Coincidentally related to Earth Day this month, the students of the University of Utah’s Arts and Technology Interdisciplinary Capstone course, taught by Martin Novak, held their final semester projects at the E-Co-System exhibition on April 17 at the Marriott Library. These projects consisted of six diverse forms of artwork to establish curiosity around topics in relation to human identity and/or disconnection to nature. But with semester finals plaguing everyone’s minds, many were likely not able to pay attention to the hard work and curiosity presented. Therefore, the exhibition was like a mini Easter egg hunt — almost hidden — in different sections of the library on the second and third floor.
Each students’ work of art used different forms of digital art and technology to portray what was important to each of them regarding awareness of issues faced by the current generation. These topics included the aesthetics of social media, dealing with depression, the withering connection between humans and nature, naivety of a clean environment and, through a virtual lens, the question of reality.
On the second floor, students Maria Maddocks, Kayley Meden and Elizabeth Kingston created “Synthetic Spotlight,” a social experiment to understand the social media “highlight reel” and its effects on our own lives. Social media only gives a glimpse into other people’s lives, and people only share what they want others to see, as their description explained. While scrolling through the overwhelming amount of information, it’s hard not to compare oneself to the picture-perfect images on the screen, even if subconsciously. The “Synthetic Spotlight” project used two laptops projecting onto two opposing monitors. (This project was only interactive during the exhibition.) Students on one end post what they would normally share online, while on the opposite laptop they’d post how they really feel. Both feeds give a realistic comparison to our online interactions.
Nearby was “Draw My Strife, Game My Life,” by Garrett Smith, who implemented a draw my life whiteboard video, a Ted Talk, animation and games by use of Unreal Engine software in order to discuss the commonality of depression and the misconception that video games are harmful. “According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), 1 in 3 college students will suffer from depression to the point where they cannot properly function [while] half of them will not look for help,” Smith said in his project description. From a computer screen, the audience can listen to his story of battling with depression while playing three relative games, reinforcing the idea that games helped Smith cope with his mental illness.
Following yellow tape on the ground fixed into arrows, a little cave was nestled into a corner off to the right to harbor Jacob Drage, Susie Han and Zack Nielson’s art project, “Break the Scape.” The cave was made from a pile of black curtains in order to enhance the viewer’s experience of how beautiful nature truly is through an artist’s eyes. The simple but cleverly built project used a 3-dimensional hexagon build of clear plastic faces and mirror tape in front of a laptop airing a slideshow. Beautiful landscapes bled through into subsequent images with each transition of the slideshow. The pictures were enhanced even more so through the hexagon when looking at any angle. Through this projection, the creators wanted to reinstate a necessary love for nature beyond the pictures viewed through our digital and mobile devices.
On the third floor was a display arguing that overconsumption of plastic goods due to convenience highly impacts the environment. As explained in “Refuse, Reduce, Recycle,” by 2015, the annual production of plastic production was 381 million tons, increasing by nearly 200-fold from only two-million tons produced in 1950, and “91% of the plastic produced has not been recycled.” Project creators Pisti Gamvroulas, Sarah Hogg and Kyra Ott highlighted the fact that very little plastic actually gets recycled due to the complexity of its recycling process. Their project board features example products, lists of different types of plastics and explains what is and is not recyclable. An example list of common Polypropylene Plastic (PP) products generally not recycled include plastic cutlery, ketchup bottles, Tupperware, disposable cups, plates and plastic straws.
Spencer Jennings, Audrey Lund and James Thompson’s impressive virtual reality experience “Untitled” elaborates a collection of animated still images of nature and hand-drawn 2-D and 3-D objects to create an abstract 3-D space, along with digitally distorted sound bites played through headphones. The VR environment encourages its participants to reexamine the validity of what they see, just as how the project is inspired by the inkblot Rorschach tests used by psychologists based off of the study of klecksography. The creators aim for each participant’s experience be “unique, highlighting mental bias and increasing self-awareness” demonstrating how an “unreal” reality can be as real as any stimulus.
Finally, there was one more project that was easy to miss — even the Knowledge Commons personnel informed students that there were only five projects total — that created retro-looking national park postcards with images of landscapes digitally altered to evoke the effects of air pollution. The project, fittingly titled “Wish You Were Here” was created by Spencer Gregory, Helene Lam and Sariah Ellis. “Wish You Were Here” sought to emphasize the impact of air pollution while increasing awareness of sustainability by using the visual illusion. Their project even had a mailbox for students’ postcards.
Overall, this exhibit was very intriguing, enlightening and thought-provoking — however, it was not exposed to its full potential. From only displaying it at the end of the semester for one day to the lack of advertisement to its disrupted and disorganized setup, the exhibit lost a great deal of the potential audience necessary to spread the exhibit’s collective mission of awareness. The hard work, dedication and creativity put forth by the U’s Arts and Technology Interdisciplinary Capstone students warrant a better showcase to encourage their mission and reach a wider audience. At a high-end university in a state that ranked 3rd in the nation’s growth in the arts, student artists deserve better opportunities to share their work and inspire real change. There’s always next year.