Under The Great Wide Open: RISD Sculpture WinterSession

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It begins with a short, low-fi film shot in a pizza parlor. It’s the 1970s. We know this because of the music and the psychedelic headbands everyone is wearing. Also the phrase “far out.” Suddenly the woman seen ordering pizza in the film appears in the screening room where we’re seated at Brown University’s Granoff Center. She whips open her trench coat to reveal an alarm clock and a slice of pizza. As the film ends, we’re beckoned to the window. Outside a troupe of performers in long, colorful robes scurries around the green à la Monty Python’s Flying Circus. As we watch, a cell phone rings. It’s the pizza parlor. Our pie is ready.

This surreal performance piece emanated from Under the Great Wide Open, an intensive 10-day Wintersession workshop open to RISD students and Brown MFA candidates in Theatre Arts and Performance Studies. It centered around time, says Ethan Silverman, the writer, director, filmmaker and visiting artist who taught the workshop.

“I divided the class into groups and gave each group a prompt: body, mind, digital,” Silverman says, explaining that the emphasis was on process. “I asked students to create very quick prototypes that we then deconstructed, discussed and re-created. By collaborating freely, they were able to learn about themselves and their own artistic practices.”

Supported by RISD’s Turner Theatrical and Performance Design Fund, the cross-disciplinary workshop set out to “explore the vocabulary, technique, opportunities and challenges of interdisciplinary collaboration as an active creative process,” Silverman says – to combine “both the iterative/prototyping methods of visual art and the rehearsal-based narrative explorations of drama” in experimental new ways. He originally developed the workshop (with Pippin Parker) as a collaboration between Parsons School of Design, where he teaches as an adjunct faculty member, and The New School for Drama in NYC.

Under the Great Wide Open involves one of the most diverse student groups I have ever seen,” notes Sculpture Department Head Jane South, who welcomes both experimental approaches to teaching and the opportunity to collaborate with Brown. Workshop participants included actors, playwrights, architects, sculptors and filmmakers, all working together to investigate how our perceptions are shaped by the real and virtual worlds.

“The Brown/RISD chemistry is great,” Silverman confirms. “Most of the students are extremely articulate – both emotionally and analytically – which led to really interesting discussions.”

Bonny (Ying) Cai BRDD 18 AP, a third-year student in the Brown/RISD Dual Degree Program who is majoring in Economics and Apparel Design, really values the experience. “It was so refreshing to work outside of my fields,” she says. “As an Apparel student, I can get locked into the studio focused entirely on fabric and clothing. It was great to work on concepts via performance that I can relate back to my design.”

For example, Cai worked in a group that attempted to tackle the concept of time (and never having enough of it) by invoking time zones and telecommunications technology. “We put pillows and blankets in a cozy room in the Granoff Center and then had a conference call with my cousin in Hong Kong, in the opposite time zone. When it’s nighttime there, it’s daytime here. That concept of yin and yang – opposites balancing each other – is one that I frequently incorporate into my work, balancing positive and negative space, detail and minimalism.

“Usually the classes I take are about completing a refined piece,” Cai adds. But affirming the true value of Wintersession, she says: “It’s nice to feel free to experiment and learn without worrying about the consequences. We were totally wiped out after 10 days, but it was worth it!”

Simone Solondz