The Harold and Arlene Schnitzer Prize in the Visual Arts is awarded annually to undergraduate and graduate students at MIT for excellence in a body of artistic work. The Schnitzer Prize was established in 1996 through an endowment from Harold and Arlene Schnitzer of Portland, Oregon. Harold Schnitzer, a real estate investor, graduated from MIT in 1944 with a degree in metallurgy (which has developed into the department of materials science).
This year’s recipients represent the diverse academic backgrounds of contemporary artists, as well as the unique creative culture of MIT, where science and art inform each other. An exhibition of selected works by the four Schnitzer Prize winners — Tsz Wai Alan Kwan, Elaine Kung, Lan Li and Jia Zhang — is on view in the Wiesner Student Art Gallery from May 22 to July 31, 2015. Additionally, an image by the first place winner will be reproduced as a mural for the Stata Center.
Tsz Wai Alan Kwan (ACT, 2016), winner of the First Prize of $5000, primarily works in video and installation. Kwan’s single-channel video, “The Words After,” which was inspired by his personal experience as a stutterer, is a centerpiece of the exhibition in the Wiesner Gallery. To make this work, Kwan attached a custom “life-logging” camera to his eyeglasses for 2 years (November 2011 – November 2013), documenting every moment of his life and then extracted moments of his stuttering from the video footage. He sampled and edited together the words or syllables that immediately followed his stuttering blocks. As he explains, instead of employing “Alvin Lucier’s approach of ‘smoothing out any irregularities my speech might have,’ as in the piece I Am Sitting in a Room, “I used an editing technique similar to the ‘stutter effect’ widely used in electronic music in order to amplify and exaggerate my own stuttering, so as to portray the violence of the stuttering stereotype, and also my 24 years of anger and anxiety towards the difficulties in verbally connecting with the world.”
Kwan also relies on similar video documentation of his daily life for his virtual reality installation, “Bad Trip.” For this immersive installation, Kwan used custom VR software and culled images from his collected footage to make a database of digital memories, through which viewers can navigate using a game controller. He adds new “digital memories” each night, creating a constantly evolving virtual world.
Elaine Kung, a graduating senior in the department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, received the Second Prize of $3000. Kung minored in ACT while working on her major in Course 1. She says that while she studied photography in high school, her first class in ACT introduced her to video and performance, and she began exploring these modes of expression. On view in the Wiesner Gallery are several of her photograms, a collage, an ink drawing and a video, entitled, “Lifelines,” in which participants are asked to draw a line that represents their lives.
Lan Li, a graduate student in MIT’s Science Technology and Society program, was awarded the Third Prize of $2000. A documentary filmmaker, Li is interested in comparing social, cultural, epistemological, and personal narratives that shape how different historical and contemporary actors make sense of health and disease. Three works by Li are featured in the Wiesner Gallery exhibition, including The Vital Other, which focuses on integrative medicine in India and blends the social, cultural, and political perceptions of health care.
Honorable Mention was awarded to Jia Zhang, a first-year PhD student in the Social Computing group in the Media Lab. Zhang earned her undergraduate degree from the Rhode Island School of Design in Industrial Design and also holds an MA from Comparative Media Studies at MIT. For her work, “Streets of Cambridge,” Zhang took single-pixel samples from the color found in Google street views to make her minimalist visualizations of these maps. She says that her work with Google earth for data visualization in her lab led her to the idea to incorporate this imagery in an art project.
“This year’s submissions for the Schnitzer Prize came from a broader range of departments across the Institute than is usually the case,” according to Susan Cohen, Director for the Council for the Arts at MIT. The students from ACT, CEE, STS and the Media Lab, who were awarded the Schnitzer Prize, exemplify how art not only intersects with other disciplines, but also enriches studies in a variety of subjects.