UCSC digital artist channels fire, Chinese history in an award-nominated RV project

The fire burns in the work of digital artist Haoran Chang. Its destructive power. Its potential for protection and healing.

Now, exploring Chang’s theme intertwined with his hometown in China has made the UC Santa Cruz graduate student a finalist for a prestigious international award.

Chang, 28, was born in Changsha, a city forever marked by the memory of a tragic warfare.

While the war between China and Japan broke out in 1938, the Chinese army set fire to Changsha in a misguided effort to maintain its wealth and resources from the advancing Japanese in a “scorched earth” approach. Changsha burned to the ground, killing tens of thousands of residents and leaving behind a sad legacy as the most destructive fire of its kind in the country’s history.

Chang grew up in Changsha, now a city of 8 million. But he said he never fully understood the story of the fire, also known as the Wenxi fire, during his childhood. Thus, after moving to the United States to study digital art as a college student, he set out to document history through a project that weaved history with simulations of the city’s destroyed buildings in a virtual world. .

Fire therapy

Haoran Chang is a digital artist and graduate student at UCSC.


Now on the verge of earning his Master of Fine Arts from the UCSC’s Digital Arts and New Media program, Chang has taken the fascination with fire from the past to the future with his latest project, “Fair Sai Re Pi fires). ”

The virtual facility imagines a shady corporation with pyramid schemes, Fair Sai Re Pi LLC, seeking to exploit traditional Chinese fire therapy for commercial gain. To experience the piece, the viewer lies down on a table and puts on a virtual reality headset. The facility is surrounded by equipment to provide sensations of heat, water and wind.

Examining both works is what Chang considers the “dialectic” of fire.

In Changsha, the nominal intention behind the 1938 fire was to protect China from a foreign invasion, Chang said. But its effect was widespread destruction. As Chang sees it, fire therapy carries a similar contrast.

“You can use fire to help you balance your energy and get rid of so-called evil energy,” he said. “But at the same time, fire can also burn your skin and cause a lot of wrong things.”

Chang spent months building the facility and creating the virtual experience at his Shanghai apartment, where he moved from Santa Cruz last September to wait for the COVID-19 pandemic and take his UCSC classes remotely.

“There is no blockade in China, which is also part of the reason I wanted to come back,” he said. But, immersed in his art and living much of the Pacific time for his studies, Chang added that he “somehow spent most of my time in my apartment, still.”

An illustration shows the virtual installation by digital artist Haoran Chang

An illustration shows digital artist Haoran Chang’s virtual installation “Fair Rai Se Pi (Fire Therapy),” as it was built in his Shanghai apartment this year while remotely studying at UCSC.


Get recognition

At the moment, the virtual installation only exists in Chang’s apartment. But it is already beginning to attract attention on an international stage.

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts announced earlier this month that Chang’s project has been selected as a finalist in one of the academy’s new student awards categories, for immersive film.

Chang was one of 15 finalists selected from a global group of 680 nominations, including students from China, South Africa, Norway, Denmark, France, the United States and the United Kingdom. A virtual awards ceremony is set for July 23rd.

Kathryn Busby, chair of the BAFTA Los Angeles board, said the academy was especially impressed with the quality of work presented in the new immersive category this year.

“It seems clear that regardless of the world or the format of the narrative, there is an exciting, diverse and inclusive future for our industry,” Busby said in a statement.

Chang said he was surprised to learn that he was nominated for a BAFTA given the unconventional nature of his project. Winning a place among the award finalists, he said, is a “huge honor.”

It is still unclear where Chang’s installation may end. He said he’s still polishing the virtual reality experience and working to make the whole experience replicated elsewhere, possibly at a festival in the United States next year.

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