IIn mid-November, several notable monuments rose from the ground in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. One paid tribute to Gaspar Yanga, a slave-turned-liberator who led a successful rebellion against the Spanish colonizers in the 16th century. Yanga does not appear in many American textbooks, and the Los Angeles City Council did not pay for the statue.
Instead, Yanga’s statue appeared in augmented reality through an app called Kinfolk. Using technology similar to Pokémon Go, users can place and view monuments to often-forgotten historical figures like Yanga in public spaces. The app then displays historical context through text, music and video.
Launching the Kinfolk app comes as heated debate anger about the monuments that stare down at us from city centers: those that honor Confederate leaders, slave owners, or other tarnished heroes of yore.
Monuments to Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and many others were torn from their places in the summer of 2020, sparking a backlash in which some conservatives think that their history and values are being desecrated. The tension exposed the deep cracks in America’s self-perception and the fundamental flaws in what we collectively know and understand about our own country.
Idris Brewster, the co-founder of Kinfolk, hopes that AR can be part of solving the age-old problem of how history remembers characters. With the Kinfolk app available for An apple and Android, Brewster hopes to make virtual monuments visible across the country. In the process, he hopes to help people rethink civic spaces, engage students in interactive learning, and allow those who have never seen themselves mirrored in their city’s monuments to do so for the first time.
“If we want a just future, our collective consciousness must include the stories of those people who have somehow been deliberately erased from the canon of American history,” he says.
Biddy Mason Monument as seen on the Kinfolk app.
“Public spaces are not made for us”
Brewster has long worked at the intersection of technology and capital: he previously worked at Google Code Next, which offered free computer science courses to black and brown students. He founded Kinfolk, formerly known as Movers and Shakers NYC, in 2017 when he and his creative partner Glenn Kantave were part of a social media dialogue about New York’s historic statues and how they needed to be more diverse. For example, out of the 150 historical statues in the city, historians counted only 5 women between them.
For Brewster, this disparity matters because monuments “show the values of a society: what people they honored, what stories were important,” he says. “And the point where we are now is that these public spaces were not built for us.”
While Brewster campaigns to remove problematic monuments — including the statue of Christopher Columbus at Columbus Circle in Manhattan, which he says represents an “oppressive figure” and “an instrument of the history of white supremacy” — he also dreams of erecting a new set of monuments to long-ago forgotten historical figures. But building new monuments requires “a lot of bureaucracy, red tape, a lot of hoops to jump through,” he says.
At that time the AR game Pokémon Go swept the nation, inspiring millions of people to search for cartoon monsters by venturing into their towns and cities and around the world.
Brewster saw technology as a potential way around some of his challenges. “With AR, we can create as many monuments as we want for the price of one physical monument, and we can put them anywhere,” he says.
Kinfolk’s app works using your smartphone’s camera function. Open the app and ‘place’ a monument image where you want. You can then walk around the monument, read about the history of this historical figure and listen to related music or interviews about them. For now, monuments only appear in the app version on your phone and disappear when you close the app. Each virtual monument is carefully designed. Kinfolk has selected artists to collaborate on what the AR monuments look like. There are currently more than a dozen monuments on the app, including those of Harry Belafonte and Maya Angelou.
Brewster and Kinfolk have been unveiling various AR projects over the past few years, but the launch in November in Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with The Music Center and art collective For Freedoms, is their biggest yet. He honored Young, as well as Biddy Mason, who co-founded the city’s oldest African-American church, and Beatrice Alva, who helped preserve the history of California’s Gabrielino-Tongwa tribe.
This release from Kinfolk added a geo-specific element to the app: last weekend, the only place you could see monuments to Young, Biddy Mason and Beatrice Alva was in Los Angeles’ Great Park, where Kinfolk threw a public party complete with live music , DJ sets and digital art. (These monuments are now available to the general public and can be placed anywhere users around the world want.)
Black Fist Brass Band at Kinfolk’s Grand Park event in Los Angeles in November.
The geo-specific element both makes the app more interactive—in that you’re forced to venture into the world and engage with the story in the context of public spaces—and also places emphasis on learning community-specific history.
Brewster hopes to elevate local history in cities across the country. After Los Angeles, he and Kinfolk will embark on a national tour to set up virtual memorials and in-person events. In Alabama, for example, Brewster plans to partner with the community-run organization Project Say something both to protest the Confederate monuments there while creating new digital ones in collaboration with local artists. Overall, he hopes Kinfolk will serve as a digital archive project where all kinds of stories are discovered and preserved.
Brewster expects to encounter resistance, especially at a time when school boards and local leaders are increasingly rejecting the spread of black history. “We’re going to try to go to Richmond, New Orleans and other cities that are deeply rooted in this. It’s definitely going to increase the amount of angry emails we’re going to get,” he says.
Idris Brewster, left, and Glenn Kantave, founders of Kinfolk. They recently introduced an augmented reality app that teaches black history.
An interactive way to explore history
While Brewster knows some people will immediately dismiss his mission, he hopes the app will be especially useful for Gen-Z students who respond better to more immersive forms of learning. “Children learn visually. They play Fortnite, they’re on TikTok, they edit videos; they don’t like to read,” he says. “We want to give kids an interactive way to engage; to be able to make more connections for themselves and explore, kind of like a video game.
He hopes Kinfolk will especially be a resource for students in schools that have blocked courses related to black history because of the larger backlash around critical race theory. “I think it’s really important that teachers have the tools to be able to bring these narratives into their classroom in an easy way,” he says.
And even if he will never be able to change the minds of those who are vehemently against him, Brewster is optimistic that his app can make a difference, especially for a younger generation ready to embrace new ways of learning that use interactive technology , a familiar way of engaging with the world. “There’s no way we can move forward to a more just place if we can’t acknowledge the sins of our past — if we can’t acknowledge how black and brown culture was exploited and killed to get us to where we are now,” says he . “Monuments are really a tool to be able to have that conversation.”
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