When COVID-19 hit RISD in early March, one of the many longstanding traditions to be put on hold was the RISD Museum’s Dorner Prize competition. Originally established as the Sitings exhibition in 1995, the annual juried competition highlights site-specific projects by RISD degree candidates that “examine or critique the museum’s historical and contemporary contexts, collections, architectural idiosyncrasies, habits of visitation and/or web presence.” The winning 2020 proposals were selected last year, and one of them—Lost in Translation—was mounted at long last in early December on the museum’s exterior Benefit Street facade.
Conceived by Vaishnavi Mahendran MFA 20 GD in collaboration with Brown University students Alba Lara Granero, Maria Victoria Taborelli and Sophia Petrosa in a RISD/Brown course taught by Janet Zweig, Lost in Translation is a series of bilingual, augmented-reality (AR) posters, each displaying a word whose meaning cannot be easily translated across languages. Viewers are invited to use the Artivive app on their phones to activate an immersive experience.
“The project feels even more relevant today than it did when we conceived it last year,” says Mahendran. “And the placement of the posters outside of the museum is ideal in that everyone can see them—not just people who go in.”
Mahendran describes her team as “a multicultural, multidisciplinary RISD-Brown collective that believes in the transformative power of public art to create communities through shared experiences. This was a collaborative effort based on our cultural backgrounds,” she adds, “and we brought in a community of friends and families to provide possible content we could use in the series.”
Content and music for the Jugaad poster, for example—which builds on the Hindi word meaning approximately “resourcefully innovating using limited materials”—came from Mahendran’s friends in India, her native country. And Despecho, a Spanish word describing the hunger for vengeance that sometimes comes up in response to heartbreak, was curated by Spanish native Granero. Tsundoku comes from Japanese and refers explicitly to the act of buying books you hope to read one day and allowing them to pile up around your room.
“We originally conceived of the project as something that could live in a public space like an airport where there is no specific target audience,” Mahendran says. “The words we selected are relatable at many levels for people of many age groups and cultural backgrounds.”
Mahendran is currently rebuilding her graphic design practice in NYC and teaching graduate typography at Boston University. “I used to focus on traditional forms of graphic design like commercial branding projects,” she explains, “but the MFA Graphic Design program at RISD completely changed the way I view my practice and its role in visual culture.”
The second Dorner Prize proposal to win an award in 2020 was also headed up by a Graphic Design grad student, Bobby Joe Smith III MFA 20 GD, in collaboration with Sharanya Aggarwal MFA 20 TX, Jarret Key MFA 20 PT, Kim Nguyen MFA 20 GL, Will Mianecki MFA 21 GD, Aryana Polat 21 SC and Sadia Quddus MFA 22 GD. Smith envisioned a performance piece called Evidence of Slave Sale in response to a peculiar document he discovered in the museum’s archives: the 1864 bill of sale for Sam, an enslaved person who lived in Georgia.
“I first learned of the document in a class on archives and public memory taught by SEI Fellow Christopher Roberts,” Smith recalls. “As a person of Black and Indigenous heritage, I know there are a lot of troubling artifacts in museums, but this one really struck me.”
The performance piece was intended to resituate the document in the museum’s Grand Gallery, amid lavish paintings of European landscapes and nobility. As the proposal explains, “The bill of sale, rum bottles filled with water from the Atlantic Ocean, a garment made from replica slave cloth and the performer’s brown body would recall the violent and inhumane methods of wealth production that made Providence, RISD and the museum’s collection possible.”
Although Smith left Rhode Island after graduating, he hopes to return to RISD when the pandemic is over to stage the piece along with whichever members of his team are available to participate. “I was excited about the shape the project was taking before the world got put on hold,” he says. “Our nation is contending with this history each and every day, so I think the project continues to be important and look forward to realizing it when the time is right.”
—Simone Solondz / Lost in Translation photos by Erik Gould
Students are welcome to submit proposals for Dorner Prize 2021 through Sunday, February 7.