PLAN 83: Article
Something For Everyone

Visiting Artists Share Their Work in Architecture, Planning, Visual Literacy and Filmmaking

The halls of MIT were enriched this fall with the presence of several internationally acclaimed artists brought to campus for residencies by the MIT Visiting Artists Program and the Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST). Of particular interest to the SA+P community were an Argentinian architect-cum-artist famed for his speculations on alternative ways of living; a pair of artist/activists who use public art to help build healthy communities; a Brazilian photographer exploring the nature of visual cognition; and two British filmmakers whose work has transformed the craft. Below, a brief look at the visitors and their activities at MIT.

Tomás Saraceno

Argentinian-born visionary Tomás Saraceno, an artist trained as an architect, works with frameworks and insights from engineering, physics, chemistry, materials science and aeronautics to create inflatable, airborne biospheres as theoretical models for alternate ways of living. The forms of his air-dwelling structures often mimic molecules, spider webs, soap bubbles and neural circuits – transparent orbs suspended by crosshatchings of tensile rope that may contain plant life, water, air or bodies – presented as prototypes for incubating life in the sky. His utopian Cloud City, a navigable, multi-level structure of interconnected modules, was installed on the roof of New York’s Metropolitan Museum from May to November this year.

His November residency focused on new work for his ongoing Cloud Cities series, including On Space Time Foam, a project created for HangarBicocca in Milan, Italy. Inspired by cosmology and life sciences, On Space Time Foam is a layered habitat of membranes suspended 24 meters above the ground, each level of which has a different climate and reacts to literally every step and breath of visitors moving through it -- a metaphor for our interdependence and interrelated planetary existence. The project will appear in a later iteration as a floating biosphere above the Maldive Islands, made habitable with solar panels and desalinated water.

In addition to visiting classes and studios during his residency, Saraceno took part in a major public discussion with Nader Tehrani, head of SA+P’s Department of Architecture, and Antón García-Abril, newly-appointed professor of architecture, exploring the speculative context and experimental materials of his Cloud Cities series. The event was co-presented by the Department of Architecture.

Mel Chin and Rick Lowe

Artists Mel Chin and Rick Lowe explore the complexities of building healthy communities through art and activism.

Chin is known for a wide range of work including the insinuation of art into unlikely places such as destroyed homes, toxic landfills and popular television, investigating how art can provoke greater social awareness and responsibility. His Operation Paydirt/Fundred Dollar Bill Project is a national effort to support a solution to lead-contaminated soil in New Orleans, with the aim of helping end this form of childhood lead poisoning; along with other activities here, he worked with students who map lead poisoning in US cities.

Lowe is the founder of Project Row Houses, an arts and culture community located in the Third Ward of Houston. Originally settled by freed blacks after the Civil War, it was a thriving mixed income neighborhood with an indigenous arts and music culture until the 1960s, but has since declined into a ‘pocket of poverty’. Project Row Houses offers art-based education programs to lift the neighborhood up by changing the environment – an outstanding and evolving model of community revitalization through public artwork.

During the artists’ September residency, students in SA+P’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Community Innovators Lab and Program in Art, Culture and Technology had the opportunity to work with Chin and Lowe to explore the contributions artists can make to urban revitalization.

The visitors also took part in a public discussion, Artists and Community Planning – moderated by Dayna Cunningham, Executive Director of SA+P’s Community Innovators Lab – examining the potential contributions of artists to an urban studies and planning curriculum. The artists will return in December to review projects the students worked on over the semester.

Vik Muniz

Brazilian artist Vik Muniz is known for his deep exploration of visual perception and photographic technologies, creating art from unusual materials then photographing the work as an exploration of image-making, scale and visual literacy. Often working in series, he has used dirt, diamonds, sugar, string, chocolate syrup and industrial garbage to create bold, witty and often deceiving images drawn from the pages of photojournalism and art history. His work has been exhibited around the world; his solo show at MAM in Rio was second only to Picasso in attendance records,

During his October residency, Muniz worked with Marcelo Coelho, a PhD candidate in the Fluid Interfaces Group at the Media Lab, and Rehmi Post, a research scientist at the Center for Bits and Atoms, on the development of a process to machine microscopic images onto grains of sand, which later become large, high-resolution prints.

His residency included a screening of the Academy Award nominated Waste Land, a film about his work that was described by the LA Times as ‘an uplifting examination of how art came to impact the lives of scavengers at the world’s largest landfill in Rio de Janeiro’. His visit also featured a public presentation of his work for which he was joined by Pattie Maes, founder and director of the Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group. The event was co-sponsored by the Media Lab.

John Akomfrah and Lina Gopaul

John Akomfrah and Lina Gopaul are founders of the groundbreaking seven-person Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC) which provided a medium for artists, writers and filmmakers to express their views on the tension and politics in Britain from 1982-1998. Their collaborative and long-standing partnership has won them over 35 international awards and more than 100 official festival selections for documentaries, feature films, experimental videos and gallery installations that explore the many facets of European migrants and the human experience.

During visits spanning two academic years, Akomfrah and Gopaul are leading seminar/workshops, screenings, lectures and panels on documentary filmmaking, focused on intersecting topics – cinema and collaboration; cinema in local and global contexts; cinema in relation to spatial installation; and cinema’s continuous technological change and diffusion. The residency will culminate in a symposium in Spring 2014 that integrates the migratory perspectives on cinema.

Their October visit featured screenings of two of their films – Handsworth Songs (1986), exploring the history of the contemporary British black experience through the riots and racial disturbances that broke out in 1985, and The Nine Muses, a stylized retelling of the history of former Commonwealth subjects’ mass migration to post-war Britain through the lens of Homer’s epic, The Odyssey.

Both screenings were presented in collaboration with the Program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT) as part of its Fall Lecture Series – Experiments in Thinking, Action and Form: Cinematic Migrations – and followed by discussions with ACT director Renée Green.

The MIT Visiting Artists Program invites nationally and internationally recognized artists to campus every year for stays of several days or weeks to engage students in master classes, lecture-demonstrations, performances, workshops and conversations. Past visitors have included violinist/conductor Gustavo Dudamel, artist/geographer/author Trevor Paglen, architect (and alumnus) I.M. Pei, author (and MIT professor) Junot Díaz, jazz pianist/composer Jason Moran and video artist Bill Viola.

The creation of the MIT Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST) has brought a new level of energy to the arts initiative, focusing on the increasing integration of the arts into the MIT curriculum. A joint initiative of SA+P with the Office of the Provost and the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, the Center was established with a $1.5M grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to foster ‘a culture where the arts, science and technology thrive as interrelated, mutually informing modes of exploration, knowledge and discovery.’

For more information about the arts at MIT, visit

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Posted February 2013