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Museums Without Walls

“Museum without Walls” offered students the opportunity to engage in original research on the early history of the Intermedia MFA program, established in 1968 by Hans Breder at the University of Iowa. Intermedia is best known for the internationally renowned students and visiting artists that went through its program, including Ana Mendieta, Charles Ray, Allan Kaprow, Robert Wilson, and others. Yet as a pedagogical enterprise, Intermedia remains understudied.

Joyce Tsai's class visits Mel Andringa in Cedar Rapids. He is seated in an art studio with some colorful paintings. Students sit around a table while Andringa talks about Intermedia.

Joyce Tsai’s class visits Mel Andringa in Cedar Rapids

As one of the first MFA programs to encourage students to work across disciplines, Intermedia enabled the production of art in new media and video. Because of their media, the artifacts Intermedia produced do not fit comfortably in conventionally defined categories. Due to concerns about their condition, they cannot be played back without digital transfer; other related materials were held in the personal collections of Hans Breder, a house fire in 2015 destroyed some related documentation, artwork, and correspondence. Professor Joyce Tsai’s project aims to preserve the surviving materials, making them available to students, teachers, and researchers around the world.

These efforts were enhanced by oral histories conducted by Tsai and her students. Hans Breder came to a class and led an engaging conversation, which offered insights into his teaching style and philosophy as much as it deepened the class’s historical understanding of the program. It was, as it would turn out, his last teaching visit before he passed away in summer 2017. Digital Bridges also supported a trip to Cedar Rapids to speak with Mel Andringa, who was one of the first students and later faculty in the program. He spoke to his experience studying and working in Intermedia. Learning about his contributions to establishing Legion Arts—an exhibition, performance, and collaborative infrastructure for the arts in Cedar Rapids—also revealed the impact of Intermedia on communities where involved members settled.

Photograph of Hans Breder with Joyce Tsai's class

Hans Breder visiting Joyce Tsai’s class

Working under the guidance of Matthew Butler and Hannah Skates-Kettler from Iowa’s Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, Tsai’s students learned to adopt paper prototyping and wire-framing to develop interfaces that they later tested with users. Inspired by class walks through Iowa City, some students explored other strategies not introduced formally in class to enliven their research. Students Ari Kim and Helen Cho used SketchUp to create elegant reconstructions of areas on the University of Iowa campus based off of historical blueprints and maps to reveal crucial differences in the way our landscapes impact the meaning of the videos. The ultimate aim is that this work contribute to the development of a research portal for this corpus of video artifacts. In this respect, “Museum without Walls” is fundamentally iterative: each semester, students build upon the work previous students have completed as researchers, designers, and contributors to a growing database of videos.

Funding from Digital Bridges helped to preserve a selection of videos in the University Archives through digitization and funded a trip to Dortmund, Germany to access further material. Second, it allowed Tsai to collaborate with Professor Jenny Anger at Grinnell College to learn from her experience with developing a digital humanities course that empowered undergraduate students to conduct original research to reconstruct lost, partially extant, or otherwise imperiled artistic projects. Digital Bridges also funded graduate students Traci Hercher and Paul Schmitt and undergraduate assistant Lindley Warren to conduct preliminary research and course students to deepen the content and work together on interface design and development. Digital Bridges will also support travel to the Digital Media and Learning conference in Irvine, California for Tsai and her team, who are giving a group presentation on this exciting project.

Joyce Tsai was a participant in the 2017 Digital Bridges Summer Institute. This project originated with a Digital Bridges award for a pedagogical partnership between Tsai (Iowa) and Jenny Anger (Grinnell College). The grant has subsequently supported further collaborations with Matthew Butler and Hannah Skates-Kettler of the Digital Scholarship and Publishing Studio, Iowa graduate students Traci Hercher and Paul Schmitt, and undergraduate assistant Lindley Warren.