By Kelly Yu
The average student sees little presence of creative and artistic expression on campus at Stony Brook. Sure, there are random sculptures scattered about, but there isn’t anything in the way of student creations. The Shirley Strum Kenny Arts Festival tries to fill this void; it is described online as an event that “showcases the diversity of our students through their creative endeavors.” Included in the events of the SSK Arts Festival is the student exhibition Unbound. Unbound isn’t the typical gallery and 2D-medium exhibition, but a series of installations stationed throughout the campus interacting with the space and the audience viewing the pieces.
In the past, the Unbound exhibit has seen a bit of controversy. Former President Shirley Strum Kenny ordered the deinstalition of a wire polar bear piece by Masters student Julianne Gadoury, claiming that the piece did not fit with the aesthetics of the Wang Center where it didn’t even hang for the exhibition. The removal of this and several other pieces have sent mixed messages about where the fine arts stand on campus as a form of expression and where the administration stands in terms of how much expression they are willing to allow to students.
This year’s Unbound exhibit came as it usually does, understated and with a bit of confusion. One piece that stood out was senior Whitney Harris’ “A Hypothetical Collaboration with Kate Gilmore.” The objective of her piece was to reference an artist and to make a hypothetical collaboration based on the chosen artist’s work. When it first appeared next to the theater entrance of the Staller Center, it seemed to be a large block of chalk that could have been art or remnants of the construction going on from the library. What made it more curious was that students not only observed Harris’ piece, but interacted in a way that even she did not plan. After only a night, the walls and part of the floor of the area surrounding her piece was covered in writings from the pieces of plaster that Harris had smashed from the block. Students wrote their names, their organizations, even questions about what the purpose of the block even was.
“Because you have to work with so many other forces, not just administration…you’ll never have full control, even though I tried to maintain that throughout the process, even to the end I never knew what to expect,” said Harris. “That wasn’t my intention to have people write all over, but it happened and I think that says something. There’s significance in that.”
Despite having the piece on display for a day or so, the next afternoon the piece was moved from its original site and the chalk writing from students was washed away from the floor and walls. The piece wasn’t removed indefinitely. In fact, it was returned the following week to its approved placed next to the Staller Center. However, throughout this process, the artist wasn’t informed by administrators of the move or of the drawings and writings that the leftovers of her piece inspired. She had heard from her advisor, Professor Nobuho Nagasawa, and a friend who had taken a picture of the scene before her piece was removed.
The piece itself was a chair embedded in plaster, which was exposed after Harris took to the plaster block with a sledgehammer.
“It was really process oriented and I filmed most of it…it was fun. Got a lot done [by using the sledgehammer],” said Harris.
Her decision to hypothetically collaborate with the artist Kate Gilmore stemmed from taking Gilmore’s similar aesthetics and making it her own. Gilmore’s work centers around her performance-based videos that depict her struggling through interesting physical feats. One exampled of Gilmore’s performance pieces, called “Everybody Loves Pink,” has Gilmore stuck in a corner blocked by a wall of wood. She is sitting in what looks like piles of pink paper while wearing a pink dress and pink stilettos. In order to get out of her uncomfortable situation, she slams her stiletto heels into the wooden wall until it breaks and frees her from her pink prison. In Harris’ perspective, Gilmore’s pieces include “setting up a task for herself, which is like artists in general…and she finds a destructive means of doing it. It seems like she finds the most difficult way to do things and I related to that.”
Despite the administrative headaches and the uncontrollable mishaps, Harris still sees her piece, and the reactions to it, as a jumping-off point for new creations and exhibits.
“People always wants to be in control and they can’t. So we use art as a means of understanding things…and bring a sensibility to our environment,” said Harris. “I think in art there is always that struggle to do that and escape that at the same time.”
As a science school, fine arts are underrepresented in terms of importance as well as resources. The SSK Arts Festival and Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities program try to bolster student involvement in the arts, but in a school that is known for scientific research and innovations, sometimes the arts are the first to be left behind.
“American institutions in general need to allocate more resources to the arts. It’s just the way it should be,” said Harris. “Not to say other things aren’t worthy…we are a science and math-oriented school, but there is a way of thinking that art helps bring to people that is very important in a university setting.”
“A Hypothetical Collaboration with Kate Gilmore” is no longer next to the Staller Center, as it was removed a second time on Wednesday—due to more writings on the wall. At the time of the interview with the artist, a new location was being negotiated, despite Unbound only running for two weeks.