Students Attempt to Express ‘Uncertainty’ In Exhibition Project with Artists-In-Residence

In glass display cases filled with ambiguously-shaped objects, a ball of fluff hangs from a white and green string. A red button sits on the ball, contrasting its gray muted colors. As students walk to Paresky Commons each day through the Flagstaff Courtyard, they peer curiously into the five glass cases, observing the numerous art pieces that make up the exhibit.

The exhibition project, installed at the beginning of winter term, is by “The Institute for the Study of Universal Uncertainties,” which was recently founded in May by the Addison Gallery of American Art. The institute itself was founded by Triple Candie, a research-oriented agency run by the Addison’s Fall 2016 Edward E. Elson Artists-in-Residence Shelly Bancroft and Peter Nesbett ’84, two art historians. Their primary purpose is to use exhibits to display projects that often contain ambiguous subjects.

“Peter graduated from Andover in ’84, and he was surprised to see how, 30 years later, the campus appeared unchanged. Sure, [George Washington Hall] has a new addition, the library has been expanded, Gelb [Science Center] was built, but these projects have been realized with great discretion, and none have fundamentally altered the look or feel of the campus,” said Bancroft.

“We became fascinated with this. What does it mean when a place doesn’t reflect, on its surface, in its physical form, the profound changes taking place in society as a whole?”

These questions inspired Bancroft and Nesbett to study “uncertainty” and work with students to explore how uncertainty is understood and valued in different academic contexts. The project showcases artwork by its first class of research fellows, 39 students from four advanced classes in studio art, physics, and biology in the fall.

“[The fellows] did some exercises with some found objects, where each kid had to find an object and bring it with them, turn it over to another kid, who then will do something with that object that the original provider couldn’t influence, or had no say in. That was one form of uncertainty… that sometimes you find something that you value, but you put forth it to the world and you don’t have control over it anymore. It built off from there,” said Christine Marshall-Walker, a Founding Director of “The Institute for the Study of Universal Uncertainties” and Instructor in Biology.

The students produced works without any guidelines or standards. By altering an object that they initially brought in, they created pieces that satisfied their own interpretations. They represented uncertainty by bridging the objective and the subjective, individualizing their various perspectives on uncertainty.

“We asked the fellows to think about the objects they found or made as artifacts rather than art objects. This was important. As was the fact that the objects were to be presented as un-authored,” said Bancroft.

Fellows used everyday objects and altered them into art pieces that matched their definitions of uncertainty, using various materials, such as clay, paint, and string.

“With two other people, I created a phone. Basically, there was an old phone lying around. We took the phone, we cut the cord on it, we painted it various colors, we kind of just had fun for a couple of hours. [The phone] was cool,” said Remus Sottile ’19.

Over 40 of the 90 works that were made were selected and placed in front of Paresky Commons in hopes that the student population would look at and take interest in them over a long period. The artworks were sealed in vitrines, glass display cases, inspired by the tradition of “cabinets of curiosities,” small collections of objects that attempted to categorise and tell stories about the wonders of the world and date back to the nineteenth century.

“Some of our favorites are the most head-scratching. There is, for example, an object in one of the cases that is simply a small piece of torn brown paper. It almost looks like a mistake that it was included. But one of the fellows submitted it and we liked it,” said Bancroft.

Painted over with hues of purple, blue, and brown, a broken eyeshadow palette sits in one of the five display cases. Made by Jack Hjerpe ’17 and Zoe Sottile ’17, it represents the ways people can play with their identities and the uncertainty of that, according to Rebecca Hayes, a Founding Director of “The Institute for the Study of Universal Uncertainties” and Curator of Education in the Addison.

“One of the artworks that stood out to me was a makeup case. The makeup case is something that gives women or men the opportunity to change who you are when you apply these different looks depending on how you use the makeup, and that can sometimes promote uncertainty,” said Hayes.

At the same time, many research fellows who created the works expressed confusion surrounding the meaning and purpose of the exhibition.

“I thought that the entire premise of the show was unfounded so to speak. The idea behind creating pieces of art that represent uncertainty in itself, I felt didn’t really make any sense,” said Sottile.

The directors of the exhibition aimed to create a sense of uncertainty within the fellows. According to Marshall-Walker, uncertainty is a topic that evokes a range of emotions including discomfort. The idea of looking at uncertainty as an entity unto itself, and trying to find the value in uncertainty is an uncomfortable place. This discomfort allowed the students to create objects of uncertainty while feeling confused and uncertain themselves.

“A lot of young people [at Andover] and in general are uncomfortable of uncertainty. Everyone [here] is results oriented, always wanting to know the right answer,” said Hayes. “They are in a time of uncertainty in general in their own lives, as they are figuring out what might be next as students in the current moment of being a student here at [Andover].”

Bancroft and Nesbett hope that after the project, the fellows will have a new outlook on uncertainty and its role in various academic contexts.

“High school students could be considered experts of uncertainty. They are at a transitional point in their lives. Predicting where they will be in five to ten years is quite difficult to do. The horizon is far away indeed. As we get older, uncertainty remains in our lives but it is no longer the same. It becomes more the exception that we try to protect ourselves from,” said Bancroft.

“[We wanted the fellows] to embrace the positive aspects of uncertainty, and to realize that rigor looks different in the sciences than it does in the fine arts. And that creativity does too,” Bancroft continued.