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Wretched Excess uses mobile augmented reality to stage historiography as embodied practice, expand archival methods with crowd-sourcing, and illuminate questions of cultural erasure and gentrification in locations relevant to the early years of the cable channel MTV.

It may be tempting to remember MTV as frivolous; certainly, it has not yet drawn adequate scholarly attention. But with events like Live Aid (1985) and Billy Joel’s glasnost-era “Rock in Russia” concert (1987), MTV’s early years were deeply, globally political. Importantly, collective memory studies suggest that people hold most strongly to memories from adolescence and early adulthood. And for many people now approaching or at the apex of their societal influence, these critical years transpired during the early years of MTV. In other words, the nostalgia held by a large, empowered demographic of the US is for a time when MTV was at the center of, even catalyzing, major cultural shifts that still resonate today.

And nostalgia can be a siren song, especially in troubled times. In an era when VR headsets can entirely overwrite a user’s analog surroundings, superficial reminiscence can supplant critical histori­ography, making it easy to envision and even revisit a sanitized version of the past. However, using AR to interrogate the past necessarily links to the present, because of the tool’s porousness. Wretched Excess capitalizes on this affordance to layer place and time onto place and time, situating the user in the phenomenology of their embodied present while opening a window to the past. By using AR to explore how MTV shaped populist discourse in the 1980s, Wretched Excess aims to illuminate a formative cultural dynamic that preceded 21st century power structures in the US.

As of Fall 2022, the Wretched Excess prototype is in development. We are currently building AR tour stops in St. Louis and the site of the Limelight nightclub in New York City.

This project has been supported by an Arts & Sciences SPEED grant, the Center for the Humanities, and the Humanities Digital Workshop.