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Interdisciplinary team creates public art installation

By Kaylen Strench, Arts and Entertainment Editor     10/1/14 4:31am

If you’ve been a good student this semester and have been hanging in Fondren Library a lot, you’re bound to have noticed the giant, bright-yellow pipe situated to its right. While Soundworm, as it’s called, may appear delightfully minimalistic, there is more than meets the eye. In fact, Soundworm is Rice University’s first ever student-created public art installation. 

The project was the winning entry in the Rice School of Architecture’s Spring Charette, a design competition in which architecture students must conceptualize and complete a design in a limited amount of time. This past year, six teams competed, each of which was required to include a team member of another academic discipline.

Sophie Eichner, a Lovett College junior, helped organize the project with Austin Jarvis, a fifth-year architecture student. 

“We were interested in this relationship between digital and physical public spaces and how this could be manifested,” Eichner said. “That was the theme we wanted to push.”

Eichner and Jarvis identified electrical engineering students from the EtherNest collective to join teams. The students prepared a prompt, presented their ideas and then had two days to design the project and make a presentation. The designs were judged by a jury panel that included architecture and visual arts faculty and a few notable figures from the Houston art scene. The winning team had six members: Rice 2014 alums Adelina Koleva and Juan Borbon, fifth-year architecture students Juncheng Yang and Nathan Keibler, Duncan College senior Lydia Smith and Duncan junior George Hewitt. They were awarded $6,000 to turn their design into a reality.

The result is Soundworm, a 26-foot pipe hooked up to microphones in various places around campus. The microphones will stream sounds live to the sculpture so students can encounter multiple parts of campus at once.

“We knew we wanted to do something with sound, rather than focusing on a visual element,” Hewitt said. “You get enough of that with cell phones and computers, and we wanted to go with a different medium. And we thought a sound focus was intriguing —we imagined that sensation of curiosity you experience when you hear noises in the grass and want to discover what’s there.”

The project took nine months and involved collaboration from numerous people and departments at Rice. At least six electrical engineering students helped out, as well as local art aficionados, Rice Public Art and the IT Department.

“It really shocked me how many different departments you have to deal with to be sure you’re respecting everyone’s space with a project like this,” Hewitt said. “For instance, clearly we’re right next to Fondren, so there was some concern about the noise. The project’s sitting on perfectly-manicured grass, we’re using power, we’re using Ethernet cables… the list goes on.”

Eichner began helping with the project shortly after Hewitt’s win.

“I definitely didn’t intend to get as involved as I did,” Eichner said. “But I ended up doing a lot of the interfacing with the administration. These kinds of projects just require a lot of different skills and resources, so everyone on the team has a big role to play.”

One challenge Eichner and Hewitt faced was raising enough money to complete the project. 

“That’s what you learn about construction,” Hewitt said. “It’s always more expensive and takes longer than you think it will.”

Eventually, they were able to secure donations from groups such as Rice Public Art, individual donors and the electrical engineering department. 

“It’s so nice to be a student, because people want to support you,” Eichner said. “That’s something I wish more students realized — now’s the time to push and experiment, because people in the community want to help you. It still won’t be easy, but at least you’re not doing it on your own.”

Eichner and Hewitt said they want the piece to express the concept of multiple points being accessed in one space.

“We want students to just walk by and hear these sounds out of context,” Hewitt said. “So at one point of the structure you might hear a weightlifter groan, while at another point you’ll hear a coffee machine whistle. We’ll keep changing locations as frequently possible, searching for different ways to curate space, so it can always be evolving.”

Eichner and Hewitt also said they hope students won’t view the work passively.

“Feel free to climb on it!” Eichner said. “Don’t be afraid of playing around.”

Eichner said she also hopes the project will give other students the confidence to pursue their own large-scale initiatives.

“We’re truly in unchartered territory, and I hope it sets a precedent,” Eichner said. “I hope students see this and think, ‘If they can do it, we can,’ and also that the administration can feel confident helping students construct even bigger and better projects.”

The public reception for Soundworm will be Friday, Oct. 3 at 5:30 p.m. in the Smith Courtyard outside the Anderson building. Hewitt and Eichner also encourage students to check the project out online at soundworm.wordpress.com.

“I’m just so excited for it to be done,” Hewitt said. “Once we hear noises coming out of those pipes we’ve been staring at for months and months, we’ll be flying high.”

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