‘Spectacular Justice’ uses art and technology to examine the death penalty

CHAPEL HILL, NC, March 13, 2008 – It’s easy to separate yourself from the raw emotions associated with the death penalty when you read about a far off execution or hear a 30-second news sound bite.

Artist Joyce Rudinsky, an associate professor of communications studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wants to force you to get close–uncomfortably close–to the human side of the death penalty issue. Her interactive media installation Spectacular Justice, created in collaboration with the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI), uses video, audio and electronic tracking to personalize an issue from which most of us would prefer to distance ourselves.

The installation premiers Friday, March 28, in the Social Computing Room of RENCI at UNC Chapel Hill in the ITS Manning Building, 211 Manning Drive. The opening reception will run from 7 p.m. – 9 p.m. on the 28th. The installation will remain open to the public from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. every Friday and Saturday through April 25.

Spectacular Justice does not take a stand on whether the death penalty is right or wrong either politically or morally. Instead, it tries to sensitize us to the people who are affected every time a prisoner is executed, from the prisoners themselves to the family members of victims to the witnesses who attend executions. Modern media, says Rudinsky, has desensitized us to the effects of crime and to all that happens after the crime is committed. Working with visualization and software experts at RENCI, Rudinsky hopes to use those same 21st century media tools to remind us that every death penalty case is a story about real people.

“This is a coming together of artists and visualization specialists who are artists in their own way,” said Rudinsky, a RENCI Faculty Fellow who made the installation her Faculty Fellows project. “We are not addressing the political issues associated with the death penalty, such as class and race. We’re not championing a pro or con position. Instead, we are trying to create a unique, very human experience of the issues that elicits a visceral response.”

Spectacular Justice will use seven channels of audio played through special focusing speakers and a robotic arm to target the installation’s sound track to individual viewers as they enter and move around the room. Visitors to the room will put on electronic tags, which will track their movements. The robotic arm will track one individual and aim customized sounds in his or her direction. Fourteen projectors will show a profusion of images and the images a visitor sees will depend on where he or she moves around the room. Clear panels called holopanels will hang from guide wires and will turn opaque with reflected imagery that is synchronized to the viewer’s experience, making it seem as if some images are hanging in space. The resulting visual and audio experience will be unique for each visitor and for each visit.

“This project is truly a collaboration between artists and technical people from conception to finish,” said Ray Idaszak, director of visualization and collaborative technologies at RENCI. “We’ve given Joyce a new canvas and a new paint brush to work with in creating her art.”

Spectacular Justice is part of the Carolina Performing Arts’ Criminal/Justice: The Death Penalty Examined project, a season-long campus- and community-wide exploration of death penalty issues, and is supported in part by a Creative Campus Innovations grant from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and the Doris Duke Foundation. David Borland, a RENCI visualization researcher, was the chief programmer on the  project. Collaborators included Mark Robinson, director of the multimedia lab in the communications studies department. Other RENCI collaborators were Idaszak, Research Device Engineer Dan Bedard, Research Software Developer Leesa Brieger, Research Engineer Justin Burlson, Systems Specialist Mike Conway, Visualization Engineer Jason Coposky, Industrial Designer Warren Ginn, Facility Manager Mike Harris, Research Engineer Jim Mahaney, RENCI at UNC Chapel Hill Director Ruth Marinshaw and Manager of Project Engineering Erik Scott.

For more information, see http://www.rudinsky.com/justice.html.

RENCI…Catalyst for Innovation
The Renaissance Computing Institute brings together computer and discipline scientists, artists, humanists, industry leaders, entrepreneurs, state leaders and educators for collaborations designed to reshape science, the economy, the state of North Carolina and the world. RENCI leverages its expertise and resources in leading edge computing, networking and data technologies to ignite innovation and find solutions to previously intractable problems. Founded in 2004 as a major collaborative venture of Duke University, North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the state of North Carolina, RENCI is a statewide virtual organization.  For more, see www.renci.org.