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An invitation to the unfamiliar

Brown-RISD Dual Degree exhibition embodies disjuncture between the strange and domestic

Ethnographer Alfred Schutz was not the first to champion cultural estrangement. As the trope goes, he  was not the last, either. Dadaist provocateurs and postmodern theorists would also demand that life be made “anthropologically strange” and “objectified” in pursuit of cultural reevaluation. At the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, Brown-RISD students have conjured this thematic ideology with this year’s Dual-Degree exhibition, “Don’t Be a Stranger!”— a five-story installation embodying astute estrangement.

“Don’t Be a Stranger!” tackles themes of foreign belonging, neighborliness and proximity— and, of all sources, is inspired by “manicured lawns, backyard BBQs and water gun fights,” according to the exhibition program. The nostalgic orientation is half-mocking, according to organizer Bonny Cai ’17, but conveys a playfulness that appears, above all, to avoid artistic intimidation. Perhaps caught in the notion that Brown students find RISD creativity daunting, the Dual-Degree exhibit is also an invitation — a cordial, titular welcome, despite that subtle, demanding exclamation.

“Don’t Be a Stranger!” seeks familiarization through estrangement. The exhibit itself consumes this idea, boasting a five-floor artistic Babel and intermingling aesthetic dialects across the creative spectrum. “Don’t Be A Stranger!” unites the languages of textile, mixed media, illustration and industrial design through a genuinely impressive artistic scheme perhaps more cohesive than the actual Babel construction. Where language there led to discord, artistic montage here uses this theme as its guiding light.

Tapping into the benign invitation of its theme, “Don’t Be a Stranger!” is notably intimate — almost a safe space, if you will. Dual-Degree students have composed living room installations, reimagined foyers and copious domestic signifiers. Amidst this facade, the familiar gives way to contents estranged from their pre-perceived actuality. “Unheimlich,” by Rachel Ossip ’15, displays a Midas-touched computer and briefcase, suggesting review of unspoken value systems. “Face in a Crowd,” by Julie Lewon ’17, a sweater suspended from the fifth-floor ceiling, claims facility as a social device. Layered images of a girl’s face in a crowd of uniformity, sewn into the sweater’s fabric, tell an episode of isolation. When worn, it would probably shed the estrangement. But suspended in solitude at Granoff’s apex, the “objectified” piece screams out Schutzian overtones.

These object reconstructions are accompanied by atmospheric content. One particular row of photographs, “Alien Birthday Party” by Hannah Koenig ’14, exhibits what one might expect of a birthday party — except for the alien in attendance. The alien is persecuted by a brigade of birthday girls, well-endowed with water guns. Sympathy is dispatched to the alien, a surely intentional reflection of quiet sentiment in “Don’t Be a Stranger!”; that is, persecution of the foreign.

“Don’t Be a Stranger!” is a call for creative acceptance and integration as much as it is a homage to estrangement as method. The Cohen gallery — the space most visible to the passing Brown student — is adorned with a human body suit, a waiting duo of earthen circles and a suspended, muddled trash bag. The installation of these pieces in the window-shopping center of Granoff is a tad brazen.

But don’t be deterred. The installation is impressive — both in its expectedly high artistic quality and its multifaceted intellectual conversation. “Don’t Be a Stranger!” invites us into the Dual-Degree studio with the assertion that there’s always strangeness in coming home. Or, if not, there really should be.


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