Mapping Ararat: An Imaginary Jewish Homelands Project

Presented by Melissa Shiff (University of Toronto); Louis Kaplan (University of Toronto); John Craig Freeman (Emerson College) at “From Access to Integration”

Mapping Ararat combines historical research and artistic creation to image and imagine Mordecai Noah’s vision of establishing a Jewish refuge. This collaborative digital arts and humanities work-in-progress gives Grand Island, New York the virtual chance to become the Jewish homeland that its founder envisioned. The project also offers new approaches to coordinating and integrating different digital technologies.

First, there is the familiar website platform with a rich collection of material drawn from all of the archives where research has been conducted. Resources include maps, photographs and newspapers from the period. The website also has a social media component that allows for wide dissemination, as well as the ability to broadcast upcoming news and events, post comments and access documentation of the major artistic components of the project.

The augmented reality elements of the project include a virtual flag and an on-site walking tour of “Ararat”—a place that now exists virtually in exactly the geographical location that its creator had intended. A user must download the augmented reality browser “Layar” onto his or her smart phone to be able to view the architecture and landmarks that do not actually exist as assets in the physical landscape but are housed on a server and inserted into the landscape virtually.

With a smart phone, a user will activate location services to determine exactly where he or she is standing; according to this physical location, images of buildings and other landmarks will appear on the phone’s screen. These virtual objects are tied to particular locations, allowing a user to physically walk around and take a tour (using a phone) of a virtual landscape. As GPS technology allows a phone to pinpoint an exact location, the user will be able to see the synagogue, mikvah, graveyard, casino and Noah’s Ark theme park (to name a few elements of the project) that are now a digital part of the imagined land of Ararat. Viewers are also able to access primary source materials using this same technology, providing them with supplemental information on-site.

Another component of the project is to use a digital map in order to overlap the topography and a gaming software program known as “Unity,” where visitors can chart a course through the map using a joystick controller. Samples of vernacular culture—postcards, money, stamps, newspapers—will be juxtaposed with actual grand island artifacts or newspapers with which Mordecai Noah was associated. Video interviews with scholars will illuminate the material.

Visit the project website