A screenshot from Haoran Chang's project entitled "Fair Sai Re Pi (Fire Therapy)."
UC Santa Cruz

UCSC digital artist channels fire, Chinese history in award-nominated VR project

A devastating 1938 blaze in his hometown of Changsha, China, was the jumping-off point for the latest project from MFA candidate Haoran Chang, whose virtual-reality work imagining a capitalist exploitation of traditional fire therapy is a finalist for a BAFTA award.

Fire burns in the work of digital artist Haoran Chang. Its destructive power. Its potential for protection, and for healing.

Now, Chang’s exploration of the theme intertwined with his hometown in China has made the UC Santa Cruz graduate student a finalist for a prestigious international award.

Chang, 28, was born in Changsha, a city forever marked by the memory of a tragic wartime blaze.

As war between China and Japan raged in 1938, the Chinese military set Changsha burning in a misguided effort to keep its wealth and resources from the advancing Japanese in a “scorched earth” approach. Changsha burned to the ground, killing tens of thousands of residents and leaving behind a grim legacy as the most destructive fire of its kind in the nation’s history.

Chang grew up in Changsha, now a city of 8 million. But he said he never fully understood the story of the blaze — also known as the Wenxi fire — during his childhood. So after moving to the U.S. to pursue studies in digital art as an undergrad, he set out to document the story through a project weaving history with simulations of the city’s destroyed buildings in a virtual world.

Fire therapy

Haoran Chang is a digital artist and UCSC graduate student.

Now on the verge of earning his Master of Fine Arts from the digital arts and new media program at UCSC, Chang has taken his fascination with fire from the past into the future with his latest project, “Fair Sai Re Pi (Fire Therapy).”

The virtual installation imagines a shady pyramid-scheme corporation, Fair Sai Re Pi LLC, that seeks to exploit traditional Chinese fire therapy for commercial gain. To experience the piece, the viewer lies down on a table and puts on a virtual-reality headset. The installation is surrounded by equipment to provide sensations of heat, water and wind.

Threading through both works is what Chang thinks of as fire’s “dialectical.”

In Changsha, the nominal intention behind the 1938 fire was to protect China from a foreign invasion, Chang said. But its effect was widespread destruction. As Chang sees it, fire therapy carries within it a similar contrast.

“You can use the fire to help you to balance your energy, and to get rid of so-called evil energy,” he said. “But at the same time, the fire can also burn your skin and make a lot of the wrong things happen.”

Chang spent months building the installation and creating the virtual experience in his apartment in Shanghai, where he moved from Santa Cruz last September to wait out the COVID-19 pandemic and take his UCSC classes remotely.

“There is no lockdown in China, which is also part of the reason why I wanted to come back,” he said. But immersed in his art and living for the most part on Pacific time for his studies, Chang added that “somehow I spent most of the time in my apartment, still.”

An illustration shows digital artist Haoran Chang's virtual installation "Fair Rai Se Pi (Fire Therapy)."
An illustration shows digital artist Haoran Chang’s virtual installation “Fair Rai Se Pi (Fire Therapy),” as built in his Shanghai apartment this year while he studied remotely at UCSC.

Gaining recognition

For now, the virtual installation exists only in Chang’s apartment. But it is already starting to attract attention on an international stage.

The British Academy of Film and Television Arts announced earlier this month that Chang’s project has been selected as a finalist in one of the academy’s newest student-award categories, for immersive film.

Chang was among 15 finalists selected from a global pool of 680 submissions — including students from China, South Africa, Norway, Denmark, France, the United States and the United Kingdom. A virtual awards ceremony is set for July 23.

BAFTA Los Angeles board chair Kathryn Busby said the academy was particularly impressed with the quality of work submitted in the new immersives category this year.

“It seems clear that no matter where in the world, or the format of storytelling, there is an exciting, diverse and inclusive future ahead for our industry,” Busby said in a statement.

Chang said he was surprised to learn he was nominated for a BAFTA given to the unconventional nature of his project. Earning a spot among the award’s finalists, he said, is a “huge honor.”

Where Chang’s installation could end up next isn’t yet clear. He said he is still polishing the VR experience and working to make the whole experience reproducible elsewhere — possibly at a festival in the U.S. next year.