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August 2011 Archives

August 4, 2011

On Fermi Drive

In which Benjamin angers the ghosts of Italo Balbo and Ron Santo.

By Benjamin Recchie, AB’03

In June the Chicago Tribune editorialized that the city ought to rename Balbo Drive, a short street just south of the Loop. The reason given was its obscure namesake: the Italian aviator and general Italo Balbo, who led a formation of 24 flying boats on a flight from Rome to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. At the time, his flight was hailed as a triumph of aviation, but the years have dimmed his reputation: Balbo served as right-hand man to the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. The Trib’s suggestion was to switch the namesake from one Italian to another: UChicago Nobel laureate in physics and noted time-capsule stuffer Enrico Fermi. As an Italian American with a background in physics, I heartily agree, and you should too, darn it.

Sure, you might argue that Balbo wasn’t the worst of the Fascists—he opposed Italy’s anti-Jewish racial laws, after all, as well as Mussolini’s alliance with Hitler. But being the world’s nicest fascist is a little like being the world’s biggest Chihuahua; you’re setting the bar pretty low. Or perhaps you agree with the Chicago Sun-Times’s counter-suggestion that the street should be renamed for the late Chicago Cub Ron Santo. No disrespect to ol' No. 10, but Fermi won more Nobel prizes (1) than Santo (0) and led the Cubs to the exact same number of World Series championships (0).

Besides putting the city back on the right side of World War II, the change would say something about our values. We elevate Fermi’s pursuit of scientific knowledge over Balbo’s pursuit of imperial conquest. We prefer to honor a man who left his homeland to avoid submitting to race laws rather than a man who brought the government that promulgated those laws to power. We celebrate an actual Chicagoan over a stranger who visited the city once. (And another guy who could hit a ball with a stick really well.)

Still not convinced? Then let me appeal to your Maroon pride: don't you want the name of a famous U of C professor gracing Grant Park during the Taste of Chicago, Lollapalooza, and the occasional parade? Oh, yes you do.

The University hasn’t taken an official position on the matter—Balbo Drive is roughly five miles from Hyde Park, after all. But that shouldn’t stop readers of this blog from taking their own stands. If you want to see Balbo Drive renamed for Fermi, then contact Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Alderman Robert Fioretti (in whose ward Balbo falls), and join my Facebook group made expressly for this purpose. There’s no time like the present to give one of my favorite physicists his due.

Photo courtesy Quinn Dombrowski, AB'06, AM'06 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

August 8, 2011

Race against the machine

One lowly intern challenges the Mansueto.

By Mitchell Kohles, '12

By now you’ve read enough about the specs on the Joe and Rika Mansueto Library (especially if you follow UChiBLOGo). So how about we change gears a bit and take Dad’s new Camaro out for a spin?

Mansueto’s automated storage and retrieval system boasts a 15-minute-or-less retrieval time. But how fast is that compared to the old-fashioned “Ask a Librarian” option, or even pulling up the title on the Web? To put the cranes to the test, I’m going to race Mansueto to a book.

So let’s get to it. The rules:

  1. With the help of a librarian, I'll decide on a book that is both within Mansueto’s underbelly and tucked away in the Reg’s stacks.
  2. A third and theoretically impartial party will act as Mansueto’s proxy patron, submitting a request online and picking up the book at the counter.
  3. I can’t use a computer or any mechanical device, nor can I be aided by anyone accessing such device—I can “Ask a Librarian,” but he or she can’t ask a database.
  4. We line up at the turnstile. First one back through the metal detectors with the book in hand wins.

On the line: the relative value of Mansueto’s $81 million price tag and my $200,000 education. And just so we're clear: this isn’t some hackneyed plot to defend the “I-love-wandering-through-the-stacks” sentimentality. We’re talking pure, streamlined efficiency here. Let Man vs. Mansueto begin.


The results:

Mansueto retrieved the book at 9:13:39.
Intern threw in the towel at 13:09:31.

