Courtesy of Stephen Yang

April 21, 2021

Yang | What is That Outside of Schwartz!?

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For many Cornellians, sunbathing on the patio outside of Schwartz Performing Arts Center is a quintessential memory of joyful warm days in Ithaca. Yet, despite its location in the busiest and loudest part of Collegetown, very few people would linger there at night. The volatile nature of the night weather isn’t particularly welcoming, and even if you sit in a little wooden shelter outside Collegetown Bagels, it can still get quite chilly after they turn off their radiators. The metal chairs and tables and the Modernist architecture certainly do not help make the space feel warmer. 

And it’s not just about the weather and the architecture. Without the lateral surveillance of the passersby, there’s a liminal quality to the space that is rather disorienting and unsettling. Afterall, the patio outside of Schwartz is transitional by nature. It’s the bordering intermediary point that dichotomizes the off-campus/on-campus distinction, where people pass by to move between home and school environments. When people don’t linger at the space at night, though, the eeriness gets amplified by the emptiness and darkness. The tumultuous state of the half-finished construction of unaffordable housing across the street surely doesn’t help, either.

Well, say goodbye to the liminality, but only temporarily —

Adam Shulman ‘23 has brought light, warmth and nature to the space. This past Sunday night, I sat down with him outside of Schwartz to talk about his artwork, “After Nature Had Drawn a Few Breaths.” 

Courtesy of Stephen Yang

Shulman said the origin for his work can be traced back to last October, when he was preparing for a grant proposal. When brainstorming ideas, highlighting the outdoors in art through “letting nature take over the exterior of Schwartz,” as he put it, was the very first idea that occurred to him. 

“I was thinking a lot about how much we overlook the absolute beauty that’s around us given that it will overtake us eventually,” Shulman said.

That was the origin of the joyful colors that now light up the front of Schwartz and the alleys next to the building. The radiating light coming out from the prominent dance studio like beams of sunlight that shine through the tree–– except that this time, artificial light takes the place of the sun. Meanwhile, shining upon the alley were overlapping geometric patterns of red, green and blue that reflect the shifting angles of sunset we will only notice when we linger in a space long enough.

“I want to use light to emulate various cycles of the natural world,” Shulman explains.

Shulman shared a particular story about beautiful compromises behind the geometric patterns, explaining how his ideas changed so many times throughout the process based on the affordances of the building. When he realized that original ideas wouldn’t work, he turned to the spiky roof of the tower for some tinkering fun. 

While beams were originally designed to deter birds, with his artistry, these features that were intended to make the space hostilly liminal were leveraged as mediums to create the glittering geometry. From our conversation, Shulman seems to really appreciate this experience of working with limitations and compromises. 

“I enjoy using light as the singular medium. I liked that constraint,” Shulman said.

Courtesy of Stephen Yang

Near the elevated area between Schwartz Performing Arts Center and Sheldon Court are the other parts of Shulman’s work: projected montages of the natural world. It took months for Shulman to collect the materials for the videos; for the first few months, he would carry around a GoPro to capture different stages of the natural world. At times, he would then tie the camera to a tree and let go, letting it be naturally swayed by the wind. And, on other occasions, he would release the camera in streams and gorges and let it flow with the water. 

“I want to let nature be the cinematographer,” Shulman eloquently remarked.

Shulman then pieced these videos with more intentionally framed personal shots of nature to create a series of montages that encapsulates both his personal perspectives and those he captured from nature. Besides his own perception of nature, he also draws on inspirations from Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense

While I won’t burden you with more academic readings, Shulman did mention the opening of the latter essay as inspirational for the creation of the work. Nietzsche wrote:

“In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of ‘world history’ — yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.”

“The star will breathe,” Shulman pulled out his laptop, found the passage, and read it to me. He said that this macroscopic view on the relationship between nature and the humanities has inspired him to name his work “After Nature Had Drawn a Few Breaths.” He wanted to create a literalization of the living earth.

“I want to reflect on how mankind is so great at creating big things that exist to be covered over. Just like truths exist to be reconsidered,” he explained as he reflected on his own ideas.

As a columnist that writes about technoculture, I then proceeded to ask what he thinks of his use of technologies to represent nature. He explained to me his choice of using low-energy LED to seek a more sustainable compromise between the consumption and creation of jouissance. Adam said he found it fascinating that he’s able to use videos and projections to portray nature in ways that were previously not available, adding that, as he’s now more familiar with leveraging light technologies, he would love to continue exploring this medium. 

To Adam Shulman, the question essentially boils down to: “How do you use technology to at least give back a little bit to nature?”  

With only a little more than a week left remaining for his installation, I wrapped up the interview by asking him how he thinks of the temporality of his work. He answered,“I like art that is only going to be around for a little while. I like the freedom to have control over something typically associated with a rigid structure, like a museum or gallery. Here, if I see something that I don’t like, I can just [go ahead and change it]. I’ve actually just done this. I added a second version of a video just today, and this is the third or fourth day of the presentation. And so I do expect [my art] to change according to how my satisfaction with it changes right now.”

From now until Monday, April 26, Shulman’s work will light up Schwartz Performing Arts Center’s Plaza each night from 8:00 midnight. The project was funded by the Cornell Council for the Arts with the generous support of the Department of Performing and Media Arts. 

In particular, Shulman would like to thank Steven Blasberg, the master electrician at the Schwartz Center, for sharing his programming expertise and offering technical support along the way. During our interview, Shulman said he might try to do something like this again next year. 

He shared his future plan with excitement: “No, I don’t want to drive him too insane, so maybe senior year!”

Stephen Yang is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Thursdays this semester.