Many end-of-spring-semester events pivoted from in-person to online this year, including Scripps College’s annual Senior Art Exhibition. Harvey Mudd College seniors Emily Zhao and Julia Read were among the artists who reinvented their artwork to fit a virtual presentation for the show “A part/ Apart.”
“Am I the Virus?”, Zhao’s work in the exhibition, is a series of four programmatically generated images challenging racism and xenophobia related to COVID-19. “As the virus originates in Wuhan, China, COVID-19 has triggered international discrimination and racism against Asians and Asian-Americans,” Zhao says. “Incidents ranging from verbal harassment and violent, physical attacks have occurred in multiple countries spurred from the racist practice of blaming the region, and by extension, the people from that region, for the disease and its spread.”
Originally about 15,000 by 8,000 pixels, Zhao reduced her images to approximately 16 dots per inch for the virtual format. The images were constructed by dividing a source image into cell tiles and then using the minimum normalized mean squared error calculation to fill it with repeating cell images pulled from the Internet. “In making up an image from several other smaller images,” Zhao says, “‘Am I the Virus?’ prompts the viewer to look at the final images in parts and as a whole—calling an image made of people ‘a virus’ and calling an image made of viruses ‘life.’”
In two of Zhao’s pieces, images of the coronavirus in 3D and also microscopic form are made up of cell images of people wearing face masks, “specifically Asians,” Zhao says, “because Asians and Asian-Americans felt that wearing face masks were more likely to make them a target of the abuse and racist sentiment.”
Read, a double major in computer science and art, produced a participatory, procedurally generated landscape experience for her project, Inside and Out: Exploring Self-Reflective Landscapes.
“Procedural generation is a technique that is prominent in both the computer science world and the art world,” she says. “In the tech world, procedural generation is a method of creating data that takes advantage of processing power and computer-generated randomness in order to function algorithmically instead of manually, typically combining human input and algorithms. In the art world, the randomness and greater visibility obtained by using a system in the procedural generation process are present within generative art as well.”
In addition to looking at Read’s landscapes, viewers are invited to participate in her project by responding to a series of questions whose answers generate their own unique landscapes. “The procedurally generated virtual landscapes are produced by randomized functions that are seeded with the responses to prompting questions,” she says. “The option of using natural language processing libraries in order to correlate responses more strongly with visual results is also being explored.”
Read says a key aspect of her work is that it is viewable online through affordable virtual reality technology. “I pursued online virtual reality art because I felt strongly about the way it democratizes the dissemination of information and artistic experience in addition to obstructing the commodification of art,” she says. Because of the pandemic, “mandatory social distancing is closing down museums, opening up virtual galleries and driving art further towards a more digital norm. Now, more than ever, this project is a critique on the way we experience art as well as on accessibility within the art world. I sincerely hope that this shift in the art world also shifts the power dynamic within it, too.”
Read is spending the summer working for Unity Technologies as an HD mobile graphics intern and will begin a PhD program in computer science specializing in computer graphics at Simon Fraser University. “I hope to continue collaborating with people from a wide variety of disciplines and to bridge the gap between these exciting areas as both a computer scientist and an artist,” she says.