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A piece by Bethany Hwang.
Bethany Hwang pays homage to a loved one with her work in the B*A series.

Student-led Showcase Puts Innovative Art Research on Display at CMU

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Peter Kerwin
University Communications & Marketing

With forsythia petals canopied in archlike form above these words in Korean, Bethany Hwang pays homage to a loved one lost during the pandemic: “The meaning of life prevails despite the disappearance of existence.” In a different model, bearing the same vibrant yellow, handmade simulacra of these flowers rise and fall, timed to the exact breaths of her late grandmother. On sheets of paper covering walls, the flower’s form pushes through abstractions of black and gray, persisting in spite of dark conditions.

A model of flowers rise and fall.

Hwang joined six other Carnegie Mellon University students to showcase transdisciplinary research during six-minute sessions in the B*A series. The presentations were held in the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry on March 1(opens in new window). The event spanned two hours and allowed presenters in the College of Fine Arts to mingle, share artistic discoveries and creations, and consider the work of their peers.

What goes into a B*A presentation?

B*A presentations give students the chance to explore topics that they may not have the chance to in the traditional four-year structure offered by most universities. The yearly presentations also provide an opportunity for students to show progress, potential and outcomes of their personal research work.

The presentations do not have to relate to students’ current degree programs or coursework. They have full discretion to present research on a topic through a medium of their choosing. “It’s great for students who are self-motivated, and believe their interests will persist regardless of their status as a student,” said Harrison Apple(opens in new window), associate director for the STUDIO. “They can put something out into the world, and have a chance to talk about their work without the pressure of evaluation.”

Emmanuel Lugo(opens in new window), a senior pursuing a bachelor of fine arts, ran this year’s B*A event alongside College of Fine Arts junior Dariyah Scott. Both Lugo and Scott gave presentations this year in addition to organizing the event: Lugo on world-renowned biologist Lynn Margulis (discoverer of endosymbiosis) and her descent into conspiracy theories, and Scott on a technical demonstration of audio engineering techniques. 

“Being able to present and also hear what other people are doing and gain inspiration from them is really useful,” Scott said. “I have experience doing live performances, but this was an opportunity to try something new.”

Some of the presentations, more theoretical in nature, showed the value of exploring specific concepts. Ilyas Khan, a sophomore pursuing a bachelor of humanities and arts(opens in new window), presented on the local history of art and activism and his work with Sunrise Movement Pittsburgh. Anastasia Jungle-Wagner, another sophomore from the School of Art, briefly explored the idea and conditions of “kitsch.”

Work by Scott Liu.

by Scott Liu

Other talks focused on works of art created by the students. Scott Liu, a sophomore from the School of Art, showcased outcomes of practice across various styles. Sophomore Lorie Chen, who is pursuing a Bachelor of Science and Arts degree(opens in new window), explored the idea of creating bloblike shapes via computational means.

“You have six guaranteed minutes of everyone’s attention. It’s a really great place to practice speaking skills,” Jungle-Wagner said.“It’s an informal way of networking, and for a few people, it’s their first time even doing something like that.” 

The Past and Future of B*A

“These students are the reason that it keeps going,” Apple said. “It’s word-of-mouth and part of the culture of the STUDIO.”

Many presenters choose to participate in B*A because of the already-interdisciplinary nature of their studies. Several are enrolled in CMU’s BXA Intercollege Degree Programs(opens in new window), which sponsored the event and allows students to pursue coursework and research across multiple schools and colleges. While it borrows its naming convention from the program, B*A is not limited to participation by BXA students. Many are CFA students. 

“B*A grew out of the fact that there’s this independent, self-motivated drive among students to take their research and explain what they find interesting to other people,” Apple said.

Because this drive takes so many different forms, the event’s organizers said more students outside of the College of Fine Arts should feel encouraged to participate in the future. “We’ve talked about it being more open to those outside of the School of Art,” Scott said. “There are opportunities for things to become interdisciplinary, and for collaboration, even if they’re not at that point yet.”

In addition to more participation, Lugo said he’d like to see changes made to the structure of B*A to give students more flexibility in what and how they present. “Across the whole university, what does cross-disciplinary art look like?” he said. “I would like to see it not so afraid to get technically focused or in the weeds of certain things. What we do now is great, but there might be room for other fields like STEM.”

Anastasia Jungle-Wagner, center, shows her work exploring kitsch.

Anastasia Jungle-Wagner, center, shows her work exploring kitsch.

Jungle-Wagner plans on participating again. They said B*A is an example of why having more presentation options for students outside of the lecture hall or classroom is important. “People can really come as they are,” they said. “They can share their interests beyond the critique setting, and people will be excited to hear it.”

Thanks to a pledged gift from STUDIO alumnus Dan Moore, B*A will receive an endowment in 2024. The Moore Family Fund will be the first dedicated source of funding for the event’s operations, and will allow a random participant to receive a monetary award for participating.

What is the Frank-Ratchye STUDIO?

The Frank-Ratchye STUDIO for Creative Inquiry was created under the Office of the Dean of the College of Fine Arts in 1989. For over 30 years, it has supported boundary-pushing research across the arts, science, technology and culture through artist residencies, courses, event programming, workshops and exhibitions. The STUDIO supports CMU faculty and staff through multiple grant-funding streams including the Frank-Ratchye Further Fund, the Steiner Visitor Invitation Grant, the XRTC Creative Research Grant and the STUDIO’s Director’s Fund. Each year the STUDIO’s team stewards over $100,000 in creative research support and programming support across the College of Fine Arts’ five schools and throughout the university as a whole.

“What brought me to all of these different things was the STUDIO,” Scott said. “I think it’s the perfect place for people who want to do a lot of different things. Having people find it can be difficult, but if you’re one of those people who wants to find a community, then we are your community. There’s so much equipment, so much support, that the skills you can learn from being there are invaluable.”

Apple said the event is an important opportunity to bring students into an independent and open environment like the STUDIO.

“Students aren’t doing this in order to secure a spot in a class or have their GPA rise. There’s not a prize. You can’t win,” Apple said. “This is so much more focused on what would happen if you were to give your time to your classmates, and really helps participants learn how to share their interests as research for research’s sake.”

“I think it’s really a big part of what makes coming to CMU’s College of Fine Arts worth it,” Apple said.

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