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Students using Panoply to link wildfires and power lines

Follow the Wires, a new project by media artist Peggy Weil and an interdisciplinary group of USC students, lets users explore California’s landscape of electrical transmission lines and their role in sparking some of the state’s largest wildfires. This first phase of the work, supported by the USC Ahmanson Lab’s series of “Collaboratories” pairing artists, scholars, and students, debuted at a May 9, 2023 event on campus. A talented and interdisciplinary group of students, with expert support from staff at the Ahmanson Lab, helped bring the work to life. I was fortunate to be able to provide some creative and technical consultation on the project, which uses Opertoon’s comics and split-screen software Panoply for storytelling and navigation. 

From left to right: students Major Yang, Jasmine Xu, and Nicole Carrera present "Follow the Wires" at the Ahmanson Lab Showcase on May 9, 2023, as Ahmanson Lab director Curtis Fletcher, project director and media artist Peggy Weil, myself and others look on. Photo by Mats Borges.

The opening sequence of the piece uses Panoply to create a constantly-shifting photographic collage of industrial power lines “in the wild” and the pedestrian electrical routing we’re surrounded by every day. This leads to the primary interface, a Panoply-based split-screen layout that sets a primary aerial view of California alongside three panels. The user flies over an eerie California haunted by the angels of extractive development practices, dotted with recent wildfires and the electrical lines that set them off. By selecting specific fires, the user can access video, photos, and additional information about each.

A still from the introduction of “Follow the Wires,” in which students used Panoply to juxtapose power lines in various contexts.

Since Peggy Weil and I both have connections to The Voyager Company during the heyday of its greatest innovations in electronic publishing — I started my career there as an intern, and she was the creator of the Voyager children’s title A Silly Noisy House — it was especially wonderful to be able to collaborate here. The fact that the project deals with power lines, which are also a focus of my forthcoming project I Was a Ship in Space, made for extra resonance.

If you’re interested in using Opertoon apps and tools in education, I’m always happy to help. Just get in touch and let me know what you need.

- Erik

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