STEAM Studio to Times Square

World-renowned artist Mel Chin works with UNC Asheville students on a project bound for New York City this summer.

Written by Steve Plever
Photos and video by Adam Taylor

Buckminster Fuller, Black Mountain College’s most famous innovator, once proposed enclosing Midtown Manhattan under one of his geodesic domes to reduce energy use and pollution. Obviously, that didn’t happen. But this July, Mel Chin and the UNC Asheville students he has worked with as the university’s Black Mountain College (BMC) Legacy Fellow, are going to transform Times Square.

In the heart of New York City where so many BMC luminaries came to fame and very much in the BMC tradition, Chin will unveil a surreal public art installation raising the specter of rising sea levels. He won’t use actual water, but instead a giant animatronic sculpture called Wake, constructed by mechatronics engineering students, faculty, community artists, Chin’s studio team, in collaboration with art and drama students in UNC Asheville’s STEAM Studio. Wake will be paired with a spectacular mixed reality artwork called Unmoored, with elements prototyped by new media students and produced by Chin in collaboration with Microsoft.

When the exhibition opens on July 11 in Times Square, it will be an important step for Chin, a long-established conceptual artist whose four decades of creations are represented in a companion exhibition also on view in New York this spring and summer at the Queens Museum. And for UNC Asheville, the installation will be the Broadway debut of something students have worked on since last August.

“If this project comes about, and we already know the directive that failure is not an option, it will be because of the UNCA team, which has been doing a tremendous amount of detail work that shows how it’s supposed to be done,” said Chin. “When you’re doing things that move and that are big for a showcase like Times Square, you have to take a great level of interest and focus. A lot of people will roll through during the time this will be up—more than 300,000 people a day.”

Wake will be a ship skeleton modeled on the famed 19th century ship, the Nightingale, taking up a footprint of some 53 feet in length and 32 feet in width, and like the original historic ship, it will carry a giant figurehead of the 19th century opera star and celebrity Jenny Lind, who was known as the “Swedish Nightingale.” Thanks to the team of seven mechatronics students working with Chin and with art major Jeb Hedgecock ’19, another senior who is the Black Mountain College Legacy Intern, the new 22-foot-long “Jenny” (the STEAM Studio team is now on a first-name basis with this diva of the past) will move and even breathe while protruding from the ship’s skeleton at 45-degree angle.

The Challenges

“I’ve been to Times Square exactly where Wake  is supposed to be. I think that Mel’s decision to be big or not be there at all is right—you’re surrounded by these buildings that are huge so you’ve got to be huge too,” said UNC Asheville Professor of Engineering Rebecca Bruce, faculty advisor to the student team building the sculpture. “The students have faced issues that would challenge an engineering firm. Every time I see them build a piece of it, when I realize what this will look like at full scale, it still blows me away.”

“It’s going to be 16 feet tall in the air. It’s huge. It was a cool project to think about—there were a lot of things rolling through our heads when we were presented with the project,” recalled graduating senior Jesse Juday ’18, a mechatronics major who led the seven-student engineering team building the Wake figurehead for much of the school year. “We’ve had a lot of surprises along the way. The more we design, the more things we run into—we have HVAC design, we’ve had to put leveling feet on the bottom because the sidewalk in Times Square might not be level, and then weather-proofing—what kind of temperatures and humidity will we be working with in Times Square? Those are all things we weren’t thinking about heading into the project.”

“As engineering students, we’re very ‘math, angles, solving-a-problem’ driven, but artists have that final idea in their head—that’s what they’re going to reach,” said Juday.

And Juday only named a few.

“We have to keep the weight distribution under 1,500 pounds per square foot. We can’t drill into the plaza or use concrete anchors—it has to be free standing,” said Sara Sanders ’11, director of STEAM Studio who is working closely with the mechatronics team. “And even though no one’s supposed to climb on it, considering that roughly 360,000 visitors per day walk through Times Square, it has to withstand not just its own weight but perhaps some human cargo.” Add to that the requirement that the sculpture withstand winds of 90 MPH and meet New York City construction codes.

Then there have been the cultural and communication challenges posed by the very thing that defines STEAM Studio—trying to mesh engineering with art. “As engineering students, we’re very ‘math, angles, solving-a-problem’ driven, but artists have that final idea in their head—that’s what they’re going to reach,” said Juday.

Art Forms

While the global warming theme is clear, conceptual artist Mel Chin is tying much more into his installation.

“When I was asked to do a project for Times Square, I started looking at just being there,” he said. “And you cannot escape … this huge promotional reality in our world today—it is show time, it is Broadway. So a starting point was, where did this marketing reality come from?”

That contemplation led Chin to the story of singer Jenny Lind, who was brought as the Swedish Nightingale to tour America by P.T. Barnum. “Jenny Lind was the Beyoncé or Adele of her time … There was a clipper ship in New York Harbor called the Nightingale that had her figurehead on it, inspired by her … you can see the impact of this [Swedish Nightingale] promotion. This clipper ship … was eventually caught in the 1860s as a slaver and it was utilized by the Union army.

