Light Moves

Artist Maja Petric Creates a Cosmos at MadArt Studio

A satellite to the Borealis festival, the MadArt Studio installation explores connection in many forms.

By Stefan Milne August 30, 2018 Published in the October 2018 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Tori Dickson

When she was 20, artist Maja Petric moved from Zagreb, Croatia, to New York to study art at SUNY Oswego. This was in 2001 and almost as soon as she arrived in the country she thought the safest in the world, planes hit the World Trade Center towers. But Petric had grown up during the violent secession of Croatia from Yugoslavia, through the 1995 rocket attacks on Zagreb, so “September 11 was something that was very familiar to me.”

Before coming to New York, she’d been part of a physical theater group touring Europe, and though she hadn’t worked in media art before, she had an idea: With video, she and a collaborator in Croatia could bridge the two cultures. They would film themselves doing the same choreography, mimicking a traffic cop, and project it onto walls—one in Zagreb, the other in New York—beside the live performers. Photographs of the attacks on New York and Zagreb disrupted the video feeds. Thus, through technology, two seemingly disparate people and cultures were together.

Petric later moved to Washington state to earn a PhD at the UW in Digital Arts and Experimental Media, and she’s spent the last decade showing art throughout the city, along with exhibitions in Madrid and Hong Kong. She works with media and light and immersive installations, chasing a sense of wonder and interconnectedness. Her latest, We Are All Made of Light, opens in October at MadArt Studio as a satellite exhibition to Borealis: A Festival of Light, the inaugural South Lake Union light arts festival, in which light and video-mapping artists will use neighborhood buildings as canvases.

But We Are All Made of Light is decidedly more intimate. You enter MadArt and find yourself in a room with 63,360 dark threads dangling in a dark room. The threads are woven with bits of silver that catch light, so they appear as a starscape. You can move among them and AI sensors map where you are in the room and high intensity beams of colored light hit the silver, creating an impression of your body passing through the space. As you continue to move, the figure (your light doppelganger) disperses into something less literal, less static. You become a trail of light. As the exhibition goes on, the trails of past visitors continue in the space. The installation is meant to effect the sublime, a cosmic awe. But it also takes several perceived dichotomies and folds them together: past and present, presence and absence, technology and nature, artistry and engineering.

In We Are All Made of Light you get to meet your light doppelganger.

If you know Petric’s story, the installation becomes about connection on many levels. Mihai Jalobeanu, a Microsoft researcher who specializes in AI and robotics, is both her partner in the exhibition and in life. They live together in Bellevue, and Petric is currently Redmond’s artist in residence. She’s collaborated with engineers before, since their technical expertise can bolster her vision. But she’s been working with Jalobeanu for three years. And this, she says, is different: “I talk with him about this twenty-four seven and I talk about his work…. It’s kind of symbiotic.” Jalobeanu agrees. He thinks an installation like Petric’s Panorama of the Skies, which used Microsoft’s RoomAlive technology to transform a conference room into immersive skyscapes, not only used tech as a “powerful artistic medium,” but illustrated its effects better than any formal demo could.

The artist and engineer’s coupling makes literal one of Petric’s aims—bringing together the worlds of art and tech so each can complicate the other. “We are in such a technocentric place, but it’s one dimensional,” she says. “We need to expand the obligations of these technologies.” She’s referring to things like iPhones, made by engineers, for money and usability, and how they’ve come to define modern communication. Instead of fearing technologies, seeing them as instruments of alienation, Petric wants us to become more holistic in our perception.

Even AI, a technology long met with trepidation in sci-fi and now in the news cycle, is to her a tool. In Lost Skies, AIEye, Petric and Jalobeanu took thousands of images from the internet on overpopulation, on California wildfires. Their AI program then distilled them into single images, not collages, but amalgams of what we see. When you enter We Are All Made of Light, its effects may be various. But its first statement should be easy to grasp. It’s one Petric’s been working emphatically toward since she moved to New York. Hell, it’s right in the title, poeticized, more MFA than AI, but the message is the same: Connect.

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