Well, it was a crushing defeat, no question about it. It looks like the odds were right: the machine is better than the man. But I for one won't welcome our biblo-technological overlords just yet. In a post-race talk, Mansueto and I discussed the possibility of a rematch:

Intern: Well, I guess all that money was worth it, huh ManSweat?
Mansueto: I am worth precisely every penny, yes.
Intern: Well don’t get too cocky over there in that transparent turtle shell of yours. I’ll be back.
Mansueto: Come back as often as you like, between the hours of 8 a.m. and 9:45 p.m. I can hold more than 3.5 million volumes.
Intern: No, Reg Egg, I mean for another race. I realized I’ve got an edge on you after all. I’m gonna learn my way around the stacks, brush up on my Dewey decimals, and come back better, stronger, and faster than before. You’re just a machine—you won’t learn anything.
Mansueto: I have learned that you are the inferior entity.
Intern: ...
Mansueto: Burn.

August 10, 2011

The Woodwards that weren’t

Part seven of our Paper Campus series.

By Benjamin Recchie, AB'03

Welcome to another installment of the Paper Campus, in which yours truly scours the University of Chicago Library for hints of the road not taken with respect to the University's buildings. Today, we have a rarity for the series—a building that has already been demolished: Woodward Court. Woodward was designed as a women's dormitory and dining hall (just as Pierce Hall was originally a men's dormitory), although Woodward had long since turned coed by its demolition in 2002.

Let's start with this Holabird, Root, & Burgee pitch for the dormitory:


There's no indication here of what site this building was intended for. It's a moot point, because the commission eventually went to Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, one of the giants of architecture in the '50s and '60s, and probably one of the two or three biggest names ever to design a UChicago building. Even if the name Saarinen doesn't ring a bell, perhaps you're familiar with some of his other buildings, such as this airport, this other airport, and this obscure monument in Missouri.

Saarinen was held in enough esteem that he was engaged to design an entire campus master plan:


His proposed dormitory complex was centered on the site of Stagg Field, visible to the north of the quads here. Other proposed buildings of note: a new building on the east side of the quads (maybe a library?), an addition to the Oriental Institute on 58th Street, athletic fields between 57th and 56th (a block south of where they would eventually go), and some kind of building on the field behind Ida Noyes Hall.

Also note the cloverleaf interchange at 61st and Cottage Grove: at the dawn of the interstate highway age, there was some thought to connecting the southern end of Lake Shore Drive and the as-yet unnamed Dan Ryan Expressway with a below-grade superhighway running through Jackson Park and Woodlawn between 61st and 62nd Streets. (One must wonder if it wasn't also intended as a kind of moat insulating University property from the rapidly changing neighborhoods to the south.) This proposal will make a cameo appearance in a later Paper Campus installment, but it never became serious enough to warrant being assigned an interstate number.

The large complex Saarinen proposed on the site of Stagg Field would have required demolishing not just the underused stadium but also Bartlett Gymnasium:


In this view looking south, 57th Street crosses from middle right to top left.


This is Saarinen's sketch of the ground-level view of the complex, including the tower building. Note the nods to Gothic architecture in the form of the arched entrances and window canopies.

Having decided that Saarinen's original proposal was too grand, the University asked for a smaller design next to Ida Noyes:


This downscaled design would have had a physical connection with Ida Noyes, probably because that building was still the women's activity center on campus.

This rendering shows the new low-rise, towerless building:


Note that the arched windows have been carried over from the Stagg Field proposal.

The design was then downsized yet again. Here, the dining hall is pushed up against 58th Street, flanked by dormitories:


Sharp-eyed observers will notice that Saarinen has again projected an extension of the OI buildings across Woodlawn Avenue.


As Saarinen refined the design, he eliminated the arches once and for all, erasing the last vestige of the original proposal.

