In the continuation of our series on unusual summer plans, we bring you Claire Kao, SEAS‘14, who was featured in an exhibit in Paris’ famed Palais de Tokyo.
Bwog: What program are you working with this summer? How did you get involved?
Claire: Even though I’m studying civil engineering, the art enthusiast in me decided to reach out to the director of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP) Laboratory for Applied Building Science, Phillip Anzalone, and he encouraged me to apply to a GSAPP program in Paris called “Lighter than Air” with visiting artist Tomás Saraceno. He felt my engineering background would qualify me to work toward the Certification of Achievement in Building Science and Technology that would be awarded at the end of the program.
Bwog: How has it been working with all grad students?
Claire: The mythical Avery-folk have always intrigued me. You see their structural style and their lighter-than-air hair and can’t help but wonder – assuming their image is just residue of their creative depths, what does their work look like with a full design force behind it? I went into this program meek and intimidated by the on-a-pedestal architects. They were as wise and fascinating as perceived, but they also ended up being welcoming, supportive, and interested in what I had to offer. They doled out creative, professional, and personal advice, and I feel so lucky to have worked with such a great team. From adventures in DüsselDavi, I mean Düsseldorf, to 4-hour-long arguments about the arts, the architects gave me quite a summer.
Bwog: What is Tomas Saraceno like?
Claire: Tomás Saraceno is an artist known for large-scale installations that invite participation and cross-disciplinary interpretation. You may know “Cloud City”, which was on the roof of the Met last summer. Tomás is, as expected, a fascinating and vibrant person. Filled with infectious enthusiasm, he speaks with fervor, nearly dancing as he gestures wildly and bounces on his toes. He feeds off others’ passions and sets people up, delighting in the connection. For example, he figured out that I love film (after spotting a note I wrote on my hand), and introduced me to a friend of his and watched us talk, glowing with approval.
Bwog: What kind of work did you personally do on the project?
Claire: I was interested in the creation of new forms by natural processes and how to make phenomena typically unseen, visible. This involved fluid mechanics, and I thought a lot about kinetic sculptures.
We were offered exhibition space at Palais de Tokyo, a contemporary art museum in Paris. We decided to work collaboratively to create something monumental in the large and unusual space called “Orbe New York”. The space is curved with windows facing the courtyard and a mirrored wall on one side. In groups we debated around a whiteboard, modeled on the computer, prototyping and experimenting, and wrote the press release – each individual pinpointed where his or her skills would be best put to use. I worked with the more hands-on prototyping and purchasing of materials, because of my French.
Bwog: What does the exhibit mean? What is it about?
Claire: The piece is titled “Going Away”. The installation was composed of 500 points in a diagrid, with balloons on a top level and a bottom level at each point. The top level balloons were filled with air and hanging from the ceiling, while the bottom half of balloons were filled with helium and stapled to the ground. Both “levels” of balloons had a topography that closed and opened the void between.
Originally, I was interested in looking at a grid of particles as a register of movement, and you can see this effect in the installation as visitors walk through. I’ve already seen several videos on Twitter of the experience!
Bwog: What was the most fun part of the experience?
Claire: Installation was more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Setting it up was a balloon-inflating dance party set Daft Punk’s “Random Access Memories”. The team developed a great sense of camaraderie as we watched our vision grow from 1 balloon to 1000. It was also a lot of fun being on the other side of things at a museum and hearing initial responses from museum-goers (“is this piece by Jeff Koons?”).
Bwog: How does it feel to have something you worked on displayed at the Palais de Tokyo?
Claire: I still can’t believe it. I’ve always been interested in art, but had resigned myself to being only on the spectator side. Exhibiting at a museum in Paris seemed like such a distant thing – it was a dream so unattainable that it wasn’t even on my radar. There has been some social media activity now that the exhibit is open, which has been very exciting to see. For a couple days, a photo of our exhibit was a “Top Photo” on Twitter for #paris, right next to an image from the Tour de France. It’s exciting to see how much fun our visitors are having.
Interview edited for brevity.