Gray Area Immersive Program Pushes Boundaries of Online Education

Student Art Showcased in Virtual Recreation of Gray Area’s Grand Theater

Gray Area Foundation
7 min readJul 20, 2020
A virtual recreation of Gray Area’s Grand Theatre. The artwork Place 1 by Kaii Tu is featured, a wire-frame home design
The Gray Area Showcase Spring 2020 took place in a virtual recreation of the Grand Theater.

When the COVID-19 outbreak hit America in mid-March, art institutions and schools across the country transitioned online, forced to adapt to the new reality of remote learning. Gray Area’s typical calendar of concerts, art exhibitions, artist talks, and workshops was similarly affected, though organizers remained determined to continue the programs in a meaningful way. As an integral part of the Gray Area ethos, educational classes and workshops like the Creative Code Immersive have embraced the challenges (and opportunities) of education at a distance.

Change of Space, Space for Change

The Creative Code Immersive is a 12 week long studio art course in computer science, combining modern artistic expression with the powerful capabilities of coding and digital media. Students from a wide range of backgrounds are taught by a group of expert instructors who guide them through the technical and creative aspects of digital art. The course culminates in a showcase where students display their final projects to the public. And, while the exhibitions have always been at the cutting-edge of new media, this year’s spring showcase was undeniably special.

Place 1 by artist Kaii Tu. A 3D wireframe architecture design for a fantastical and infinite series of rooms
Place Series (2020) by Kaii Tu, exhibited in a virtual recreation of the Grand Theater.

For the first time ever, the Gray Area Artist Showcase took place in an online, virtual recreation of the Grand Theater, created by Brenda (Bz) Zhang. Artwork from Immersive students and artists in Gray Area’s Incubator Program was displayed in cyberspace fashioned to resemble a real, physical art gallery. Hosted on New Art City, the showcase launched at SF Design Week and has already been visited by audiences from around the world. The artist showcase is still live — visit the exhibition here!

A Neural Garden by artist Jacky Lu. A series of surreal digital paintings displayed in a virtual gallery.
A Neural Garden (2020) by Jacky Lu. Individual visitors are represented by green diamonds, and are controlled using the mouse and arrow keys.

These final projects were the result of weeks of intense work by the students and teachers. Kicking off on March 31st, the Creative Code Immersive cohort met three times per week; each week focusing on a new theme or skill taught by one of the six instructors. Ranging from basic web design to 3D modeling and projection mapping, topics were designed to give students a framework to successfully manifest their artistic visions in a digital space. Students worked solo and in group breakout sessions, collaborating between locations like SF, LA, and Seattle. The class was organized around weekly projects, which have been archived on the class blog and are freely available for anyone to browse.

Tweet Storm by artist Kara Gates. A colorful graph that models the various emotions expressed in tweets, like joy or anger
Tweet Storm (2020) by Kara Gates. Tweet Storm was one such weekly project, and visualizes a range of emotions expressed in tweets.

While achieving fluency with the coding languages and technologies was paramount, students were encouraged to approach the course from an artist’s perspective. Niki Selken, Director of Creative Development, runs Gray Area’s educational programs, and was one of the instructors for the Creative Code Immersive.

Selken described the course as “more of an art school with code than a coding boot camp,” stressing the program’s emphasis on artistic creation over technical coding skills.

As the Immersive began just weeks after California issued its shelter in place order, Selken and other organizers rushed to adapt their curriculum to a completely online format. Despite the many challenges, students and instructors alike remained undeterred. Ella Ordona, a student from the Immersive, found that the online version was able to maintain a highly collaborative nature.

“The teachers were patient and great at explaining concepts, technologies, and creative strategies — better than some of the professors I’ve had in undergrad. The critique and feedback I received in class helped push my work to another level.”

Artist Ella Ordona Rises to the Challenge

As students found new ways to connect online, they also experienced new ways of displaying their art. The aforementioned virtual showcase took place in a digital recreation of the Grand Theater, and offered a diverse field of viewing opportunities. While some artwork was displayed on the cyberspace walls, other students opted to redirect attendees to external websites where they constructed their own virtual spaces. For instance, Ordona’s piece Terra Infirma: Hospital Room for Someone Who Can Never Go Home Again is staged in a digitally created space, which the site describes as “a hospital room with surreal and organic touches.”

