After cruel April’s deluge of exams and critiques, May brings showers of praise. Now is the jubilant time in the academic calendar when the Council for the Arts at MIT recognizes the achievements of the Institute’s student artists with the Harold and Arlene Schnitzer Prize in the Visual Arts and the Laya and Jerome B. Wiesner Student Art Awards.
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. The prizes—a first prize of $5000, second prize of $3000, third prize of $2000 and honorable mentions of $1000—are awarded to undergraduate and graduate students for excellence in a body of artistic work. This year’s recipients represent the diverse academic backgrounds of contemporary artists, as well as the distinctive creative culture of MIT, where science, technology and art inform each other.
The Wiesner Awards are presented annually to the most exemplary undergraduate and graduate students for outstanding achievement in and contributions to the arts at MIT. Established by the Council for the Arts at MIT in 1979, these awards honor the late President Emeritus Jerome Wiesner and Mrs. Wiesner for their commitment to the arts at MIT. An endowment fund provides a $2,000 honorarium to each recipient. Nominated by members of the faculty, this year’s recipients are not only supremely gifted in the visual or performing arts, but also embody a spirit of collaboration and community-building.
Harold and Arlene Schnitzer Prize in the Visual Arts
An exhibition of selected works by the Schnitzer Prize winners—Joshuah Jest, Emily Tow, Laura Perovich, Chris Kerich, Qiuying Lai, Deniz Tortum—will be on view in the Wiesner Student Art Gallery from May 10 to June 10.
The first-prize winner, Joshuah Jest (SMACT ’17), draws on his architectural background and his research on media facades, mapping technology and digitally augmented objects to create sculptures and installation work. Building on the tradition of experimental media projects exemplified by such pioneers as Stan van der Beek of MIT’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies, Jest seeks new ways to integrate dynamic media systems into the architectural environment and into people’s physical space.
For his “Star Dome” project, Jest reimagines the translucent stadium roof of the Houston Astrodome as a mediated surface for projection. “Digital Shadows” sensitively deploys the basic principles of light and shadow to activate a two-dimensional projection surface on a human-scale. He says that with this work, he wanted “to establish a system that could digitally represent something that would look almost identical to the original.” For the collaborative sculpture, “A Tale on Textile, The Colony,” he merges the three-dimensional textile surface with illuminated animation. He will exhibit a site-specific shadow piece in the Wiesner Gallery.
Emily Tow (PhD student, Mechanical Engineering ’17, MIT, SB ’12 and MIT, SM ’14), who was awarded the second prize, uses patterns literally and metaphorically in her mixed media and performance works. She created a bright intricate mural in the neutral MIT basement designed to slow passersby, or alter people’s usual patterns of behavior. Her performances are likewise designed to disrupt everyday habits. For instance, in her performance on the MBTA Red Line, “Unexpect it,” she drew commuters’ attention by crawling on the floor of the train car in a fanciful costume that completely concealed her identity.
Art feats that involve physical endurance interest her because of her own medical history. She has a surgically-fused spine, which limits her movement. After multiple surgeries and complications, she says the experience became her motivation for making art: “I was descending into the depths of being a patient, feeling like I was taking all these resources, with no obvious trajectory for getting better. I felt like I needed to produce something.” Her dual interests in mathematics and art led her to major in Mechanical Engineering with a HASS minor in Art, Culture & Technology. She says, “Being creative in my art work contributes to my being creative in my research.” Objects from her performances will be on view in the Wiesner Gallery.
Laura Perovich (PhD student, Media Lab, Object-based Media Group), who also won the second prize, explores physical and artistic ways to represent data in her textile works. She hopes to make data more approachable and to give scientists and the general public a space to discuss it. After her undergraduate studies, she entered the Peace Corp for two years and taught mathematics in West Africa. Before coming to MIT, she worked for Silent Spring Institute, a nonprofit in Boston that researches connections between the environment and health. Her works stem from her drive to convey information about data to people who would not necessarily engage with mathematical charts or graphs and her interest in textile manipulation.
From dying and printing to laser cutting, Perovich employs a variety of techniques to create wall hangings and garments. Using laser cut synthetic fabrics and R statistical software, she produced a series of garments representing the chemical levels found in an individual’s home. The number and size of squares in the lace pattern derive from the number and amount of chemicals found.
Third Prize was awarded to Chris Kerich (Masters student, CMS ’17), who focuses on systems in his work. He is interested in what systems tell us about the people who made them and use them and how they transform information. In his “Motion Studies,” he uses techniques of video compression, such as datamoshing, to push the limit of the codec and bend the systems governing video. For his project, “Eigenfaces,” he experiments with the eponymous facial recognition algorithm. In each piece, he aims to expose something about the system he is investigating or the people around it.
