Opioid addiction is a silent killer – it’s especially dangerous because of how often it can go unnoticed.
To shine a light on America’s opioid crisis, the National Safety Council (NSC) teamed up with Free The Bid-pledged agency Energy BBDO and experiential design team Hyphen-Labs (on m ss ng p eces’ VR/experiential roster) on “Prescribed To Death,” a memorial designed to raise awareness of the insidious nature of opioid addiction.
As part of a traveling exhibit conceived of and developed by Hyphen-Labs, first displayed in Chicago, a wall of 22,000 pills carved with tiny human faces confront visitors. Every 24 minutes (the rate at which prescription opioid overdoses happen), a pill is mechanically carved and added to the wall, representing the face of a victim lost to overdose. With the total number of pills representing the number of deaths from opioid overdose reported in the past year, visitors are given a tangible sense of the enormity of this epidemic.
The emotional resonance that Hyphen-Labs (who were the masterminds behind the exhibition) and director Tucker Walsh (who directed the video documenting the project) were able to convey in “Prescribed To Death,” has resulted in the project being awarded 6 Lions at this year’s Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, 5 awards and 1 merit at the One Show Awards, and the Next Experiential Award by the AICP, among many other accolades.
Hyphen-Labs (Carmen Aguilar y Wedge, Ece Tankal, and Ashley Baccus-Clark) is an international team of women of color working at the intersection of technology, art, science, and the future. Through their global vision and unique perspectives, they are driven to create meaningful and engaging ways to explore emotional, human-centered and speculative design. In the process, they challenge conventions and stimulate conversations, placing collective needs and experiences at the center of evolving narratives.
We spoke to the Hyphen-Labs team about the personal dimensions of working on this project, collaborating as one big brain, and the importance of including all kinds of bodies in our envisioning of the technological future.
How did this project come into being? How did the idea take shape?
The National Safety Council (NSC) is a non-profit organization with a mission to stop preventable death in the United States. Energy BBDO, their creative agency, came up with the brand platform “Stop Everyday Killers” to help bring this mission to life. “Prescribed to Death” was the first campaign that they launched, tackling the US Opioid Epidemic—the #1 cause of preventable death in the country. Energy had the idea to awaken people to the growing problem by making it personal and putting a face behind the statistics.
Energy partnered with m ss ng p eces to bring their vision to life and create the first ever memorial to the victims of opioid overdose. m ss ng p eces is a versatile production company with artists, directors and experience designers working in different areas, including production, film, advertising and emerging technology. We, as Hyphen-Labs, worked on the spatial experience of the exhibit and helped expand the initial idea, coming up with parametric and computational design solutions to put the faces onto the pills and exhibit them in a way where we could amplify the existing issue, to include all affected by the epidemic and honor the victims and families that continue to struggle with drug addiction.
What elements of the message struck a chord with you – was there a personal resonance to the subject matter?
The more we researched about the victims of the epidemic, the circumstances under which they had become addicted, and the current legislation and policy around taking care of addicts , we realized that this is a problem deeply entrenched in capitalism, corporate policy, and irresponsible individuals. The most frightening thing about this epidemic is that it can truly happen to anyone, and it’s very likely that it has happened to someone close to you. Personally, I, Carmen, broke my wrist and have been in accidents where the doctors were quick to prescribe opioids. After hearing stories from individual advocates of addiction awareness, I am very thankful that I was not on the wall. A little later on in the project, we started prototyping and crafting the experience and designing the space. Ashley was speaking to her family about the project and learned about someone in her community that was affected by addiction. I also had a good friend from high school who died after turning to heroin after her prescription ran out. Generally, if our immediate community has not been affected, we really don’t understand the reach of the problem, but through this project we quickly found out how personal the epidemic is. Everyone knows someone who has been affected, and addiction can happen to anyone.
What led you to the choice of creating an exhibit and interactive experience as a way of exploring this idea? Is this kind of experiential work within the scope of previous projects that you’ve completed, or does this represent a new direction for you?
