A delegation of faculty and students representing Harvard’s graduate-level work in the arts recently traveled to Paris for an intensive exchange with colleagues at the arts/research PhD program within Université Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL), a new consortium of nine top-level French academic institutions with ten associate members. Our trip was a follow-up to the October 2017 Art as Research: A Transatlantic Dialogue in which Harvard and SACRe students and program directors presented at Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts.

PSL’s SACRe Doctoral Program (Sciences, Arts, Creation, Research) shares similar goals and scope with Critical Media Practice, Harvard’s secondary field for PhD students. Both programs aim to integrate art-making with scholarly research at the graduate level and require students to produce both a written dissertation and an artistic project.

Our hosts planned a fascinating and packed program that involved events at all five of SACRe’s partner schools, which are spread throughout Paris. Each institution’s administrative leaders welcomed us and led a tour of their beautiful and historic facilities. Several schools also arranged for us to observe classes, exhibitions, rare musical instruments, robotics demonstrations, and hidden art pieces.

For us the heart of the visit was the Harvard and SACRe student presentations. Fourteen students each had about 30 minutes to introduce and show their work followed by questions and responses from faculty and other students.

The students in both programs span a continuum from artists whose work will find its place in the art world to scholars who use artistic practices to conduct or present their research. The most exciting projects truly unite artmaking and research. These were some of the highlights:

  • Harvard RLL/TDM student Amanda Gann explores the theatricality of grief practices and the intersections between archive and performance in a theatre project based on texts by a British woman who began hearing voices after her brother failed to return from WWI.
  • SACRe student Hadrien Jean combines musicology and cognitive science in his investigation of auditory selective attention, working in collaboration with a composer to create a musical piece using certain constraints.
  • SACRe student Emile De Visscher is a designer, engineer, and editor investigating the current utopia of local and distributed manufacturing through tools he describes as “technophanic.” His project comprises a 300-page paper and objects in a performance.
  • Harvard Anthropology/CMP student Noha Mokhtar researches the relationship between kinship and architecture in Cairo using photography variously for ethnographic “note-taking,” source material for art pieces, and as artwork in itself.
  • SACRe student Elizaveta Konovalova created a seven-part installation as a visualization and plastic interpretation of research about the wasteland of a former Soviet city in Germany.
  • Harvard Music student Rajna Swaminathan is a mrudangam player whose research and practice question the politics of virtuosity and the queer/ diasporic extrapolations of musical traditions – for example, can time can be “queered” in music?
  • Harvard VES/CMP student Jessica Bardsley is an artist who works at the intersection of nonfiction and experimental filmmaking in a mode she calls “autofiction.” Her scholarly research investigates water in post-1960s contemporary art.

The exchange was a fantastic opportunity to interact with a consortium of world-class institutions who have launched a program with goals very similar to those of Harvard’s CMP field. Their faculty and students seem steeped in the same kinds of inquiry as ours and were impressed by our students’ stellar examples of true arts-based research.

I recently had the opportunity to present my robotic sound installation ‘Do You Like Cyber?’ –  part of my ongoing research in Critical Media Practice – at Rome’s MAXXI – National Museum of the 21st Century Arts for the exhibition ‘Low Form. Imaginaries and Visions in the Age of Artificial Intelligence,’ curated by Bartolomeo Pietromarchi.

Roma, Museo del Maxxi 19 10 2018
Imaginaries and Visions in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
©Musacchio & Ianniello

Do You Like Cyber?’ is composed of three parametric speakers attached to swiveling robotic arms. Playing with the idea of deceitful messages, the speakers broadcast a series of short audio messages that were used by bots on the dating website Ashley Madison, which I retrieved after the site was hacked. These bots were programmed to engage the website’s users in online chats, getting them to subscribe to the website’s services. Despite the fact that the bots were designed to only contact males, they didn’t always function as they should have. This work focuses on a series of insubordinate bots that, in a post-anthropocentric fashion, displayed anarchic and unpredictable behaviors, such as chatting with each other for no apparent reason or contacting female users even if they weren’t programmed to do so.

