Forman Arts Initiative (FAI) and Mural Arts (MA) recently announced “Philly Daydreams: Stories In Transit,” a new augmented reality public art project to be exhibited throughout Philadelphia’s transit system by Indian-American artist and filmmaker Anula Shetty.
The project will be on view through the end of the year.
Shetty is the inaugural artist-in-residence of Public Works, launched by FAI and Mural Arts.
Since January, Shetty has been working within the Southern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA), researching its history and filming stories from employees and commuters across Philadelphia who share glimpses into how daily transit can serve as a space for daydreaming, wonder, and connection.
“One of the discoveries I made during the research phase was SEPTA's sheer magnitude and reach,” Shetty said. “I did not realize how huge the organization is and how many different operations fall under SEPTA’s umbrella.”
Through an augmented reality series of stories, daydreams, thoughts, and performances that Shetty has filmed, “Philly Daydreams” allows travelers to be virtually accompanied on their journeys by fellow Philadelphians.
QR-triggered photographs taken by Shetty replace the advertising space on select trains and anyone with a phone can activate a transit story.
Shettyʼs project explores public transportation as a service that unites people through a shared experience.
“The goal is to create connections between people who cross paths during their daily commute,” Shetty said. “Through ‘Philly Daydreams,’ I want to provide SEPTA riders a moment to hear uplifting stories of human connection and a moment to be moved by a poem or performance, to imagine, and to daydream as I got to during the wonderful process of exploring SEPTA and meeting my inspiring city-mates.
Incorporating Art with Public Transit
“Philly Daydreams” is positioned to reach over 500,000 commuters and riders daily. It is displayed throughout the Broad Street line, on digital board screens on SEPTA Regional Rail lines, and along the Girard Avenue trolley lines.
Short Editionʼs Short Story Dispenser kiosks throughout the city, including in transit hubs, public libraries, and Philadelphia International Airport, will house stories from “Philly Daydreams” participants and submissions from the general public.
“I love the idea of people encountering art in unexpected and surprising ways,” Shetty said. “By creating a public art project that people would experience on their daily commute, I hope to provide moments where people can be enriched, inspired, or transformed. Public transit is a space to daydream and imagine new possibilities. Through this project, I want to encourage curiosity, connection, and daydreaming.”
A special multi-channel presentation of Shettyʼs films is projected in City Hall Stationʼs oculus—closed since the pandemic. The oculus serves as the central compass of “Philly Daydreams,” giving a collective home to the stories of Philadelphians that originated throughout the city.
“Public transit is a unique space where you can cross paths with so many people from different walks of life and cultural and economic backgrounds,” Shetty said. “As you look out the window, you glimpse many neighborhoods and communities that flash by. Wouldn't it be amazing to learn the stories and dreams of the commuters and transit workers you are riding with if you could dive right into the heart of what makes a neighborhood unique? These were some of my first inspirations for the project.”
To encourage connections following the isolating effects of COVID-19 and to celebrate the collective nature of public transportation, Shetty filmed interviews with SEPTA riders and bus and trolley operators, as well as with activists, community organizers, and poets like Ursula Rucker and Catzie Vilayphonh, and cultural leaders, including Street Deptʼs Conrad Benner around the theme of “daydreaming in transit.”
Shetty shot the interviews in various SEPTA locations and commuter hubs, including inside a trolley at the Septa Transit Museum, The Southeast Asian Market in FDR Park, and the network of disused SEPTA tunnels beneath the city.
From these interviews, Shetty created a series of photographs around themes of commuting and daydreaming in Philadelphia transit; photography featuring portraits of riders and transit-related landscapes line the areas above the windows in many of Philadelphiaʼs trains and trolleys, serving as the launchpad for the project’s augmented reality.
Riders who hold their phone up to these panels will trigger one of Shettyʼs filmed interviews to appear on their screen, creating the visual of a fellow rider accompanying them on their journey and sharing their dreams in transit.
In her early conversations with SEPTA staff, Shetty learned about the challenges of decreased ridership after the pandemic and discovered many SEPTA spaces were closed during the pandemic and have not been reopened.
“I decided to focus my project on how to get people to reconnect with the joy of traveling on public transit and to celebrate some of the beautiful spaces, like the Oculus, that were shut down during the pandemic,” Shetty said. “I wanted to create connections between commuters and transit workers and to create a project that would do that through storytelling.”
Challenges During Creation
While Shetty learned more about the challenges facing SEPTA and the rest of the transit industry, there were also obstacles during the cultivation of “Philly Daydreams.”
One of the challenges for Shetty was logistical.
“I wanted to film everyone on a train, trolley, or bus to make it feel like we were traveling with the person telling their story,” she said. “This involved organizing shoots where the transit vehicles would be empty and stationary. We filmed in the shops at Fern Rock Transportation Center, 69th Street Station, and at the Midvale and Elmwood Bus Depots.”
The other challenge was the project's sheer scope and preparation for all the different stages.
“This is my most ambitious project to date, and at every stage, we were juggling many formats, platforms, and technologies,” Shetty said. “There is the installation and exhibition at the Oculus space below City Hall, which involves multi-channel video projection; the design and printing of the ‘Philly Daydreams’ car cards with QR codes that would trigger videos on all the transit lines, and finally preparing transcribed versions of the stories for SEPTAʻs short edition story kiosks.”
Shetty thanked her residency project managers, AlʻLee Floyd at SEPTA and Ginger Rudolph from Mural Arts, who organized and managed this project's complex logistics. “The support of Forman Arts Initiative staff was vital for the final shape and development of the project. It was undoubtedly a dream team,” Shetty added.
Takeaways from ‘Philly Daydreams’
Shetty said she is always thinking of ways technology can provide a stronger connection to nature and individuals.
“While traveling in public transit, I see everyone absorbed and scrolling on their phones, and I think it would be wonderful if the phone could instead be a tool to open up an art experience,” Shetty said. “There is something magical about holding up a phone to an image or QR code and having it trigger a video or a story.”
Shetty filmed all the featured artists, community leaders, and transit workers on buses, trains, and trolleys so that when people watch the stories, “it feels like they are riding along with the storytellers as fellow passengers.”
As Shetty worked with Forman Arts Initiative and Mural Arts to shape the final project, she started to explore a theme that would tie all the different layers of the project together.
“This is where I thought about how, for me, public transit lends itself to daydreaming – looking outside at the lights or the landscapes and letting your mind wander,” she added. “It becomes this special moment when you can transcend the boundaries of time and space and start envisioning and imagining. I thought of using the idea of daydreaming to enter people's stories and create connections between riders and transit workers.”