Wednesday, December 12, 2018

AISLE Project at SIUE’s Science Complex

by Carmen Alana Tibbets

Walking into the new Science West building on the campus of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), your eye immediately darts over to a large, hunched and "twangly" sculpture. The work calls attention to itself, both because of its unique shape, which is obvious, but also because, more subtly, it is in the perfect place. Within the context of a science building (housing the departments of Biological Sciences, Chemistry, Environmental Sciences and Mathematics), the object seems to gain an additional layer of meaning and come to life.

Laura M. Goematt. It Finally Fed, At Dawn. 1986. Steel, Wood, Paper, Tar, 69.5"x59"x67".

The sculpture is one of 30 newly installed artworks in SIUE's Science West and East buildings. Each artwork has a Bluetooth® low energy beacon, and with PhyWeb installed in your smart phone or tablet, you can create your own self-guided, information-rich art tour. The artworks are now part of the "physical web," objects of all kinds broadcasting a set of urls. With a free downloadable web browser, you can find the usual details (title, artist, date), but the artworks' beacons transmit much more.

The technology and its application to a museum setting is not new. A variety of museums (e.g. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and The Victoria and Albert Museum) have tested beacons as a way to enhance visitor experiences, follow traffic flow and send messages. The simplicity and flexibility of the technology means that an institution can tailor a beacon's transmissions to serve multiple needs.

To learn more about the new installations at SIUE, I interviewed Dave Jennings, a Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences, and Erin Vigneau-Dimick, Collections Manager at the University Museum. My preliminary chat with Jennings (who is a talented illustrator, as well as a scientist) made it clear he has broad, interdisciplinary visions for the AISLE (Active Integrative Synergistic Learning Environments) project, so I asked, why begin with art? Jennings replied with a smile and a laugh, "Art is obvious; people see it. And the new building had no art."

Jennings' initial concept was relatively small in scope: install artworks on the Biological Sciences floors and equip each with a Bluetooth® beacon. A key component of his initial proposal to the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) was that students would, as part of class projects, generate or find relevant information about each piece, integrating it across disciplines. The response to the proposal was positive. So positive in fact, the Dean of CAS, Greg Budzban, approved the funding and requested that the project be expanded to include the entire building, plus the newly renovated Science East building. The original timeframe of a two semester, student-based project was extended through this past summer to include the addition of art throughout two buildings. Vigneau-Dimick began selecting potential artworks from the extensive SIUE Museum collection, and Jennings recruited a small group of students to help make the final choices.

An important aspect of Jennings' original idea is to highlight artworks that have both artistic and scientific components. The student team was not provided with guidelines or instructions as to what scientific relevance might be; it was up to them to articulate a connection between a work of art and some aspect of biological study. For each piece on display in the Biological Sciences floors, they compiled information (e.g. scientific context, artist profiles, additional websites of interest) that was then used to create a webpage. Vigneau-Dimick worked with the chairs of other departments to find similar information for the art on their floors. 

Joseph Page. Flow Chart: Portal. 2016. Porcelain, Polystyrene, Vinyl, Wood, Steel, 42"x42"x8".

Vigneau-Dimick's curatorial goal was that there would be art in every departmental office (see detail of Joe Page's Flow Chart: Portal, above) and on every floor. She wanted to have multiple media represented and made an effort to find art that reflected animal, plant and inorganic subjects. The final collection includes some of the Museum's newest works available, but also historically important pieces. Many of the recent works are loans to the museum from current Art and Design faculty and reflect a desire to make a curatorial connection between the research practices of artists and scientists. Both buildings have challenging spatial issues. Vigneau-Dimick said she chose to avoid the main hallways because so much is going on there, visually and physically - lab doorways, poster displays, lots of people moving. Instead she focused on the curving corridors, intersections and corners, and as you move through each, you find thoughtfully placed visual enhancements.

Katie Turpenoff. Mothers Earth's Milk. 2014. Steel, Hardware Cloth, Baby Bottles. 69.6"x96"x24".

Most of the chosen pieces are from Vigneau-Dimick's selections, but others were requested by the student team. Jennings said one specific and enthusiastic request was for "the cow," a  large sculpture previously installed near the Engineering Building as part of the Sculpture on Campus program. The students remembered it, and wondered if it was still available. Vigneau-Dimick contacted the artist for permission to reinstall, the sculpture was refurbished and it now has a new home in the atrium of Science East.

