'Unlocking The Cage' - An immersive exploration of the forgotten women that helped shape modern literature

After several years of development at dBs Pro, augmented reality exhibition 'Unlocking The Cage' is poised to launch. We speak with some of the creative team to discover how this ambitious and important project came to life. 

Based on an idea developed by award-winning author and Creative Writing lecturer Kim Sherwood and commissioned by Libraries Unlimited, 'Unlocking The Cage' utilises augmented reality, immersive sound and animated illustrations to tell the story of some of the most important, yet forgotten, female figures in literature from the 18th and 20th century.

While the project officially began production in 2020 on the eve of the pandemic, the initial concept had been with Kim for many years. 

"I've always been interested in history and how history impacts us in the present. Coming up through the education system, so many of the writers that we studied were male. There wasn't a sense of being able to connect to a female history of literature through the education that I undertook, but there were these gaps and I was curious as to what filled them."

A potrait picture of author and creative writing lecturer Kim Sherwood (Photo credit - Francesco Guidicini)Over the years after leaving university, Kim began pursuing the subject and uncovered these silenced histories, and so when Libraries Unlimited put out an open call for a creative intervention of their rare books collection - 'the Cage' - Kim had to answer.  

"I saw this call and immediately became really excited, because I love libraries and archives. I began to read through the catalogue to see who was there, and which books they had. And what struck me on reading through was just how few books there were by women. There are about 800 books in the Cage and as far as I'm aware, eight of them are by women. 

"I looked closer at the eight that were there and I realised it was possible to tell a different story, because these eight books are not only by some of the most important writers of the 18th century, they are also by some of our most important women writers. I thought these books actually can help us tell a different story of the history of literature; a fuller story." 

Silenced histories

'Unlocking The Cage' focuses on four key female figures; Elizabeth Montague, 18th century critic and host to literary salons; Elizabeth Carter, 18th century poet and translator; Lady Rosalind Northcote, 19th century nature and place writer and Ethel Lega-Weekes, 19th century historian. 

During Kim's extensive research, she discovered several letters and notes relating to these women and began to feel a personal connection to each of them. 

"I felt like I was in conversation with them and that was the spark for me. 'How can I write something that puts me as a 21st century female author in conversation with them?' They are the links in the chain. I'm here because they forged what they forged, so how can I talk to them about it?"

What resulted was a creative essay that saw Kim adopt an unorthodox writing style that employed both the first and second person. The first person represents Kim and her discoveries made while exploring the Cage, and the second person - the you - is the writer. 

"I'm talking to you, Elizabeth Montague, or you, Elizabeth Carter, and I'm having them answer me. I wanted to have this sense of me directly addressing these writers, and for the listener to be transported to another time in history and feel like they could become those writers."

A page from Unlocking the Cage focussing on 18th Century critic and literary salon host Elizabeth Montague

Taking shape

While writing the creative essay, Kim and Libraries Unlimited began to think about how the project would be presented. Keen for it to utilise audio and to be immersive, Kim met with several different creators to discuss how the project could be developed. After being introduced to composer and dBs tutor John Matthias and later dBs Pro Creative Director Jay Auborn, the trio began to discuss how the project could be realised through augmented reality. 

"Our idea and input as producers on the project was to attempt to make the technology transparent," recalls Jay, "so that the audience would immerse themselves in the content rather than be distracted by playing with the tech. Keeping the focus on Kim's essay in its audio form was the main aim. We experimented with how to remove the sense that the audience has to understand a technology in order to enjoy the experience.

"The project is primarily an audio artwork, and I think it showcases that sound art doesn't have to be difficult to engage with or overly conceptual. We've created three layers of the sound field around the listener, one that sounds as if it's inside your head, like in a traditional radio production, then further out all around you is the binaural sound field where you experience a sense of being transported to other locations such as the Library's basement or into a car with Kim en route to a research destination. Then there's the music which is in stereo just like in a film soundtrack. Often Kim's voice might move between these sound fields as she goes from being inside your head to being in the Cage looking through the rare books."

Picture of Unlocking the Cage Collaborators - Top left, John Matthias, Top right, Chris Price, Bottom Sarita McNeilThe scope of the project quickly grew to include Bristol-based AR/VR studio Zubr Curio and Nova Scotia-based multimedia artist, animator and designer Sarita McNeil.

"The story that Kim is telling in this project and the lack of appreciation for female writers really resonated with us," says Chris Price, Creative Director at Zubr (pictured top right). "The project as a whole was just really beautiful to work with because we got to really consider how to tell this story and make it interactive and accessible. Bringing a book to life in this way really excited us."

While Chris and the team at Zubr were striving to create the AR framework to house the project, Sarita (pictured bottom) was providing the visual identity. 

"The research felt very visual to me," says Kim, "and I've tried to capture that in words, but when we brought in Sarita and she brought those illustrations to life, it felt like it was flowing from my research and taking on a life of its own.

A page from Unlocking the Cage focussing on 18th Century poet and translator Elizabeth Carter

"Seeing Elizabeth Montague's salon being brought to life, or seeing the bell that Elizabeth Carter woke up to every morning ring; it held this sensation of being transported, which I had experienced in the Cage. I hope that feeling will be replicated for everyone who engages with this exhibit."

Conversations across time

At the time of writing, 'Unlocking The Cage' is hours away from its private launch to the press at Exeter Library, and will be unveiled to the public on International Women's Day 2022 for 6 weeks. After a very trying creative journey thanks to the pandemic and the team being based around the world, it's an emotional time for the team. 

Interacting with the animated elements in Unlocking the Cage

"I think we were all grateful to have a project to work on during the pandemic," says Jay, "and one with such depth and meaning. The female students who worked on the project felt a sense of empowerment from hearing about the plight of these women to be taken seriously as authors and artists. Launching this on International Women's Day is really quite significant and resonates with the work's core themes."

Michael White, Creative Producer at Libraries Unlimited added: "It’s great to be able to share this project with the public, I’m really keen to see people's interactions with the work and to garner feedback. The project is incredibly beautiful so we are very much looking forward to seeing people’s reactions. It’s a very immersive project, I hope that people have the chance to reflect on a point in history through being taken on the journey that 'Unlocking The Cage' presents." 

"I feel very proud that we've created something that's opening the doors for further research and creative thinking and collaboration around the history of women writers," says Kim.

"Libraries Unlimited has taken this project as a bit of a starting point and is now creating an archive that illustrates how interconnected women writers were to overcome this idea that women are either not writing at all or they were writing in isolation. They're putting on projects that lift up marginalised voices and the idea that something that we created can be a starting point feels incredibly exciting." 

'Unlocking The Cage' will launch at Exeter Library on Tuesday 8th March, 2022 and run until Sunday 24th April. The exhibit is free and no booking is required. Click here to find out more.

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