When most people think of storytelling, they think of words on a page. Words into paragraphs into pages that spell out characters, action, and a plot linearly — scientifically.
Allie Teixeira Riggs, a Ph.D. student in Digital Media at Georgia Tech, is urging audiences to expand their definition of what storytelling can be through the power of embodied interactive experiences that involve archival materials.
Throughout their career, Riggs has centered their focus on how to craft engaging, artistic experiences using physical and digital technologies as media for storytelling. After graduating from Cornell with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and a minor in Information Science, Riggs moved to California to pursue a Master of Fine Arts in Digital Art and New Media, focusing on how we can use technology in an artistic form to engender explorations of personal, cultural, and queer identity.
In their works of interactive fiction — like the 2014 poem, “It Had to Be With You,” and their 2015 multilingual story “We arrived / Chegamos” — Riggs has used text-based interactions to convey stories of shifting personal and cultural identity, using sound and visuals that play with notions of time, memory, and language.
Years of experimenting with storytelling and design have culminated in Riggs’s latest project, “Button Portraits.” The project — which Riggs has developed alongside Georgia Tech professors Dr. Noura Howell and Dr. Anne Sullivan and archivist Morna Gerrard of the Georgia State University Gender and Sexuality Collections — tells the stories of two of the foremost Southern lesbian activists of the 1970s, Maria Helena Dolan and Lorraine Fontana, using their buttons and oral histories from the archive. The “Button Portraits” experience uses embodied technology to allow individuals to wear a button from the collection and listen to a corresponding fragment of either Fontana’s or Dolan’s oral histories.
When Dolan and Fontana donated the buttons collected over the years, Riggs, as they said, was one of the first people to see them.
“We sat down and took a look at these buttons, which had actually just been added to the collection — they weren’t even catalogued yet,” Riggs said.
Because the archival buttons are historical artifacts and cannot be modified or used in interactive displays, Riggs’s first task was making replicas, realistic down to the scratches and nicks they’d accumulated over years of use. Next, they tagged the buttons with NFCs — two-way communication devices that allow for the exchange of data over short distances (think: tap to pay using a credit card).
Audiences interacting with “Button Portraits,” Riggs said, are equipped with audio players worn around the neck at chest level.
“The audio player actually has a little computer — a Raspberry Pi — inside of it with the NFC reader, so when you bring a button up to the white circle on the player, it magnetizes,” Riggs said. “It allows you to mimic the gesture of pinning a button onto yourself, like pinning a button as you would to an article of clothing.”
What’s special about this “pinning” process is the story that’s told once the data is transmitted between the button and the audio player.
“When you ‘read’ the tag of the button, it’ll play a fragment of oral history,” Riggs explained. “I was able to go through the oral histories given and associate different anecdotes with certain buttons.”
So why buttons? For Riggs and many queer people, buttons are far more than an accessory.
“They’re significant for our protests, our social causes — even our identifications,” Riggs said. “I’m sure you’ve seen pronoun pins, like they/them or she/her. Queerness and buttons are very closely linked. And so, by using buttons, you’re not only holding a queer symbol, but you’re wearing something that is replicated from a part of history.”
With this nuance — along with the wearer’s sensory interactions with the button, the player, and the oral histories — Riggs aims at establishing reflection and personal connection. As people move through the display — each button home to a slice of Dolan and Fontana’s stories — a broader tapestry of the women’s lives and their impact begins to weave together.
Everything in “Button Portraits” is intentional, even down to the fragmentary, nonlinear nature of the oral histories, which serves to represent the intrinsic fluidity of the queer experience and the discovery of the disjointed, often incomplete nature of queer history, especially queer history in the South.
In the coming months, Riggs hopes to expand upon previous sessions where they had audiences experience the buttons and then sit down to design their own.
“‘I’d like to make this a larger scale workshop where people can actually make buttons and then NFC tag them, and then they can have their own stories and add that to the body of work,” they said.
By having participants record their own stories, Riggs hopes that audiences can form an even deeper connection to the histories that the “Button Portraits” reflect.
Though we live in a more accepting time than the decades Dolan and Fontana lived through, being out and being proud — exactly what the buttons represent — amid anti-LGBTQ legislation and sentiment across the South can be scary and dangerous.
“Button Portraits,” then, can be seen as a bridge that audiences can use to identify their place in the timeline of queer history, allowing them to add to that history using something as simple as a button on their chest.