Thought Leaders

From Little Seeds to the Big Apple
Mel Chin speaks at UNC Asheville's STEAM Studio at the RAMP with the Project Coordinator Zhuoer Liu (right) and artist Severn Eaton (middle).

By Steve Plever

Photos by David Allen '13, Emmanuel Figaro '18, Peter Lorenz, and Colby Rabon

The venue will be Times Square in New York City. And the date will be July 11, 2018. That is when Mel Chin’s artistic vision will be brought to life on one of the world’s biggest stages by UNC Asheville students.

Chin, UNC Asheville’s 2017-18 Black Mountain College Legacy Fellow, is making regular appearances in Zeis Hall to work with new media students, and in the STEAM Studio, collaborating with a team of engineering students. Together, they are creating AR (augmented reality) and kinetic sculpture installations designed to raise awareness of rising sea levels, for a daily Big Apple audience of people beginning July 11, 2018.

Chin, who resides nearby in Burnsville, N.C., is just one of many thought leaders and performers to come to campus from near and far this fall, bringing their expertise, talents, and insight to share with students and the Asheville community.

New York Times columnist David Brooks flew in from New York to deliver the Founders Day lecture in Kimmel Arena—a talk attended by thousands that probed the roots of America’s political divides. And a week after Brooks’ visit, Vandana Shiva, an international leader of the anti-GMO movement, arrived from India. Her presence attracted roughly 100 people to a community seed swap and 500 more to a public lecture. She also spent two days on campus meeting with students in small groups.

Engineering a New Perspective

Engaging up close with people like Shiva, Brooks, and Chin brings students a chance to stretch intellectually. Artist Chin challenges audiences as well as his students—he is known for environmentally-themed works like fencing in and sculpting a Superfund site while collaborating with scientists to show how plants can remove toxins from soil. His Fundred Dollar Bill project has led almost half a million people to hand-draw currency bills, symbolically funding a campaign against lead poisoning in children.

So it is not a surprise that the engineering students working with Chin face multiple tests. They meet regularly to negotiate with the artist over how to navigate the hurdles of limited resources and time, and they find themselves engaged in conceptual problem-solving.

“Mel’s vision for this project is to make people feel uncomfortable, which is kind of interesting and counterintuitive to us as engineers,” said senior mechatronics major Kyle Ward. “We’re trained to look at things from a logical perspective and have it fully defined. So to translate emotion into something that’s strictly mechanical and electrical has definitely been a challenge and it’s one that we’re taking head on, and I think, taking on pretty well.”

Chin agrees: “In teaching situations, there can be some distance and there should be, but I’m finding a real enthusiasm, engagement, and a real willingness to absorb the ideas and ask questions. That’s what I really like. I think the engineering class one day gave me 43 questions. I thought that was pretty good.”

“There’s a conversation back and forth the whole time,” said senior engineering student Jacob Fink in an interview with the student newspaper, The Blue Banner. “It’s kind of an ever-changing design.”

Bridging Divides

When students met with David Brooks, a columnist who champions dialogue and incremental change, it was students who tested him in a master class. “The students quoted Immanuel Kant and St. Augustine, and then they made me squirm on issues I hadn’t really thought about and I was sort of unsatisfied with my own opinions on issues like free speech, about how to deal with fanaticism,” Brooks later said during his Founders Day lecture. “They were serious, they were intent, and they were really challenging me. And I’m grateful for that.”

New York Times columnist David Brooks during his Founders Day lecture.History student Jennifer McLean asked Brooks “where is the conservative voice” in opposing police brutality. Afterward, she said, “What I’ve noticed in the classroom at UNCA is that students and faculty are working hard to make a safe environment for political disagreement.”

Brooks echoed that sentiment in a New York Times column published a few weeks after his visit to campus, citing how students at UNC Asheville engaged in a heartfelt discussion over whether extremists should be allowed to speak on campus.

“The students quoted Immanuel Kant and St. Augustine... They were serious, they were intent, and they were really challenging me. And I’m grateful for that.” -David Brooks

From the students’ perspectives, as expressed by Christopher Bobbitt, a junior political science major and a self-described progressive, that dialogue was important. “I think there’s only so much you can learn by talking in the mirror, by talking to people with the same ideas,” he said.

Seeds of Discontent

Vandana Shiva’s visit was less about finding common ground across ideological lines, and more a chance to dig deeper with someone who has written more than 20 books and led an international movement. “It’s a really amazing opportunity for the campus community as a whole to engage in a conversation on a single topic,” said senior Carter Smith, co-director of UNC Asheville’s Student Environmental Center. “A lot of students are really trying to get to the root of this whole GMO issue and how they should understand genetically modified crops and their potential benefits and consequences.”

Vandana Shiva leads a community seed swap.Smith found her connection to Shiva’s ideas deepening as she hosted the activist during the residency. The religious studies major with a minor in political science plans to travel to India after she graduates in December and work on organic farms that are associated with Navdanya, a movement founded by Shiva in India that has established more than 100 seed banks and conserved more than 3,000 rice varieties. Smith then plans to then return to the U.S. and enter divinity school, while continuing to focus on food justice.

It’s a really amazing opportunity for the campus community as a whole to engage in a conversation on a single topic.” —Carter Smith ’18, Co-director of UNC Asheville’s Student Environmental Center

That topic came into focus during Shiva’s talk on the imperative of seed saving, which is not allowed when using GMO seeds. Shiva sees the question of whether farming will be industrial, or small and organic, as a question of human survival, and our relationship to the natural world. “The roots of climate havoc are the same roots that are causing hunger,” she said. “Our plate and our planet have a deep, deep connection.”

More Movements

Malini Srinivasan brought her interpretation of the sacred to campus in September, performing traditional Bharatanatyam dance of her native India in a concert titled Rhythms of Love: Dancing for Krishna. Srinivasan, who teaches dance at Stony Brook University, also delivered a humanities lecture and led two master classes.

Malini Srinivasan teaches a master class on traditional Indian dance.

It was a rare opportunity for students, according to Kate Zubko, UNC Asheville associate professor of religious studies who has studied and written about spiritual aspects of traditional Indian dance. “Malini’s visit to campus provided a tangible invitation into exploring how a performed, embodied storytelling tradition can raise new questions about how humans relate to and express their devotion to the sacred from a diverse perspective.”

Dancer and choreographer Ruth Barnes, who once taught at the Merce Cunningham Studio in New York City and now directs the Dance Program at Missouri State University, came to campus for a three-day residency that included intensive workshops with dance students.

"When students get these experiences in these short intensives with visiting scholars...they get a 360-degree view, not only physically, but they can put the pieces together intellectually.” —Celia Bambara, Assistant Professor of Dance & Director of UNC Asheville’s Dance Program

Senior Lane Wagner described the impact this way: “Dance techniques are kind of like how your body understands how it’s moving—it’s almost like it’s speaking a language. The dance you’re doing is like putting sentences together with that language. So having someone come in to teach a new technique is like learning a new way to understand words—a new way to speak.”

Wagner now has an expanded vocabulary as he connects dance, posture, and gender identity—using what he has learned and experienced as part of his dance minor to inform and express his ideas for his senior thesis in Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies.

“When students get these experiences in these short intensives with visiting scholars—a lecture, a workshop series, and a performance—they get a 360-degree view, not only physically, but they can put the pieces together intellectually,” said Celia Bambara, assistant professor of dance and director of UNC Asheville’s Dance Program. “It adds more depth,” said Wagner. “It’s a diverse and rich experience.”