Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ithaca: where literal meets figural

2004: I returned from rugby training to find the letter waiting for me on my kitchen counter. Unlike the large envelope that contained my undergraduate acceptance, this letter was a one page missive and I initially thought that it was a rejection letter. I was disappointed but not surprised considering that my undergraduate school's military tradition and athletic accolades didn't provide much advantage when applying to the top two architecture schools in the country, and Ivy League institutions no less. My joy upon discovering Cornell's acceptance of me was briefly shared with my friends (no one wants to hug a sweaty rugby player for too long) and then I spent the rest of the summer planning my move to New York.

When I arrived in Ithaca on a very rainy fall afternoon, having driven 1800 miles in two days with almost all of my worldly possessions in my car, I did not know that my history was already tied to the area. Later while searching the history of the Fingerlakes region I discovered that an ancestor with my name and birth day had lived in the neighboring lake two hundred years previously. It is strange to see your name and birthday on someone else's obituary.  After that I was informed by my landlord that I was living in E.B. White's former home; she told me this fact the indifference of someone who lived in a town so small with a history so rich that almost everyone who lived in Ithaca had experienced a piece of its history. I was told stories of how during the 1950's the local school bus driver was at a loss over what to do with the weird man who was riding along with the children. The weird man later went on to write a story about Humbert Humbert and a nymphette.

Instead of registering for classes with an advisor, students would attend sessions where instructors gave short presentations of their courses and then the studnets would choose the programme that was of the most interest. Sebatien Marot's highly exuberant and somewhat confusing montage of Duchamp, the Iroquois Confederacy, geologist Dr. Ralph Tarr, Simeon DeWitt and Rem Koolhaas was intriguing so one week later I made my way to his lecture to give him a chance to interest me and he delivered. The course provided fodder for his work in progress about the superimposition of Ithaca's geological, political, and literary layers. He took his structure from Duchamp's The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (La mariée mise à nu par ses célibataires, même) which we referred to by its informal title, The Large Glass. Much like how Duchamp used physics and mythology to frame his work, we were instructed to find our own medium with which to construct a narrative with Ithaca or Cornell as the bride while bachelors were our choice.

The assignment was (literally) a nightmare. After struggling for a month and not coming up with any direction or methodology I began combing through Cornell's archives, hoping that inspiration could be found in the millions of books located in the stacks. A few weeks before the end of the course I had amassed a mountain of interesting pieces of history and not much else. I stopped attending Marot's office hours because I had nothing further to say. I had dreams about failing the course when I stood up to present and had nothing. Then one day as I was walking home across the suspension bridge I found clarity. Or sorta clarity. I was standing on the bridge looking out at the gorge and began to picture the layers of rock abstractly as layers of people. I would have a three layered Mise-en-scène with a geological bride and each layer represented by a Cornell bachelor whose work pertained to the layer! I rushed home to share my burst of inspiration with my roommates who in turn looked at me like I had hit my head on some of those layers.

One week later I presented the class with my apparatus. Using a system of hinges, springs and slides the shaky and clearly last-minute assemblage of a box slowly unfurled to reveal three representational layers. The bottom was my sub-terra of Ithaca's deep gorges and glacial lakes, shown through my interpretation of the research of Tarr. The middle layer was the terra of physical earth and spiritual inhabitants represented through my interpretation of Nabokov's gnostic themes. The upper layer was the extra-terra and could only be represented through Carl Sagan's lens. As I unfolded the components of my box into its final, sculptural form I spoke abut the works of Tarr, Nabokov and Sagan and how they expanded the fields of geology, literature and astronomy. Then I waited in silence for what seemed like an eternity. I began to rethink my presentation. The other students had lectured for much longer amounts of time with visual aides while I spoke as an aid to my visual apparatus. Then, finally, the silence was broken by a juror scraping his chair across the floor as he scooted in to grasp my project. He liked it. They liked it. I passed. Hallelujah.

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