The Anti-Gravity Downhill Derby - A Short History-School of Art - Carnegie Mellon University

The Anti-Gravity Downhill Derby - A Short History

The Anti-Gravity Downhill Derby, a satirical parade presented by the School of Art, is a witty and provocative alternative to the buggy race tradition during Carnival at Carnegie Mellon University.

The Downhill Derby is the brainchild of performance artist Pat Oleszko, a visiting faculty member in the School of Art, who, since 2009, has organized and supervised this special event that allows students an opportunity to go beyond the normal class structures by inventing and building extraordinary vehicles that must roll, be pushed or be pulled down a hundred-yard sloping pathway across the center of campus known as The Cut. 

Pat Oleszko is a formidable artist who has made a distinguished career out of puncturing societal taboos, particularly with regard to politics, sex and religion.  She tackles serious subject matter purposefully with wit and aplomb, through outrageous, stunning costumes, sculptures and performances. She brings this spirit to the Downhill Derby, encouraging the students to experiment with performance as a form of expression, through their vehicles and costumes, and the themes that they choose to explore.

Some consider the event to be a Carnegie Mellon version of Mardi Gras, an afternoon when everyday strictures are loosened for the occasion. While predominantly humorous in content, some students use the occasion to make satirical commentary on issues of concern to them and to explore themes of their own choice in an untrammeled way. 

The Downhill Derby, with its risqué joie de vivre, has been enjoyed by appreciative campus audiences across the last four years.


The event is an important, liberating educational experience for the students. They are encouraged to push their ideas to extremes in a way that many of them will not have been able to do before, to explore their creativity, find their own voices, and in some cases, to test the boundaries of tolerance and understanding. 

This occasionally results in work that some find shocking or offensive.  This is not surprising, as artists imagine different worlds and they can, at times, touch on uncomfortable truths, working arm-in-arm with other activists in affecting change in society. There are countless examples of artworks that caused public outcry at certain points in time, but now are accepted as milestones in art history. 

The School of Art is a place where young artists and designers are provided with the time and resources they need to hone their artistry, to practice their work and to refine their vision.  They are encouraged to challenge convention and question ideologies. We do not limit or prescribe their subject matter, but encourage them to explore their own interests and concerns, even if the subject matter might be difficult or contentious. Art allows for that freedom of exploration and expression.

Our young artists learn by doing. The works they produce are not always successful, artful, elegant or compelling; they can, at times, be evolving, clumsy, clichéd or derivative.  The value of this environment is in the opportunity they have to take that journey, sometimes achieving wonderful moments and sometimes failing, but always learning and growing. Artists need audiences to complete their process and as a result, they can sometimes find themselves in vulnerable positions. Thus it takes courage to explore these opportunities.

The College of Fine Arts at Carnegie Mellon recognizes the power of art, and places a high value on its ability to inspire engineers, technologists, scientists and policy-makers in changing the world. 

Just as scientists and engineers endeavor to challenge the status-quo, pushing their new inventions and discoveries to the limits of our understanding, so will artists from time to time test the limits of understanding and sensibility.  Artists have an important role to play in reflecting on the human condition, stimulating creativity, and affecting change in our society.

The School of Art encourages this freethinking creativity and risk taking. Indeed, this form of free expression and creativity is a core value of any arts school or university.

VIEW GALLERY: 2013 Anti-Gravity Downhill Derby

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