1,000 Voices in “The Public Domain”

I wasn’t there. I didn’t hear it; I didn’t see it. But from what I’ve read, I am sorry I missed it. “It” is “The Public Domain”—a choral work for 1,000 volunteer singers that was performed on the main plaza at Lincoln Center a few weeks ago. It was composed by a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer named David Lang whose goal was to create what he called a “…democratic piece…that invited in amateurs and took as its topic things we all might share.” To develop his text, he used the internet search-engine auto-complete function to see what the phrase “one thing we all share” might yield. Among the phrases he selected: “love of music,” “favorite sandwich,” and “time, until it stops.”

But text and music notwithstanding, what really moved me was the event itself, not just the breathtaking scale of it, but the full spectacle of 1000 people—mostly strangers, of all ages and descriptions—coming together, joyfully and in collaboration, to fulfill Mr. Lang’s utopian musical vision. It was a truly “only in New York” moment. I cannot imagine what it was like to successfully identify, corral, teach, and rehearse a thousand mostly amateur singers in a new composition.

Both Lang and the singers had to have been brave souls, because they were not joining up to perform something familiar, like Handel’s “Messiah,” or easy, like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” What they needed to master was something altogether new, musically unconventional, innovative, and challenging…something that would require intense focus, commitment, patience, cooperation, and personal time. Moreover, they would be performing in the most exposed of public spaces around the fountain at Lincoln Center with an audience invited to wander among them in order to enhance the democratic spirit of the event. There was a conductor who led a team of 25 other conductors, each placed with a section of the singers. And there was a choreographer as well.

As it turns out, Mr. Lang had no difficulty recruiting singers: more than 2000 volunteered. (You can always count on New Yorkers!) And as it turns out, the performance was a triumph, with four star reviews, even though it took place on one of those sultry, stifling New York afternoons when the temperature was in the mid-90’s and the humidity was out-of- bounds. Over 2,000 intrepid, adventurous, music-loving people showed up and when the performance was over, according to The New York Times, “all the performers and listeners cheered one another.”

Perhaps what most evoked my admiration about this event was its sheer optimism. Open-hearted, egalitarian, and totally collaborative, it vigorously defied the desultory tenor of today’s public life. As Lang said, “We do need each other, we are around each other, we do get something from each other and we are alike.” So when another day goes by—filled with divisive, rancorous rhetoric and yet more terrible news—remember “The Public Domain,” and all it demonstrated about the potential of the human spirit, right here, in the heart of New York City.

Watch the making of The Public Domain:

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FIT Students Take First in Biodesign Challenge

I find FIT endlessly gratifying—a constant source of pride and delight. Who would expect that this college, with its celebrated focus on art and design and business, would take first prize in a design competition with a focus on science? Yet that is just what happened when, in June, at a presentation at the Museum of Modern Art, FIT’s team was declared the winner of the first annual Biodesign Challenge.

The Challenge, developed by a group of leading scientists, designers, and educators, involved nine colleges and universities, including some notable for their science programs, such as Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pennsylvania, and Rensselaer Polytechnic University.

Submissions were aimed at demonstrating the potential of biological design to make a substantial difference in the world. One of the competition’s founders, Daniel Grushkin, has said that his motivation for starting it was to witness the “growth of a community. Artists, designers, and scientists who might ordinarily keep to opposite sides of campus came together to work with the students.”

l-r: Gian Cui, Aleksandra Gosiewski, Tessa Callaghan, Aaron Nesser

Our team included Tessa Callaghan, Gian Cui, and Aleksandra Gosiewski, along with Aaron Nesser, a student at the Pratt Institute. All three FIT students are studying in the knitwear specialization in the fashion design program. Together, they developed an experimental technique to literally “grow” a kind of yarn from bacteria and fungi. They even produced—and displayed at the MOMA presentation—a sample hand-knit tiny T-shirt made from their novel material. They also developed a process to 3D print the material. Their idea serves as a demonstration project for the use of biological design to develop sustainable alternatives to the manufacture of conventional textiles.

Bioesters Biodesign Video from Biodesign Challenge on Vimeo.

It’s certainly a worthy cause—and one that fits in well with FIT’s sustainability goals and the amazingly diverse, but focused, skill sets FIT students possess. What also pleases me about the award is the light it shines on the creative, innovative, and real-world capabilities FIT students bring to everything they do, a sentiment echoed by fashion design professor Asta Skocir. Skocir, one of the team’s advisors, describes FIT as a “maker” school. “The nature of what we do is to design from initial concept to finished product,” she says. “Rather than looking at this material solely as a molecular structure, the students examined it through a fashion designer’s lens.”

One of the college’s strengths in this competition was its interdisciplinary and diverse set of advisors, including interior design professor Carmita Sanchez-Fong and science and math professors Theanne Schiros and Alexandra Wright, who worked with Sass Brown, acting associate dean of the School of Art and Design, to bring bioethics and biomaterials experts to campus.