Roma, Museo del Maxxi 19 10 2018
Imaginaries and Visions in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
©Musacchio & Ianniello

With ‘Do you like Cyber?’ I wanted to put the autonomy and interaction between artificial entities at the center, while leaving humans only partially aware of their presence. For this reason, I decided to use unpredictable robotic arms and parametric speakers, which radiate sound in single focused directions rather than in all directions like traditional speakers. Additionally, their sound bounces off hard surfaces such as walls, creating virtual sound sources and making it difficult to detect its origin.

As an artist and researcher, I am particularly interested in exhibition formats that encourage theoretical reflection, and I also contributed to the exhibition catalogue, edited by CURA, with a short speculative text entitled “What is it like for a computer bot to be a computer bot?”.

Roma, Museo del Maxxi 19 10 2018
Imaginaries and Visions in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
©Musacchio & Ianniello

A big thanks goes to GALLLERIAPIÙ for its backing, to FabLab Bologna Makeinbo for its technical supervision, to Kevin Ramsay for the sound editing, to Annalee Newitz for her fundamental insights on Ashley Madison’s data, and, obviously, to Harvard University – Critical Media Practice for its continuous support.

Featured artists in the show: Zach Blas & Jemima Wyman, Carola Bonfili, Ian Cheng, Cécile B. Evans, Pakui Hardware, Jamian Juliano-Villani, Nathaniel Mellors & Erkka Nissinen, Trevor Paglen, Agnieszka Polska, Jon Rafman, Lorenzo Senni, Avery K Singer, Cheyney Thompson, Luca Trevisani, Anna Uddenberg and Emilio Vavarella.





“What you make should be something that hasn’t been made before,” advised artist Xu Bing at a lively lunch with CMP students and FSC fellows last Thursday.  Xu was visiting Harvard to show his film “Dragonfly Eyes” at the Harvard Film Archive and deliver a Kim and Judy Davis Dean’s Lecture in the Arts at Radcliffe Institute.

Xu described his desire to push people’s ways of thinking into a corner – to take things to a logical extreme so that they must question their assumptions. This approach definitely shows in “Dragonfly Eyes” and many of his other fascinating projects, including his wordless “Book from the Ground” which tells an entire story with only emoijis, icons, and punctuation.  Xu said he was interested in the idea of this “new type of pictograph that is emerging globally – something everyone can read.”

Students sought advice on how to approach their own media projects, thoughts about working with found materials, and Xu’s feelings as one who collects things to be the object of contemporary art world collectors. Xu responded with inspiring words and great humor.  Thank you to Radcliffe, Xu Bing, and translator Menglan Chen for making this happen!

Ali Cherri master class on Sept. 28

We just finished a very inspiring master class with Lebanese filmmaker and artist Ali Cherri – part of his visit to Harvard that includes last night’s Artist Talk and tonight’s Harvard Film Archive screening.

A gathering of Critical Media Practice Students, Film Study Center Fellows, and undergraduates who are engaged in artistic practice got to hear in detail how Ali conceptualizes and technically realizes his work.  Ali explained how his trilogy of “The Disquiet,” “The Digger” and work-in-progress “The Dam” began with an interest in how moments of catastrophe in his home region – from natural disasters to war – can become extended forever in time as the agony seems to never end.  How does one represent the experience of violence when it’s not always “spectacular”?

Ali sometimes starts from a place of documentary, gathering images observationally and building relationships with people in their daily lives, and then slowly moves into fiction as he choreographs scripted using involving people in their space as actors to create the meaning he seeks.  His imagery can ultimately cross over into the supernatural, as in the striking last shot of “The Disquiet.”

Participants seemed particularly interested in Ali’s process of creating installations, including those related to single-channel works and free-standing pieces like the striking “My Pain is Real” that explores ideas about the digital mediation of violence through manipulation of his own face.

Thanks to Ali Cherri, HFA, and CCVA for this inspiring visit!

Undergraduates interview Ali Cherri for a publication after the master class.

Last night marked the first-ever gathering of CMP students from across the university in our welcome event for the new semester.  It was great to hear from graduate students in Anthropology, Literature, Design, Public Health, and other fields describe their research and media projects.

We look forward to more opportunities to build community through regular critique group meetings, workshops, and other gatherings.