Each year, the Harold and Arlene Schnitzer Prize highlights student work in the visual arts at MIT. Portfolios span almost every imaginable medium and theme; many, if not most student artists bridge diverse disciplines and departments, drawing on MIT’s broad knowledge base and its culture of collaboration.
Students submit a body of work for the competition, which culminates in a gallery show. This year’s show is presented virtually in an online exhibition. “The work of this tremendously talented group of students embodies the broad range of artistic pursuits taking place at the highest levels of excellence at MIT—theater, music performance and composition, and design among them,” says Andrea Volpe, Director of the Council of the Arts at MIT (CAMIT.) “Their work also demonstrates the ways in which technology and computation are themselves artistic materials essential to multidisciplinary arts-making across the Institute.”
This year’s three winners all test limits with their art. Five-thousand-dollar First Prize winner Nicole L’Huillier, a third-year PhD student in Media Arts and Sciences, stages real-time sound installations to trace the border between living and inanimate spaces. Second Prize winner Rae Yuping Hsu, who graduated this year from the MIT Program in Art, Culture, and Technology, uses fermenting bacteria to probe the permeable membrane that separates microbes from humans. And Jonathan Zong, a PhD student in Human-Computer Interaction at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and who took third place, uses graphic design to sketch the shifting frontier between the natural and machine generated worlds in which we live.
Born and raised in Taiwan, Rae Yuping Hsu, Masters of Science in Art, Culture, and Technology (SMACT ’20) originally studied to be an occupational therapist. Her first forays into art were photography, and later glass sculpture, including a collection of glass artificial limbs. But her focus shifted dramatically after an artist’s residency in Perth, Australia, where she discovered and dove headlong into biology, bacteria, and the process of fermentation.
“Everything in those processes is fascinating,” says Yuping Hsu, who also holds an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD.) “The bubbling. The colors. The first layer of flesh that forms. There are so many metaphors to be expressed in it, the impulse for containment, and the fear of contamination.”
Yuping Hsu’s recent body of work uses the language of biology and biotechnology to probe the distinctions and similarities between human and microbial life. Her installations and sculptures percolate—gelatinous, semi-opaque surfaces that evoke the distant origins of life on earth and question the efficacy and ethics of contemporary science. “Her work points to a desire to embrace our biological complexity and entanglement,” says Gedminas Urbonas, Associate Professor and Hsu’s thesis advisor. “It creates exchanges between humans and microbes to question when one self can become another.”