Hearts and Minds: The Interrogations Project

Hearts and Minds: The Interrogations Project is an interactive, immersive, and cinematic environment that draws users into the haunting memories of ordinary American soldiers who became torturers in the course of serving their country. This project about human rights foregrounds veterans testimonies of US military enhanced interrogation practices and human rights abuses during the Iraq War, often by young and ill-trained soldiers who never entered the military to become torturers and still find themselves struggling to reconcile the activities they were asked to do. The work was developed at the Electronic Visualization Lab (EVL) at the University of Illinois Chicago through a four-university collaboration and tours in other immersive 3D environments and in a 2D version suitable for cinema screening. The production team includes filmmaker Roderick Coover, writer Scott Rettberg, visualization artist/researcher Daria Tsoupikova, computer and scientist Arthur Nishimoto in collaboration with political scientists John Tsukayama and Jeffrey Murer.

Photos of Hearts and Minds: The Interrogations Project by Lance Long, Scott Rettberg, Roderick Coover et al.


Hearts and Minds: The Interrogations Project is an immersive digital media project that foregrounds veterans testimonies of US military interrogation practices and human rights abuses during the Iraq War, often by young and ill-trained soldiers who never entered the military expecting to become torturers and who find themselves struggling to reconcile the activities they were asked to do.

Drawing upon extensive interviews with veterans carried out by political scientist John Tsukayama following the Abu Ghraib accounts of abuse, this project is unique in building understanding of how a military with a just vision of its practices might allow the conditions for human rights abuses to occur.

The hybrid project was developed through a unique collaboration between filmmakers, artists, scientists, and researchers from four universities and developed in the immersive 3D CAVE2  at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) for exhibition, educational institutions, museums and libraries, and distribution using tablets/ipads and Oculus Rift.

The Virtual Environment

Hearts and Minds: The Interrogations Project was originally developed at the Electronic Visualization Lab (EVL) at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) for the CAVE2™, the next-generation large-scale virtual-reality 320-degree panoramic environment which provides users with the ability to see 3D stereoscopic content in a near seamless flat LCD technology at 37 Megapixels in 3D resolution matching human visual acuity. The CAVE immerses people into worlds too large, too small, too dangerous, too remote, or too complex to be viewed otherwise. The immersive 3D environment of the CAVE is here intended to provide an affective environment that produces a space for interpretation. The visualization environment serves as a dispositif for enacting individual and cultural memory of an institutionalized atrocity.

The project presents the audience with a narrative environment that begins in a reflective temple space with four doors opening to ordinary American domestic spaces: a boy’s bedroom, a family room, a suburban back yard, a kitchen. The user navigates the environment using a wand, a 3D mouse, to interact with and control a VR experience in the CAVE2™. The virtual scene is continuously updated according to the orientation and position of the head, as measured with head and arm trackers, and the 3D view of the scenes is focalized on this perspective.

Moving through and exploring each these rooms inside the virtual scene creates a sense of being immersed in the virtual environment. Using a wand with buttons, the navigator triggers individual objects, such as a toy truck, a Boy Scout poster, or a pair of wire cutters. When each object is activated, the walls of the domestic space fall away and a surreal desert landscape is revealed in 2D surrounding panorama, and one of the four voiceover actors is heard recounting particular acts and memory related metaphorically to the object selected. The objects also function very much like hyperlinks in moving us from one narrative element to another. Viewers travel through the domestic spaces and surreal interior landscapes of soldiers who have come home transformed by these experiences, triggering their testimonies by interacting with objects laden with loss.

The project extends and make accessible disturbing narratives based on the actual testimonies of veterans who bravely chose to share their experiences. The immersion the system provides allows for a different type of affective experience of these accounts, activated through the visceral immersion afforded by the visual and auditory environment. The work offers models for engaging with testimony and oral history. It uses visualization to build new discourse around challenging topics and to bridge concept that enable storytelling. While many uses of visualization technologies are focused on providing accessible representation of “big data”, in this case, the same technologies are being used to narrativize a complex contemporary issue and to provide a platform for discussion and debate of military interrogation methods and their effects on detainees, soldiers, and society.

Project History

A history of the development, conference, and festival presentations of Hearts and Minds: The Interrogations Project is coming soon in this space.

