Mapping Ararat: An Imaginary Jewish Homelands Project animates Mordecai Noah’s bold 1825 plan to transform Grand Island, New York, into Ararat, a city of refuge for the Jews. Utilizing digital media technologies such as augmented reality (AR) as well as the construction of an interactive virtual world, this project gives Noah’s Ararat the chance to become the Jewish homeland that its founder had envisioned but never realized. This collaborative digital art and humanities project is supported by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Development Grant. Mapping Ararat combines historical research, para-historical speculation, new digital technologies, and artistic creation to image and imagine Mordecai Noah’s vision in and for the twenty-first century. This photographic image taken at the imaginary intersection of Noah Boulevard and Zipporah Philips [End Page 239]
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Street offers an example of how we are able to use AR to transform the everyday landscape of Grand Island today with the help of digital technologies that enable the overlaying of computer-generated graphics (rendered in the software program Maya) onto the real-world (Fig. 1). In this way, Mapping Ararat generates those elements that forge and constitute the signs and landmarks of an autonomous Jewish homeland and state on the banks of the Niagara River in a symbolic manner. In addition to my own participation as chief historian and theorist on the project, the research and creation team of Mapping Ararat includes video and installation artist Professor Melissa Shiff (University of Toronto, Canada), who serves as both project director and lead artist, as well as new media artist Professor John Craig Freeman (Emerson College, Boston), who specializes in AR in his creative practice and who serves as a collaborator on the project.
So, who was this dreamer and schemer with a plan to settle the Jews on the border between the United States and Canada? Major Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785–1851) was the most prominent American Jew of his era.1 This largerthan-life personality corresponded with four presidents and he once held a diplomatic post as the Consul to the Kingdom of Tunis in North Africa during the administration of James Madison (Noah 1819). Based in New York City for [End Page 240] most of his career, he was a leading Tammany Hall politician, a successful playwright, a major newspaper publisher, and a visionary who was the first person to propose the creation of an autonomous Jewish homeland in modern times. He called it Ararat given his Noah complex. According to the Bible, Mount Ararat was the resting place for Noah’s Ark after the flood. Mordecai Noah thought that his new homeland could serve the same function for Jews around the world faced with anti-Semitism and religious persecution. Thus, it is not surprising to learn that Noah’s initial Ararat proposal coincided with the so-called Hep-Hep Riots against German Jews that took place in the summer and fall of 1819.
To create a world out of just one stone, that is our aim in Mapping Ararat. Grounded in a weighty piece of actual history, Mapping Ararat begins with the 300-pound cornerstone that Noah ordered from Ohio that played a pivotal role in the Ararat Proclamation Ceremony that was held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Buffalo, New York, on September 15, 1825.2 It is the only relic remaining from Mordecai Noah’s ambitious endeavor to create a Jewish homeland on Grand Island and it is currently housed at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society, where our team made a pilgrimage at the beginning of our researches. A review of the workflow for the cornerstone illustrates how it moves from an historical artifact to the realm of AR. During our archival researches, we discovered an illustration published in a book dated from 1841 that depicts the brick and wooden obelisk constructed to house the...