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Beyond The Fence

MICA's Exhibition Design Seminar Returns With Another Intrepid Exhibit

Michael Northrup
PRISONERS OF MOUNT VERNON: MICA students who participated in the exhibition development seminar responsible for beyond.

By Alex Begley | Posted 3/26/2008

The face of Mount Vernon Place has remained relatively unchanged since the stones were laid for the Washington Monument in 1815. Other than the statues that anchor each corner of it, an art installation has never graced the park--until now. The Maryland Institute College of Art and the Walters Art Museum teamed up for Baltimore's Festival of Maps, and now MICA's Exhibition Development Seminar, presided over by curator-in-residence George Ciscle, has reframed, reformatted, and reoutfitted the park on a major scale.

The Festival of Maps and MICA's grand makeover of Mount Vernon had its inception in Chicago when the Field Museum launched its own celebration of maps and asked the Walters to be the sister site. Maps: Finding Our Place in the World ran from November 2007 to January '08 in Chicago and launched a citywide cartography celebration before it traveled to Baltimore this month.

The actual exhibit includes gems such as maps by Leonardo da Vinci and two U.S. presidents, depictions of Middle Earth by J.R.R. Tolkien, and pictures of the universe, courtesy of the Hubble telescope. But William Noel, the Walters curator of manuscripts and rare books, had to make it more than a map exhibit. In a city that is divided into more than 200 diverse and storied neighborhoods, a city that once straddled the no man's land between North and South--in short, a city that is no stranger to boundaries and disputes, Noel had to make maps matter. "When we realized maps had legs," Noel says, "the associate director of the Walters and I approached George [Ciscle] to see if they wanted to get involved in an activity as a citywide festival of maps." And from this, Beyond the Compass, Beyond the Square was born.

"I think that maps can mean a lot about the history and about the future of Baltimore," says Natasha Bunten, one of the students in the seminar. "The city is developing so rapidly and it's changing so rapidly it brings up questions, like how do you map a place that is constantly changing? How do you map a city that means so many different things to so many different people? And how do you map a city that's completely segregated and one half of the city has absolutely no contact with the other half. How do you map spaces that are that disparate? I don't know if that question can be answered because I think this city is just that complex."

These are some of the themes the seminar students try to examine in Ciscle's classroom, a dusty studio tucked deep in the bowels of the Mount Royal Station building. There, you'll find historical records, city government permit documents, and 28 talented, gutsy, and ridiculously good-looking undergrads putting together this one-of-a-kind show. The entire class sits around one table, laughing over inside jokes and discussing the minutiae of the opening-night party before soberly discussing the concerns of the dog walkers who will be inconvenienced by the gilded scaffolding that will encase the Mount Vernon Place Park while the exhibit is set up.

The Exhibition Development Seminar, now in its 11th year, is one of those legendary classes buried in the course guide. The idea is simple: Ciscle, an experienced curator of community-focused exhibitions, takes a group of undergraduate art students and throws them headfirst into the professional art world by giving them two semesters to put together an entire exhibit. It's the equivalent of your principles of management professor saying, "OK, none of you has any long-term experience, but by the end of this course you need to have a business up and running with a product that you will have to market and sell to the entire city of Baltimore. Go."

After the success of 2006's At Freedom's Door--a MICA and Morgan State University collaborative exhibit ("Risk/Reward." Feature, Jan. 31, 2007)--Ciscle's class had raised its local profile. Interested students had to submit a résumé and a description of previous experience, undergo an interview process, and then a wait list was compiled. The class' eventual 28 students were the most tenacious of the bunch. Jenn Julian, a senior graphic design major, recalls how stressed out her friends had been who had taken the class, but how they said Ciscle would continually chant, It will be worth it in the end.

Bunten, a 25 year-old senior painting major, spent last May through August diligently researching the Chicago maps show for her Walters internship. "I learned everything from what an astrolabe is to that Muslim nations map the world upside down so that Mecca is at the center of the world," she says. In the back of her mind she knew that Ciscle's class was coming that fall, but that the class would organize around the exhibit she was researching was pure and wonderful luck.

"I signed up to be in [the class] because I've always been interested in the production of exhibitions that I think are sort of avant-garde and challenging to community audiences," Bunten says. "So I knew that [Ciscle's] class was sort of right up that alley."

Her Walters experience and her familiarity with the exhibit helped her land one of two daunting positions on the managerial team (one of the six seminar teams that oversees the project). Alongside Emily Macenko, the coordinator of alumni relations at MICA and the other half of the managerial team, Bunten assembled ideas from her Walters research and brought them to the seminar. Themes from the Map show, such as way-finding, visualizing nature and society, and mapping the imaginary world, became leaping-off points for Beyond the Compass. And then each student researched a historical mapping concept along with a contemporary artist who used mapping in his or her work. The process allowed the seminar students to realize that maps could, quite literally, take them anywhere.

And it led the students through a high-maintenance labyrinth of duties and responsibilities. The exhibit design team juggled obtaining permits from the city--in fact, Beyond's location wasn't solidified until about one week before it was supposed to be erected. The curatorial team balanced their personal and professional relationships with the artists, being their shoulders to cry on and fielding panicked 3 a.m. phone calls. The graphic design team didn't know what the name of the exhibit was for most of the year. The artists had to worry about what weather and vandals might do to their creations, and also what their creations might do to the park. Rebecca Nagle, a 21-year-old senior who created cloaks for the statues, worked closely with the city's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation to make sure that her "new clothes" wouldn't stain, scratch, rub, or ruin the 100-year-old statues. And she had to do it without ever touching a statue.

The real challenge of the exhibit is more than the tedium of day-to-day tasks, though. The students have to bring the comprehensiveness of the collection inside the Walters to the outside world. Beyond's artists face a much wider audience, forcing that audience out of its comfort zone and using inconvenience as an artistic expression. Part of the objective is to guide viewers into redefining their view of the park and of what maps can be, and the students are all fully aware that not everyone is going to be open to it. Ideally, Beyond will be an opportunity for Baltimore citizens to re-examine the city itself, to discuss the notion of a shared/public space. Communities change from one block to the next and, sometimes, a television show offers the only glimpse of a foreign street corner on the other side of town, but it's all part of the same place. Beyond's goal is to flesh out the sense that a single community falls within the borders of one city.

And it's young artists' work catalyzing that argument. Beyond the Compass is the first time that MICA students will be producing the art for the seminar's exhibit. Jann Rosen-Queralt, an Anna Wintour-like maven of Interdisciplinary Sculpture, filled her 2007-'08 class "Conversations as Muse" in much the same way that Ciscle did, with interviews and résumés, to make sure that the students involved were as serious as the project. Her students have extrapolated their own ideas from the traditional concept of maps to create installations such as a scavenger hunt, a textured ball that guides you through a world of impromptu destinations, and a piece that uses viewers' cell phones to map their emotional states. Jonathan Taube's extremely interactive piece "The Baltimore Sweep Action Parade: Towards the Center" relies on intercommunity cooperation to sweep the street litter from around the city into Mount Vernon Place.

"The comprehensiveness of the exhibition has convinced people that were doubters to begin with into realizing that this is really an amazing thing," Bunten says. "It's cemented my belief in the fact that artists need support both from arts administrators and from their communities, and I'd like to explore that. . . . This project has really been about freedom of expression and about artists being able to take their concepts all the way to the end despite tension from the community or tension from their peers. It's really about seeing it all the way through, and I think that's pretty amazing."

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