In this almost-final version of the building, the dining hall has been moved to the center of the courtyard:


Compare this with the building as built in 1958:


There are a few subtle differences: fewer windows on both buildings, and a flat roof instead of a peaked one for the dining hall.

Saarinen was reportedly unhappy with the way the University administration had value-engineered out so many of the building's architectural flourishes. (Rumor among Woodward residents held that he had asked that his name be taken off of the building—the architect's equivalent of an Alan Smithee—although I never saw any proof of that.) And it didn't stop Saarinen from designing the Laird Bell Law Quadrangle for the University, which opened the next year.

Woodward Court's modernist design didn't age well; few were sorry to see it replaced by Chicago Booth's Charles M. Harper Center, built on the same spot. Today, the only reminders of Woodward's existence are the Harper Center's echo of its mid-century modern exterior and the existence of Woodward House in Max Palevsky Central. (Coincidentally, just as Woodward Court was replaced by the Harper Center, the dormitory's Harper House was renamed Woodward House.)

P.S. Woodward Court deserves special note as the building whose prehistory first sent me to the archival photos, thus spawning the entire Paper Campus series. Thanks go to Jennifer Davis, AB'04, for first getting me interested in the subject.

Images courtesy of the Archival Photographic Files, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

August 12, 2011

I’ve got a twin in Kalamazoo

Author Bonnie Jo Campbell, AB’84, may be my alter-ego.

By Christina Pillsbury, ’13

bonnie-jo-moose.jpgA couple of months ago, I happened upon a poem called “You Could Live at Meijer’s.” Based on the title alone, I knew I would love the author of this deeply personal piece of literature. The poem taps into the emotions that come up while shopping at the Midwest chain of hypermarkets, which I grew up with back home in Michigan. Meijer is part department store, part grocery store, part pure magic. In fact, if you have not been to one, stop reading this and go find one right now. Fittingly, the last line of the poem reads, “You could die at Meijer’s, they would put all of your groceries back on the shelves.”

Then I found out that the author, Bonnie Jo Campbell, AB’84, grew up in my hometown, Kalamazoo, that, like me, she attended the U of C, and that, like me, she is, of course, a writer. Granted, she’s a National Book Award finalist and a Guggenheim fellow, and I’m a Magazine intern, but that’s beside the point.

I had to meet her to see if she might be my doppelgänger. Campbell agreed to meet me at the Old Dog Tavern in Kalamazoo, a bar that she frequents when she’s not on book tour or playing with her donkeys.

I tend to hold successful novelists on pedestals, so I was surprised when Campbell strolled in wearing jeans, and even more surprised when she bought me a drink, she said she did so I would like her. That same day the New York Times had praised her newest book, Once Upon a River, as “an excellent American parable”—a book I loved so much that I would have looked up to her even if she had not provided me with gin.

When I asked about her 2009 collection of short stories, American Salvage, she offhandedly said, “I actually just won a Guggenheim, which I thought they just awarded to intellectual smarty pants, but apparently they include people like me too.”

Of course, her accomplishments contradict this—along with her philosophy degree from the U of C—but she must be the least pretentious intellectual smarty pants I’ve ever met; her life goal is to have a book sold at Meijer’s. “I always study the books they have there and I think, ‘What do all of these books have in common? How could I get my book there? There’s Nicholas Sparks, but then Devil in the White City is there, and that’s kind of edgy, so maybe I do have a chance.”

Once Upon a River is, in fact, edgy for a coming-of-age tale. The book opens with a scene in which the protagonist, Margo, is raped by an uncle and later is complicit in her father’s murder. She takes off down the river with her late grandfather’s boat, her shotgun, and few other resources. The story is part Huck Finn (although any time you put a teen on a river this reference pops up), part Annie Oakley, but with more violent and erotic scenes. It may be too racy for Meijer, but the Michigan setting might make her dream come true.

Campbell doesn’t make a fuss when she talks about her life’s crazy adventures. As if every farm girl has traipsed around the world via bike, hitchhiking, and a circus train.