Energy had the idea to put consumers face-to-face with the opioid epidemic, in the hopes that by remembering those who have been lost to the crisis, we could encourage others to avoid the same tragic fate.
Generally, we think that using emerging technology to create immersive experiences turns our audience into active participants rather than passive viewers, which has a much greater impact. We want those who engage with this work to become more informed and learn the truth behind the statistics so they will potentially change their own behavior, or so they can be equipped to show support for someone else who may be struggling.
Ece is an architect, Carmen is an engineer and technologist, and Ashley is a scientist interested in understanding behavior. So we had the challenge of creating something that fit within the context of the space, incorporated emerging technology to create a crafted piece of artwork that could travel and help change individuals behaviors, while honoring those who have been taken from their friends and families far too soon.
The individual sculpted pills are a very powerful statement. What was the process to create them?
It took us 4 weeks to place the faces on the pills in a digital environment and produce them in real scale. Thus, we could quickly scale in the computer environment and process over the geometry we wanted. At the initial Chicago Memorial, we installed a CNC machine on a mezzanine that milled a new face on molds prepared from plaster every 24 minutes, the rate at which people are lost to this epidemic. Visualizing the data this way helped to make the problem feel real and urgent.
It took three months to bring the project from the idea stage to realization. The first installation took a week to complete. The memorial is intentionally modular, and it has been installed and displayed in different parts of the country. The journey that began in Chicago last November has since traveled to Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and finally, the White House Lawn in Washington, DC.
How did you translate the real-world exhibit to the digital one? How does the idea benefit from being explored through both formats?
In addition to physical exhibition, an online campaign was created to reach people in places
where the installation could not go. We are thrilled that the campaign has reached so many
people, and are honored to have been part of the team.
The digital campaign / website of the project is simple, interactive, and effective. Those who
go to the website can witness the stories of people who have lost their lives. Here, the
statistics of 22,000 are more personalized. In order to increase this interaction, another
platform was created in which other people could register and share their stories. There is a lot
of participation, and the database continues to grow. This feedback is important in order to be
aware that the danger is closer than we think.
What lessons did you learn throughout the process, both in terms of crafting of the piece as well as from the subject matter?
We learned a lot about opioids themselves – there are so many prescription drugs that can lead to addiction. It was crazy how this epidemic affects children as well as adults from all demographic backgrounds, classes, occupations, cities. Learning about individual stories really gave us a new perspective on creating an installation that would be impactful, which was our most exciting challenge.
Initially, we had no idea what 22,000 of something would look like, so it was a unique opportunity to see so many iterations on one wall.
What was your working dynamic with director Tucker Walsh? How was your collaboration initiated and what were some of the highlights of working together (and with the rest of the team)?
Tucker Walsh is an incredible director. He and the rest of the m ss ng p eces team have a lot of experience with film and advertising and it was an incredible opportunity to work with them. This was our first major campaign and we are very proud of the result. Tucker was a great co- creator, and together we were able to create a beautiful exhibition and film. Tucker was always very supportive and willing to work with us to come up with the best solutions. The project took shape in a very short amount of time and it was great to have someone alongside us who was confident in our decisions and wanted to see our vision materialize.
“Prescribed To Death,” has been highly awarded – most recently receiving 6 Lions at the 2018 Cannes Lions. What has it been like to see the response to this project, both in terms of accolades and more of the one-on-one responses you’ve received from viewers?
The goal of the project is already reaching a wider demographic and creating awareness about the dimensions, consequences and causes of this epidemic, essentially to show how accessible and dangerous opioids are. We have spoken about the work at festivals and had people come up to us and tell us their stories. We are thrilled to have been a part of the project and continue to advocate for more attention to be placed on addiction and how it impacts communities. Above all, we are allies. We want to inspire others from all parts of the world to help stop this epidemic and get support for those who need it. We want to see healthier communities, and this project did that digitally and through a physical exhibition.
