Artist-in-Residence Project Looks at Intersection of Memory and Technology

April 20, 2012

Artist Deborah Aschheim talks about her work in Salisbury Labs.

WPI’s first Artist-in-Residence program concluded a week-long project on April 18 with a talk by the artist, Deborah Aschheim, and a reception in Fuller Labs, where her light sculpture adorns the wall along the interior staircase.

Her project at WPI, titled, “What do Machines Remember?”  incorporates long lengths of clear plastic tubing strung along the wall, connecting with several others at nodes, and larger pods, with the sculpture resembling a network of neurons.  The different pods contain small video screens, some of which play videos produced by students.

During a talk with members of the WPI community in Salisbury Labs, Aschheim said the inspiration for her work over the last few years is memory and the interaction of humans, technology and buildings.

She said art can give new significance to space that people generally have little awareness of.

“It’s a forgotten space that people are there to wait or pass through,” she said. “I have a passion for artwork that gives a sense of where you are.”

The artist, raised in Wellesley and now living outside Los Angeles, said she began thinking about incorporating the idea of memory into her work when her grandfather and other older relatives suffered from Alzheimer’s, particularly in the case of her grandfather, who eventually could not remember who his family members were.

 “That got me to thinking of the brain,” she said. “In my family, those cells die, and memories disappear. … It makes me think, what do neural networks look like?”

Aschheim said she uses pieces off-the-shelf technology from big box stores like Best Buy, that usually cost $50 or less, explaining that though they are somewhat low-tech by WPI standards, they are durable and somewhat representative of everyday life.

The sculpture, installed in three segments along the Fuller Labs staircase, contains mini-cameras that capture the image of the viewer, which is displayed in two of the small video screens contained in the pods. She said that component is an allusion to the concept of “panopticon,” or the sense that one is being watched — a reality in modern society, where security cameras and cell phones often surreptitiously monitor our actions.

“I didn’t want it to be about Orwellian surveillance,” she pointed out.

Last year she was awarded a fellowship at the University of California at San Francisco’s Memory & Aging Center, where created a sculpture that was the inspiration for the piece she designed here at WPI, with the help of student apprentices Allessandra Anderson ’12, Alex Gray ’13, Deniz Ozgoren ’14, Kai He ’13, Kyle Horn ’12 and Lauren Pehnke ’12.

WPI’s Artist in Residency was created by Professor Joshua Rosenstock in 2011 in response to President Dennis Berkey’s call for innovative proposals supporting the arts on campus. The goals of the program are to enliven WPI’s public spaces, provide opportunities for WPI students and faculty to interface with renowned artists, and to foster dialogue among the diverse members of the WPI community about the relationship among science, technology, and the arts.


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