The art of construction: Chemistry lab takes center stage in an artist’s exhibition

From many perspectives, a construction site represents a headache — an area in flux, hovering between functional and unusable, a source of financial and emotional stress. When will the work be completed? When can the area return to its finished state? And will it be done by the estimated, yet counted upon deadline, for the estimated, yet counted upon budget? To perceive a space mid-renovation in any other way — to take it even further and actually be inspired, as opposed to daunted — requires a truly unique vision. Angel Chen MS ’17, a recent master’s degree recipient from MIT’s Program in Art, Culture, and Technology (ACT), not only possesses that vision, but defines it.

Chen, who received her bachelor’s degree in philosophy and computer science from McGill University in 2009, came to MIT in 2015, and made quite an impact over the course of her time in ACT. The 2017 second-place recipient of MIT’s Harold and Arlene Schnitzer Prize in the Visual Arts, Chen’s art practice at MIT has revolved around understanding complex and technical systems. “[ACT] supports my background and interest very well because it encourages experiments in new modes of relating a critical art practice to culture and to technology,” she explains.

When it came time to execute her thesis work, Chen set off in search of a construction site on campus to stage an art installation. She pitched her idea to create an artwork that would explore the connection between building construction and nanoscale fabrication to Dick Amster, MIT’s director of campus construction. Amster then put her in touch with Janis Burke, manager of the Institute’s Committee for Renovation and Space Planning, who introduced Chen to four project managers and their respective renovation projects on campus.

One of the projects in contention was the renovation of Department of Chemistry laboratory spaces on the fourth and and fifth floors of Building 18, overseen by campus construction project manager Meredith Fydenkevez. Fydenkevez was assisted by project coordinators Julie Azzinaro and Mike Morizio. Members of the project team also included Department of Chemistry’s administrative officer Richard Wilk and facilities administrator Brian Pretti. Columbia Construction Company was represented by project manager Mike Ausevich, assistant project manager Sarah Neff and field superintendent Erik Julio.

Chen presented her idea to the project team, and they determined the project could accommodate her request to utilize the space during construction. Department of Chemistry’s senior administrative assistant Emrick Elias assisted by providing Chen daily access to the space, with construction beginning in May. The spaces will soon belong to Professor Laura L. Kiessling, and in order to accommodate her research group, they had to undergo a few changes. When Chen first viewed the fourth floor space in April, prior to the start of any construction, she was immediately drawn to it. “I was initially attracted to quality of the natural light I experience walking down the hallway. It makes you want to believe in something, or at least be hopeful for something,” she said.

Chen also discovered a meaningful connection to the building as a whole: “My ACT studio is in an I.M. Pei building from 1985, and Building 18 is also designed by I.M. Pei, but in 1967. 1967 is also the year my program’s predecessor, Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS), was created. Going in between these spaces inspired me to reflect on how artists and scientists came together to collaborate at different times in the history of the Institute.” Having landed on the perfect location, Chen began production on the art installation, entitled “Looking for Space: Arriving at a Laboratory Under Construction.”

From April 18 through May 23, Chen was a daily fixture in the fourth floor construction site, arriving at various times of day, staying for intermittent amounts of time, and absorbing the environment as a whole as well as the minutiae that made up the space. “Every little interaction was very meaningful to me,” she says. “All the interactions together make up one very memorable and impactful moment. I did really enjoy being surprised by what would happen at any given day … running into people at the elevator, Brian and Meredith bringing me a MIT hardhat with my name on it, and the quiet but continuous alarm sound the cold room made when it was put to rest.”

Ultimately, Chen’s project evolved into more than what she had originally intended; it became not only a place for an art installation, a site in transition/in flux/in limbo to be witnessed and photographed, but also a nest of sorts. Chen described the space’s evolution from her expectation to the ultimate result in the description of her installation as “a place to spend time in, to reflect on my position as an art student. By forming this nest, through every day interacting, observing, and learning, I encountered specific people, procedures, processes, traces, gossip and memories that together make up this place.”

On May 22, Chen opened the installation for her fellow ACT classmates, as well as professors both from MIT and beyond, as a public display of her thesis work. Groups donned hard hats and walked through the renovation that had become Chen’s nest, observing the items she had carefully arranged amidst the chaos, dust, and debris of an ongoing construction zone. Chen’s goal for the scene was to instigate a different way of thinking. “My intention was to create a space that really urges people to look at a lab space differently, regardless of where they are coming from, through paying attention to different materials, to placements of objects, through trying to discern which things have been brought in by me from my studio, and through noticing traces of time as demonstrated by marks left by many different people, machines, and processes. That the lab is under renovation means that certain aspects — electrical outlets, walls — are quite literally open, adding to the mix of materials.”

The exhibit was a multifaceted success, for Chen, for the Department of Chemistry, and for all who had the privilege of experiencing it firsthand. “This project,” Chen muses, “experimental in nature, has given me an incredible opportunity to develop artistic research and exhibition-making methods that I will take with me and continue to refine for years to come.” Chen’s work has inspired a thoughtfulness among those who work in Building 18. It has promoted the notion that the space that is experienced on a daily basis can be easily taken for granted. Moments are finite, and the lab renovation on the fourth floor of Building 18 will soon be complete, but Chen’s artistic vision helped to instigate an appreciation for the fleeting passage of time, and all of the tiny elements that make up an average day.

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