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Production Team

Roderick Coover
Filmmaker/Artist, Temple University

Scott Rettberg
Writer, University of Bergen

Daria Tsoupikova
Computer Artist/Researcher, EVL/University of Illinois-Chicago

Arthur Nishimoto
Computer Scientist, EVL/University of Illinois-Chicago

Based on original research by John Tsukayama

Additional Collaborators

Computer Scientist
Lance Long, EVL/University of Illinois

Political Scientist
Dr. Jeffrey Murer, St. Andrews University, UK

Performance Artist
Mark Jeffrey, Chicago, IL

Voice Artists
Richard Garella, Jeffrey Cousar, Laurel Katz, Darin Dunston

Sound Designer
Mark Partridge, Temple University

Production Assistant
Mark Baratta, Temple University


Electronic Visualization Lab at University of Illinois-Chicago, Temple University, University of Bergen, Norwegian Research Council, Arts Council Norway


Hearts and Minds: The Residue of War project paper published in ISEA 2015 proceedings

From CAVE2 to Mobile: Adaptation of Hearts and Minds Virtual Reality Project Interaction project paper from HCI 2016 proceedings

Hearts and Minds: The Interrogations Project project paper from VISAP 2014

Initial production script of Hearts and Minds: The Interrogations Project

NMC interview with Roderick Coover

Infograffiti Podcast interview with Scott Rettberg and discussion of audio excerpts from Hearts and Minds.

"The Aesthetics of Torture" commentary on Hearts and Minds by Gisle Kvanvig, Norwegian Centre for Human Rights

Afterword by John Tsukayama

By Any Means Necessary: An Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis Study Of Post 9/11 American Abusive Violence In Iraq by John Tsukayama (PhD diss., University of St Andrews, St Andrews, UK, 2014)

US Senate Report on the CIA's Detention and Interrogation Program, Dec. 9, 2014

Full-length video documentation (37:58).

Short video presentation/demo from IEEE VR 2015 (5:20).

Introduction and panel discussion with human rights experts and interrogators from 2015 Oslo Human Rights / Human Wrongs Festival (51:54).

Steve Tomasula Author of TOC: A New Media Novel

I was lucky enough to see this in Chicago; it's one of the best marriages of technology and narrative that I know of; like a book that you walk around in, immersive but not in the sense of getting lost in the book, for what the viewer is immersed in is the narration of GIs who engaged in torture in Iraq: a smart use of the technology in the service of the story, and a story that transcends the technology (and for that matter, most of the other sort of light weight entertainment troll & zombie stories that take up screens). The result is a profound 'docu-drama' / memoir that engages the viewer in a visceral as well as intellectual way, and it really does haunt you long afterwards.

Sharon Daniel
Sharon Daniel Media Artist and Professor of Film and Digital Media, UC Santa Cruz

The combination of computer-game-like artificiality in the setting and the documentary realism of the narrating voice is uncanny – in the Freudian sense of ‘familiar and yet incongruous’. This uncanny-ness creates a cognitive dissonance within the participating subject, who is simultaneously drawn in and repulsed... we are both estranged from and immersed within a kind of performance of the space of violence and trauma... our agency is somehow suspended. We are not expected to inhabit the subjective perspective of a player/actor in a game or story. Instead, we are left with nothing to do but look and listen – to inhabit the trauma of Tsukayama’s interviewees by standing, as ourselves, in their place.

ELO_laurelsDuring the 2016 Electronic Literature Organization conference in Victoria, British Columbia, Hearts and Minds: The Interrogations Project was awarded the 2016 Award for a Work of Electronic Literature, the top prize for a creative work in the field. The jury commented: "A major achievement. The authors harness the power of digital technologies to tell a powerful story and in doing so go far in changing the audience’s hearts and minds about torture.”

ISEA 2016

At ISEA 2016 HONG KONG CULTURAL R>EVOLUTION, the annual conference and exhibition of the International Society for Electronic Arts, Hearts and Minds: The Interrogations Project was one of four works selected for the juried exhibition of VR artworks in the Gallery 360 theatre at City University of Hong Kong.


Official Selection, 2016 BIFF-EXPANDED, exhibition of works of expanded cinema, BERGEN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL. Bergen, Norway.