Terra Infirma by artist Ella Ordona. A virtual room with pink walls; a hospital bed covered in grass sits among other objects
Terra Infirma (2020) by Ella Ordona

The piece has incredible personal depth and is a point of pride, but also sorrow, for Ordona. “Two years ago, my dad died in an ICU,” she said, adding that despite his serious symptoms, “when my dad first went to urgent care, they sent him home without running any tests.” The introspective artwork has individuated, personal meaning, yet also offers perspective on broader societal structures and cultural dissonance.

“My father was an immigrant. Something he said to us during his last days was that he could never go home again. I guess I wondered — and still wonder — which home he was referring to,” said Ordona. “I also wondered how being a Brown man with an accent in America affected the care he received. This piece was born out of that question: what does it mean to care for someone who’s far away from home?”

Ordona hopes that by sharing her personal experience and positionality, the artwork will serve as a call to action, urging us to remember that “there is still large inequity and disparity in the care that Black, Brown and immigrant people receive from their doctors and from hospitals. It’s deeply rooted in the healthcare system. If anyone visits the room, I’d like for them to reflect on that and to commit to advocating for reform and systemic change.”

A New Sense of Place

Kaii Tu was one of the artists who directly benefited from the Immersive’s newfound accessibility. Based in Shanghai and San Diego, Tu has an impressive background in art and product design, and was able to enroll in the course when it transitioned online.

“I couldn’t have taken part in the Immersive were it not for the pandemic,” said Tu. “Seeing the program outline of the Immersive was like seeing a wish list of things I hoped to learn, so when the opportunity presented itself to apply and enroll, I took it.”

Tu’s final project was a pair of designs he calls the Place Series. Place I is a metabolically generated architecture design described as “fragments of homes and workplaces from across three continents.” The audiovisual VR experience is comprised of snippets from Tu’s global travels. In contrast, Place II is an actual physical object — “a curious kettle that pours light in specific topographic patterns.” Both pieces are generative, meaning they have aspects determined by an algorithm or otherwise autonomous system. While allowing Tu to enroll in the Immersive, COVID-19 was also a source of inspiration for his work.

“Because of the lack of ability to travel, I yearned to travel even more — to explore new destinations, and also to travel back to cities I’d lived in previously. The situation has made me think a lot about placeness — what makes a place a place.”

Place 2 by artist Kaii Tu. A kettle that pours light by projecting a generative white pattern onto a surface.
Place II (2020) by Kaii Tu

Indeed, the notion of placeness became a common theme throughout the Immersive, and the online artist showcase was no exception. Exploring the hybridity that a virtual recreation of a physical location offers, the showcase felt grounded while also leveraging the advantages of a digital space. When asked about the ongoing viability of digital spaces like this, Selken expressed faith in their ability to act as surrogates for physical locations, and perhaps work in tandem with traditional galleries in the future. “Having a virtual companion site to a live exhibition is something that I think museums may start to see more value in,” said Selken. “If you have a localized exhibition, it really limits the amount of people who can experience it. But if you have a free digital online exhibition, it opens up and expands the ability for people all over the world to see it.”

That was certainly true for this showcase. Though most online attendees were logging on from California, there were visitors from 18 countries spanning from Argentina to the Philippines. And while previous showcases at the Grand Theater have typically run for less than a week, this version will be available freely online for an extended period of time. As Gray Area continues to push the boundaries of the art world, we very well may see the virtual Grand Theater resurface for further events down the road.

For their part, Gray Area is moving forward with programming throughout the summer, and the second Creative Code Immersive session will be kicking off in early September. Selken and the other instructors say they’ve learned from this iteration of the course, and will be ready to further optimize the curriculum for an online setting. If you’re interested in participating in the next Immersive program, you can apply here. The artist showcase remains live on New Art City, so check out the online gallery and see the art for yourself!

This article was written by Sam Silverman, Editorial Intern at Gray Area



Gray Area Foundation

Gray Area is a 501(c)3 nonprofit in San Francisco, CA applying art & technology to create positive social impact. #grayareaorg #creativecode