Geek of the Week

Geek of the Week: Artist Chanee Choi’s 3D online game ‘Pandemic’ seems to be at racism throughout COVID-19

Chanee Choi performs in another of her works, called “Polaris,” a multimedia installation and performance. (Photo courtesy of Chanee Choi)

Chanee Choi’s “Pandemic” is a video game and it is art. And the “art game” is not an escape from reality as we know it right now.

A Ph.D. candidate in art and technology in the University of Washington’s Digital Arts and Experimental Media (DXARTS) department, Choi is a multidisciplinary interactive artist. Her latest project is a first-person 3D video game in which the player is the coronavirus, moving through a virtual environment.

Chanee Choi.

Our latest Geek of the Week, who is originally from South Korea, took on “Pandemic” to bring awareness to incidents of discrimination, xenophobia, racism, and violence against Asian Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. She hopes her game conveys a sense of what it’s like to be a minority in America.

“I think games are capable of getting people to think about themselves in ways they wouldn’t expect to, reflect on their lives, to learn about different topics, and to have a point of reference outside their daily lives,” Choi said.

She wanted to describe the “surrealistic struggle” of this particular moment — lockdowns, quarantines, disconnection and isolation — and engage with the people going through it with her. And “Pandemic” documents some of Choi’s own painful experience.

“In March, as I walked alone in the city, I was humiliated by the comments of a non-Asian stranger,” Choi she told UW News. “He said, ‘You f—ing Chinese, you brought the coronavirus.’ I was very shocked. I started questioning whether it would have happened if I were any other race besides Asian.”

“Pandemic” consists of seven different levels or stages, each taking place in a different location. The beginning of the game represents racist coronavirus tropes and racist clichés. The intensity of this xenophobia gradually gets more harmful level by level and is followed by commentary on politics, classism, and the elite’s indifference toward lower socioeconomic groups, Choi said.

“Finally, at the end, I make a space of beauty and hope,” she said. “We really can’t predict what will happen next, but we should try to find hope.”

“Pandemic” will be published later this year and available for download on Choi’s website.

Check out a video on Choi made by UW video producer Kiyomi Taguchi:

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Chanee Choi:

What do you do, and why do you do it? I’m a multidisciplinary interactive artist, also I’m a Ph.D. candidate at Digital Art and Experimental Media (DXARTS) at the University of Washington. Studying for a Ph.D. program for Art and Technology at DXARTS has been helpful for me because I can push myself harder than I would be able to do alone. Being surrounded by international artists who are working in the field of new media art has been a great opportunity to be exposed to different perspectives and methodologies.

I am a craft geek at heart. I am, in a way, a professional Korean traditional fiber crafter. I used to hand stitch embroidery for art projects in my early 20s, but then I began to mix this aesthetic with newer technologies, such as neon, computer video games, and E-textiles. Making the 3D design process and game programming calls on the same skills as traditional crafts. I used to weave and stitch a million threads into a small piece of fabric — these small repetitive movements with my hands are very similar to the way I make 3D environments and art games on the computer using a mouse. I am told that craft and artwork are different genres, but I wonder if that’s true.

I have many questions myself to being an artist: How should I approach the digital world? How can I make work that will resonate with people? How can I bring poetry to the new forms I make? Could this process be art? How can my work allow people to think of themselves in unfamiliar ways, reflect on their lives, and learn about new topics? How can I give them a point of reference outside the pathways of their daily lives? How to understand what aspects of reality are necessarily distorted by our perception of them? What is the nature of the gap between how the world really is and how it appears to us?

A still from Chanee Choi’s video game “Pandemic.” (Courtesy of Chanee Choi)

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? I often watch even students of art and technology misunderstand the nature of the field. They expect that it will involve making robot arms or interactive effects using a programming language, but the art that I’m studying is more complicated than that. I would categorize these things in the field of Art and Entertainment.

Of course, everything can be art if you want to call it that, but I believe that Art and Entertainment are different from the field of Fine Art. Making cool effects or something that looks new for movies or popular video games certainly has its value but it doesn’t quite share the same goals. Fine Art surely uses the same qualities of aesthetic attraction and novelty — but I believe it should have its own message and meaning from the artist, a critical message.

I believe there is such a thing as real truth in life, but as humans, our different perspectives and perceptions allow us only limited access. Artists express their views and thoughts to the world.

Where do you find your inspiration? My inspiration comes from everywhere: talking with my friends, trying to find a new cafe, browsing at the local antique stores, art shows, poems, movies, games, and Twitch streaming. … I try to have new things in my life as much as possible. I hope I finish making “Pandemic” soon so I can begin traveling again!

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? Internet.

Chanhee Choi’s home workspace, left, and her UW lab. (Photos courtesy of Chanhee Choi)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? I have two workspaces, one is my living room at my apartment and the other is a DXARTS lab on the campus. I’ve mostly been at home since quarantine began, but I’ve been working at school as much as possible because it helps me stay inspired to relocate. Both spaces are great, and they look quite different — my apartment work area is stimulating and colorful like Charlie’s chocolate factory and my lab is like a batman’s cave, a calm and dark space that helps me focus.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) If you burn out or struggle from a dilemma, and are finding it hard to achieve your goal, don’t give up yet. It’s actually a good sign! It indicates that you are getting close. I believe this happens because your abilities are developing past where they were before, so you can’t quite control yourself or you feel you’re getting worse, but you’re really just growing. There’s often an awkwardness to expanding your skills.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows and Mac.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? Red Flash of Choushinsei Flashman (超新星フラッシュマン translated into English as Supernova Flashman)

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Transporter.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … I’d like to buy a warehouse in Seattle and New York and change them to non-profit new media art gallery spaces. I’d also make a room to sleep in the gallery so I could invite artists to a residency program.

I once waited in line for … a cronut at Dominique Ansel Bakery.

Your role models: My program DXARTS has amazing faculty. I feel very lucky to have them as role models.

I also look up to Richard Karpen and Juan Pampin who are international sound artists and researchers of electroacoustic music. They produced a collaboration with JACK Quartet’s sonified brain waves from neural sensors and the music they played live with string instruments.

James Coupe uses real-time public surveillance systems and interactive deepfake installations. Reflecting on the impact of Big Data, immaterial labor, and AI, his artworks explore searches, queries, automation, classification systems, and algorithmic narratives.

Afroditi Psarra’s research focuses on art and science’s interaction with a critical discourse in the creation of artifacts. She is interested in the use of the body as an interface of control, and the revitalization of tradition as a methodology of hacking existing norms about technical objects.

And a new faculty member, Tivon Rice, is a data-driven installation artist, whose work incorporates new media to explore how we see and understand a future thoroughly enmeshed in new data/visual/production systems.

Greatest game in history: “Uncharted Waters IV: Porto Estado (Daikoukai Jidai IV),” and “Princess Maker 1, 2.”

Best gadget ever: Pfaff tiptronic 6230 and Electric hand tufting gun.

First computer: Samsung Magic Station pro M550, 1997.

Current phone: iPhone 11.

Favorite app: Kakaotalk, Spotify.

Favorite cause: #BLM.

Most important technology of 2020: Zoom and other online chat and educational platforms and COVID-19 vaccine.

Most important technology of 2022: COVID-19 vaccine.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Interactive fiction is not about the death of the author. It’s about choice as another communicative tool.” — Emily Short.


LinkedIn: Chanee Choi

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