It began with a flocking to the hideous. The days were getting long, and the sun was getting strong. We were donning jean shorts and flowing skirts, sipping Del’s lemonade while stretching our legs on tie-dyed picnic blankets spread over the grass, when “Large Concretized Monument to the Twentieth Century” appeared in the center of campus.
Living on the Main Green that summer, every day I would walk out of the coveted upperclassmen dorm I should not have had access to as a first-year and set up shop at one of the coveted little tables scattered across the green. From this vantage, I was privy to the way students walking along the path would halt at the sight of it, cock their heads quizzically as they stared, give a look of amused confusion to the friend next them trying to decipher that blobbed mess of amorphous metal. Some people would laugh; others would read the description on the plaque and venture some noncommittal interpretation. Everyone continued to think about it as they walked away.
Conversations about the Concretized Monument permeated a campus populated with first-years wide-eyed at the sudden unveiling of the layers of Brown hidden during the Covid-cautious spring. We complained about the rugged eyesore while studying upstairs in Friedman, wondered where the university bought it while standing in line at Andrews, speculated about its tenuous feminist connections while watching movies projected onto Faunce House. We engaged collectively with the inexplicable emergence of this work of art, compelled to revel in an eccentric phenomenon completely unassociated with college during the pandemic. We were attracted to a revived culture of live viewing.
Whatever we first-years had thought we understood about Brown after the summer’s loosened restrictions was soon overshadowed by the revelation of a near-normal start to sophomore year. A packed lecture hall. Four sides to the Ratty. The sidewalks on the Main Green teeming with students rushing by. But if anything, it was the unimportance of an unintelligible statue that quickly came into perspective. I became overwhelmed by the novel onslaught of performances dominating my weekends and art installations distracting me as I wandered across campus. Here I was, at this artsy university, sharing a hill with a premier American arts school. Art—I learned—was everywhere.
My friends and I began our tenure as groupies of the Brown performance scene, starting with a spontaneous attendance to an a cappella “arch sing” under MoChamp one warm September evening. A few of us arrived late. We didn’t dare cross the arch to join the rest of our friends, wary of accidentally interrupting the magnetic force of those amateur singers bopping around as they blocked the entrance to an uninteresting first-year dorm and a second-tier dining hall. Each group dressed in outfits as rehearsed as their songs, all curated to enhance the tone of their music, pink pastels and bright blue jeans, bow ties and bowler hats, brown vests one minute and showtune tees the next, a line of black boots and black tights and black lace. I am struggling to recall a single song. But I can easily arrange the exact image of how it all looked.
My roommate’s typical Friday night social plug performed in the first set; the girl I had met the week before in the Goddard bathroom harmonized her way through the last one. I recognized a student from my seminar, and the following week, while settling before class, I complimented her group’s rousing renditions of songs that the class of 2024 had played on repeat to boost morale amid the misfortune of summer school.
“Thank you!” she beamed in a gesture of genuine excitement. “It was my first in-person performance with them. We were all so happy to see how many people showed up.” I agreed—the concert generated an impressive crowd, with students huddled up front to make way for those standing on benches or leaning out dorm windows to catch an electric glimpse of the show. It wasn’t enough to hear the sounds reverberating across the ubiquitous red brick, which comprised the background of every Brown affair. We wanted to see where the music was coming from. We wanted to watch the notes rise from actual lips because, only by witnessing with our eyes, could we verify an experience so long removed from our lives that we had forgotten how to trust the reality of art felt without being seen.
A capella converted my friends and me to that fanatic art of watching. As the events multiplied, we began to spend dinners mapping out our mad dashes across the corners of campus, from Perkins to Alumnae Hall, from the comedy sketch shows to the class talent nights, debating whether to prioritize the improv antics of the friend who routinely enlivened our gatherings with her slate of personal anecdotes, or the trumpet performance of the neighbor from last semester who blasted his instrument at all hours of the night; whether to write the discussion post before or after wrapping myself in a blanket beneath the glow of string lights hanging over the Alumni Garden, as I watched sophomores and juniors cradle microphones between their ringed fingers and croon out the silky melodies they had scrawled on scraps of paper while ensconced in the comfort of a bed they never left last year; whether to text our friend an apology for arriving at his twenty-four hour play after all the seats were filled, or to stage a covert entry through the back door; whether to be on time for class, or to waste five more minutes waxing poetic with an acquaintance about the profound commentary of the smorgasbord of items mashed together on the painting gracing the fourth floor of Page-Robinson; whether to sit through the same a cappella concert for the third time in one month, chiding each other for leaving behind the IDs needed for admission into the performances and forcing the rest of us into the moral quandary of whether to enjoy without them or to stay outside with them in solidarity, suffering some disappointment if we chose the latter because if we lost the opportunity to see the art, we could not believe that the art had happened. But if we didn’t see it and the art didn’t really happen, what was there to mourn having missed?
Art presented itself as our casual salvation. We were disoriented outsiders living inside a place no one had displayed to us. We were sophomores preparing for the slump guaranteed by the incessance of three consecutive semesters. So we reveled in the opportunity to overwhelm ourselves with the creativity of a student body unfettered by isolation. Where we had once turned to memes and GroupMe messages as a means of banding together as a distinctive class, we grasped at art to finally integrate ourselves into a previously unknowable place, whose buildings we could theoretically view, but whose interior reality we could only imagine. Unless we could physically see this school happen, Brown remained an illusion.
Then, when we made acquaintance with the art that materialized before us, that beckoned us into mysterious basement halls and seated us next to strangers, we lacked any other excuse for meeting, we became adamant about the community of seeing.
This is a rite of passage come late. In order to reclaim our lost sense of belonging, we transfix ourselves to the vibrancy of looking, students emerging from the shadows to convince each other, not only of our artistic qualities, but of our actual presence in this place. It’s not just me here anymore. After all this time waiting, I have begun to see this place, and I can confirm that Brown does, finally, exist.