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Kotz Cornejo Wins Grant to Make Virtual Reality Documentary

woman setting up camera on museum steps
VMA Chair Cristina Kotz Cornejo sets up her gear while filming Magic in the Desert last year. Photo/Maria Beatriz Del Rio

Visual and Media Arts (VMA) Chair Cristina Kotz Cornejo was in Patagonia last spring when COVID-19 began tearing through country after country.

She was on a Presidential Leave from Emerson to do research for her latest project, a virtual reality/augmented reality film examining a complicated and difficult chapter in Argentina’s history.

She had to cut her research trip short and head back to Buenos Aires, and eventually Boston, as the pandemic gripped much of the world. But she got some good news last week, when the Online News Association (ONA) and Knight Foundation awarded Kotz Cornejo and her production company, Wild Wimmin Films, a $10,000 Journalism 360 Challenge Award for Magic in the Desert.

“The challenge now is going to be moving the project forward without being able to travel back to Patagonia in the near future,” Kotz Cornejo said. “This generous award, along with a Faculty Advancement Fund Grant I was awarded, will help facilitate the work. I am grateful to Lee [Pelton, president] and Michaele [Whelan, provost] for their continued support.”

Magic in the Desert is a virtual exploration of the history of Argentina’s attempt to form its national identity on the extermination of the Indigenous people during the rise of physical anthropology and racial science theories in the mid-19th to early-20th century.

Two women, backs to camera, on museum steps
VMA Associate Professor Anya Belkina, left, and Kotz Cornejo at the La Plata Museum in June 2019. Photo/Maria Beatriz Del Rio

The film is centered on Cacique (Chief) Antonio Modesto Inacayal, a leader of the Mapuche-Tehuelche people. Inacayal was taken prisoner in 1884, held with his family, and died in captivity as part of Buenos Aires’ Museum of la Plata’s anthropological “collection,” Kotz Cornejo explained.

Magic in the Desert is Kotz Cornejo’s first immersive film, but it’s a medium she’s been exploring for a few years. In 2018, she attended the Sundance Film Festival specifically to experience the VR/MR films exhibited.

“I became convinced that the project I was exploring was not only best suited to a 360[-degree] spatial experience, but that interactivity within this spatial world could create a deeper and more impactful connection to the subject matter,” she said. 

Kotz Cornejo has been collaborating with VMA Associate Professor Anya Belkina, an artist/animator, on the project. Belkina traveled to Argentina in June 2019 to visit the Museum of la Plata and conduct some tests with the Leica BLK360 scanner that the department purchased for Emerson’s Emerging Media Lab.

The Journalism 360 Challenge Award looks to support projects and best practices in immersive journalism. Magic in the Desert was one of 12 projects from around the world selected for a grant.

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