Honorable Mentions were awarded to Qiuying Lai (Electrical Engineering & Computer Science ’17) and to Deniz Tortum (Graduate student, CMS ’16). Lai is a documentary photographer who works mostly in medium format with a Seagull 4B1. Her recent project, Lost Road, focuses on the deterioration of Route 66, which after its decommission in the late 1980s fell into decline despite its once near-mythic status in the American imagination. Tortum, who currently works with the Open Documentary Lab, works in film, video and new media. His first feature film, Zayiat has been screened internationally, including SxSW and !F Istanbul Film Festivals. Curator Ulya Soley says of his single channel video, Corridor of Memories Walkthrough, this anti-game “stands at the intersection of game and video art, which enables a sort of slacktivism, inviting the audience to watch but not to participate.” His work interrogates how technologies of vision—from linear perspective to virtual reality—shape the way we make sense of the world.
Laya and Jerome B. Wiesner Student Art Awards (in alphabetical order)
The 2016 recipients of the Wiesner Awards are Angel Chen, Samantha Fomon and Samantha Harper.
Since joining the MIT program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT) in 2015, Angel Chen (SMACT ’17) has worked within the Institute to connect students with common interests in art and has also worked outside the Institute to connect ACT’s unique history with artistic practices abroad, most notably in East Asia. Her work investigates social relations, particularly in the context of digital culture and urbanization. In her various publishing projects, images and research, she focuses on the broad questions of digital culture—what is real, how strong is our desire for the real, how does the process of seeing inform our relationship to the world. She describes one research project focused on the CAVS archives as an attempt “to understand the motivations and aspirations of CAVS Fellows in the 1960s and 70s, the ups and downs of the marriage of art and technology, and the public perception of that beyond CAVS and beyond MIT.” She adds, “I think we are at another art and technology moment in history.” Her book, A Murder-Suicide Story in Two Parts, similarly explores—in her words—“how tools and technologies of communication enable us to perceive different aspects of reality and how different desires to know are unlocked as a consequence.”
“Being an artist at MIT gives you access to communicate—not just see—what is happening, and to be in dialogue with people from very different fields who are pushing their research in new ways,” she explains. She is currently collaborating with lab technicians across the Institute to create images using various scientific equipment, and her work will be on view from May 13-19 in Wiesner Building (E15), Lower Lobby.
As a physics major, Samantha Fomon ’16 specializes in astrophysics and planetary science, yet she places an equally high priority on her music and poetry. “As a singer, I’m drawn to words and to telling stories, to explaining the emotional world,” she says. “Music is a language of the internal world. Physics is the language and structure of the external world. Both give satisfying meaning to things.” Over the past two years, she has accomplished three significant firsts for an MIT music student: first vocal jazz Emerson Scholar, first vocal jazz participant in MTA’s highly selective Advanced Music Performance Program, and first vocal jazz scholar to present a full length recital. As a student leader of the MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble, she impressed the group’s first coach, Institute Professor John Harbison, and his successor Liz Tobias with “her high artistic merits as a solo singer and astute collaborator with her peers.”
Among her most cherished memories at MIT are performing at John Harbison’s Chamber Music Festival in Madison, WI, the Token Creek Music Festival. She says, “That felt special to perform for people outside the MIT community. It was a lot of responsibility and a real chance to do what we do to our best ability. It cemented the place John Harbison has in my heart as a mentor. He’s been an incredible resource to me.” Another formative experience was her Emerson Scholar solo recital, “Love is more thicker than regret,” named after an e e cummings poem, where she performed both jazz standards and experimental music. Harbison says of this performance, “No participant in our Emerson Scholars performance program ever designed a more varied, adventurous and polished program than (Sam’s) spring 2015 recital. Like so much of her work it was built around the skills of her mates, while it pushed them to much more intricate situations.” Her recital this year will feature the work of Janelle Monae, among cross-genre R&B, funk, acid jazz, and popular music.
Samantha Harper ’16, a Civil and Environmental Engineering major and Theater minor, has participated in the arts community at MIT as an actor, stage manager and costume designer for Theater Arts and Dramashop productions. This year, she founded a new theatre company on campus, The Experimental Theater Company, which she hopes will engage students in theatrical risk-taking and be a vehicle for student-driven productions. The company’s mission as she describes it is, “to create a collaborative space for artists of many different disciplines to design, experiment, and innovate while creating unique performance pieces.” ETC’s first show was a romantic comedy about quantum mechanics, “Now, Then Again.”
“The value of theater is changing with the on-demand aspects of media. Some of the magic of theater comes from the fact that you are dealing with live humans,” she says. In her current project, she explores the current attachment to technology in our culture. She will examine our habit of mediating thoughts and feelings through electronic devices in order to address feelings of loneliness and isolation that many students experience. The Music and Theater Arts Faculty note her “creativity, collaborative spirit, kindness and an open heart” and her “fresh and innovative ideas” among her many personal and artistic strengths. In her upcoming work, she will continue to explore the boundaries of media—the degree to which it fails us in our human interactions—in a mix of performance art and audience participation pieces.
With each year, the range of disciplines represented by the student award winners increases—a testament to how the arts not only intersect with other disciplines, but also enrich studies in a variety of subjects.