This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Returning to the place where it all began

UB has special meaning for new Media Study chair Vibeke Sorensen

Published: October 4, 2007

Reporter Staff Writer

For Vibeke Sorensen, returning to UB after being away from the university for more than 30 years has been to return to the place where it all began. UB, she says, is the birthplace of modern media study, a launching point of her own career as a scholar and artist, and a former home—both of her parents were UB professors.


Vibeke Sorensen says the perfect circumstances have brought her back to Buffalo to chair the Department of Media Study.

Sorensen joined the UB faculty this fall as chair of the Department of Media Study in the College of Arts and Sciences. She is the founder of several influential digital art and computer animation programs on the West Coast, as well as being an artist whose work in digital multimedia, interactive architectural installation and networked visual-musical performance has been featured in publications and exhibitions worldwide.

"My work is really experimental new media—working creatively across and between such media as drawing, painting, photography, film, video, computers and interactive online media; developing new media with electronics around moving images; and connecting sound and music and new kinds of materials," Sorensen says.

A central theme of her art is "the connection of our physical world and our digital environment," she adds, refocusing attention on nature and challenging the isolation that can come from too much time in the virtual world.

Sorensen says she chose to work with multicultural approaches to new media because she has long felt it's "the future of international communication and creativity." She also notes it is important that artists develop new forms of expression as technology grows increasingly pervasive in society, pointing out that creative people serve as "the conscience of the culture" and "windows to the future," employing emerging science in order to critique its impact on the world, as well as help pioneer "new civilian uses of technology." Her own research has earned support from such institutions as the National Science Foundation and Intel Corp. Moreover, she and her students developed software now widely used and standard in the field to "morph" images.

"This department not only served as a prototype because it was the first one of its kind in the nation," says Sorensen, who joined the then-UB Center for Media Study as a graduate student only one year after the program was founded by Gerald O'Grady in 1973, "it proved that people could be working technologically and creatively at the same time."

A native of Denmark, Sorensen spent part of her youth in Buffalo, returning to Denmark to complete high school and study at the Royal Academy of Art and Architecture in Copenhagen. "I never thought I would be coming back to the U.S.," she recalls. "But because I became interested in [media study], I started researching different schools. I was just as surprised as everyone else when the field that I chose turned out to have the best program at the university where my parents were professors. I was looking all over the world and this was the best."

Her father, Soren E. Sorensen, is a professor emeritus and former chair of the Department of Dental Materials in the School of Dental Medicine; her mother, Doris Sorensen, teaches in the Department of Linguistics, College of Arts and Sciences. Her brother, Flemming Sorensen, a manager at National Fuel Gas Company, also resides in Buffalo.

After earning a master of arts in the humanities from UB in 1976, Sorensen spent several years as a video/computer art researcher and artist-in-residence at various universities and television labs throughout New York State, then three years as an assistant professor and director of the Video and Sound Studios and Computer Graphics Program at Virginia Commonwealth University. In 1984, she joined the faculty of the California Institute of the Arts, serving 10 years as the founding director of the Computer Animation Lab in the School of Film and Video, and teaching such students as Andrew Stanton, now a producer and screenwriter with Pixar Animation Studios. She moved to the University of Southern California in 1995 as a full professor and the founding chair of the Division of Animation and Digital Arts in the School of Cinema-Television.

Sorensen joined the UB faculty this fall after spending two years as a full professor of film and media studies and research fellow in the Center for Film and Media Research at Arizona State University, Tempe. She also recently completed a two-year position as chair of "Global Eyes," the art gallery of ACM SIGGRAPH 2007, a prestigious international computer graphics conference.

Over 30 years ago, Sorensen studied at UB under such legendary names as Hollis Frampton, Paul Sharits, and Steina and Woody Vasulka—all considered to be among the most influential film and media artists in the world. Today, as chair of that same department, she says she is pleased to return because "this was the place that invented [the field]."

"I'm excited to be here because it is a model that other universities use," she says, "and it continues to be the most innovative.

"This department's avant-garde focus and impact on related fields means there's an opportunity to do things that can't be done anywhere else," she adds. "And with the new UB 2020 initiative, I felt this was a really great moment in time to be working with colleagues at UB to develop something transdisciplinary, transcultural and global, involving new media on a really high level across fields, in collaboration with people here and all around the world."

Sorensen's interest in crossing cultures and disciplines is clear from her current international research efforts, such as the Amazon Boat Project, a collaboration with colleagues at the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Belo Horizonte and the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Sorensen, who is the project's only non-Brazilian co-director, says it will feature a floating cinema and state-of-the-art digital laboratory where artists and scientists can pursue research and creative work—in particular documentary filmmaking, animation and scientific visualization—about the Amazon River region. She began work on the project several years ago after organizing seminars on the intersection of art and science in Brazil.

"It's just perfect," Sorensen says about the circumstances that brought her back to Buffalo. "This is the right place to be at the right time. I'm really happy that it includes where I went to school and where my mother and father both were teaching. This is the first time since I was a teenager I've had my parents and my brother near me. And with my father's 90th birthday on Sept. 27, it's even more special to be here now."