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Kinetic Imaging and Computer Science students collaborate on virtual exhibition space for senior capstone shows

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The Spring Senior Capstone Exhibition was canceled for many VCUarts seniors as a result of pandemic-related university closures. Hoping to bring the community together and boost morale, staff members of the Kinetic Imaging department immediately began exploring options for taking senior shows to the web. 

Senior studio professors Stephanie Thulin and Pam Turner still wanted to provide their students with the senior show they’ve anticipated all semester. 

“Not having an exhibit was not an option,” said Turner, elaborating that their goal was to “not only show the work but have it be in a form that was an exciting and impactful event.”

“If any department at VCU was going to make the shift to online, I strongly believed that Kinetic Imaging should be leading that front,” noted Thulin, “whether it was just for KI or for the school at large.”

“Being online was the natural go-to,” said Turner, “with the goal of reaching more people than might visit the physical venues.”

What began as a discussion in a faculty meeting turned into an even bigger idea when professor Semi Ryu thought to make the creation of a virtual space for viewing the senior show the final project for her Virtual Interactive Worlds class. 

“While restructuring VIW for online,” said Ryu, “ I started thinking VIW students might be able to do this for their final, based on the incredible ability they’ve shown during class. Having students involved in this collaborative effort for the community is beautiful. I wanted students to have full agency and ownership about this project, as well as serving the community.”

Initially planning a show just for the KI seniors, Thulin received an email from the Anderson about solutions for the canceled Senior Capstone Shows and thought to introduce the idea of a virtual build of the Anderson to Ryu. This would likely be a more industrious undertaking for the group, but it would also mean making the show accessible to a larger audience. 

“Making all models and interactive features properly functioning on the web would be really challenging,” said Ryu, “We need to highly optimize data for wide public access, even for someone with low computing power.”

In VIW, Kinetic Imaging and Computer Science students have constructed a Virtual Anderson using the game-development software Unity. The 3D space includes an exterior garden, an entrance, a main structure with a lobby, a virtual theater, entrances to Kinetic Imaging, Painting + Printmaking, and Photography + Film sections of the exhibition, a KI gallery building with sculpture garden, and avatars to function as the audience moving through the exhibition space.

“The virtual Anderson we are building will look like the Anderson externally,” said Thulin, “but internally some space will be true to the physical space and other spaces will be more imagined.” 

In response to social distancing practices, students wanted to replicate the physical experience of attending an art opening as much as possible. Computer Science students in Ryu’s VIW class have introduced an additional feature that records previous users’ motion paths, working with a realtime database, to simulate traces of people in the space. 

“We brainstormed a lot about adding extra features of social interactions,” said Ryu.

Despite logistical difficulties, the department has put together a sizable team to facilitate this virtual show, made up of the VCUarts Web team, the VCUarts Office of Communications, the Anderson, numerous members of the KI faculty and staff, as well as a myriad of outstanding KI students, grads, and alumni. This team, with a likeminded goal, aims to “create a space online that is as special and equivalent as we can get to the physical shows,” said Thulin.

 “This project is hopefully more than that,” she added, “as it’s affording us an opportunity to do things beyond what we could do in a physical space.”

Kinetic Imaging seniors now have the unique chance to show a wider variety of work using the virtual venue for their show. Between introducing a platform for sharing web-based work, utilizing 3D computer graphics application Maya to build virtual versions of installation based-work, and scheduling live streamed screenings of video work, students have been making the most of the advantages offered by exhibiting in a virtual space over a physical gallery. 

“Sound could be managed as it [won’t] ‘travel’ through space and conflict with someone else’s soundtrack for their work,” said Turner, “and physics could be ignored as you [won’t] have to hammer nails or figure out how to hang objects. Any surface could be projected onto. Interactivity is coded and doesn’t need to be ‘triggered’ through hardware placed in the physical space. No electrical cords have to be hidden.”

“In the physical world, KI has a limited amount of projectors and speakers,” said Thulin, “but in the virtual space, it doesn’t matter. Every student now gets their own virtual space and that space can be whatever size and shape they want.” 

Through this virtual exhibition, Kinetic Imaging hopes to make a unique and innovative contribution to the growing number of galleries and festivals taking strides to make art accessible and finding creative solutions to keep moving during this time. 

“We wanted to go beyond what other universities are doing, especially since the virtual space is part of what we do departmentally,” said Thulin.

Virtual exhibition opens June 5 at 5pm. An opening virtual screening will be held on June 6 at 7pm, followed by an artist Q&A via Zoom. Limited additional screenings will be held on June 7 at 2pm, June 12 at 7pm, and June 13 at 2pm & 7pm.