An example of what Vigneau-Dimick considers one of the most successful sites is the new home of
Laura M. Goematt's It Finally Fed, at Dawn. (We all stopped to debate what "it' is: insect, fossil, monster...) She said, "The sculpture was in Rendleman Hall near an elevator, a dark spot. I got a complaint, 'why is this thing here, it's so ugly.' People are not always appreciative of the wide range of how art can be and look. It was always in the back of my mind to eventually move it to another place. As I was looking at spaces in this building, I said to myself, that's where I want to put it. It is better suited to the white walls around it, well lit, unexpected, right at the entryway. It changed the whole relationship of the piece to the public. The piece is a shocker - a great intro to art in the everyday world."

Clearly this sculpture has made an impression with students and they have incorporated it into their daily experiences. I mentioned that "It" had been wearing a pair of sun glasses for the past few days. Jennings and I laughed and pondered how the student decided where the head/face was. Vigneau-Dimick was more serious. She is rightfully concerned about the proximity of the public to many of the works on display and the addition of eyewear highlights her concerns. Except for a few pieces where physical damage is a real possibility, there are no barriers between artwork and the public. 

Bluetooth® low energy beacons used for the special AISLE exhibit at SIUE.

As we walked through the hallways discussing the art, I asked about placement of the beacons (they are not visible). It turns out the installation team had to be creative. In some cases beacons are tucked behind a picture frame, but others are placed above ceiling tiles, buried underground, or hidden by air vents. Because of the floor plan, some artworks are sited directly above one another, and when you stand in just the right spot, you can pick up transmissions from multiple beacons. Apparently, the browser also picks up Bluetooth® transmissions from printers. Jennings points out that, if someone is confused by overlapping icons on their phones, all the beacons include a link to a map of all the artworks and you can figure out what you are looking at.

I asked if there were plans to rotate more artwork from museum collections into the buildings. Vigneau-Dimick was circumspect. As in most institutions, staff time is limited, which means the collection of artworks currently installed will likely remain as it is for multiple years. Both Jennings and Vigneau-Dimick agree that to go forward and expand the project, staff and funding need to be allocated. They stress that the project was a huge amount of work. They had deadline for completion (the September ribbon cutting ceremony for the newly renovated Science East), a $1,400 budget that paid for the beacons and a tablet, but did not have extra staff allocated to the project.

For Jennings, art in the science buildings was a first step. He envisions incorporating the project into curricula across campus, having beacons for multiple types of objects, not just artworks, and having the bulk of beacon data collected and managed by students. Even so, faculty and staff are required to oversee class projects and the digital infrastructure. The beacons are inexpensive (less than $20), but many hours of work are needed to compile and upload information for each. Vigneau-Dimick is enthusiastic about the project and she would like to have beacons installed throughout the extensive SIUE public art collection. However, time limitations for everyone mean that even the newly installed beacons have incomplete profiles.

Laura Strand. Sea Foam. 2009. Woven Cotton, 25.5'x50".

Has the pilot program been a success? In one sense yes, and in others it is difficult to say. The installations throughout the buildings have been well received. The art clearly enlivens the space. The students have connected with many of the pieces (Sea Foam by Laura Strand is a favorite) and they have also requested space for their own artworks. One faculty member has given assignments to her biology students requiring them to use the beacons to find information and write a paragraph about their own scientific interpretations.

Exhibition signage seen in Biological Sciences with info about the project.

However, unless you have spoken with someone involved in the project, you likely have no idea that it exists. Currently there is only one relatively small sign in Biological Sciences with any information about the beacons and browser. When you are standing next to one of the artworks, there are no icons or indications that something extra is happening. The project seems like an obvious opportunity for publicity for SIUE and the Museum, but as yet, there are no defined goals for publicizing the project and there is no plan to move forward.

Jennings sees the project as an example of experiential learning that can be incorporated into all kinds of courses and he would like to focus on that aspect. But once a beacon is placed and information is tied to it, the beacon can be used for other educational and public outreach manifestations on campus: an outdoor sculpture tour, nature walks, field trips, campus tours, etc. The beacons could become a powerful form of public outreach and I'm enthusiastic to see the public learning more about the installation. It will be interesting to see how this project develops over time.


The new Science West building is located on the campus of Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, 44 Circle Drive, Edwardsville, IL 62025.

For more information about this pilot project or further implementation of the AISLE program, contact Dave Jennings

For more information about curation of the artworks or the SIUE Museum, contact Erin Vigneau-Dimick


Carmen Alana Tibbets is Creative Director and Owner of Agosia Arts. Based in Illinois, Alana exhibits her one-of-a-kind fiber artworks locally, regionally and nationally.