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Art installation challenges students to question what makes a university.

By Elizabeth Cooper
On March 20, 2012

  • Lisa Babb, senior political science major, is one of the typists for the Alma Mater project. Christopher Whitten

Five women and a man dressed in '60s attire sat behind a series of tables and vintage typewriters Tuesday afternoon as a steady stream of student participants lined up to share their vision for the future of The University.
The interactive performance titled "Alma Mater in the Making" is part of a two-piece project the Art Museum at the University of Memphis is sponsoring in honor of The University's centennial.
For three days, artists Sheryl Oring and Dhanraj Emanuel will document answers to the question "What do you think the university could be?" on the UC Plaza from noon until 2 p.m. Thursday.
Students can become involved in the project by providing an answer to a typist wearing a secretarial dress or a man in suit and tie who then transcribes their response onto a postcard.
The installation offers a chance to experience a different level of communication uncommon in modern times, Oring said.
"I feel like the way it's set up with a typist really engenders a type of communication that is very different than social media like Facebook," she said. "Someone posing a question and listening so intently gives people a feeling of being heard; it's very empowering."
They chose the '60s attire to allude to the era's rich history of student-led protest movements and social change.
The second part of the project will be an exhibition in the AMUM gallery that will feature the postcard responses, photography, audio and video from the performance.
Oring said the postcards were "snapshots in time that can play a role in getting people to think about the future when universities are facing a lot of questions about the future of technology and the role of the classroom."
The contrast of 1960s technology within the modern university setting attracted the attention of passing students yesterday, many of whose responses addressed tuition increases and the desire for more affordable college education.
Emanuel said at its most basic level the piece seeks to explore the expectations students have for The University.
AMUM invited Oring and Emanuel because the couple's past work involving public input aligned with the museum's desire to involve student participation in its centennial exhibition.
 "One-hundred years is a big number and the world is changing so fast," said Leslie Luebbers, director of AMUM.
She said the piece also raises the question:  "What is a university?  Is it just an education or is it a place where people come together that would otherwise not come together?"
As a U of M graduate, Emanuel said his affection for The University helped inspire the title "Alma Mater," but the title also serves as a way for people personally to reflect on their school.
"It is universal in a way - everyone probably has a school they've gone to and a personal connection to that institution," Emmanuel said.
The three-day performance piece ends Thursday, at which time students can type responses in the AMUM gallery through April 14. The "Alma Mater" exhibition will open in June.

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