Questions for ...

If these walls could talk ...

Artist Nina Katchadourian, center, with Laura Vitale ’06 and Marc Halpern ’75, gathered alumni advice and now offers it through small wall-mounted speakers in the Robert Campus Center. Credit: Frank Mullin/Brown University

Nina Katchadourian, creator of Advice from a Former Student

More than 800 recordings of advice play in Nina Katchadourian’s new sound piece, Advice from a Former Student, commissioned by the Public Art Committee and permanently installed in the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center at Faunce House.
By Deborah Baum  |  October 20, 2010  |  Email to a friend

Just to the right of the new Information and Welcome Desk at the Stephen Robert ’62 Campus Center are two small mesh speakers, blending inconspicuously into the white wall. They could easily be missed by the eye, but put your ear next to them and you will hear voices — hundreds of bits of advice from Brown alumni, collected by Brooklyn-based artist Nina Katchadourian for her new permanent sound piece, Advice from a Former Student.

The installation is the latest work commissioned by Brown’s Public Art Committee under the Percent-for-Art program, which designates a percentage of construction budgets for public art displays. It will officially open on Friday, Oct. 29, 2010. Katchadourian will deliver a lecture about public projects at 5:30 p.m. in the Petteruti Lounge, followed by a reception in the Information Center. The opening is free and open to the public.

Katchadourian, a 1989 graduate of Brown, returned to campus to teach visual art from 2001-04. Her experiences both as a Brown student and faculty member led her to create this piece. Katchadourian spoke with Today at Brown about the project, some of the advice it offers, and how she hopes it will be heard.

Tell me about the inspiration for Advice from a Former Student.

These are such intense years for students. You have so many experiences for the first time, there are so many new things you’re learning and decisions you’re trying to make. Often, I thought about how when I was a student, I wished there was some source of advice or guidance ... someone who was a little wiser than me to help me think through things as I was trying to resolve them. That’s one thread of this.

The other part is that very recently, I posted a status update on Facebook that spontaneously said, “Tell me the best piece of advice you know.” About 80 people wrote back in 24 hours with bits of advice. It was so amazing and useful for me to read them. And that became another thread or seed of this piece.

I wanted to make something for Brown that took advantage of my very personal connection to the place and that, actually, might be in some way useful. I think of this piece, in some ways, as a very elaborate, expanded, rich version of something like a Magic Eight Ball, where you have the opportunity to encounter someone else’s thoughts and agree or disagree.

The installation features more than 800 bits of advice. How did you go about collecting them?

The big challenge here is that I made a decision to find somebody from the entire span of past graduate classes. I wanted alumni from every single year. We recorded most of them during Commencement Weekend, while alumni were here for reunion. We also interviewed people in other parts of the country. Whenever I travel for projects or lectures, I set up contact with the alumni club and try to interview a few people. The nature of making this project, in some ways, was like a giant research project. We had subjects across the country and it took on the character of a sociology study. Where are people now? What are they doing? How has this education at Brown served them? People were eager to share their thoughts on that.

Then we edited hours and hours of interviews into these little clips, ranging from five seconds to about two minutes. The advice comes from about 120 different people. Our oldest voice is from the Class of 1939, and the youngest is from the Class of 2010. All of the interviews are anonymous. The listener is never told the name or class year. I like that the listener has to try to picture the person in their own mind and gauge their age and appearance through the voice.

What are some of the more memorable ones?

One thing that I’m very happy about with this piece — and it was very intentional — is that I wanted a real range of advice. I didn’t want it to be all serious or heartfelt or philosophical. That kind of advice is fair and important, but it’s nice that there are things that are irreverent, humorous, tongue-in-cheek, and sort of provocative.

There are some funny pieces of practical advice, like “Don’t put sharp knives in the dishwasher. I don’t know why.” Then there are a lot of incredible formulations about love, how to get over heartbreak, how to figure out if you love someone. There’s a really beautiful interview with an older woman who said she once sat down and tried to make a list of this and that to try to figure out whether she loved her boyfriend ... and she realized there are lots of things you learn in a classroom that way, but these emotional questions just don’t work out in rational processes like that.

It was very striking how often alumni advised current students to really get to know Providence. A lot of advice on academic choices and pushing yourself to do things you haven’t tried, in that sense, responses to the Open Curriculum. The older alumni were eager to talk about different times. For example, the Pembroke alumnae were fascinating and often said you have no idea how much things have changed — and here are things to be grateful for.

How do you hope people will interact with this sound piece?

I made a decision to make the piece physically very, very slight. It’s a little mesh hole in the wall. I’m hoping there’s so much material in there that no one would ever hear the same clip twice during their four years at Brown. I guess I’m trying to play a very understated physical presence with the incredibly vast and rich material that is part of that soundtrack.

What I hope happens is that people will get to know that it’s there. And maybe in a moment of confusion — similar to my mindset as an undergrad — a student will go there for something to think about ... a starting point. Maybe it works that way. Maybe it’s a weird little oracle in the wall. Something you know you can go to, just to have that little moment or opportunity to contemplate something.