The award is a tangible example not only of our capabilities, but also of our powerful potential in the cutting-edge, highly technical science-based fields so rarely associated with a college of art and design and business like FIT.

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Enhanced Exhibition Space on 7th Avenue

Toward the end of every spring semester, the lobby in our Pomerantz Art and Design Center comes alive with an end-of-year display created by graduating students from our Visual Presentation and Exhibition Design department. These exhibits—like all of the arresting art and design exhibits we situate in that space throughout the year—bring passersby to the windows of the building, fascinated by the displays on view.

Unfortunately, we do not have enough room on this campus to showcase all of the extraordinary work our students—or our faculty—produce. But here is the good news: we are about to embark on a renovation project that will offer vastly more space for our School of Art and Design to display its student and faculty work. The project, an expansion of the lobby in the Pomerantz Art and Design Center, will more than double the interior space to almost 4000 square feet. A smaller, closed-off gallery will be created out of the space currently occupied by members of the Continuing and Professional Studies staff. There even will be room for a catering kitchen to service events in the lobby, or Katie Murphy or the Great Hall.

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Changes to the exterior of the building will be equally dramatic. The new lobby will stretch all the way to the 27th Street subway station, and the façade will be entirely sheathed in glass, offering even more opportunity for passersby to admire the work on display. The entrance will be on Seventh Avenue, creating a more welcoming institutional face to the community. It is an elegant design, and I believe its sweep and beauty will transform the Seventh Avenue streetscape.

This is one of 60 renovation projects to emerge from our revised facilities master plan and I am delighted to tell you that it will begin by the end of the summer. We hope its new doors will be open in another year.

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Fond Memories of FIT’s 2016 Commencement Ceremonies

Commencement 2016 was surely the best FIT commencement ever. It was so filled with high spirits that I cannot imagine another having been better. Yet that seems to be what I say—and feel—every year at commencement. And it doesn’t matter that we conduct two ceremonies! Perhaps that is the magic of the occasion itself, one of such optimism and celebration. Standing on the podium as I do, looking out on that vast sea of faces—smiling students, beaming family and friends—the good feelings just radiate throughout the room and bounce right back at me. It is a wonderful sensation.

This year’s two speakers, FIT alumni Ivy Ross in the morning and Joe Zee in the afternoon, lifted our spirits even more with their keen insights, their zest and humor, their warmth. Each was awarded an honorary degree as was FIT alum Francisco Costa in our morning ceremony and Jane Rosenthal in the afternoon.

Ruth Finley, founder and publisher of the Fashion Calendar, joined us at the morning ceremony as well, and what a pleasure it was to see her, at 96, in cap and gown, wearing pretty floral-patterned pumps, step up to the dais to receive the President’s Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Altogether, 2032 students participated in commencement this year, about half of the entire graduating class—and they were the happiest group of graduates I have ever seen!

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Bookends: MFA Illustration Exhibition

Maria Carluccio
Maria Carluccio

The remarkable ability of illustration to tell complex, moving stories is on full display at “Bookends,” this year’s exhibition of visual theses by 11 students graduating from FIT’s Master of Fine Arts in Illustration. This is outstanding visual work, full of gripping imagery and engaging narratives.

The MFA is a three-year program with classes exclusively during evening and weekend hours so students can hold on to day jobs while studying. It has the distinction of being FIT’s first “terminal degree,” the highest academic degree awarded to individuals studying in a particular area of the fine arts.

You might be surprised to know that the work is not all visual. In their second year of study, students present written research theses—developed in close coordination with faulty—on various aspects of illustration.

“The MFA at FIT is a very demanding program of study,” Professor Melanie Reim said, who created the program for FIT’s School of Graduate Studies. “The students work hard developing both written and visual theses. We stress the parallel consistency between the written and the visual because writing is a very important part of a career in illustration.”

And students pursue their research while also developing their individual visual aesthetic, fully integrating digital aspects of illustration with traditional studio practice.

Along with the exhibit, the MFA students presented their work at the Society of Illustrators to “art buyers”—publishing professionals involved in hiring illustrators.

“Students made a dream list of editors and art directors they would like to work with and sent invitations to them,” said Professor Brendan Leach, who also teaches in the program. “Each student ‘pitched’ their work, and the feedback they got from the attendees was great.”

MFA student Laura Brokaw Boren described the event as being “extremely useful to get [our] work in front of professionals, not to mention getting feedback from those same professionals.”

Another MFA student, Diana Schoenbrun, agreed. “This was the first opportunity we had to speak in front of people not affiliated with the school in a professional setting,” said Ms. Schoenbrun. Her visual thesis, titled Simon and the Sea, is a children’s book that she both wrote and illustrated.

So stop into the Museum at FIT to see just some of the creative and innovative visions FIT students carry into the wider world when they graduate. The exhibit is on display through July 9 and is free and open to the public.

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