Mapping a digital landscape

Leon Gurevitch’s design research builds bridges between disciplines and includes exploring the migration of Hollywood visual-effects artists.

Associate Professor Leon Gurevitch

Associate Professor Leon Gurevitch was halfway through his Honours degree when an educational psychologist figured out why traditional forms of learning and assessment were so hard for him: he was dyslexic.

“Although I didn’t know I was dyslexic when I was younger, its impact was a real challenge for me in my early life because it made some forms of education incredibly difficult,” he says.

“But I am certain it also left me with the ability to make connections between different things and to see holistic pictures and patterns. I get bored if I focus on just one thing for too long.”

That ability to build bridges between different disciplines in new and exciting ways has been a hallmark of Associate Professor Gurevitch’s work at Victoria University of Wellington.

Associate Professor Gurevitch is Deputy Head of School in Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Design Innovation. His research breaks down traditional boundaries between art and science, and spans everything from space art (with photographs of his that highlight the beauty of the galaxy being included in a 2016 touring exhibition in the United Kingdom) to eco media to the global migration of digital technology industry workers.

Growing up in a small rural village on the west coast of Scotland, Associate Professor Gurevitch asked his teacher, “Where’s like Scotland but with sunshine?” The teacher suggested New Zealand.

He first came here on a two-year working holiday visa after completing his PhD in Sociology and Cultural Studies at Lancaster University in the UK, and liked New Zealand so much he successfully applied to be a photography lecturer in a design school. He says he was “totally over the moon” to be asked to join the School of Design Innovation in 2009.

“Design is one of the most interesting places to be in academia. It’s a natural home for me because I can research across disciplines in a way that is both applied and traditional,” he says.

“Victoria University of Wellington is a really interesting and positive environment. Lots of universities have design schools but they’re often only vocational, whereas Wellington is in the top tier of design research.”

Associate Professor Gurevitch has also appreciated the University’s commitment to researchers developing strong overseas connections to explore issues of national and global importance.

“The University has a really enlightened policy of financially supporting scholars to go to international conferences and to undertake overseas research leave. That’s hugely important because it fosters a vibrant culture of international collaboration.”

In 2016, Associate Professor Gurevitch was a visiting professor at the School of Film and Media at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a senior research fellow on the Cultural Analytics Program at the Institute for Pure and Applied Mathematics at the University of California, Los Angeles.

One of his first research projects at the University, the Tring Energy Monitor, centred on a dynamic intuitive energy monitor interface that displayed energy use as tree rings that grow over time. The monitor was installed in the solar-powered First Light House, a student-led entry that won second place in the 2011 Solar Decathlon Competition run by the United States Department of Energy.

“The monitor was about finding a way to get people to have an emotional connection to their energy use, rather than just using bar graphs,” says Associate Professor Gurevitch.

He also developed a research project called Google Warming, which suggests photomapping tools such as Google Earth can create a shared awareness of climate change and of our ability to treat the Earth as an object that can be engineered. He was invited to Berkeley in San Francisco to present his work to scientists and policy-makers in the field of geo-engineering.

“I’ve been interested in climate change ever since I was growing up in Scotland. Every year there was snow on the mountains by October, and then one year we had a winter when there was no snow at all, and all the old people in my village were saying it had never happened before,” he says.

“Lots of young people in predominantly urban environments now don’t have the direct physical connection with the environment I was lucky enough to have, but they do use Google Earth. I wanted to understand whether representations of the Earth could make us think of the planet as being like an industrially designable object, which might help us to understand future generations’ engagement in environmental issues.”

Outputs of his Google Warming project have included book chapters, research papers, public lectures and exhibitions featuring 3D printed models of damaged environments.

Associate Professor Gurevitch’s other current research interests include projects on data visualisation, software engines, 3D technologies and the shift to computer-generated design in cinema.

However, his major interest is a project about the migration of digital image artists and engineers from Hollywood to the world, for which he held a three-year, $350,000 Fast-Start grant supported by the Marsden Fund from Government funding managed by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

He says Hollywood is now a collection of visual effects studios based all over the globe, including Wellington’s Weta Digital. His Digital Workshops of the World study examines the implications of having a high-value digital workforce that moves to wherever the work is, and the impact this has on New Zealand’s cultural economy.

For Associate Professor Gurevitch, the notion of a global Hollywood is part of what he regards as a new phase in our continued industrial revolution. “It started in Silicon Valley and now its impact is reaching around the world and touching everything we do, from how we live to how we work.”

He believes New Zealand should move away from its reliance on the dairy and tourism industries to focus on creating further smart and sustainable high-tech businesses.

“The challenge of the next 50 years for New Zealand will be leveraging our tertiary education and research culture to continue to innovate as much as possible,” he says.

“We’re in a great position to be able to do it. Culturally, New Zealand and Silicon Valley share an experimental mind-set coupled with a wealth of highly educated talent. In New Zealand, even more than in the US, if you have a good idea people will tell you to go for it.”