A Covid-19 mask is generally considered a form of protection. But what if our masks became opportunities for exposure – the physical expression of our thoughts, concerns, and how we relate to the turmoil of the outside world?
This was the challenge faced by undergraduates at MIT tasked with designing a mask reflecting individual and collective experiences during the pandemic. As part of the interdisciplinary course 4.302 (Foundations in art, design and spatial practices: design and rarity), led by the MIT Future Heritage Lab and the MIT’s Program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT), the mission was inspired by the global Co-MASK project initiated by the course teacher, Azra Akšamija, faculty member of the Department of Architecture. While CO-MASK focuses on designing do-it-yourself fabric face coverings to protect against Covid-19, students were encouraged to consider a mask that would serve as a physical extension of the mind and body – a place of exchange and a way to connect with a larger community.
The staff and the planetary
The “Design and Rarity” course introduces theoretical and practical tools for art and design in fragile environments – an expression of ACT’s philosophy, which highlights the importance of artistic methods for experimental problem-solving. and rigorous critical practice. Supported by the MIT Alumni Class Fund for the undergraduate program, this course was developed by Akšamija as a residential version of its design and rarity MITx course, the first hands-on online art and design course at MIT.
Students interpreted the idea of fragility in various ways. While reflecting on personal experiences of isolation during the pandemic, the mask design process became a way to empathetically connect with contemporary global movements and shared traumas. In their engagement with issues such as racial discrimination, exploitation of migrants and ecological damage, the masks are manifestations of the concerns that permeate the experience of students and their priorities as designers. The project addresses the fragility of environments at several scales; from the personal to the political to the planetary – and to the scale of the virus itself, which is simultaneously fighting for its own survival.
This broad scope reflects the aspirations of the Co-MASK project, which aims to be borderless and multilingual. “The Co-MASK designs created by the students indicate one of the central needs that the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted for all of us,” Akšamija says. “That we – humans and non-humans alike – must come together in a new way and show solidarity with the most vulnerable in our global community.”
Reinterpret the shelter
The work of several students critically addresses the issue of housing and the protection of individuals and communities.
“American Dream”, a mask designed by second-year art and design student Diego Yañez-Laguna, addresses the plight of migrants detained at borders. “The purpose of this mask is to show how far the immigrant experience in the United States is from the American dream,” says Yañez-Laguna. “This message of opportunity and welcome is represented by visual references to the Statue of Liberty – but the corruption of these ideals is exemplified by the use of barbed wire, which represents a story of mistreatment, frightening tactics against migrants and an obsession with borders. and division. “
Caleb Amanfu, a fourth-year major in architecture and mechanical engineering, chose to use a bandage as the main material for his mask, “Seen” – a representation of societal repression. “This mask attempts to draw attention to the feeling of being seen and not heard while challenging the systems and societal situations that keep these experiences alive,” Amanfu explains. “This mask, like the systems themselves, prevents the user from speaking out while ‘suffocating’ them under the issues they are trying to speak up against.”
For Janice Tjan, a third-year undergraduate student with a double major in mechanical engineering and art and design, the project was an opportunity to give a voice to the experiences of homeless children during the pandemic. “Blazon Mask” is designed to bring out the interior, providing a site for the wearer to defend themselves and display their anxieties. “The contrasting colors, rudimentary stitching and Boy Scout-style badges contribute to a loud look and youthful demeanor,” says Tjan. “These masks are made from recycled cotton fabric (old T-shirts and linens), which adds to their DIY look and amplifies the creator’s creative voice.
Spirit and material
The students were tasked with studying the social, environmental and technological implications of specific materials – materials that also offered an outlet for psychological expression.
Felix Li, a second year undergraduate art and design student, titled his mask “Resonant when Struck”, evoking both the materiality of porcelain and the sound of breaking. “As far back as I can remember,” he says, “I have used the same set of cheap Chinese supermarket porcelain bowls and plates. These fragile but strong ceramic vessels are a monument to my heritage, to my parents, to my Asian identity. The broken and scattered form reflects the collective pain and sorrow through the AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community.”
Eva Smerekanych, a second year undergraduate architectural student, sculpted her “Clean” mask from polymer clay to represent how eating disorders could be exacerbated during a period of isolation. “Polymer clay is a soft, waxy medium with the unique characteristic of remaining malleable over long periods of time,” she says. “As such, this medium causes a feeling of uncertainty about the future. Will he crack? Will it be distorted? Crushed? Stretched? This uncertainty reflects the uncertainty that causes many people to develop eating disorders. “
The guiding theme of scarcity has prompted many to investigate the environmental cost of their chosen material, a point powerfully communicated by “Ocean Blues,” a mask designed by Izzi Waitz, a second-year undergraduate architecture student. Made by knitting 10 single-use synthetic blue masks together, his mask evokes the sight of plastic caught in a fishing net. “An abundance of masks, gloves, bottles of hand sanitizer and other forms of Covid waste are pouring into our oceans and landfills,” says Waitz. “These synthetic materials, which have a lifespan of 450 years, pose a significant threat to marine life.”
Student masks show how an artistic environment of research and learning can extend conventional approaches to design. The culture of experimentation fostered by ACT opens new avenues for tackling contemporary critical issues – but it also makes room for personal expressions of fragility and vulnerability, feelings that can be the source of transformative creativity.
The negotiation of the project between the public and the private sector will be further amplified during the 17th international exhibition of architecture Venice Architecture Biennale 2021, where the masks of Akšamija and his pupils will be exhibited in the “Future assembly”Collective exhibition in the central Giardini pavilion. The Future Assembly is a reflection on the last 75 years of UN multilateralism, inviting contributors to the Biennale to consider new approaches for effective collaboration and to imagine how a future multilateralism can extend beyond the vision of the human-centered world to become a more than human assembly. .
As one of this year’s exhibitors, Akšamija invited her students to present the Covid-19 virus as a stakeholder in the future Assembly. Since the virus survives and mutates through human transmission, the shape of the mask represents a shelter for humans and a threat to the survival of the virus. Yet the masks designed by the students also express the instinctive needs that the pandemic has made so evident: the need for strength, inspiration and hope for the future at a time that calls for resilience and resourcefulness. By redefining the staff in terms of the collective, these masks reveal the central paradox of the pandemic: the virus that divides us has also revealed the fact of our infinite interconnection.