Sometimes mourning is incredibly personal and other times entire communities need to grieve, particularly in the wake of tragic situations that reflect poorly on societies or even humanity overall. Healing and reconciliation come in many forms, and projects such as Breonna’s Garden demonstrate how emerging tech such as augmented reality can be used to provide a safe space to process grief.
Brimming with flowers and butterflies, Breonna’s Garden comes to life through augmented reality as a place where visitors can say her name without negation. Available through the App Store and Google Play, visitors to the garden can share memories, convey anger, express their sorrow, explore their feelings, or simply experience the moment in honor of Breonna.
Tragedy Leaves a Community in Mourning
Lady PheOnix, Executive Producer and Director of the project and notable art curator, connected with Ju’Niyah Palmer in the aftermath of a botched police raid that took the life of Ju’Niyah’s sister Breonna Taylor on March 13, 2020. Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American woman, was fatally shot by plainclothes police when she was hit by 6 of the 32 bullets that were fired into her Louisville, Kentucky home.
Following Taylor’s death, while many in the community rallied around Ju’Niyah and her family as they sought justice and reform, others were hostile and seemed to completely disregard the loss of a sister, daughter, niece, friend.
Lady PheOnix sensed the need for a safe place where family, friends, and the community could mourn so she began assembling a team that would ultimately create an augmented reality experience to honor Breonna and immortalize love and joy she displayed for life. When I spoke with Lady PheOnix recently, she said the way people opened their hearts and gave generously of their time and talent was one of the biggest impacts on her personally.
“Parts of Ju’Niyah were healed through this project,” Lady PheOnix says, then adds thoughtfully, “It sort of renewed parts of my human spirit as well.”
A Team Forms to Offer Healing
There were many people who helped make Breonna’s Garden a reality, including Joanna Popper, Candie Quach, Juan Carlos Leon, and Mr. Flower Fantastic. Lady PheOnix pointed out the generous support they received from Microsoft, Unity, and Metastage. She also stated Breonna’s Garden wouldn’t have been possible without Sutu.
Sutu (aka Stuart Campbell) tells stories through art and technology. He has created VR documentaries, VR art for properties such as Doctor Strange and Ready Player One, and he is known for his interactive comics. Sutu largely focuses his work in two broad areas: work dedicated to making a social impact and concept art for films, etc.
He was aware of the horrible messages being posted on Instagram about Breonna and like Lady PheOnix, he felt a great sense of sorrow for Ju’Niyah and others who were grieving. Those messages and the treatment of people who had lost a loved one were the impetus for the project.
The team wanted to create a project in response to the experience Ju’Niyah was having online, but with that context aside, Sutu states they also wanted to create a beautiful memorial where people could go and leave messages and pay tribute to Breonna.
Breonna’s Garden – A Virtual Garden for Healing
“We were especially trying to create an avenue where people might not feel comfortable to share otherwise,” states Sutu.
“We’re all from different walks of life and how we share our hardest, deepest feelings… We don’t often have a roadmap for that,” Sutu says. “This might be the place where people can finally let out those feelings or that message they want to share.”
Breonna would’ve turned 28 in June, around the time the augmented reality experience was featured at Tribeca Festival’s Tribeca Immersive. Anyone can download Breonna’s Garden and a virtual garden will begin to grow around you. Breonna’s sister Ju’Niyah appears as a hologram at the beginning of the Breonna’s Garden experience with a recorded message and then you can listen to messages from others or record your own message, continuing positive themes of support and community.
“This really is a project for humanity,” says Lady PheOnix. “If we understand our importance as people in the human family, we can extend that to others and understand their importance as well.”