NEW YORK — Indian American digital artist and educator Roopa Vasudevan has produced an interactive multimedia installation to explore the problem of deaths in police gun battles in the U.S. The “Hands Up” digital exhibit is about “generating empathy,” said Vasudevan, who created it with fellow Pakistani American artist Atif Ateeq.
“Obviously, there is no way to fully understand what a confrontation like this is like until you experience it. We hope to allow our visitors to understand how emotionally charged the situation actually is,” explained Vasudevan.
“Hands Up” simulates a high-adrenaline gun battle situation with a cacophony of shouts, commands and sirens in a dark environment, filled with sudden flashes of blue, white and red police car lights, invoking a sense of dread and foreboding.
As an intimidating police officer’s voice orders, “Hands up,” a visitor of the exhibit will respond while bursts of light simulate gunfire and the sounds of an explosion ricochet. Viewers are plunged into the virtual reality of split-second, life-or-death decisions.
The exhibit was on display recently at Flux Factory, a community of artists in the borough of Queens, an area that is home to a large number of Indians and South Asians.
Asked if she saw police brutality as an issue for Asians and Indians in the U.S., Vasudevan responded, “Absolutely. This is an issue of an imbalance of power. Obviously, most of the media’s focus has recently been on interactions with African American men, but it’s worth noting that this speaks to the larger issue of how minorities are looked at and treated in this country.”
Sureshbhai Patel, a visitor from India, was left partially paralyzed Feb. 6 after being roughed up by police in Alabama, although he was not shot.
Indian American Parminder Singh Shergill, who had served in the U.S. Army in Iraq, returned home to California only to be shot dead by police Jan. 25, 2014. Police claimed that Shergill had charged at them with a knife, but eyewitnesses asserted he was unarmed.
The Washington Post recently reported that in 2015, 385 people were killed in police shootings as of the end of May — more than two people per day.
A disproportionate number of those killed were minorities. Among the unarmed victims, two-thirds were African American or Latino, the newspaper said. When adjusted for proportions in the population in the areas of the shootings, African Americans were three times more likely to be killed than any other ethnic or racial group, the analysis found.
Vasudevan said that after grand juries in 2014 refused to indict the white police officers who were involved in the choking death of Eric Garner, an unarmed man, in New York and the shooting and death of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., she and Ateeq wanted to see “how we could productively contribute to the conversation and movement for change.”
“As artists, both of us strongly felt that generating empathy for someone in a police-confrontation situation was the key to understanding, and the best way to do that was by creating a large, immersive art piece,” said Vasudevan.
Facing mounting criticism over police conduct, Pat Lynch, the head of the New York City police union, denounced the exhibit, saying, “It perpetuates a falsehood about police officers and their use of force.”
The atmosphere of chaos and tension created in the exhibit, however, also illustrates the conditions that the police operate under.
Vasudevan, denying it was anti-police, said, “It’s not such a cut-and-dry thing — so-and-so was right and so-and-so was wrong. There’s a lot happening in the moment. It’s our hope that our work can add to the discussion of what can be done to change things.”
Vasudevan has been a director for MTV’s Emmy-award-winning series “True Life,” and her digital work has been featured by the American Museum of Natural History, National 9/11 Museum and The New York Times. She also teaches at Fordham and New York universities.
Asked about artists of Indian and Pakistani descent working together, she said, “The piece was more about being a minority in the U.S. than anything else. We didn’t necessarily keep the specifics of our backgrounds in mind when collaborating.”