Be Uncomfortable and Engage with the Digital Art Wall

Elizabeth Miller ’20 and Rebecca Pempek ’20


Photo By John Crawford ’20

On September 24th, a student posted a poll in the “Davidson College 2019-2020” Facebook group soliciting feelings on the video wall in the atrium of the E. Craig Wall Jr. Academic Center, stating that the videos on display are “incredibly creepy, weird, and super distracting for people who want to study there.” 137 students selected the most popular option advocating for more “science-related art,” perhaps even Planet Earth. The second most popular option was “something artsy but less creepy and weird.” 

Changing the art on the screen to more scientific, palatable art would diminish the impact of the intervention. At a school that prides itself on having an interdisciplinary environment in and out of the classroom, we should be equipped to encounter new and uncomfortable concepts. Discomfort is a reality of existence. Our initial reaction to discomfort should be to interrogate its source instead of dismissing new concepts as weird. And the art might be weird, and that’s fine! Davidson could use more weirdness. 

In the case of the videos in Wall, we hypothesize that the discomfort comes from the critique of Eurocentric beauty standards and performance of gender in the three videos. We Davidson students can say all the right things to get a good participation grade in whatever class we took to satisfy our Justice, Equity, and Community distribution requirement, but when confronted in real life with gender presentation that deviates from an established norm, we become uncomfortable. It is disappointing to see that our critiques do not always extend beyond our readings. If we are not applying the concepts we learn in class to what we see and experience elsewhere, then what is the point of distribution requirements? What is the point of a liberal arts education?

A little over two years ago, Davidson administrators decided that the video wall would show art ¾ of the time and student projects the other ¼ of the time. They also designated the Van/Every Smith Galleries in charge of the wall, with the intent that the wall would assume the role of public art, similar to the campus sculpture program. In our conversation with Lia Newman, director and curator of the Van/Every Smith Galleries, and Elizabeth Harry, gallery and collection coordinator, they both spoke about the novelty of the video wall. Newman cites the wall as an “experimental journey,” suggesting that the incorporation of the video wall into the campus public art collection has had a steep learning curve. Harry notes that “sculptures and murals have clear traditions as public art,” while large digital screens have little precedent for assuming the role of public art. Generally, digital artists create work to be shown in the gallery space, so something peculiar happens when these works are shown at such a largescale and in a communal space. Some may respond with discomfort or disgust, but this doesn’t negate the importance of these works. 

The current works on display feature internationally renowned artists and were intentionally curated to address societal beauty standards. Catalina Reyes’ piece, Hairpins, transforms the mundane act of putting in and taking out bobby pins into a critique of feminine beauty standards. Danya Smith’s dreamlover is an intimate look at black girlhood, while Rachel Rampleman’s piece, Bodybuilder Vignettes, looks at exaggerated gender performativity in female bodybuilders. These pieces depict the overlooked and oppressed elements of society and should not be taken at face value. To do so is both ignorant and unbecoming of students and educators in a place where we are constantly challenged to think critically. 

The significance of having such art in Wall—a building that predominantly houses STEM offices, labs, and classrooms—cannot be overstated. Future doctors and research scientists traverse its halls daily, confronting the videos. Scientific fields had a hand in the invention of race to justify and uphold the colonial project and biological essentialism. Thus, the art on display is “science related,” as science has helped perpetuate the othering of people with identities represented in the pieces. If this is not a legacy that STEM majors, particularly those on the pre-med track, are grappling with daily, perhaps they should consider a change of career path. Being a doctor requires not only humane instincts but also an acute awareness of how one’s positionality informs one’s opinions and work. Science is not objective. Opting out of such contemplation because of discomfort is medically irresponsible. Perhaps it is why doctors regularly dismiss women’s medical concerns, or why Black women are “2 to 6 times more likely to die from complications of pregnancy than white women, depending on where they live,” according to Mary Beth Flanders-Stepan in The Journal of Perinatal Education.

While images of natural landscapes and charismatic megafauna are relatively easy for us to access (Planet Earth is on Netflix), few Davidson students—besides art and art history majors—have the opportunity to learn about unfamiliar and challenging forms of art. I (Elizabeth) am majoring in environmental studies, which consists of humanities, social science, and natural science tracks. Thanks to the interdisciplinary structure of the program, I have had to take “breadth courses” in both the humanities and natural sciences; such courses have exposed me to a variety of perspectives and disciplines. Working on a group mural for my “Art, Activism, and Environment” class last semester prompted me to enroll in “Digital Art” this semester. Enjoying and thinking critically about art is not just for studio art or art history majors; it’s for everyone. It tells us about ourselves and the world around us. All departments should be practicing reflexivity and contemplating ways to incorporate interdisciplinary art to diversify forms of learning and do justice to the liberal arts experience.

As a studio art major, gallery intern, and fellow for Davidson Arts and Creative Engagement (DACE), much of my (Rebecca) time at Davidson has been spent creating, critiquing, curating and appreciating art on campus. When I read the Facebook post regarding students’ discomfort with the video wall, I couldn’t help but consider this a part of the STEM vs. humanities narrative that exists in the student body. With an overwhelming majority of Davidson students declaring STEM majors, an attack on the video wall seems inevitable. I want the discourse regarding the works on the video wall to reflect the same kinds of discourse in the classroom. Studio art courses rely on weekly critiques. In a critique, students sit down with a professor or multiple professors, and they ask questions about the artwork. For me, this practice has ingrained a particular appreciation for questioning creative and intellectual decisions. I challenge all Davidson students and faculty to critically engage with the works on display in Wall in this same way. 

Recently, Philip Jefferson, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty, spoke at the DACE advisory board meeting. He talked about the things he had learned while visiting art courses on campus. He noted that in an art history course, he learned how to properly analyze something: before you can judge something (art or otherwise), you must observe, ask yourself how it makes you feel and why, and only then can you evaluate and judge. Newman echoed this sentiment, stating that “It’s good to have a gut response to something, but there’s a next step.” Perhaps the discord over the poll in the Facebook group has precipitated dialogue that has made this next step apparent to students.

The Van Every/Smith Gallery recently put out a call for art for the video wall. If you are interested in submitting your work or engaging further with this topic, visit davidsoncollegeartgalleries.org for more information.

Elizabeth Miller ’20 is an environmental studies major from Arden, North Carolina. Contact her at elmiller@davidson.edu. Rebecca Pempek is a studio art major from Putnam, Connecticut. Contact her at repempek@davidson.edu.

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