Vassar Stories

Creatively Blurring the Boundaries between Disciplines

A play that asks the question, ‘What is human?’ and lets the audience provide some of the answers. A night in the Mug that explores “audio illusions.” And a multimedia journey through a maze in the Barn that poses some profound philosophical questions. Vassar students and staff will have the opportunity to engage in all of these experiences this fall, thanks to the creative work done by 10 students enrolled in the college’s Creative Arts Across Disciplines (CAAD) summer program.

CAAD participants (left to right, front) Jonah Parker, Gordon Schmidt, Gabrielle Miranda, Eliasbeth Boyce-Jacino, Andrea Orejarena, Omri Bareket, (back) Maya Enriquez, and Henry Krusoe

The three projects—entitled “Create and Control,” “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “Sensory Panels”—were crafted by the students and their faculty mentors during an eight-week session on campus. CAAD Coordinator Tom Pacio says he was impressed with the scope and creativity of all three projects. “It was exciting to watch the journey these students took—starting with the ideas that were first generated and then seeing them evolve and progress throughout the summer,” Pacio says. “It was especially gratifying to see how they bonded as a group, how they supported each other’s work.”

Members of the “Create and Control” team—Omri Bareket ’19, Andrea Orejarena ’17 and Carson Packer ’17—wrote a play, based in part on the plot of the movie I Robot, about a robot that kills a scientist and is put on trial for the murder. The drama addresses moral and ethical questions about advances in science, such as artificial intelligence. “We are asking the audience to answer the question, ‘Should this robot be put on trial—is this appropriate?” Orejarena, a cognitive science major from Colombia, explains.

For some people watching the play, the experience will be interactive. Through the use of some iPads and some Raspberry Pi minicomputers, seven members of the audience will act as jurors at the trial, deciding on some of the questions that will be asked by the prosecutor and finally rendering a verdict. Some audience members will also be able to control some of the sound and lighting during the production.  “The audience will play a role in how the story moves and will make major decisions about the trial,” says Packer, a computer science major who was in charge of the technical aspects of the production.  The play will be presented in late September.  

“Do You Hear What I Hear” was inspired by the McGurk Effect, a phenomenon that scientists have observed when the brain is given conflicting messages about what it is seeing and hearing. When subjects hear someone saying the syllables “ba, ba, ba” while the lip movements of the speaker are “ga, ga, ga,” they perceive the speaker as saying the syllables “da, da, da.” Members of the Do You Hear What I Hear team—Elisabeth Boyce-Jacino, Mayas Enriquez, Gabrielle Miranda and Conor Flanagan—performed this experiment and others involving audio illusions on test subjects who were wearing an electroencephalogram (a device that looks like a hair net that measures brain waves) and analyzed the results. 

The students conducted other brain-related experiments, including placing themselves in sensory deprivation tanks and recording their reactions. Flanagan jotted down some of the images and sensations he experienced in the tank and wrote some science fiction stories based on his experience. The students will present results of their study in multimedia form in an installation in the Mug Sept. 4 through 7.

Boyce-Jacino, a cognitive science major, says the project helped her gain insight into how to conduct experiments on the human brain. “I’ll be using this experience in the future to collaborate with people from other disciplines,” she says.

The “Sensory Panels” team—Gordon Schmidt ’17, Henry Krusoe ’18 and Jonah Parker ’18—hatched the idea for their project from Plato’s, “Allegory of the Cave,” a story the ancient Greek philosopher told to illustrate the limits of human perception. Schmidt, a philosophy major, notes the study of philosophers is often viewed strictly through their text. He says the group decided to take a cue from Plato and expand the experience to include sight and sound. “Plato provides us with dramatic stories with memorable characters and storylines, exploring discussions about the truth in an artistic way,” Schmidt says. 

The team will host a multimedia installation in the Barn in late September, Schmidt says. It will include recordings of philosophical treatises, videos, and light shows, accompanied by Schmidt’s original musical compositions. “These devices aren’t just tools,” Schmidt says, “They’re true building blocks in the understanding of philosophy.”

—Larry Hertz

Photo: Buck Lewis

Posted Monday, August 8, 2016