Student exhibit ‘Empathic Evolution’ targets inner emotion

By Lisa Schulz

Shreds of soft, ceiling-to-floor curtain surrounded by a pod of four cushions paired with headphones playing ambient music hung just inside a window shutting out downtown traffic and constant horn honks.

This is one of the many interactive art displays in the “Empathic Evolution” exhibit, which offers viewers a chance to explore their place in the artwork and experience a connection with artists through their oeuvre, according to Kirill Mazor, senior film and video major and curator of the exhibit. The show opened Jan. 19 and continues until Feb. 22 from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. on weekdays in The Arcade, 618 S. Michigan Ave.

“Empathy, to me, is the basis of human connection,” Mazor said. “Any real, genuine human connection requires some extent of empathy from both parties, or else it’s an orchestrated, faux connection.”

Mazor had an inspiration to state such an exhibit in February 2011 after his friend told him how easy it was to have one approved. But finding a combination of artists using different media was more difficult, he said.

Media created collaboratively by students randomly chosen from around campus include vivid paintings, black and white photographs, films and one-song listening stations. Mazor said two or more artists created each display, while the original ideas were formed during weekly meetings.

Words like “peace,” “process” and “reflection” line the walls to guide viewers in a natural beginning-to-end progression, Mazor said.

“These ideas or concepts, all of them continue because your thoughts on the work and how the work affects you is never really finished until you, yourself, stop thinking about it,” he said.

Even electronics used to convey empathic ideas have an inventive idea behind them, Mazor said. For instance, a listening station contains a song two artists listened to while painting the artworks that hang nearby. He said both painters have synesthesia, a condition of a stimulus triggering another reaction, such as visualizing a color to a certain sound.

Other interactive electronics include a light-up pegboard of a brain, an Xbox Kinect that tracks body movement with dots and the Emotiv EPOC, a neural headset that translates eye movement onto a screen in colorful, bouncing streaks and changes the pitch of a soothing song depending on the person’s levels of relaxation, Mazor said.

According to him, approximately 50 visitors pass through the exhibit daily. With each exhibit, hardware is created specifically to protect electronics against theft, said Justin Witte, exhibition coordinator.

Even though theft doesn’t occur frequently at exhibitions, it has happened, Witte said. He said headphones were among the most stolen items because they’re harder to secure.

He has participated in the setup of 20 Columbia exhibits, including one or two professional exhibits per year, he said.

“Inevitably, there’s a knowledge gap, so that’s going to come through,” Witte said of student-curated exhibits compared to professional shows. “Usually that comes with organization, just the logistics of getting work ready to show [and] hang. Those things aren’t considered as much until you’ve gone through doing the show.”

Nevertheless, student exhibitions tend to have fresher ideas and come with a lot of enthusiasm and motivation, Witte said.

Artists in “Empathic Evolution” are already planning to publicize their new ideas by incorporating whole new works of art, Mazor said.

In some displays, walls are used as an extended canvas to convey the message of thinking beyond limitations, he said.

Replacing the artwork requires repainting over the old. Jennifer Kiekeben, exhibition coordinator, said having students painting during the month-long installation period and keeping tasks on schedule was difficult.

“Students can come and try things out,” Kiekeben said. “Sometimes things are very experimental; other times things are very micromanaged. But the whole point is that students can use spaces as their spaces.”

Students are encouraged to propose an idea for an exhibit by submitting a form to the Department of Performance and Exhibition Spaces, Kiekeben said. The deadline for proposals is mid-March because exhibits can take from 12 to 18 months to get approved.

Next, a lecture series explaining empathy and performances portraying it through dance and poetry are being scheduled, Mazor said.

“What I’ve learned from this exhibition is the extent of people’s creativity and really what people are capable of when they’re given the means to do it,” he said. “I really hope to continue to help people connect and do artwork in some way.”