Art as Dialogue at the MFA

By Bethany Ericson / Correspondent
Cambridge Chronicle
Thursday, March 4, 2004

Local artist has achieved a rare democratic engagement with her art

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing Eyes -
I wonder if It weighs like Mine -
Or has an Easier size -Emily Dickinson

In a dimly lit corner of the Traveling Scholar exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, attentiveness to your surroundings and fellow humans is required to experience "regardisregard ," an interactive installation by Cambridge artist Mary Oestereicher Hamill that fuses video, sculpture, sound and live Web cam technology.

A column intentionally blocks the doorway to the installation from view. Instead, a video monitor on the column broadcasts the visitors currently viewing the work.

On the screen a small room is visible. People peer at the walls of a seemingly innocuous box, while others huddle in the corners listening to small speakers. Children, immediately recognizing the camera's basic function, zip inside for quick, spasmodic, rubber-limbed dance numbers.

At the door of the room, a small sign notes that entering implies your agreement to be broadcast via Web cam - not just on the column outside, but to the streets of Boston and Cambridge.

Inside the room, you can enter a 9-foot-by-6-foot by 4-foot transparent structure made of hanging filmstrips, images taken by local homeless adults of their daily worlds. As you lean in to peer closely at the images, or listen carefully to their words softly issuing from the speakers in the corners, storefront screens around town broadcast your image to the street, where the artists can, in turn, view you.

Hamill spent 20 years in higher education as a developmental psychologist and academic dean. Yet visual art is the means in which she has found a quicker route to make an impact about social need.

The "socially excluded," "marginalized" and "disenfranchised," as they are so often called, rarely get to speak for themselves in academic or political discourse. As a result, Hamill, an academic and resident artist at the Brandeis University Women's Studies Research Center, took her art studies to the streets.

To create this work, Hamill traveled with undergraduate assistants from Brandeis throughout the city and handed over the camera and microphone to dozens of homeless adults who were willing and ready to contribute on a moment's notice. As a fifth-year student at the Museum of Fine Arts, she was also able to tell them it was possible their work could be juried into a show at a major museum.

The project was explained to all participants and releases were signed. Fewer women than men present themselves as homeless on the street, so Hamill also went to On the Rise, a program for homeless women in order to balance the gender participation.

"I was surprised people were so ready to do this," Hamill says. "It resulted in almost entirely useful and rich material. You really don't have to scratch the surface very deep for people to do and say things that are important."

Last March, Hamill and her volunteers blew up flames from the video, copied them in black and white, and pasted them to cardboard. Strings were added so the posters could be worn around the neck.

As activists arrived at the State House for scheduled meetings on the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless Lobby Day, homeless men handed them their images and asked the activists to wear them to their appointments and present them as gifts to the legislators they were meeting. It was a wildly successful project, and the images were there to stand in for those excluded whom the activists represented.

The homeless self-help advocacy group, HEAT, and the Episcopal City Mission later used the images. The installation was also set up in Washington, D.C., at the international conference of the Institute for Women's Policy Research.

Hamill has achieved a rare democratic engagement with her art. The use of modern technology makes her artwork an interactive, live performance existing at once in museum space, public space and virtual space. It opens a line of communication between the privileged and the poor. The poor have taken the first step; all the privileged have to do is pay attention.

Regardisregard is on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, until March 14, 2004.
(Bethany Ericson is a writer and artist living in Cambridge.

Article and photos reprinted with permission of Michele Baineau, editor of the Cambridge Chronicle.