Earlier this year, the International Examiner spoke to artist Chanhee Choi about her experience in Bellevue’s Bellwether Festival and the game, Pandemic 2020, that she launched for that festival. Now, we’re checking in with Choi to see how her project has progressed. 

Pandemic 2020 is a first-person, 3D environmental art game about the current coronavirus pandemic. “I began working on it in March of this year,” Choi said. “In East Asia, the virus was spreading and had been recognized as a serious issue, but in the West people weren’t worried about it yet.” 

Choi, however, was concerned. “In March, I was wearing a mask as many other Asians were doing at that time,” she said, “and as I walked alone in the city I was humiliated by the comments of a non-Asian stranger.” 

The artist was shocked. “He said, ‘you [bleeping] Chinese, you brought the coronavirus,’” Choi quoted. “At that time, it was not yet common for non-Asians to wear masks on the street, but I never expected to have an experience like this.” 

But Choi moved quickly beyond surprise into exploration. “I started questioning whether it would have happened if I were white, or any other race besides Asian,” she said. “I felt afraid to cough. I wondered if everyone else felt as anxious about being seen as a carrier, if I looked sick, or what would happen to me if I didn’t wear a mask. I asked myself, ‘Do they see me as a virus?’” 

And yet, Choi saw expressions of anti-Asian violence to be a paradox. “I started to track and record any xenophobic attacks or expressions of bigotry that seemed related to the coronavirus, and I found a clear pattern,” she said. “Attackers do not behave as though they are afraid of contracting the virus, as they are often touching their victims.”

COVID-19 seemed to create disruptions in time and space. “As this pandemic goes on and the lockdowns continue, it seems we are just watching our monitors like everything that is happening around us isn’t connected to the time or place in which we live, but a surreal parallel universe,” Choi said. “I find myself occupying an ambiguous place, questioning the nature of culture, statehood and belonging.” 

An interactive game appealed to Choi as a way to explore these open questions. “The chaos of this moment, the coming election, and the widening cultural divide all make us wonder what we can expect from the future,” she said. “I needed to describe the surrealistic struggle of this particular moment and engage with the people going through it with me.” 

The Bellwether Festival provided an initial platform for these investigations. “Because it was a group show, I was balancing my own work’s needs with other performance teams and artists’ work,” Choi said. “I had to give up many things in order to respect the shared space.” 

This experience motivated Choi to explore spatial alternatives. “I wanted to experiment with work that is free from a physical location,” she said. “It’s quite meaningful for artists to have the freedom to show their work without considering a debut at galleries or museums.” 

But changing spatial realms also entailed changing the art forms that Choi utilized. “When I chose to work with the internet, I tried to avoid working with the mediums that I am most comfortable with such as performance and 2D interactive design, and instead of being a performer myself, I started to think about being a director,” she said. “Now I control the performance by making 3D environments and characters.”

Choi describes Pandemic 2020 as an abstract reality that consists of seven different levels each taking place in a different location. “The beginning of the game represents racist coronavirus tropes and racist clichés,” she said. “The intensity of this xenophobia gradually gets more harmful level by level and is followed by commentary on politics, classism, and the elite’s indifference toward lower socioeconomic groups.” 

Inspiring empathy is a key goal for this project. “This engagement puts players into a more receptive mental state and allows games to resonate with an audience in a way other mediums can’t,” she said. “I’d like to give people the experience of being a minority in America.”

To share that experience more widely, Choi plans to make the game free and accessible. “It will be available for download from my website, and my itch.io account,” she said. “I will also share this web-game version on a few galleries’ websites.” 

Through broad availability of Pandemic 2020, Choi hopes to shift the public conversation. “The media has an incredible amount of influence over the tides of xenophobia and racism that ebb and flow in our culture,” she said, and Choi seeks to reconstitute the elements of those waters altogether.   

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