Unicorns come to the Hay (and to Providence)

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Artist’s research sketch, 1999, from the John Hay exhibit

On Wednesday, the John Hay library hosted a unicorn colloquium (yes, really), with discussion from Brown professors from different departments “engaging in scholarly inquiry into the unicorn legend.” Audience members, including a few people who came wearing fabric plush horns on their heads, enjoyed “unicorn-themed treats” after the event, which marked the opening of the “The Unicorn Found Exhibit” at the John Hay Library.

This exhibit is part of a larger community “interactive art experience” happening through the summer in Providence, titled Unicorns In Residence: Providence, a mysterious series of unicorn-related events and installations that centers around a search for “The Missing Unicorn.”

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Yes, this is a real thing. The search for “The Missing Unicorn” will begin with posters popping up around the city mid-March, which will say that the unicorn was last seen in Providence’s Fargnoli Park. People can call a “Unicorn Hotline” to leave their sightings and tips. The Providence Children’s Museum will host the “Missing Unicorn Wall” and “PlayPhone,” from April 15 to May 15, with an audio component and glitter phone booth. Through the end of the month, the Providence Public Library will host “The Unicorn Stampede,” an art installation of life-size glitter unicorns floating on pink and purple clouds set to music. Galloping life-size unicorn images will appear throughout Providence at the end of the month on the sides of buildings and “other surprise locations.”

The opening colloquium, The Unicorn Found: Science, Literature, and the Arts, featured Brown professors from three departments: Johanna Hanick from the Classics department, Amy Remensnyder from the History department, and Felipe Rojas Silva, from the Archaeology and the Ancient World, Egyptology and Assyriology departments. The three panelists spoke about different aspects of the unicorn in its mythological, symbolic, and narrative significance, approaching the topic from their areas of expertise.

First, Professor Hanick looked at the presence of hybrid creatures and monsters in Greek mythology, focusing in particular on a theme of ‘absence.’ Hanick highlighted Ctesias, a Greek 5th century BC poet, as often cited as the first to have written about a one-horned, unicorn-like animal. Ctesias described:

“There are, in India, certain wild asses which are as large as horses and even larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark read, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn in the middle of the forehead that is one cubit in length. [The animals] fight with thrusts of horn; they kick, bite, and strike with wounding force… they cannot be taken alive. The flesh of this animal is so bitter that it is not edible; it is hunted for its horn and its ankle-bone.”

Professor Hanick emphasized that references to an animal that lived in ‘India,’ are some of the only places we can find unicorn-like creatures in Greek literature, as ‘India’ was  somewhere the Greeks saw as exotic and beyond their occupied world. This was because all the mythological monsters, like the Chimera and giant mammals, were written about as in the past, no longer existing in Greece at the time these poets were writing. Hanick suggested that myths of heroes slaying monsters, like Theseus and the Minotaur and Hercules and the Hydra, while also focused on the individual achievements of mortal heroes, as a whole amount to represent a purification of the world, a cleansing, from the “dark and terrifying beginnings” – a way to describe the absence of these creatures from the civilized Greek world.

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Evolution through wind and PVC: Theo Jansen at RISD

Theo Jansen demonstrates his Strandbeests' "water feelers," which respond to moisture by rapidly firing leg pistons.

Theo Jansen demonstrates his Strandbeests’ “water feelers,” which respond to moisture by rapidly firing leg pistons to move in the opposite direction.

Theo Jansen, a Dutch polymath engineer-artist extraordinaire and the father of kinetic, wind-powered “Strandbeests,” came to RISD Friday night to deliver a lecture to a packed auditorium Although not a household name, Jansen is somewhat of a rock star at RISD.

His talk was presented by RISD/Brown STEAM, a group dedicated to promoting cross-disciplinary work between STEM fields and the arts. They demonstrated a five-foot tall cardboard Strandbeest of their own. Collaborative partners included RISD Government Relations and the RISD Programming Board.

Jansen is known for merging physics, engineering, biology, and art in large PVC kinetic animals that walk down the beaches in Holland on their own accord. These beasts move their legs with pneumatic PVC cylinders powered by compressed captured air. They have a purely mechanical nervous system that is able to respond to its environment by changing direction once it detects water or shifty terrain, by anchoring itself into the ground when it senses a storm coming, or by sending smaller “scouts” in front to test the surroundings.

In the talk, Jansen ruminated on the evolution of his career, imagination, and the beasts themselves.

Here are some of the most resonant thoughts Jansen shared Friday night, after the jump.

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A Cool Thing You Shouldn’t Miss: Coco Fusco ’82 to deliver talk

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Coco Fusco’s Observations of Predation in Humans (2013), Norte Sur (1990), and A Room of One’s Own (2006-08)

Coco Fusco is a Cuban-American multimedia artist and writer, whose work incorporates digital media and performance ranging in format from large-scale projections to interactive live performances streamed online. Fusco’s work often comments on systems of gender, race, politics, war, and identity.

