusion invoked by actually talking to and working with the people involved.

For more information about Dreamcatcher visit www.onetoonedevelopment.org/portfolio/dreamcatcher/

Co-written with Judi Alston. Photography by Tom Byron