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For artists at MIT, perfecting wacky ideas can be popular science

Email|Print| Text size + By Danielle Dreilinger
Globe Correspondent / February 24, 2008

Marcel Duchamp would have been psyched by the party.

In lieu of a cooler, a giant version of his pioneering urinal held ice and soda. Giant tape footprints led guests past a giant bicycle to the Giant Art Party at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The MIT art crowd came together on Valentine's Day to show their love for creativity, cake, and Cracked, the student group that's trying to put some zing in the campus's artistic life.

The room's linoleum floors, high loft ceilings hung with gold-dipped paintbrushes (meant to evoke a chandelier), and fluorescent lights blended downtown cool and science lab nerdiness. Huge versions of Picabia's "Balance" and Duchamp's defaced "Mona Lisa" hung on the walls, and guests waited in line to "Get Drawd by Izäck." "A chance of a lifetime," the sign announced.

To the disappointment of many, the promised giant cake failed to materialize. But guests were able to munch giant grapes and wear torso-sized "Hello My Name Is" tags.

Though the artistically inclined are a decided minority at MIT, the party showed they are a colorful bunch.

The Center for Advanced Visual Studies, an arm of MIT's School of Architecture and Planning, promotes contemporary art. MIT offers a bachelor of science degree in art and design. But out of 4,172 undergraduate students, just 60 are enrolled in this program, mostly in architecture, and only three are majoring in visual arts, according to the university.

The art scene on campus is "piecemeal," said Brooke Jarrett. "It takes a lot of probing." About a year ago, Jarrett and fellow sophomore Sadie Scheffer organized Cracked. At a school that has more hidden artists than art majors, the two women created Cracked because "we kind of had to," Scheffer said.

Jarrett thinks it is the first "art-creating, art-producing" group ever at MIT. The group's seven or eight core members attend monthly workshop-meetings in the center's office for hands-on experience with art. The Center for Advanced Visual Studies, a sponsor of the group, threw the Giant Art Party twice before, but asked Cracked to coordinate this time.

Everything went off well, except for that cake.

In the days leading up to the party, the big cake had become a focal - nay, essential - attraction in the minds of many people who planned to attend.

But Scheffer, with her mechanical engineering skills, determined that a 6-foot cake would be impossibly unstable. On top of that, the visual studies center was "worried about wasting food," she said.

Instead, she blanketed a cake-shaped stack of boxes - resting on a fake 3-D "table" drawn with tape on the floor - with about 125 homemade cupcakes. "The frosting was the fun part," she said.

It did look festive, as did many guests. Scheffer wore a black lace dress and Mardi Gras beads. Jarrett wore "Alice in Wonderland" attire - tights, knee-high sneakers - gone extra Technicolor.

"You can't tell, but we're all actually geeks," Scheffer said.

Well, mostly.

There was rock show promoter and bon vivant Billy Ruane, his white shirt unbuttoned to his solar plexus. As the band, Space Faces, let out a thunderous screech, Ruane ducked into the office of CAVS fellow John Bell, then darted out and disappeared.

A print on Bell's wall stated: "Fight the technological oppression." A puppeteer, Bell has found MIT especially interesting because "I don't come from a technology background." He added, "What's technology? That's the question."

Still, for the most part, artistry and geekery were firmly intertwined.

Bell's 16-year-old son, Isaac (the guy who "drawd" people), wore a green fedora on his dyed red hair. One of his subjects was artist-in-residence Martin Demaine, who showed off Isaac's small portrait of him as a ninja. It depicted an empty room.

"You can't see the ninja!" Demaine exclaimed.

Isaac explained: "Thinking of 'giant' kind of inspired me to draw people as monsters, because monsters are giant, I guess?"

So, why is his drawing small? "Big drawings are harder to bring home," he said, and besides, "I'm one of those weird people who thinks kind of opposite."

MIT student and artist Neal Miller, 19, liked the party's cross-section of people. "At the very least, it's a good way to get people together to talk about art."

That type of interaction appealed to 55-year-old musician and Cambridge resident Ken Fields, who said, "MIT is the most interesting influence on Cambridge, just because the people are so - nuts."

Grad students Alex Rosenberg, 26, and Jay Silver, 27, both like "going to labs and making art," said Silver, but hadn't met before. Rosenberg is in the visual arts program, Silver in the Media Lab.

"I research human contact," said Silver, reaching out and touching a nearby hand, "like, skin to skin."

A man in a plush zebra-patterned suit walked by.

Rosenberg, who helped build the urinal, likes being an artist at MIT because when you get an idea like, say, "doing crazy nanobots with the nano people, everyone here is very enthusiastic."

He commended Cracked. "They're, like, pretty intense, pretty overburdened," he said. "Considering [that], they did a pretty nice job pulling it together."

Like most student groups, Cracked has more ideas than time. Still, Scheffer and Jarrett envision partnering with a supermarket to promote shopping bag reuse by covering paper bags with art. The group is thinking about starting a fashion line next year, and hopes to run a carnival in the CAVS space with miniature rides.

Maybe by then, they'll have perfected the 6-foot cake.

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