One of her first hitchhiking experiences led to a summer serving snow cones with Barnum and Bailey. After her second year at the U of C, Campbell was hitchhiking with her boyfriend to Los Angeles. But the circus was in Phoenix, and she joined on a whim. One of her stories about that summer, “The Smallest Man in the World” won a Pushcart Prize.

Before we parted, I asked her if we are in fact the same person. To my excitement, she said, “Yes.” We have similar tastes in literature; we eat the same food; her grandfather was instrumental in the construction of my high school; we both have an extremely low tolerance for alcohol; and most importantly, we could both live and die at Meijer.

I hope this means my next career move will somehow involve Barnum and Bailey.

August 15, 2011

Beauty queen, associate dean

The 1960s were crazy, man—you know, beauty contests, women's hours, white gloves.

By Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93

JeanTreese.jpgJean Treese, AB’66, associate dean of students in the College, has served as an academic adviser to an estimated 3,000 students since 1981.

And probably not a single one of them knows that she was the runner-up in the 1963 Miss University of Chicago contest.

QandA_QDrop.jpgHow were you nominated?
QandA_ADrop.jpgAny group on campus—RSO, house, intramural team—could nominate a candidate for Miss University of Chicago. The director of the orchestra mentioned it one Wednesday night at rehearsal. Of course everyone giggled and guffawed, and then somebody said, “Let’s nominate Jean!”
In high school I would have been the last person nominated for Miss Anything. My mom thought it was a stitch.
The girl who actually won, Pam (Smith) Lovinger, AB’64, AM’67, was from the Russian choir. I was told by somebody counting the votes, who should not have told me, that I came in second.
QandA_QDrop.jpgDid you have fun at Wash Prom?
QandA_ADrop.jpgYes, but it wasn’t as fun as Twist Party Night. Every Wednesday night in Ida Noyes, in the Cloister Club, there was a twist party from nine until midnight, with the Paul Butterfield Band.
You didn’t have to go with a date; you didn’t have to dance with a boy. It was just wild. And not what we should have been doing on a Wednesday night. So the twist party went to 12, but you had to leave a little bit before 12 if you wanted to save hours for the weekend.
QandA_ADrop.jpgThere were women’s hours in those days. We were only allowed out two hours after midnight per week. I lived in Woodward, which hadn’t even been named yet; it was called New Dorms. It was the only co-ed housing on campus at the time.
The east wing was for men. Women lived in the north and west. And the doors between the north and east were cemented closed. You couldn’t get through unless you had a blowtorch.
The doors to the women’s quarters were locked at midnight. You had to enter the building through the basement. There was a matronly woman sitting there with a box of index cards, with all the women residents’ names. Everyone had one. And if you were a minute after 12 o’clock getting back, that was one of your hours for the week.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWas there any feminist consciousness on campus?
QandA_ADrop.jpgNot in 1963. But certainly by the time I left, in 1966, there were the beginnings of that.
I was called “Miss Sitterly” in class, all the way through. I always wore skirts, unless it was freezing out. There was no rule, but I almost always wore them. You wore white gloves to church. You wore white gloves to fly.
I got married at the end of my senior year, in May. There was the general feeling—although not so strongly on this campus—that if you didn’t have an MRS by the time you graduated, or one in the works, that you had failed college somehow.
A couple of years after I was in the Miss U of C contest, a refrigerator won. As I recall, it was a write-in candidate. Of course the organizers didn’t let the refrigerator win. But it began the demise of Wash Prom and the Miss U of C contest—things had hit such a low point that there just didn’t seem a reason to continue this farce.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhen did you become a college adviser?
QandA_ADrop.jpgThe college advising system came into being the 1970s, after the sit-in and all the campus turmoil.
I had been a teacher in Chicago Public Schools for 13 years. Then in December of 1980, just before Christmas, we didn’t get paid because there was no money to pay us.
I started as a college adviser in the fall of 1981, and I’ve been here ever since.
QandA_QDrop.jpgHave you ever told any of your students about the Miss U of C contest?
QandA_ADrop.jpgOh no. I share a lot with them, but this doesn’t seem to be appropriate. I talk with my students very openly about failures—academic struggles, challenges—because I think it helps them to understand they can get through it.
I did tell my sons. They just laughed.

