ICA project promotes communication, community through interactive art

Pamphlets welcome guests to participate in the activities that the installation for “Doing Language: Word Work” requires in order for attendee interaction. Photo by Alessandro Latour

Jiana Smith, Staff Writer

On a table in the shop of the Institute of Contemporary Art rests an assortment of items: broadsheet newsletters, colorful plastic prescription vials and fragrances with notes of rubber and hydraulic oil.

These items comprise the “Doing Language: Word Work” project, organized by 2020 ICA Research Fellow Nontsikelelo Mutiti and ICA Assistant Curator of Commerce and Publications Egbert Vongmalaithong. 

Author Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture, which she gave after winning the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature, inspired the project. The lecture discusses how language can create and reinforce the human experience, according to Mutiti.

 Mutiti and Vongmalaithong related Morrison’s lecture to the physical separation experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mutiti said.

“These things [gestures] that are important in terms of communicating were things we were also missing out on during the pandemic, without being in close proximity,” Mutiti said.

“Doing Language” is a multi-part project. The first part opened Dec. 10, 2021 and featured work from artists agustine zegers, Bryan Castro and Joselia Hughes. The second part of the project featuring work from artists Malcolm Peacock and Riley Hooker will take place this spring, according to Vongmalaithong.

Viewers can interact with each piece in the project. The pieces also come in editions that can be purchased from the ICA shop, according to Mutiti and Vongmalaithong.

Vongmalaithong and Mutiti said they wanted the project to be more accessible than a traditional exhibition where viewers are not allowed to touch the pieces. 

“There’s something about letting things go and letting things get distributed or circulated that feels akin to what ‘Doing Language’ can look like,” Vongmalaithong said.

VCU painting and printmaking Master of Fine Arts alumnus Bryan Castro’s piece, “Professor Castro’s Guide to Do Your Language,” consists of 26 silkscreened print pieces written on by Castro that take on the form of a fill-in-the-blank worksheet. Blank, un-silkscreened copies for viewers to fill out are also available.

“Those copies are an invitation for readers to really write in the empty spaces on pages one and four,” Castro said. “That was one of the intentions of the guide, for the viewer to figure out what it means for them to do their language and make space for that.”

New York-based writer Joselia Hughes created “Verbena’s Apothecary,” which features 21 poems placed into pill bottles. Those who purchase the pill bottles must seek each other out to read each different poem, according to the ICA website.

Hughes said she used the piece to foreground the importance of community and collaboration.

“I really wanted to focus on interdependence as a means of even reading together or engaging art together, and really highlighting that sharing is going to be necessary if we want to move out of these really limiting structures of ableist spaces,” Hughes said. 

Interdependence is a concept in disability justice that rejects the idea that individuals can survive independent of each other, according to Hughes. 

Medical pill containers filled with poems as a part of writer Joselia Hughes’ “Verbena’s Apothecary” exhibit at “Doing Language: Word Work.” Photo by Alessandro Latour

Mutiti and Vongmalaithong selected artists whose work they were interested in seeing “developed to another stage,” according to Mutiti.

“We were excited to see what they could do at a point in time where it felt very difficult to make new work, when everything was shutting down,” Mutiti said, referencing the COVID-19 pandemic. “We really wanted to support those artists.”

The artists were assisted by students enrolled in Mutiti’s spring 2021 Word Work / Doing Language course at VCUarts, which was created with the curatorial project in mind, according to Mutiti. Students worked with artists to develop monetary budgets, research materials and create prototypes.

Mutiti said she wanted to involve students in the project so they could experience how a piece is created outside of a traditional classroom assignment.

“Bringing in the students was partly a deep learning experience for them to see how artists think and what it’s like to be in a supporting role, but also for them to use their skills in a situation which actually goes out into the world,” Mutiti said.

“Doing Language” has resonated with viewers, according to Vongmalaithong. Vongmalaithong said visitors have shared memories they recalled after interacting with the pieces on the intake form for the project.

Vongmalaithong said they hope the project will continue to help people recall and express memories. 

“I think to be able to articulate these associative chains of ideas or thoughts is something that’s sort of rare,” Vongmalaithong said. “To be able to articulate these intimacies is something I hope people get out of this project.”

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