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The environment meets multimedia theatrical performances in EcoStudio

Katherine Hui / Thresher

By Ivy Li     3/21/23 10:11pm

Inside the Shepherd School’s Wortham Theater, environmental issues are regularly brought to life in the form of multimedia works. Wortham Theater is the stage for ENST 422: EcoStudio, a space transformed into a multimedia classroom by Kurt D. Stallmann, Director of the Rice Electroacoustic Music Labs. Stallmann and his co-instructor Joseph A. Campana, Rice English professor and poet, spent months discussing how to get students to collaborate and engage with environmental issues. The idea for the course was born from these discussions.

“People can interface with really hard environmental questions and conversations more easily through the arts often than directly through science or policy,” Campana said. “The idea [is] that every expertise on campus provides an archive for artists to learn [from] everything.”

Much of the discussion centered on how artists can bring multiple disciplines together. Inspired by their own collaborative work, Stallmann and Campana want to present themselves in the classroom as fellow artists generating responses to the world around them. Their current project, “The Work and the Fruit,” is a collaborative performance piece, with an excerpt that will be presented at the Moody Center for the Arts for the public,  “Thinking with Bees.”

“This particular creature, the honeybee, has inspired and confounded and fascinated humans for literally a millennia,” Campana said. “That’s become an occasion for creating things, so poetry and text in my case, and in conversation with Kurt’s work which is electroacoustic composition. And thinking through sensation and sound worlds, putting the two together, that’s been part of our method.” 

For each instructional unit, Campana and Stallmann will lead a discussion and present multimedia works from an environmental theme, ranging from insect sensory abilities to the treatment of toxicity and pollution in the environment. Then, the student groups have one week to collaborate on creative, multimedia responses and perform their works on stage at the next class session.

“The idea [for] that turnaround is, first of all, to immediately get into the action of thinking of creating. So that really is a response, that’s how we think about these [unit projects],” Stallmann said. “But then [it is] also to familiarize yourself with everybody in the room and what they bring to the table.”

EcoStudio presents a smorgasbord of multimedia art forms as responses to environmental themes. To bridge the gaps between fields, Campana and Stallmann invited a wide array of guest speakers. Scott Solomon, Rice professor of biosciences, presented ongoing research to model insects and how they sense and perceive the world.

Rice History professor Lisa Balabanillar showcased the long history of automated mobile gardens from the Ottoman and Mughal empires. From the arts, they invited Aaron Ambroso, an art historian who co-founded the Houston Climate Justice Museum, and Theodore Bale, a dance critic and reporter who presented the Butoh dance form. 

“A class should include all the perspectives [Rice] has to offer,” Stallmann said. “It seems like here’s an opportunity to bring together all these perspectives, and focus them on these different topics and come up with responses that are performative or related to art in that way.” 

Campana and Stallman’s hope is for EcoStudio’s course format to be guided by each future  instructor’s interdisciplinary background and expertise. They said that this structure can break down barriers that prevent multidisciplinary work from happening.

“We want [the course] to broaden over time. Different people will be teaching it, so [sometimes] it will be angled towards a more particular subject,” Campana said. “Each set of instructors will figure out how they want to model this kind of work and to also encourage students to generate their work.”

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