PLAN 89: Article
The Lateral Studios

Master Classes for the Unencumbered

On four separate Saturdays this fall, SA+P organized one-day Master Classes with invited artists of various stripes to give students a chance to stretch their imaginations and expand their interests while getting to know one another better.

The series was the brainchild of Interim Dean Mark Jarzombek in response to students’ wish for more interaction with their counterparts in other divisions of SA+P.  Rather than stage a simple social event, Jarzombek thought it more interesting to plan an event with some creative content. The workshops were also designed to be entirely stress-free – hosted by the dean’s office on neutral ground without any grading – while offering students the chance to do things they’ve never done before. 

The title of the series grew out of the notion of lateral thinking – the fact that if you turn your head to one side, there are parallel worlds going on around you that might be interesting to explore.  And while traditional master classes involve a ‘master’ and a student who is highly advanced in the field, in this case students were staunchly required to know nothing about the subject at hand, so they would be sure to be unencumbered with previous knowledge or preconceptions. 

Participation was restricted to students affiliated with SA+P, and the workshops were limited to about a dozen people each, to keep them intense and intimate.  Each group was curated to include representatives from as many of the school’s divisions as possible, and from varying stages in their academic careers – undergraduates, PhDs, master candidates, etc. 

The first event, in September, was a performance studio with Coco Fusco, an interdisciplinary artist and writer whose work combines electronic media and performance in a variety of formats. Students were asked to consider how everyday life performances create invisible architectures. They began with some ethnographic exploration, carried out through what Fusco calls ‘thoughtful walking’ – venturing into unfamiliar public spaces and neighborhoods to observe how people who use the street for work and social activity create provisional spaces through gesture and speech. How does a tour guide, for instance, produce the illusion of enclosure? How do pop-up preachers and salesmen turn sidewalks into theaters? How do we define social spaces in public areas? After their explorations, students returned to the studio to devise project proposals inspired by their observations, each of which were then discussed by the group.

In October, students took part in a bamboo structures studio with Simón Vélez, a prize-winning architect from Colombia most famous for his innovative use of bamboo as a building element. His best-known work is the colossal 2000m2 bamboo pavilion he built for Expo 2000 in Hannover; in 2008 he created an ephemeral structure in Mexico City to house an exhibition by Canadian Gregory Colbert, uniting two galleries and three halls for a total space of more than 5000m2 – the biggest and most spectacular bamboo structure ever built. For the workshop, the school bought a truck-load of bamboo and used the courtyard in Building N51. Students worked with Vélez in a hands-on design-build workshop exploring the possibilities for innovative structural form with bamboo, learning about material properties and connection details as well as design and construction methods for grid-shell structures. 

In early November, students participated in a color studio with painter William Miller, whose highly popular color classes at the Rhode Island School of Design make color theory and its application accessible for painters, artists and designers. In this studio, students were encouraged to get their hands messy with paint as a way of understanding how color works in space and how it affects our daily experience. The workshop provided the basic foundations for understanding color theory and applying it to spatial practice, including the vocabulary for articulating color phenomena and the means to exploit their potential. Students created a series of color studies to learn the relative properties of various colors and how they interact, to experience the power of color and light to affect our perception of space.

The final offering, later in November, was an urban poetry workshop with Nick Montfort, an associate professor of digital media at MIT who develops literary generators and other computational art and poetry. In this workshop, students interpreted the city and the space of urban life through combinations of language in digital poems they developed, using practices of modification and reworking that are well-known in both poetics and computation.  The session began with participants each modifying a simple text-generating program, exploring new ways of writing with computation. The work that resulted inflected the original programs with participants’ own experiences of language and urban space. Students read the outputs out loud, and experienced and discussed other digital poems, including remixes and modifications done by others. After having heard each other’s work, participants had a chance to revise or renew their projects, either further developing what they did early in the session or modifying a different generator.

The response to the series was enthusiastic, so hopes are high it will continue.  At this writing, at least one more lateral studio is scheduled for the spring with Katrin Sigurdardóttir, an Icelandic sculptor whose work explores, through unexpected shifts in scale, the way physical structures and boundaries define our perception; examples of her work will be on display at MIT’s List Gallery from February 13 – April 12.  Other lateral studios under discussion include photography, music and glass blowing.