The winners of the 2021 Schnitzer Prize are also of their time and in their time. Po-Hao Chi (SMACT ’21), who won the $5,000 first prize, harnesses the reach of the internet to create real-time sound performances. $3,000 second prize winner Chucho Ocampo (SMACT ’21) plans installations that probe the membrane between past and present, and knowledge and belief.

A Body of Sound

First place winner Po-Hao Chi shows that almost anything can become music. And that anyone—at least anyone with a mobile phone—can make that music. His works, often interactive, use popular technologies like web pages and mobile phones to transform spectators into participants—inviting them to become creators in spontaneous compositions and improvisations that take place both in person and online.

“I began my journey making instruments that I could play,” says the Taiwan-born Chi, who earned a Master of Music degree from Goldsmith College in London. “Now I use technology to transform those instruments into things other people can play.”

In Time Picker, Chi converted an abandoned paper factory in Taiwan into an oversized acoustic instrument and collaborative musical performance. Using their smartphones, in-person attendees could trigger sounds and light in the many containers and abandoned industrial objects the artist had strewn about the space. Participants could also access the installation on a dedicated web page.

Chi transposed geographic space into melody in Song of Distances. In this interactive piece, users log on to a web page. The page plots the user’s position on a GPS map. An algorithm takes that position, calculates it against the length of the individual session, and generates a melody. Each individual user perceives themselves as the central node on the display and hears a different sound.

Chi’s work invites viewers to participate in ways other than sound. In WebVR, he explores the growing phenomenon of internet addiction. This online virtual reality installation recreates a prison cell—loosely based on the cells found in the many internet addiction treatment camps across China. Like the real-life patients, who communicate almost exclusively through a written diary, WebVR users record their experiences in an online journal.

A Portal Between the Real and Unreal

For Chucho Ocampo Aguilar, complexity is the spice of life and art. “Too often we seek homogeneity in our culture,” says Ocampo, who grew up in Mexico’s central Hidalgo state and studied Architecture at the Tecnológico de Monterrey, Mexico. “And that homogeneity ruins what is interesting and real about a place.”

Ocampo’s work brims with complexity, inviting viewers into a non-linear vision of history, culture, and space that straddles the seen and unseen world. Expect People to be Exhausted, is a project designed for Mexico’s Tultepec Valley—the center of that country’s pyrotechnics industry. The project includes a 13-minute video and a scale model of a fireworks tower; the tower takes its shape and form from the 35-meter firework towers local artisans erect during festivals. Aguilar’s structure mediates between past and present, somehow evoking Mexico’s history of conquest, its indigenous beliefs, ecology, and even human migration.

In Interfaces (Interfaz), a series of drawings, Ocampo sketches several artisanal devices that offer users an alternative way to experience urban space. Interfaz 003, for example, resembles an old-fashioned divining rod. In this imaginary world, the device leads viewers to a city’s lowest point, where water is most likely to be found.

“I like to explore the clash between high and low technology,” Ocampo explains. “Between scientific and non-scientific means of interacting with the environment.”

— Written by Ken Shulman for The Arts at MIT