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Creative space: The constantly evolving world of new media

By Steve Plever

For a lot of kids, being an astronaut is a cool thing, but realistically, you could never be an astronaut. For me, the dream was to do special effects and Pixar movies, to make cool stuff with the computer, but realistically, most kids don't end up doing that— it seemed kind of magical," muses Ben Rosen.

The junior from Chapel Hill and a small group of other UNC Asheville New Media students are now engaged in the magic of 3D animation, bringing events of history back to life in virtual space, while getting a leg up on a career.

The students are part of Assistant Professor Christopher Oakley's "Virtual Lincoln Project," where they will create a lifelike virtual Lincoln, who will deliver the Gettysburg Address on the 150th anniversary of that speech this November.

The most exciting thing for Rosen is getting an opportunity few students anywhere get—to work with very expensive professional animation software. It was a gift to the New Media Department from a software developer who was sufficiently impressed by early versions of the Lincoln animation. Says Rosen, "This is software that only huge companies can afford. So if you have experience with it as a student, you're already ahead of most other people applying for animation jobs."

New media students have created visualization tools for the Biology Department's aquatic lab, and worked with the university's National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center to make changes in climate visible and comprehensible. They also added interactive video and light components to the Dance Program's fall performances, and created their own performance art.

Their work exemplifies new media in the liberal arts context, where students are encouraged to take risks, think critically and collaborate across disciplines.

Shifting landscapes

“You can never find a perfect description of new media because it is constantly evolving,” says Lei Han, director and associate professor of new media at UNC Asheville. Even the department's name has evolved, from the original, Multimedia Arts and Sciences, to New Media.

According to Associate Professor Lorraine Walsh, "The landscape has shifted enormously since I arrived here in 2002, and the recent changes have been largely due to mobile devices. The 'new' in new media was put there to allow for changes in technology that we can't yet imagine."

Walsh can remember when what is now the New Media Department was more akin to a seed of a department that needed space to grow. "My first year, it was decided we would be housed in a new building," says Walsh, who chaired the department at the time when the program resided in both Karpen Hall and Rhoades-Robinson. "It was exciting—I was able to build a vision for the program and have the facilities match that vision. I looked at how MIT had structured their program and facilities, and that is reflected in our rooms in Zeis Hall now, with two rows of seats with a computer bank in the middle and a con­ference table where we can break away from the computers."

The program has grown to approximately 200 students taking new media classes each year, with between 65 and 80 majors.

The curriculum currently encompasses web design and development; 2D and 3D animation; interactive, video, sound and performance art; installation, science visualization, robotics, and nanotechnology. Graduates work in many different jobs—as web designers, video producers, designers of apps and video games, creative directors, artists and more. They also succeed in a variety of notable graduate programs at schools like Carnegie Mellon, NYU, Parsons, University of California Santa Cruz, Boston University School of Visual Arts and Pratt. Says Han, "Mainly, we are a department using technology to make art."

Mainly, we are a department using technology to make art."
—Lei Han, new media director

Expanding territory

As exemplified by Assistant Professor Curt Cloninger's performance art classes, new media certainly includes art that pushes boundaries. But much of the work involves placing art at the service of other disciplines. It's a mix of the avant-garde and the functional, a turf shared by art, science and business, and housed in North Carolina's designated public liberal arts university.

"UNC Asheville is unique within the UNC system," says Cloninger, "and within UNC Asheville, our department is in a kind of marginal space in between other more defined disciplines."

And in that space, which overlaps with other disciplines, new media students can add artistic vision, design and high-tech skills to non-art projects. This means that students are in high demand even before they graduate, as interns, with placements in Asheville newspapers and magazines, the National Climatic Data Center, USDA Forest Service, the Moog Foundation and the N.C. Arboretum, to name a few places.

"In this job market, any tool that you have is going to be helpful," says Taija Tevia-Clark '12.

"Probably the most important thing I came away with is the ability to troubleshoot and problem-solve different technologies and programs... to work with scripts other people have created when there's not a lot of documentation, working on my own or in a group. I gained a broad knowledge of different fundamental techniques for working with sounds and images." Tevia-Clark, although now relocated to the West Coast, is doing web design for the USDA Forest Service Southern Research Station right across the road from campus, where he interned as a student.

