Exhibit uses virtual reality to shine light on youth incarceration



photo by Casey Cole

Welcoming a large crowd to partake in the simulation of the experiences of incarcerated youth, ART 180 held an opening reception for its virtual reality exhibition, entitled “My Reality” on Oct. 6.


All elements of the exhibition, which include  poetry, photography, immersive audio and the virtual reality segment, were created by youth impacted by the criminal justice system in conjunction with artists who specialize in the different mediums. The program runs during the summer and helps youth discover ways to work to end the school-to-prison pipeline.


“We find ways to really connect their voices and ideas with a ton of different people and the virtual reality is the newest way that we’re doing that. It allows us to really transport people into the lives and experiences of the youth in the (criminal justice) system,” said Mark Strandquist, creative director of ART 180’s Youth Self Advocacy Through Art program.

Participants were allowed into the building in small groups and asked to fill out a form, which had their assigned “inmate numbers.” Volunteers acting as prison guards, who are members of various local youth organizations, according to Strandquist, maintained a mostly-stern demeanor which made the experience more powerful for visitors.

The guards wore realistic uniforms, distinguished by the message on the sleeves’ crests, reading “Prisons don’t work. Free the youth. Justice Advocate.”

photo by Casey Cole

Artwork, videos and statistics were displayed in the front part of the gallery, where visitors waited for their inmate numbers to be called, sometimes on a megaphone, so they could enter the virtual reality segment.

Strandquist said the teens who participated in the summer program acquired valuable skills.

“They’re learning a ton of different ways to tell their story but also building confidence and connections to other mentors and peer support systems,” Strandquist said. “When they leave our programs in the summer, we connect them with jobs and opportunities and programs.”

The exhibition is interactive, prompting visitors to reflect upon their experiences within the virtual reality session. After filling out a sheet of questions, visitors to the opening reception were photographed and their polaroid pictures placed on a wall along with their answers.

“I know that they’re not experiencing the real thing, but I want them to have a feeling,” member of RISE for Youth Kidaya Wright said.

For the exhibition, ART 180 partnered with RISE for Youth, which had a table of informational pamphlets and copies of its Performing Statistics newspapers.

Strandquist said individuals like activists and lawyers were present at the reception so that visitors had a “way to tap in (to)” the issue.

“We don’t want somebody coming in here and having a passive experience where they can pat themselves on the back and say, ‘I did that’,” Strandquist said. “Everybody in this room is part of the school to prison pipeline and they can be a positive or negative part of that.”

The exhibition will run until Nov. 22 at Atlas ART 180’s center for teens located at 114 W. Marshall St. Upon leaving Atlas, “My Reality” will travel to other venues, including police stations. The exhibition will be used to train all new police recruits in Richmond, Strandquist said.

“(Police) are not only learning about statistics, about youth incarceration and poverty and all those root causes that lead to youth incarceration, but also relating to the teens on a human level,” Strandquist said.

Georgia Geen, Staff Writer

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