Full Exposure : A ‘MAT’ student exhibits at the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation

By Claudia Gonzalez

 Weihao Qiu, a UC Santa Barbara Media and Technology student, visits LACMA’s Urban Light installation.

Weihao Qiu, a UC Santa Barbara Media and Technology student, visits LACMA’s Urban Light installation.

As a young boy growing up in China, Weihao Qiu, a UC Santa Barbara graduate student in Media Arts and Technology (MAT), imagined himself growing up to be a businessman.

But fate had a different plan for Qiu, who has since established himself as a creative computer coder, media artist and freelance photographer. At age 24, Qiu landed a major installation at the MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation in Santa Barbara, which closes Jan. 15 after a three-month run.

Qiu’s installation, ‘Exposure & Light,’ is a data visualization project that consists of 200,000 photographs taken over a 24-hour period from all over the world, images which Qiu retrieved from the photo sharing platform Flickr. The photographs are arranged on a world map according to what day and time of day they were shot. Images with low exposure are colored blue, then intensify through red, and orange all the way to yellow for high exposure. Each photo appears as a rectangle and is part of an animation that cycles through the hours of the day. Visitors are able to select the time they wish to check and the region they wish to view, simply by touching the screen.

Qiu had to work quickly to design and modify his piece for the exhibition. In the end, his hard work paid off. In a recent interview, he described how exciting it was to receive the commission for his piece and how thrilled he has been by the reaction of visitors who have interacted with it.

“When it was exhibited, I saw people playing with it, and that moment was very special,” he said. “You already know the tricks but they don’t. So you can see the process of them gaining knowledge to understand the piece.”

 Weihao Qiu’s ‘Exposure & Light’ installation at MOXI in Santa Barbara shows a selected image of daily life from a specific region in the world map.

Weihao Qiu’s ‘Exposure & Light’ installation at MOXI in Santa Barbara shows a selected image of daily life from a specific region in the world map.

The project, inspired by Qiu’s interest in photography, gives anyone who sees it at the MOXI a closer look at photography from across the world. “It’s a process that captures light, so each photo is actually taking some light from the world and storing it on film,” he said. “Coding is what programmers do but I use the same technology and logic to make things that are visually beautiful.”

Given that the MOXI’s target audience is children, Qiu expected differences in the way that visitors would interact with his piece. “For kids it’s more about exploring the world. And for adults, when they explore the piece, they might understand the meaning of capturing light. So I expect a generational difference in the understanding of my piece,” he said.

Qiu got the commission as a result of the innovative Media Arts and Technology (MAT) program. At its 2016 end-of-year show, where students displayed their work to the public, ‘Exposure & Light’ caught the attention of the curator of Interactive Media for MOXI, who is an alumnus of the MAT program. The curator, Marco Pinter, took an interest in Qiu’s work.

“I thought Weihao’s work was compelling and visually appealing, and most important for my work curating for MOXI, it was accessible to a very wide age range,” Pinter said. “Since I am specifically curating interactive media work, it’s great to have MAT right here in town, and events like the End of Year Show, to be able to experience the work of the department.”

Back in his undergrad years, when Qiu studied computer science in China at Xi’An Jiaotong University, in Shaanxi, he was able to lay a strong foundation for mastering the technical part of research into new media art. But he didn’t seem to enjoy it as much as he would have enjoyed projects that allow him to reach into his creative side.

When he came to UCSB in 2015 and began the MAT program, Qiu saw the potential for applying his technical knowledge to purposes other than science and technology. “For me it was like a new world and I saw more possibilities than before. That was my general impression.” he said. “Here [at UCSB] we have a lot of students from various backgrounds, from design to technical, to psychology to literature. It’s a place where different ideas come together to make new ideas.”

He says he his longstanding interest in the craft of photography inspired his work in data visualization. “I didn’t expect I could create very beautiful things through very technical programming,” he said.

Now as he gets ready to graduate, Qiu sees his future open to many possibilities. He doesn’t want to follow the same path that his colleagues from Xi’An Jiaotong University took in accepting jobs as programmers for companies like Google, Amazon or Apple. Instead, Qiu hopes to venture into a more creative direction.

“When I came here all of the possibilities were open, so it’s hard to imagine what I will be in 10 years,” he said.

Weihao Qiu’s ‘Exposure and Light’ will be up at the MOXI until January 15, 2018.

Claudia Gonzalez is a Senior in Film and Media Studies at UC Santa Barbara.