“So why Broadway? When you look at the magnificence of this marketing reality, a miracle that is American commercialism, you also see it came at prices back then. It came at a price where there was colonialism, enslavement—it was for the profit. And Jenny Lind had nothing to do with this ship and figurehead but she’s a part—you can’t escape the web you’re in.”

As for Chin’s concept, “it’s interdisciplinary, it’s humanities based, it’s highly literate—his work has always fit into the Black Mountain College legacy,” said Brian Butler, UNC Asheville’s Thomas Howerton Distinguished Professor, who also co-chairs the board of the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center. “One of the beauties of Mel Chin’s work is that it is almost instantly accessible on multiple levels. People who would say they don’t really care about contemporary art see a Mel Chin work and say, ‘this is so cool,’ and it gets them to think about issues they wouldn’t think about, or think about them in different ways.”

Engineering Drama

Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Drama Laura Bond leads a collaborative exercise to capture the breathing motions and emotions with engineering student Elijah Nonamaker, Mel Chin Studio Exhibition Coordinator Audrey Liu, and drama student Kelsey Hamilton.“Her hat has a gyroscope so we can get three axes of rotation and then we have an accelerometer on her chest which will capture the breathing movement,” said programming lead Elijah Nonamaker ’18, who worked with electrical lead Kaitlin Thomas ’18 to design and build the 3D tracking device.

The device was then attached to drama student Kelsey Hamilton ’19, who trained in a technique tying breathing patterns to emotions, so her movements could be programmed into the animatronic Wake figurehead.

What is the symbolism of the tiny sombrero? “We had six hats and the actress chose the sombrero for comfort. It had belonged to Lilly, my dog,” explained Thomas with a laugh. “Our focus wasn’t the hat but deciding what sensors we wanted to use and how to record the data.”

Art Meets Mechatronics

If the mechatronics students who are bringing Chin’s artistic vision to life are any indication, his surreal invocation of New York facing rising sea levels will have an impact. “Going into college, I wasn’t really open to these ideas, but being at UNC Asheville … my eyes have been opened,” said Juday. “I think that’s true for our whole team—the fact that our environment and things involved with this project actually relate to our engineering—it’s not all about the math and angles like people think with engineering. We’re doing this for a purpose. That’s what Mel Chin’s trying to capture.”

And by helping him capture and project it onto a world stage, the STEAM Studio team has been led to tap into their own resourcefulness and creativity, including coming up with an ingenious way of letting Jenny breathe naturally. “Kaitlin had the idea of a collapsible rake, which has a little mechanism on it that you slide in and out as the rake expands and collapses,” said Juday. “We put that on a giant scale where one motor is pushing out five giant panels simulating her breathing.”

“In the beginning, we were going to hide the figurehead’s entire infrastructure, so you wouldn’t be able to see any of the moving parts, any of the metal,” recalled Hedgecock, the art student on the STEAM Studio team. “But it proved to be such a difficulty that Mel decided, ‘OK, we’ll allow some of the interior to be seen.’ It works with his concept though, because the whole idea is a marriage between the old and the new.  being able to see the old decrepit wood of the figurehead, but also the inner workings.”

Some Assembly Required

The Jenny Lind figurehead and giant boat skeleton will have to be shipped to Times Square in separate trucks. The Wake sculpture is also too big to be assembled in STEAM Studio. So Jenny and her Nightingale will be joined in a dry-run installation on campus parking lot P25 in June, giving Asheville an informal preview before the Broadway opening.

Although the spring semester will be long over, many of the students on the mechatronics team will stay for that dry run and then travel to New York for the opening. “I think a lot of the team’s going to make that trip to see our work actually displayed in front of millions of people in Times Square,” said Juday. “On a personal level, that’s awesome, but to get the UNC Asheville Mechatronics Program name out there, and for people to figure out what UNC Asheville’s all about … that’s the biggest thing.”

When Wake completes its summer run on Broadway, most of its builders, degree in hand, will have already started their next chapters. Juday, who relinquished his role as project lead so he could captain the Bulldog baseball team in his final season, will start his first professional engineering job in June.

“I think these students, when they get out in the workplace, should be golden. They’ve had more experience than an average starting engineer would have in their first few years,” said Bruce.

For Hedgecock, the intense commitment required by the project has meant a slight delay in future plans—he will return as a student in fall semester to devote full attention to his senior BFA project and graduate in December. But first, he will be New York bound for the big event in July, as Chin has invited UNC Asheville collaborators to the exhibit opening.

“This is a showcase of everything we want to be,” said Bruce. “It’s art and engineering coming together to make a statement for the good of the world that will be in Times Square. What more can you ask for?”