August 18, 2011

Print and politics

An alumna curator showcases works by South African printmakers—some never seen before in a US museum.

By Elizabeth Station

The Museum of Modern Art in New York City can overwhelm with its crush of tourists and massive, famous collection, especially in summer. Visitors looking for a different experience can escape to a small but powerful show organized by Judith Hecker, AM’97, assistant curator in the department of prints and illustrated books. Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now features contemporary prints by established and up-and-coming South African artists. They tackle serious themes—apartheid, torture, resistance, and reconciliation—using techniques from intaglio to linoleum cut. Hecker has worked at MoMA since completing Chicago’s Master of Arts Program in the Humanities. She talked about the exhibition during a recent interview at the museum.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat drew you to South African art, originally?
QandA_ADrop.jpgBecause I didn’t do a PhD, I never had a particular niche. The advantage of being a generalist is that you get to curate across the century, and so I’ve done both historical and contemporary projects. Years ago I became interested in William Kentridge (b. 1955), who is probably South Africa’s best-known artist. MoMA did a major monographic show of his work in 2010 that was part of a touring exhibition. He works in many different mediums: theater, sculpture, drawing, film animation, and printmaking. I became really immersed and interested in his work.
QandA_QDrop.jpgHow did that lead to building MoMA’s South African print collection?
QandA_ADrop.jpgPrints are created in such a way that there’s always more than one out there, unlike a unique painting, sculpture, or etching. And so the price point is lower, and we tend to collect more objects and take more risks, I think. We collected a lot of Kentridge’s work, and as I began to learn more about his career, I started to understand more of the context of printmaking and artistic production in South Africa generally. I took my first trip there in 2004. It was a great time to go because they were celebrating ten years of democracy since Nelson Mandela’s election. It was a terrific moment—all the museums were completely redefining their work and collecting more artwork by black Africans.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhere did you go on that first trip?
QandA_ADrop.jpgI visited Kentridge at his studio in Johannesburg, but I also went to many different provinces to research other artists and the role and prevalence of printmaking. I visited print workshops, universities, and community art centers in rural and urban areas. Printmaking is celebrated in South Africa in a way that's different from other countries. There are so many talented practitioners who aren’t well known either in or outside the country. So the trip was also an opportunity to bring new works into MoMA’s permanent collection, with an eye toward ultimately exhibiting some of the prints.

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat’s the relationship between printmaking and politics?
QandA_ADrop.jpgWhat I wanted to illustrate with this show is how there are many different centers of production in South Africa, not just in the highbrow art world, because of the history and legacy of apartheid. There was a point when black artists couldn’t legally apply to colleges and universities, and they had to seek art training elsewhere. Printmaking was an especially accessible format that also had economic advantages—people could sell their prints and earn a living.
Wherever countries have undergone extraordinary political change, printmaking always plays a role. Mexico, Cuba, and South Africa are all examples. You can think back to Goya and Picasso too—there’s a strong link between printmaking and narratives about war, humanity, and cruelty. That’s part of the story with this show.
QandA_QDrop.jpgHow have you continued to discover new artists?
QandA_ADrop.jpgI took another trip to South Africa in 2007, and since then I’ve stayed in touch with artists, publishers, and workshops. They’re constantly updating me on what’s being produced. The great thing about the print medium is that it’s not like shipping a sculpture or a painting—prints can be rolled up in a tube and mailed—so this has enabled me to continue acquiring works. Outside of South Africa, MoMA might now have the most holdings of prints by South African artists. At the same time, with this exhibition I felt really strongly about letting the artists be heard, so we brought some of them over to give presentations about their work.

