Ancestral Storytelling: Movement and Memory

Doug Segars

Ancestral Storytelling: Movement + Memory embodies motion capture techniques for an interactive and immersive movement and sonic healing performance, living video archive, and workshop utilizing traditional ancestral storytelling and folkloric dance within the Black diaspora. Utilizing state-of-the-art motion capture technology and VFX animation, the project explores: How can we preserve forms of ritual through interactive movement and ancestral storytelling? And how can we upkeep these movements into a living archive to move alongside those before us? 

The artwork is produced by Haitian-American designer and artist, Georine Pierre (MIT Media Lab, City Science group) in collaboration with Daniel Pillis (MIT Media Lab, Tangible Media group) and MIT Immersion Lab, featuring movements from Haitian folkloric dance choreographer Jean Appolon. The artwork's first edition live performance was presented on May 19, 2023 at MIT Media Lab’s “Design Workshop for the Future: A Choreopoem”—a course created by Dr. Danielle Wood (MIT Media Lab, Space Enabled group). The course is an incubator that uses reading, discussion and artistic practice to introduce concepts of critical theory as a tool to analyze patterns of racism and misogyny linked to colonial thinking; and design prototypes of liberatory futures.  

Recognizing the historical significance of water and traditional healing rituals in the Black diaspora, the living video archive links themes of the Black Atlantic, ancestral migration, and refuge. The live production featured folkloric dance performances by Kayla Farrish and Jennifer Newman, multimedia projection design by Paul Lieber, and lighting design by Studio 125 LLC.

As an interactive installation, descendants are invited to move alongside the living video archive through ancestral storytelling and folkloric dance directed by a guide represented through VFX animation. In response to each individual’s actions, varying degrees of opacity of movement (recorded by a motion capture camera) are then layered on top of the footage, in an attempt to uphold the sanctity of the living archive.  The work embodies the traditions of Yanvalou, a sacred dance in Haitian culture, which summons a personal release of participants to let go of unwanted vices and blockades to balance physical, mental, and spiritual levels.

The second edition of this work was displayed on March 2024 at the Memory Atlas for Repair exhibition, a MIT CAST Mellon Faculty Grant funded project and exhibition highlighting current and future creative, critical reflections on racial justice fostering dialog between MIT students and faculty. The Memory Atlas for Repair derived from the research of Professor Delia Wendel's Planning for Peace research group addressing critical research on reparations strategies and racial justice. The exhibition is on view until the end of the Spring 2024.


Corbain Swain