Since Hyphen works together as a team, how did you all originally find one another and begin working together?
Hyphen-Labs is an international team of creatives, technologists, architects, scientists, and game designers working and creating at the intersection of tech, interactive art, and large- scale immersive experiences. Ece and Carmen met in Grad School and Ashley and Carmen met during their undergraduate experience. We had experience working in Labs, corporate environments and architecture/engineering offices and wanted to build something that reflected who we were as individuals. Hyphen-Labs was created by a diverse group of global citizens well versed in creative collaboration across cultural lines. We have a global vision and want to share our perspectives utilizing emerging technologies to explore storytelling in new ways, creating meaningful and engaging experiences.
What aspects of working collectively do you find most creatively fulfilling, and what elements pose the greatest challenges?
It’s great working as a collective – it’s as if we are all part of one big brain. We all have different backgrounds, interests, and experiences, so our process is always different. We aren’t just co- workers, but we are also great friends and our friendship started in education, so we have spent many sleepless nights together studying for tests or finishing projects to meet deadlines. We all live in different parts of the world, so getting to early morning meetings in Europe or afternoon meetings in California can be one of our biggest challenges. But living far is also a benefit, it allows us to work 24 hours across timelines :)
What are some of the Hyphen-Labs projects that you are most proud of?
NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism is a transmedia exploration told through speculative product design, emerging technologies, cognitive research, and transhumanism. Created by and for women of color, Hyphen-Labs presents a multi-layered possible future that transcends the constraints of the present; a realm which The New Yorker has called “another plane of consciousness.” Hyphen-Labs and its collaborators designed a roster of products —such as earrings that can record police altercations and clothing that thwarts facial recognition — thematically rooted in security, protection, and visibility. The virtual reality experience is the first chapter of a science fiction story placing you in a “neurocosmetology lab” where black women are the pioneers of brain optimization. Here, instead of ordinary braids, customers are fitted with transcranial electrodes that allow access to a surreal digital temple, blending the physical with the digital. Additionally, participants are invited to contribute to ongoing neurological and cognitive impact research studies as a way of bringing scientific exploration into public spaces.
Where do you see your work going next?
We are really excited for the next year with m ss ng p eces! We hope to continue working on campaigns, as well as our individual artwork.
How do you see the experiential/interactive sector of the advertising industry evolving in the future? What evolutions have you already seen during the course of your career?
Creatives and audiences are eager to get off their computers/phones and experience spaces with each other, encouraging meaningful connections. We were lucky to be a part of “29 Rooms ,” by Refinery 29 in New York and Los Angeles, showing our work alongside agencies and other artists. This is a great way for companies and individuals to have experiences that are outside their “product” but inspire creativity and alternative platforms.
Free The Bid is committed to advocating for diverse perspectives and points of view. What do you think are some of the benefits to diverse representation on both sides of the camera lens?
Yes! Of course. We look at diversity from a global lens. We come from all over the world and work with people who have different upbringings from us! It is really important to have their voices! Sometimes we see technology or new platforms being promoted and they are obviously designed without our bodies or minds or beings in mind, so in order for a more equitable world, we need to have more global representation.
Finally, what advice would you give to any young women who would like to follow in your career footsteps?
Keep making! Find other people who support you and believe in your dreams. We’ve done it, so you can do it too! Fear is part of the process, but just keep pushing forward and find the spaces and people that can help you…they’re out there!
Production/Development Company: m ss ng p eces
Director/Developers: Tucker Walsh, Hyphen-Labs, Mike Woods
Executive Producers: Ari Kuschnir, Kate Oppenheim, Brian Latt, Edward Grann, Dave Saltzman
Advertising Agency: Energy BBDO
Agency Chief Creative Officer: Andrés Ordóñez
Agency Creatives: Cinzia Crociani, Meg Farquhar, Michael Shirley, Amy Ditchman, Alejandro Juli