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Marisa Williamson & “Unsettling Grounds” 

a woman near a window

by Jessica Harris; featured photo by Hyeyon Moon

The Unsettling Grounds mobile app is now available to download on all iOS and Android devices at https://unsettlinggrounds.com/

Marisa Williamson is an artist unafraid of pushing boundaries and challenging narratives. 

Perhaps that’s why her most recent creation, an augmented reality mobile app called Unsettling Grounds, has such an apt title. The piece contextualizes Charlottesville’s Woolen Mills by inviting users to engage in its history via interactive and creative experiences. Suffice to say, the app is in line with Marisa’s powerful, gripping, artistic style. 

Grappling with history and its impact is not new to Marisa. Growing up in Philadelphia, she was instilled with “the idea of history being alive and something you walk through every day.” This notion of the importance of bringing history to the present wove its way into her artistic praxis, too, as her work grapples with themes of history, race, feminism, and technology.

a woman holding up plans for an exhibition

Marisa Williamson, at an Unsettling Grounds planning meeting. Photo credit: Hyeyon Moon

Her pieces are riveting, bold, and innovative. She uses performance art, mixed media, textiles, and more to challenge narratives of the past and create living monuments to ancestors. As such, she believes that “some of the things borrowed from the world of activism can find a place in art.”

Marisa received her bachelor’s degree from Harvard University, and while she didn’t plan to pursue art in college, she soon discovered the potential that art has to challenge and transform. She later deepened her work in the intersection of social change and creativity at CalArts where she received her Master’s of Fine Arts. 

This “artivism” philosophy also aligns with her extensive work as an educator. She’s taught in just about every educational setting imaginable: elementary schools, alternative schools, and  higher education settings. “I really like taking young folks through a space and doing inquiry-based learning, asking them what they see and think about history and art… and trying to see what’s not there,” she says.

Since 2021, she’s been on faculty at the University of Virginia where she completed an artist residency in 2018. And while Marisa might not be a Charlottesville native, her work and this locale have been inextricably linked for years. She’s created site-specific work at Monticello and at the University of Virginia. Some of her more well known works grapple with Sally Hemings, an important historical figure and former enslaved laborer at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate, and the impact of her legacy. 

In her artist statement, Marisa shares that she hopes her work provides “insight not only into how history is understood, but how it is felt.” She strives to create works that you can teach from, and art that invites dialogue and reflection. “Slow art,” she says, “art that takes awhile to unpack or to launch or to land” is equally important to her. And her latest curated project, Unsettling Grounds, is a perfect combination of these elements. 

a group of people in a community space

The creative team at an Unsettling Grounds planning meeting at Visible Records. Photo credit: Jay Simple

It’s an app that powerfully couples art with history, and contemporary engagement with contextualization. The app officially launched in June 2023 and is an augmented reality and interactive storytelling tool, highlighting experimental and monumental works by Black, Brown, Indigenous & rural artists. Per the app’s description, “using this app, audiences will uncover hidden histories of lesser-known struggles for freedom….Unsettling Grounds makes visible and audible the hidden past.”

“The plan was to pull ideas together, and to create digital and monumental scenes that reflected history,” Marisa says. Users must move their phone – walk forward and backward, turn around, and be fully immersed in space to engage fully with the scenes and uncover the stories. While the app guides users through the Woolen Mills area, one does not need to be on-site to use it. The immersive and interactive components can be launched and engaged with anywhere. 

a screenshot from an app

A screenshot from the Unsettling Grounds application.

The process of putting together the application was a whirlwind experience. In partnership with Albemarle County, the project received grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts in September 2022. Between last fall and the official launch, Marisa and her team have been working overtime to bring this piece to life. 

The app features work by artists Marie Tattiana Aqeel, Joumana Altallal, Myra Anderson, April Branham, Tanesha Hudson, Aidyn Mancenido, Alma Rayen Molina, Kweisi Morris, Adrienne Jacobson Oliver, and Sandy Williams IV. It was fabricated by Dream Syndicate, and received support from Amber Smith, Brandon Lee, and The Bridge PAI. “It was a good group that really challenged me. There’s a monumental thing that happened just in the group collaborating and trying to get stuff done, which I hope to make happen again somehow,” Marisa smiles. 

Perhaps equally fulfilling for Marisa was the launch event for the app, and seeing different groups of people connecting with one another and mingling in the space. “It was interesting at the launch to have the kind of vibe of underground-ness in this slightly intimate space,” she notes. The power of connection with the community was felt – both in the app and at the launch event. 

a gathering with dozens of people

The Unsettling Grounds launch event. Photo credit: Jay Simple

When asked what she hopes folks walk away with after engaging with Unsettling Grounds, she says, “I want people to enjoy being immersed in these kinds of sonic archival experiences, and I want them to be curious about getting to the bottom of it.” She also hopes users leave with the understanding that “we as people won’t be the first and we won’t be the last. And we need to live like that.” 

The team’s goal is to hold artist talks or tours and bring the project more fully into the community, using it as a tool for education and dialogue. As for her personal artwork, Marisa’s hoping to head back into the studio to finish up some new and exciting projects. No matter where her work may take her, Marisa is sure to leave an indelible legacy – both in augmented and actual reality. 

To download the Unsettling Grounds app, visit: https://unsettlinggrounds.com/

To learn more about Marisa, visit her website at: www.marisawilliamson.com

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Vinegar Hill Magazine is a space that is designed to support and project a more inclusive social narrative, to promote entrepreneurship, and to be a beacon for art, culture, and politics in Central Virginia.

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