Campus Art Promotes Valuable Playfulness

If you haven’t been to Frary Dining Hall in the past week, then you may not have seen the sculpture in Bixby Plaza—covered this week on page seven of the Life & Style section. From the convenient vantage point of our office, we’ve had a unique opportunity to observe the way students and community members have reacted to this installation, which features five large, trumpet-like horns on a minimal frame, a rubber tube dangling off the end of each horn. The results have often been amusing, occasionally annoying, but on the whole encouraging.

Bemused bafflement has been the most common reaction. Because the sculpture appears functional, people tend to approach without much hesitation, picking up one of the tubes and leaning in to try to listen or talk. We’ve seen people face-down in the horns trying to speak to their friends, students pacing backward in an attempt to establish the device’s range, and small children clambering over the contraption and exclaiming victoriously to their adult companions, “I hear you!” Despite the appearance of a small placard with the title, materials used, and artist—Scripps professor Elana Mann—public curiosity and hands-on experimentation don’t seem to be diminishing. We’re glad to see that.

Students at the 5Cs often spend a great deal of time in highly structured thought. Lectures require prerequisites, seminars boast hefty mandatory reading lists, and homework assignments often push students toward one specific path of inquiry. And while we value our in-class educations, we’re glad to see that there are still times and spaces where students can think both carefully and playfully, engaging with an intellectual challenge—making sense of an unanticipated artwork—without the strictures, direction, and intimidation of academia.

While Mann's may be the most visible installation on campus pushing students to step up and play around, it isn't the only one. Mowry Baden’s "Dromedary Mezzanine" at the Pomona College Museum of Art, which we covered in our Feb. 14 issue, continues to attract and baffle visitors, who attempt to navigate the contraption around the gallery. Next door in the Dunn Gallery in Rembrandt Hall, a preliminary thesis show by Maurissa Dorn PO ’14 encourages, like Mann's work, active interaction with sound—visitors listen to the hum of a dishwasher within an enclosed space, and play with other common household objects to create their own noises.

Without grades on the line or any obviously correct way to use the objects, the freedom students feel is apparent as they experiment with these installations, finding their way by trial and error. We hope to see more installations around the campuses of all of the colleges to further promote this inquisitive, shameless attitude. Public art that can draw us out of our focus and shift our perspectives, even for a little while, is a valuable addition to our daily lives. We need a little time to be creatively thoughtful, to explore and laugh at ourselves and think outside of our usual standards. So go ahead and give that funky art-horn your best Miles Davis impression. You won’t sound good, but it’s music to our ears.