Sometimes activism means building a giant plastic sea monster.
For the past two semesters, students enrolled in Interdisciplinary Studies courses led by professor Steven McAlpine (INDS 400, INDS 430), have been working on a Kinetic Sculpture — a bicycle powered piece of art to be raced in Baltimore’s annual Kinetic Sculpture Race.
Each sculpture has a theme and ours centered on The Upcycle, a book by designer William McDonough. In the book he argues that trash is only trash because we call it so. He imagines a world in which people don’t throw away everyday objects, instead re-imagining their purpose over and over again.
In order to translate that idea of upcycling into a sculpture, we came up with The Kraken, a sea monster made up of re-purposed plastic bottles and other ‘trash’ that would have otherwise been tossed away.
The Kraken as an idea references humanity’s evolving nature with the sea. In the age of exploration, old maps were dotted with illustrations of sea monsters, each representing our fear of the unknown. But in conquering the ocean we once feared, we’ve created a real monster out of plastic waste — just look at the giant Pacific garbage patch.
And so we set out to create The Kraken — a giant sea monster made of the plastic marine waste that now engulfs our oceans.
Creating The Kraken was a process in trial and error that succeeded because of the commitment of our group.
What worked most was how bought in each member of the team has been — every week we committed 4 hours of time outside class to construct the sculpture.
I think the genius of our project is that everyone found a way to contribute by doing what they love. We are a collection of students focused on engineering, art, design, literature and everything in between — and the project shows that!
At first The Kraken was just going to be composed of a giant squid, but each addition represented the commitment and unique passions and talents of our group. These side-projects are what I’d point to as evidence of what worked best.
Two examples of this are Kraken Cash and the ship’s mast — projects led by students Andrew Starck and Jasper Dudley that added something really special to The Kraken.
The biggest difficulties we faced involved the time/skill-intensive nature of our project. Even though each member committed an incredible amount of time each week, there were moments in which it was unclear if we’d finish the sculpture in time for the original May 3rd race date. In addition, there were points in the project’s development where we needed very specific tasks (like welding) to be accomplished to a professional degree. All of this asked of students enrolled in a class — a unique commitment of time and energy that placed a significant burden on everyone involved.
Looking to next year’s Kinetic team, I hope that we can build on our successes and strive to bring even more intentionality to our class and work. On our second to last class, I facilitated an activity called Ask a Question, with each student crafting their own ‘dance’ made up of 5 movements. Each movement represented an answer to a fundamental question about the class, such as “What kind of community did we create?” or “What’s your favorite plastic?”. The conversations that followed allowed us to reflect and collectively make meaning out of our experiences. I hope we continue that into the future!
This entire process was captured by a poster we created for UMBC’s Undergraduate Research and Creative Achievement Day (URCAD), where we presented to Dr. Hrabowski and the campus community: KSR URCAD poster, a final project of sorts.
As Elie Wiesel has said, “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference” — if activism is about making a difference then it must be an act of love.
My journey with this project has helped in feeling the words of feminist activists who have spoken through GWST 200. The combination of their lessons and actions and my own project has brought me to a more universal understanding of activism. It is a vantage point from which I hope to see the beautiful ideals that activists of every order live and defend.
That term, beautiful ideal, brings us to my most personal take-away from the class and my project — courtesy of Emma Goldman, Anarchist-In-Chief. I fell in love with her response to colleagues that expected her to represent a more…traditional ideal of leadership, “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.’ Anarchism meant that to me, and I would live it in spite of the whole world — prisons, persecution, everything. Yes, even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful ideal.”
The thee salient points for me: One, that to lead means to embody the ideals that you are championing, as opposed to ideals others expect of ‘leadership’. Two, that my understanding of activism might be best described as the want for “everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” Three, that Emma Goldman is a badass.
Shoutout to Steven McAlpine, Mai Teague-Hyunh, Andres Camacho, Jasper Dudley, Rob Ford, Kirby Kelbaugh, Stephen Moore, Heather Mortimer, Markus Proctor, Vijay Raju, and Nandit Shah