It’s a cliche that turning 30 is accompanied by soul searching and pensive questions about the future. That might be true for a young adult, but what about a media lab: what happens when a multidisciplinary lab enters its third decade and begins barrelling towards middle age? The Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University just broached this temporal milestone with Intersections, a sprawling group exhibition that showcases work created in (or facilitated by) the lab and also maps out its rich history. CAN was in Pittsburgh to toast the anniversary this past October, and received a guided tour of the show from studio director Golan Levin.
Intersections brings together the work of a sprawling cast of artists and designers with formal and informal ties to the Lab for Creative Inquiry. While this includes numerous impressive folks that should be familiar to CAN readers, the body of work on display here is considerably deeper than you might expect. Sure, on arriving to the main floor of exhibition in the Miller ICA you are greeted by Addie Wagenknecht and Madeline Gannon‘s pink and blue kinetic sculpture Optimization of Parenthood, Part II (a wry commentary on the automation of affect, or the affect of automation – we’re not sure which) with James George and Jonathan Minard’s interactive VR documentary CLOUDS set-up nearby, there are also photo installations chronicling public art projects, more conventional video work, and projects by current students and recent graduates alongside these more seasoned artists. This non-hierarchical and egalitarian approach to curation tells you everything you need to know about the lab’s ethos: it’s a place where creatives think at a range of scales and speculate how technology can be used to provoke, parse, and problematize various cultural questions.
‘Technology’ doesn’t necessarily equal robot arms and VR headsets, sometimes it’s steel scaffolding plus public space. One of the exhibition’s most vital projects was the photo documentation of The Last Billboard. In that work, Jon Rubin (and friend of CAN, Pablo Garcia) created a prominent rooftop billboard in downtown Pittsburgh, and invited artist peers to contribute short messages to display each month (e.g. “YOU DON’T HAVE TO OPEN EVERY DOOR. A DOOR LABELLED HELL, FOR INSTANCE,” “THE WHOLE TOWN’S SLEEPING,” etc.) . Sometimes whimsical, sometimes profound, the project ran from 2010 to 2018, when it abruptly terminated because the landlord that owned the building the billboard was on myopically objected to Alisha Wormsley’s declaration that “THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE.”
For lack of space we’ve only mentioned a handful of the works, there are many more and they demonstrate a similar breadth of mediums and approaches (like personal faves Conflict Kitchen and Maximum Distance. Minimum Displacement, Tahir Hemphill’s brilliant rap lyric geospatial visualizations). That said, we’d be remiss if we did not single out the MoonArk project as an example of the type of thinking hatched within the lab. Drawing on a cast of thousands (well, hundreds) of contributors, a sprawling multidisciplinary team has collaborated to produce a precision-engineered 8-ounce sculpture that “contains hundreds of images, poems, music, nano-objects, mechanisms, and earthly samples intertwined through complex narratives that blur the boundaries between worlds seen and unseen.” Similar in ambition to the fabled Golden Record, the artwork is scheduled to blast off as part of a 2021 lunar mission, and be placed on moon as a time capsule, totem of human ingenuity, and gesture of general optimism towards the future. The complex work, and contributions of its many collaborators is spelled out carefully through a series of didactics, and an exploded-version of the sculpture that allows the viewer to get a sense of the intricacies of the narrative components – complete with a microscope for viewing a plate of etched micro-drawings that were crowdsourced for inclusion in piece.
At the anniversary ceremony before Intersection’s opening, CMU alum and emeritus shared tales about their contributions to (and takeaways from) from the lab. One reoccurring theme, tabled by former students Madeline Gannon and Claire Hentschker, was that the Frank-Ratchye Studio for Creative Inquiry was a place where ‘orphans’ – folks that started their careers within specific disciplines and then outgrew their siloed constraints – could find resources, encouragement, and kin to bolster experimentation and invent new kinds of practice. These heartfelt recollections were further underscored when we wandered into the lab the morning after the opening, and saw an industrial robot arm waving a flag and a cadre of alum and collaborators trying to optimize the underlying code to perfect its motion – sometimes you can declare independence and affirm solidarity in a single gesture.
Intersections is open through November 17th, and while we doubt many CAN readers will get to Pittsburgh for the show, the Frank-Ratchye Studio for Creative Inquiry’s freshly revamped website has extensive documentation of their rich history.