Impressions from South Africa, 1965 to Now runs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through August 29, 2011.

Judith Hecker with Cameron Platter’s Kwakuhlekisa (stencil, 2007).
William Kentridge, General (engraving and watercolor, 1993).

August 19, 2011

That’s all, folks

Designed by architects with UChicago ties, a museum closes its doors.

By Elizabeth Station

On my way to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on West 53rd Street during a recent trip to New York City, I thought I’d visit the neighboring American Folk Art Museum. Designed by Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects—the husband-and-wife team behind the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts—the 40-foot-wide building occupies a vertical sliver of Manhattan that’s easy to miss if you walk by too quickly.

Tsien and Williams's award-winning design garnered glowing reviews when the museum opened in 2001. Eager to step in and see the space, I was surprised instead to find the front doors padlocked and the lobby dark. I later learned that, struggling with low attendance and a $32 million debt, the folk art museum had sold the building to MoMA and moved to smaller quarters uptown. But the funds generated by the sale haven't restored the museum's financial health, and it may shut down permanently and donate its collection to the Smithsonian.

August 22, 2011

This UChicago Life

Stories about rumors and their repercussions on a college campus

By Mitchell Kohles, '12


Today on our show we have just one story, of an incredible rumor that spread through one college campus, if not quite like wildfire, then perhaps like a slow Lake Michigan fog. This is Mitchell Kohles with UChiBLOGo. Our show, in three acts. Stay with us.

I first heard the rumor from a friend, who had heard it from a friend of a friend, and he made me promise not to tell anyone: Ira Glass is teaching a creative writing class at the University of Chicago.

The details of the original rumor (read: the buzz by the time it got around to me) were that: a) Glass would teach a class during winter quarter, something about creative nonfiction writing, potentially with elements of radio broadcasting, and b) students who were registered for a certain creative writing class during the fall would be automatically enrolled in the Glass class for the following quarter. Come December, fans of This American Life would be encouraged to politely exchange blows over any remaining seats.

Whoa. This is serious news, right? Unless, of course, it’s not. My first thought was to browse the CRWR course listings for something that seemed to suggest Glass. Beginning Nonfiction, naturally. Writing Memoir: interesting, but probably not what we’re looking for. And lo, Documentary for Radio: Audio Verte,’ sounds juuuust right—except that the course is missing an instructor, and there aren’t any students enrolled.

At this point, I was beginning to doubt my informant, so I returned to the source and tried to track this thing back to someone with an office. The first person who had anything substantive to say was Isaac:

Regarding Ira Glass, I heard he was coming from Harry, who I believe heard it from Kathy Anderson (head of Chicago Careers in Journalism). I am loosely paraphrasing, since he told me this around two months ago, but as I understand it Mr. Glass will be coming for a weekend sometime in fall quarter to do some workshops on storytelling. Slots in these workshops will be given first to students in creative writing classes, and then to the general student body.

Maybe it doesn’t matter which writing class I’m in. Maybe Glass is coming sooner than I thought. Let’s talk to Harry:

The guy to get in touch with about the possible Ira Glass event and any other author events is Dan Raeburn [author of the comics zine The Imp]. I'm not sure whether the event is still on or if they'll want to talk about it quite yet, but I'm sure he'd let you know either way.

Dan Raeburn sounds like he might have the scoop. Maybe he can end this once and for all:

This isn't a rumor, it's a fact, so you can publish it. Ira Glass is indeed coming to the U of C in October. But he's not doing an event, i.e., a lecture or public performance of any kind. Instead he's doing something even cooler. He's meeting with students only.

