Student Work

True North

Bennington students, working in collaboration with the State Department's Art in Embassies program, are creating a public artwork for the U.S. Embassy in Oslo, Norway—and, in the process, are learning how art can function as a form of diplomacy. By Aruna D'Souza.

Rendering of Embassy installation site in Oslo

Starting in fall 2015, a group of Bennington students led by faculty members Jon Isherwood and Susan Sgorbati have been working on this question: How can art function as a form of diplomacy?

They had signed up for a class—“Art in the Public Realm”—that was conceived as a partnership between the College and the U.S. State Department’s Art in Embassies program. Established in 1963 by John F. Kennedy, the program commissions and displays artwork at U.S. embassies worldwide as a form of cultural outreach. The goal of the class would be to develop a site-specific, commissioned work of art for American Embassy outpost in Oslo, Norway.

It emerged from a conversation between Isherwood and Sarah Tanguy, the curator in charge of the Oslo project. In the wake of that encounter, Isherwood approached Susan Sgorbati, an expert in conflict resolution and director of CAPA, and Provost and Dean of the College Isabel Roche to think about how students might participate meaningfully in the process of realizing the commission.

For Sgorbati, who has collaborated with Isherwood on more than one occasion in the past, there was an obvious fit between the Oslo project and her work in the realm of public action. “It seemed like a perfect way to connect artistic practice with social practice,” she says.

At the same time, the two had to think hard about what a collaboration with students—especially that which took the form of a 14-week class—might look like. “Jon knows his own process for making an artwork,” notes Sgorbati, “but involving me and the class and doing it for a U.S. embassy—that was an unknown.”

One of the most important roles the students could play, they decided, was that of researchers. Isherwood—whose own ambivalence toward public art projects is rooted in the fact that the art produced often only has a superficial engagement with its site—was insistent that this research precede the design phase. He wanted the students’ analysis to inform the work, not just explain it in retrospect.

Students delved into the history of site-specific art created for public spaces and the considerations that go into its form—such as landscape, geology, and ecology—and thought about the implications of creating an artwork for the unique cultural form of an embassy.

While many individual artists over the years have been invited to create embassy artwork, Bennington is only the third college in the country whose students have been invited to contribute.

There were also myriad issues to consider related to the artwork’s specific location in Oslo: the politics of the Arctic region, climate change and other environmental and conservation issues, Norway’s role in the world as a mediator of global conflict (as with the Oslo Accords), oil and gas development and its relation to the Norwegian and U.S. economies, the design of the embassy itself, the landscape design that would surround it, and its relationship to its urban neighborhood.

Adding to the complexity of the project was the fact that the sculpture would not be created to complement an already-existing building. Rather, the new embassy would be designed and completed at the same time, creating unknown and unfolding contingencies to which the class would have to respond.

Above all, the group thought long and hard about the sculpture’s opportunity to form communication between the U.S. and Norway. How could the sculpture mediate a conversation not only between the embassy and the people who might see it when they visit the building to get visas or attend conferences and events, but also between countries of the Arctic?

To assist the students in grappling with these issues, a series of visitors—representatives from the U.S. State Department, architects, public artists, and curators—came to campus to sit down with the them.

While many individual artists over the years have been invited to create embassy artwork, Bennington is only the third college in the country—alongside Rhode Island School of Design and San Francisco Art Institute—whose students have been invited to contribute, and is the only one of the three that is not a dedicated art college.

In a presentation to the class last spring, Tanguy cited the interdisciplinary nature of the Bennington curriculum and the broad scope both of courses taught here and of student interests as features that made the College an especially exciting partner for collaboration.

The fact that the members of “Art in the Public Realm” came from such varied disciplines—art and architecture, but also political science, anthropology, CAPA, environmental studies, and literature—was indeed invaluable, says Isherwood.

“In the public art projects I’ve worked on independently I’ve had to do the research and come up with the narrative, and frankly I’ve never quite felt truly equipped to do that on my own.

“Here, students came from a range of interests, knowing the research methods of their disciplines and having developed an expertise. Having nine research people in the room along with me has been helpful—it’s allowed for a greater depth and level of engagement for the project.”

At the end of the fall 2015 term, students presented their research to members of the Art in Embassies program. The ideas were winnowed down to a set of essential concerns, which were then further explored in the second phase of the course in spring 2015. In the interim, three of the students traveled to Norway to do onsite research during their Field Work Terms.

In April 2015, the team—consisting of students Hannah Brookman ’16, Emily Coning ’16, Onur Fidangul ’17, Mitra Haque ’17, Timna Jahoda Kligler ’16, Sarah Shames ’17, and 3-D printing specialist Michael Stradley, Isherwood and Sgorbati—traveled to Washington, DC to present their design for a large-scale outdoor sculpture, surrounding plantings, and a selection of visual complexity graphics that will become part of the sculpture’s display.

The design ended up focused on issues specific to the  Arctic, and the final sculpture will highlight the linkages and issues not only between the U.S. and Norway but also the other six Arctic Council nations (Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Russia, and Sweden). A visual complexity graphic created by Shames mapping the travel patterns over the Arctic informed the final design for the sculpture, physical models of which were generated using 3-D printing technology. A surrounding planting will include perennial flowers representative of each of the Arctic Council countries.

We have to connect our academic schedule with the time frames of people and organizations out in the world if we’re engaging in the world.

The single term—even two—is hardly enough time to realize a public artwork: research, design, multi-stage approval process, fabrication, and eventual installation can take up to two or three years, and even making the sculpture itself can take upward of a calendar year. But Isherwood and Sgorbati see that as an important experience for students.

“We have to connect our academic schedule with the time frames of people and organizations out in the world if we’re engaging in the world,” says Sgorbati. “Some students will be there for one or two terms, and others will continue with the work during summer and during their Field Work Terms, and a few will be on board from beginning to end. That’s pretty typical for every long-term collaboration I’ve been involved with—people move in and out of the project over the course of its development.”

The result, says Isherwood, is a lesson in the primacy of process over product.

President Mariko Silver  recognizes just what it means to throw oneself into such a process. “Knowing the often competing and always complex stakes involved in any form of international negotiation, what Jon, Susan, and the students have achieved here is extraordinary,” she says.

“‘Art in the Public Realm’ is a great example of what we do so well at Bennington: finding ways to think big, to collaborate with each other and with our communities (including, in this case, on a global scale), and to use the tools we learn in a broad range of disciplines to fuel creativity and solve problems.”