Getting serious

Beginning to acquire those tools involves introductory courses in digital design, computer and new media, web page and interactive design, motion media and more.

new media

A FOOT IN MANY DISCIPLINES:
David Allen '13 invented the intra platform to create personal connections through electrical and computerized circuitry. When users touch the pads with their bare feet, a minute electrical current passes through their bodies and into the circuitry, allowing them to control sound, visuals and lighting in the room. Together they generate an environment of sights, sounds and feelings. Project designers and participants (from left to right): Drew Glover, Kevin Boggs, David Allen and Hanna Trussler.
(Photo courtesy of David Allen)

"New media overlaps science with coding, and it has web design and the creative freedom that I was looking for," says David Allen '13, who started as an engineering student. He became enamored with motion graphics, changed majors, and earned his new media diploma in December. He immediately landed a job in the university's Communication and Marketing Office, with varied duties including video production and editing, web development and social media. "Being on the cutting edge, you're always adapting to new things coming out," he says.

Graduates excel in academia and industry. Gabe Clapper '06, Greg Bliss '06 and Michael Hill '09 all completed master's degrees at Carnegie Mellon. Clapper is currently the user experience design lead at Microsoft; Bliss is now a designer at GlassLab, where he creates digital games that function as learning and assessment tools; and Hill is a designer at Richard Lewis Media Group, developing new media exhibits for major museums and visitor centers worldwide. Jesse Michel '10 has a web development and design business in partnership with computer science major Patrick Conant '11. Wray Bowling '09 works for a small company called Intuvoe, building e-learning courses and websites.

"Most clients don't understand development or design and they're not supposed to— that's why they come to me," says Bowling. "What becomes more important than what we actually do to get to the end product, is explaining how we're going to put it together without talking about any of the technical parts. Going to a liberal arts university gave me better communication skills."

That view is echoed by Allison Callaway who was already working in marketing when she decided to pursue new media at UNC Asheville as a post-baccalaureate program. "I wanted to take my craft to a higher level—not just make a living, but understand the theory and art behind design." After two semesters of design classes, Callaway came away with a portfolio varied enough to land an art director position at an Asheville ad agency. She now lives and works in Dallas as senior art director for the American College of Education.

Finding direction

Amid all of the skill-building in new media is an emphasis on having an artistic mindset. "Many students coming into our program don't really recognize themselves as artists," says New Media Director Han. "Some see themselves as designers but not very many see themselves as artists. So the process is teaching students how to talk about their work, articulate their thoughts and grow as artists, and feel comfortable being artists. We use critique as a regular class practice—public critique of each other's work, so students can understand and develop a strong visual and verbal vocabulary essential to appreciating and practicing art and design in the fields of new media."

For example, students will soon be experimenting with GPS trackers and skateboarders to create animation out of their motion patterns for an exhibit at the Everhart Museum of Natural History, Science and Art in Scranton, Pa. Associate Professor Walsh was invited by the museum to exhibit her work, and she leads the project, emphasizing the artistic, collaborative nature of it.

"I don't know yet whether the anima­tion will be representational or whether we'll use software to represent the GPS data with visual patterns—this has been done with bicycles and taxis, and the results have been beautiful," says Walsh. "That uncertainty—making the discovery with the students—is part of the way I work. If we always knew the outcome, we wouldn't have that sense of inven­tion. And that's how we truly create new things."

Other faculty members celebrate the accident. Says Assistant Professor Cloninger, "I introduce the idea of 'glitch art' to students who've been really meticulous choosing the right typography—there's a whole world which celebrates things that are more gritty texture-wise."

LincolnChas Llewellyn '11 re-animated the prehistoric sculptures of the late John Payne.

Chas Llewellyn '11 is one new media graduate who marries precision and grit. With a strong background in computer programming, Llewellyn came to UNC Asheville to study interactive design and video, and experienced an unusual artistic awakening thanks to the River Arts District Studio Stroll, and an introduction to the late John Payne in The Wedge Studios.

When Llewellyn saw Payne's creations—sculptures of prehistoric creatures made of junk parts, animated by computer control—he was totally taken in. "The next week I went to a junkyard and started putting together parts," says Llewellyn. Payne, then in the last year of his life, became Llewellyn's mentor. And Llewellyn now makes his own creations in Payne's former studio.

"My work is a juxtaposition, with well-thought-out use of computers to feed life into the chaotic and dirty mess of junk," says Llewellyn. "On one hand is the computer work, very calculated, very clean, very technological. And on the other hand, raw, very human, down-and-dirty craftwork using stuff from the junkyard, which is a very magical place in my mind."

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