Dan’s email went on to explain that Glass will hold a two-hour meeting with students who are pursuing their own creative projects. He will answer their questions, provide advice on their work, and share what he’s learned about “the art of telling true stories.” Although Glass was originally invited to be a part of the Arts Speaks series, he was more interested in talking directly with students. And so Glass agreed to come for free but had one important condition: no more than 100 students can participate. If it was going to work, it had to be small. For that reason, the event is not open to the public, and only students currently registered for creative nonfiction, documentary, radio, or journalism courses will be offered a spot.

Perhaps I’ve got a chance after all. It sounds like we’ve found a rumor that didn’t end in tears and broken friendship. At least until first week and pink-slip mayhem, things are looking good. Dan says:

I for one am thrilled, and hope your readers are too. Please spread the word.

You got it.

August 23, 2011

Alumni receive access to online academic resources


UChicago alumni may now connect to the EBSCO Academic Search, Business Source, and eBook databases via the Alumni & Friends Online Community.

EBSCO Academic Search provides the full text of articles from more than 3,350 academic journals, as well as indexing and abstracting for more than 8,200, covering nearly every area of academic study. EBSCO Business Source includes the full text of some 1,540 business publications, from peer-reviewed academic journals to popular magazines. eBooks are also available.

These new services, provided by the Alumni Association, address longstanding requests by alumni for access to scholarly resources that they were accustomed to using on campus via the Library’s domain-wide license. It is hoped that alumni will find the service useful when conducting independent academic or professional research.

Sign-in to the Alumni & Friends Online Community using your CNET ID to access these resources and more.

August 24, 2011

Searching for Scavies

Must-see Scav Hunt highlights

By Mitchell Kohles, '12

The University of Chicago Scav Hunt celebrated its 25th birthday this year, setting a world record for the world's largest scavenger hunt and churning out another gargantuan list (pdf) of apocryphal and near-impossible items.

While much of this history may be confined to alumni memories, we dug through the kipple of YouTube and relived some notable achievements from the past five years.


“That Guy Kid” Action Figure – 2008
A great illustration of what it is to be both Scavie and UChicago student, but why couldn’t they get the title right? Who’s “That Guy?”


SuperCrocks – 2010
Starring star professor Paul Sereno. Not much of a video, but this is just too funny.


Strandebeest – 2007
The poor video quality belies the enormous accomplishment. Few items are worth 300 points.


Hamlet: Will it Blend? – 2007
The kid just commits so hard that you can’t help but forgive him for using an immersion blender.


Sexiled to the Library – 2007
First as tragedy, then as farce. This has definitely happened before.


Science. Magic. Time – 2009
The “magic” trick is in tribute to Tesla's contribution to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, as is this soon-to-end exhibit.


Avatar 1-D – 2010
Charming, and maybe the only video on the list with any production value to speak of.

August 25, 2011

Down the rabbit hole

A look back at UChicago's first transmedia game.

By Mitchell Kohles, '12


If you happened to visit campus last spring, you probably noticed some bizarre ephemera scattered across campus: strange metallic lattices, rotationally symmetric veves (pictured below right), or a group of motionless bodies splayed out on the sidewalk in the center of the quad. Unless you were among the few to stubble upon a rabbit hole into this strange world, most of it probably went over your head.

veves.jpgOscillation, the University of Chicago’s first Alternate Reality Game (ARG), came and went without attracting too much attention. But you had to be holed up deep within the Reg not to notice the ways in which the game’s designers and players transformed campus in the last five weeks of spring quarter. Oscillation belongs to a new genre of interactive fiction in which players interact with various media—in this case, paper flyers, tape cassettes, websites, IRC chats, text-based adventure games, and even sidewalk chalk—to connect with each other and engage with the world around them in to create a unique narrative experience. Often these ARGs are used by production companies to promote more mainstream video games or movies, but Oscillation was a stand-alone project designed by students and faculty and sponsored by the UnCommon Fund.

The game centered on a fictional narrative about a group of scientists from a parallel universe who needed help from our own—players searched for clues and solved puzzles, both online and on campus, to ensure a balance between the two worlds. A few of the head designers and players got together in Walker Museum in July to reminisce about their experiences.