Fusco will visit campus this Thursday to give a talk at 4 p.m. in the List Art Center auditorium, room 120. The event is free, but tickets are required.

Fusco received her AB in Semiotics from Brown in 1982, going on to get her MA in Modern Thought and Literature from Stanford (1985) and her PhD in Art and Visual Culture from Middlesex University (2007). Fusco, currently MIT’s 2014-15 MLK Visiting Scholar, has taught at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, Columbia, and Parsons The New School for Design. Her work has been exhibited at two Whitney Biennials (1993 and 2008), the Tate Liverpool, the MoMA, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona. She is the author of several books, including English is Broken Here: Notes on Cultural Fusion in the Americas (1995), which examines the tension between cultural identity and visual politics, and A Field Guide for Female Interrogators (2008), which addresses the exploitation of sex and sexuality in the military for interrogation techniques.

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A Cool Thing You Shouldn’t Miss: ‘Strandbeest’ workshops for Theo Jansen’s upcoming visit

Theo Jansen, Dutch artist and all around badass, is coming to College Hill this month. Merging art and engineering, Jansen is known for building large, kinetic mechanical animals out of PVC—”Strandbeests,” as he calls them. Jansen’s Strandbeests walk down beaches in Holland on their own accord, with spindly legs that are powered by wing-like sails.

Some of his creatures, such as the Animaris Percipiere, are able to capture and store air pressure in plastic bottles to continue to move without wind. Without any electronic components, the Strandbeests can navigate between soft and hard sand, and some can even detect and change directions if they encounter water or can anchor themselves in the ground if they sense a storm is coming.  Using recycled bottles, pumps, and valves, Jansen is able to equip the beasts with a muscular and neural system of sorts. Jansen is coming to Brown and RISD this month to talk about his Strandbeests, delivering a speech Friday, November 21st in the RISD Auditorium at 6:30 p.m. Before his talk, you can create your own version of a Strandbeest. Continue Reading


John Hay seems like a stereotypical Brown student

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Last night, Brown hosted “John Hay Night,” a celebration of the life and scholarship of one of its most famous alumni. The event showcased the impressive set of resources that the university has collected about Hay, who served as a diplomat for three U.S. presidents. Professor Michael Vorenberg introduced separate talks by John Taliaferro, author of All the Great Prizes: The Life of John Hay, from Lincoln to Roosevelt, and Joshua Zeitz AM’98 PhD’02, author of Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image. Taliaferro’s book is the first biography of Hay in over 80 years, and Zeitz’s work puts a new spin on a portion of Hay’s life that is often overlooked. As he puts it, Lincoln buffs know little about the Roosevelt-era Hay, and vice versa.

John Hay, the man for whom the beautiful, renovated library you’re too lazy to set foot in is named, has a résumé that would make our template blush. He spent almost 60 years in public life, from his time as Abraham Lincoln’s personal secretary—see, not everyone goes into finance or consulting—to his death while serving as Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt. He was instrumental in key moments in U.S. history like the forging of the Open Door policy with China and the construction of the Panama Canal. Along with John Nicolay, the second of “Lincoln’s Boys,” he wrote a truly massive biography of the late President that brought to light many of the qualities that we now take for granted when we think about Honest Abe. He even ghost-wrote the famous Bixby letter, which you might know as that voice-over that makes you cry at the end of Saving Private Ryan.

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7 things I learned at Senator Olympia Snowe’s lecture

1528600_731761943500896_923142022_nThis Monday, the Taubman Center for Public Policy held its annual Noah Krieger ’93 Lecture, in which former Senator Olympia Snowe spoke on “Bridging the Divide.” Senator Olympia Snowe is best known for her work as a moderate Republican from Maine who served on, first, the U.S. House of Representatives and, later, the U.S. Senate. Her tenure was characterized by bipartisan aisle crossing, as famously seen during the trials regarding President Clinton’s impeachment.

Though she could’ve easily won reelection in 2012, Snowe retired from office due to her frustration with the lack of cooperation and bipartisanship in the Senate and Washington as a whole. She felt then, as she does now, that in order to change the climate of Congress, the fight for partisanship must be taken to the outside world. “Politics is too important to be left to politicians.”

Her lecture focused on this premise, elaborating on her current views of the state of Congress and its hyper-partisanship, citing reasons for its prominence, and offering solutions. So, without further ado, here are seven things I learned at Senator Snowe’s lecture:

#1 Olympia is one of a kind. At age 31, she became the youngest female Republican to ever be elected to the House of Representatives. She also is the only woman to ever be elected to both houses of her state’s legislature and U.S. Congress. In 2006, she was named one of America’s “10 Best Senators” by Time Magazine, the only female to be named such. Pretty badass.  Continue Reading