When I returned to Ohio University for graduate school in 2019 to join the MFA in Communication Media Arts program, I knew that my resulting thesis project and my eventual work would combine my love for history, community, audio storytelling, and visual design. I have been long been passionate about history and community, bolstered by 12 years of non-profit community work at my beloved Stuart’s Opera House in Nelsonville, Ohio. As I entered my creative media production graduate program, I chose to focus on audio storytelling and visual design as a way to lift up history and make it accessible in a community context.
Storytelling and media production requires not just a good story, but also characters, lessons, points of connection, self-reflection, and everything else that the study of history has always made me feel on a personal level. As my studies continued, it became more and more clear to me that these worlds were all one. That I could use my newly developed skills in audio storytelling, augmented reality, public history, visual design, and community collaboration to give other people the feeling that learning history has always given me. In other words, nothing I was doing on its own was reinventing the wheel, but I wanted to approach my topics with many different tools of artistic production and from a new perspective.
Invisible Ground started as a podcast, telling the stories of the familiar places and people in our southeast Ohio community which might not be always visible, but are part of our daily life. Cemeteries were a natural starting point, and I began with the historic West State Street Cemetery in Athens. This particular cemetery was the start of deep dive into local history for me when I was a 23-year old seasonal maintenance employee for the City of Athens, weed whacking around historic graves and painting its wrought iron fence in the summer of 2006. I walked around that cemetery and noticed the stories of its people, engraved on the stones, by a mysterious W.E. Peters, who I later found out was a historian, lawyer, author, surveyor, and preservationist for these same stories. More episodes of Invisible Ground were published as I continued my graduate work, with topics including Mound Cemetery in Marietta, Tablertown, and the Little Cities of Black Diamonds. These podcasts became a rich world to create and to draw from, filled with music, sound, and documentary interviews that pull the listener into these stories in new ways. I was getting closer, but I also felt that for my thesis project, I wanted to build on that further to make another visual and physical point of connection.
Eventually I settled on the idea of creating an Immersive Historic Marker for my thesis project. The Immersive Historical Markers appear to be a typical interpretive sign, but with a QR code that, once scanned, allows the user to download an app that brings history to life before their eyes using augmented reality. Visitors can use their smartphone’s camera through the Invisible Ground app to see a historic photo overlaid on their actual camera view. This is combined with a short audio orientation, the interpretive panel, and a longer podcast episode to present local history in an engaging fashion. Visitors experience the physicality of the space while also using digital technology and audio to transport further into that experience. In April 2022, the first Invisible Ground Immersive Historic Marker was unveiled across the street from the former location of historic Berry Hotel on Court Street in Athens. The Berry Hotel was an important early Black-owned business, built by Edward and Martha Jane Berry, and known far beyond Ohio with guests including US Presidents, Bob Hope, Carl Sandburg, and others. The Berry’s story is also one connected to the incredible Albany Enterprise Academy, one of the first educational institutions in the country to focus on Black Education taught by Black educators, even in the 1850s. The Berrys are connected to the Mount Zion Baptist Church, which has been a foundation for the Black community in Athens and southeast Ohio for decades. In the context of Invisible Ground, because the building had been demolished in 1974,the Berry Hotel became a perfect first attempt for the technology of the Immersive Historic Markers.. Through augmented reality, I could bring it back to life, accessible through the smartphone most people are carrying with them.
The feedback and community response to both the podcast and the marker has been affirming. After receiving my MFA, I am now continuing the project on and producing a total of eight markers in Athens County before the end of 2023. This project is in partnership with the Southeast Ohio History Center, and is supported by Ohio History Connection, Ohio Humanities, Revada Foundation, Kleinpenny Educational Fund, Athens County Convention & Visitors Bureau, Ohio’s Winding Road, City of Athens, Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society, and many other businesses and individual supporters.
Invisible Ground markers will eventually comprise an entire tour of the area and include places like Albany Enterprise Academy, The Ridges, and our second marker at Mount Zion Baptist Church, debuting later in September 2022. The podcasts will continue too. The excitement for me is that this work has just started and the surface is barely scratched. There are more stories to get out there. And technology can help us do that, while amplifying stories from the past that are important to our region and especially those within the BIPOC community. The combination of a digital and physical space helps to connect people to place-based storytelling right where they live.
Podcast episodes and more information about the Invisible Ground project can be found at findinvisibleground.com
Brian Koscho is an artist, historian, and producer who lives in Athens, Ohio. He holds an MFA in Communication Media Arts from Ohio University, and is the creator and producer of Invisible Ground. Brian also works as an adjunct instructor in the Ohio University School of Visual Communication, and as a freelance audio and graphic designer. Over the years he has worked with organizations like Stuart’s Opera House, the Nelsonville Music Festival, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Inside Appalachia, Ohio Environmental Council, WOUB Public Media, Ohio Arts Council, Southeast Ohio History Center, Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society, and many others. In his free time, he plays bass in longtime Athens band Unmonumental and helps run Aquabear Legion, a collective and record label focusing on Ohio music, which has existed since 2004.