At the table:

  • Moira Cassidy, AB’11, game design writer
  • Patrick Jagoda, game design director, assistant professor of English
  • Patrick McWilliams, AB’10, player
  • Russell Ruch, AB’09, player
  • Ainsley Sutherland, AB’11, game design director

QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat was it like playing the game?
QandA_ADrop.jpgRuch: I remember one night Janice [another player] and I were at the MacLab until midnight just trying to solve this stupid puzzle. And there’s no reason that you have to do it, because it’s a game, but maybe the fact that it is an ARG and it’s not something where you can just put the console away and walk away from — it makes you want to do it more.
McWilliams: The stakes somehow seem higher because it’s not so clear that it is a game. It feels like it requires your participation almost.
Ruch: After completing a puzzle, we were able to find a box of electronic parts that we were supposed to solder together to build a lattice of lights, and it turned out I was the only person that knew how to solder. And I’m not a really good solderer, so that failed. But they adapted the story around it, so that turned out okay.
Jagoda: We actually kept open the possibility that you would fail, so we had that story ready.
Cassidy: Originally, there were several permutations of boxes and lights, so depending on which box you did, or if you did them together, the light patterns displayed would be different. Narrative-wise, you were supposed to figure out that one of the people giving you instructions would lead you to your doom. We were very Master-of-Puppets sometimes [laughs].
QandA_QDrop.jpgYou never officially announced that there was an ARG happening on campus. How did the players treat the game during those five weeks?
QandA_ADrop.jpgJagoda: There is this breakdown between game play and real life that happens in almost all of these games, and you start seeing things, and you’re not sure if they’re part of the game or they’re just part of the life of the campus. It produces this sort of paranoia.
McWilliams: I thought that was the appeal, the idea of being able to construct your own idea of what the game is. What is and what isn’t. It becomes a way to sort out the world around you and make it into some sort of parallel universe. You can only sort of half-see everything, and you have to use what you do see to fill in the rest.


QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat were some of the challenges of creating an ARG from scratch?
QandA_ADrop.jpgSutherland: One of the challenges, with a game like ours, is that we didn’t have a product behind it. The players couldn’t say, “Oh, this is like Halo, so…” or, “Oh, I know what this word means.”
Jagoda: Virtually every other ARG has some advertising component and requires a type of funding that takes away from the experience, so actually one of the advantages of doing this at a University is that you don’t have to compromise your artistic vision.
Sutherland: A lot of the planning happened during the game too. Things went wrong, or things were discovered in the wrong order [by the players] and we had to reevaluate.
Cassidy: Or they cracked our puzzles in ways we didn’t think were possible. They looked at our source code to get the passwords. But once we found out they were doing it, we created a whole puzzle around using the source code to sort of respond to that.
Jagoda: It’s really a live design process, because you have to adapt on the spot. It’s not like making a movie or writing a novel where you already know what the form is and you have thousands of examples from which to draw. You’re making a new thing every single time—the form of transmedia games is only about a decade old.
QandA_QDrop.jpgWhat was the reaction on campus?
QandA_ADrop.jpgSutherland: Having people be like, “Oh, I’m so excited about this,” was such a big thing. Because we thought people were going to hate it.
Jagoda: I still think the first rabbit hole [the event depicted in the trailer] was still totally atmospheric and cool. It was a puzzle, but luring them in in this particular way, even though that many people didn’t show up, made it so there was still a description of this going around. I think we got that moment so right.
Sutherland: There were obviously people who knew us and knew that we were involved, but weren’t playing the game, and so we would get accused of things that were happening on campus. People would say things like, “I saw this happening, was this your fault?” We did have a police report filed on us.
Ruch: Really?
Sutherland: Well, we did this preview for the game where we drew chalk bodies on the ground and had weird little machines lying around, and somebody reported it to the police.

About August 2011

This page contains all entries posted to UChiBLOGo in August 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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