Postgraduate Design Research — Lena Panaita, AUT

1 year ago by

Welcome to Postgraduate Design Research – an opportunity to profile a selection of current design postgraduate students and their projects across our tertiary institutions.

This week, we speak with Lena Panaita from AUT.

What is your background and how did you get into design?

Since before I could remember I’ve been drawing. But drawing for me has also become an escape from the dominating communistic reality that came with growing up in the USSR. I was rather a nonconformist child who refused to accept the all prevailing Soviet propaganda.

In my childhood I met artists who were somehow living in what felt to me an alternative universe. They had the freedom others couldn’t even dream of in the Soviet Union, despite the artists literally having been the hands of the propaganda machine. But I was only vaguely aware of it, and to an eight-year-old me that was a no brainer – all I wanted is to be an artist. That meant four years in an Art school from the age nine, then four years in an Art college, and then six years in an Art University. At some point, my magical thinking about the Art World had fallen apart, together with the USSR. The art education was reoriented as no one needed the propagandistic murals anymore, and design and illustration became better career opportunities.

Tell us about your research.

I’m exploring the narrative potentials of an immersive environment, looking at how a storyteller might use a virtual reality (VR) environment to expand the parameters of a graphic novel into an immersive narrative that enhances a sense of immersion and empathetic response. I’m working in Oculus Quill to produce illustrations and animations inside virtual space.

This approach differs from conventional ways of building virtual 3D environments because the work is completely rendered inside VR. The project is using VR technology to construct new ways of communicating both conscious experience and an experience of atypical consciousness (near-death experience).


This is an opening scene for the VR graphic novel that offers a prototype of a
built story world and a mode of storytelling.


What drove you to this research area?

The direction for my research came from a search for a better way to communicate what near-death experience (NDE) is. I had an NDE in my twenties which affected my life views, making me rethink everything I knew and believed in. Researchers in this field state that NDE has been experienced by millions of people around the globe and that experiencing it or learning about it can bring a positive and long-lasting effect on people’s lives.

It definitely changed my life for the better and I wanted other people to have a chance to experience this change but without the side effects of almost dying. However, I found it challenging to show something that is often referred to be indescribable, and even more challenging to show the effects it might have on someone’s life.

So writing an autoethnographical graphic novel that used my personal experience and perspective to tell the story was the natural solution. The problem is that I am an introvert and rarely let people into my world. So I can’t say I was excited about this option. But after a few years of pondering on the idea, I realised that if I didn’t do it I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.

It’s uncomfortable to open up the wounds that healed, but this is the power and beauty of autoethnography. It shows the truth, not a pretty picture on social media, it allows a real connection and an insight into someone’s life that might help us understand our own life. Isn’t this what we are, on a certain level, looking for in books and movies?

Have there been any breakthrough moments – when it all clicked – or you found something unexpected along the way?

My research has unexpectedly changed at least a few times. In fact every time I think that I finally figured it all out, it changes again. I started doing it as a graphic novel, and then it transformed into an illustrated and animated story inside virtual reality (VR). So I guess the real breakthrough moment was when I realised that the most convincing way to show a near-death experience would be inside VR. This is because during a near-death experience you don’t see your body, or see it from far above, not the way we get used to.

It came to me that I could use what is considered to be a virtual reality’s inherent disadvantage (the disconnection from your body inside VR) as an advantage, allowing the viewer to be present in a scene and at the same time not have a physical body, to show what it might feel like to have an out-of-body experience.

Based on your research at present are there any discoveries that you can share with us?

I believe VR is currently changing the way we tell and ‘read’ stories. In this realm, a viewer can become a witness ‘inside’ a story, and gain a special, subjective first-hand perspective, rather than a third-person view. Because of this VR is claimed to be the ‘ultimate empathy machine’ that allows a different level of connection between the story and the viewer. The 360-degree view, 3D illustration, animation and sound inside VR headset enhances the feel of immersion inside a story. In addition, I aim to create an environment that allows a viewer to be inside both the mind and world of a character. It’s very exciting to explore the advantages of this medium.

How has this impacted upon your own design practice?

Now I often do sketches in VR before I start working on a 2D image. This is because it’s much easier to create a quick sketch and then look at it from different angles and points of view to decide what would be the best option. It also helps me to think three-dimensionally and spatially even when I work on a flat image. When I’m working with a story it helps to create a storyboard inside VR rather than on paper.

Why did you choose AUT’s post-graduate program?

Approximately 15 years ago I reached a fork in the road; I had just closed my advertising agency in Russia as I realised that I didn’t want to be a manager. I wanted to be a creator, and I needed a new challenge.

Continuing my education abroad sounded like a good idea, and definitely a challenge, with my English being far from fluent. I was searching through different Universities in Australia and New Zealand, and the Bachelor with Honours program at AUT looked most attractive to me. I was also very lucky that I was mentored by professor Welby Ings, who has been very inspiring in my journey, as I moved from Bachelor with Honours to Masters of Philosophy and now to PhD.

How has the COVID-19 response impacted your research?

I’m one of the lucky ones who can say that Covid-19 didn’t affect me much. I’m a freelancer and working on my research in my studio at home. Except for missing catching up with friends for a coffee, general uncertainty, and cancellation of our holiday plans, my life didn’t change much. I’m very happy and grateful to be living in New Zealand, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else right now. It also made me appreciate the small and big things in our everyday life that we often take for granted and not realising how precious they are, the pandemic definitely has put things into perspective. I’m also very lucky that my partner and my daughter are very supportive and encouraging. This is always important, but especially when we are locked together in one house.


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