Grass Islands (2016)

Grass Islands is the public art installation portion of my undergraduate thesis, titled Improving Mental Wellbeing on College Campuses Through Participatory Art Installation. MIT has a long complicated history regarding the mental health of its students, and only recently has the community really started to come together to start a conversation and begin tackling these issues. In March of 2015, following a cluster of student deaths, this article was published in the Boston Globe, detailing some of the chilling statistics that showed MIT's suicide rate as almost two times the national average for college campuses. The institute has since launched an intensive mental health campaign to make mental health resources more widely available, and there is a rapidly growing presence of student-led initiatives to educate and foster communication. However, can we further supplement our community's mental wellbeing through altering our physical surroundings?

My thesis drew on precedent research and case studies in the fields of psychology, biology, and art, and combined it with site specific observational studios of student life on campus. The culmination of my research was the implementation of a public art installation that used properties of soil, nature, and customizable components to liven up existing spaces and provide students with an option for both play and rest. 

When getting to work on designing and constructing the pieces, I had a lot of decisions to make. I incorporated soil due to recent research that pointed to the distinct possibility that microbes found in soil (Mycobacterium vaccae), when inhaled, trigger serotonin production in the brain (resulting in a more relaxed and happy student). Grass was chosen to introduce greenery into spaces as well as provide an attractive incentive for students to approach the soil (just dirt is not nearly as enticing). And finally, I picked natural, unfinished wood for a more organic clean feeling. In terms of shape, size, and number, a 4'x4' equilateral triangle was chosen because it is a shape that can easily tesselate and was a size that could still be interacted with even as one unit. I chose to produce a total of three triangles due to budget, time, and space, although I would have preferred to create more and explore the propagation and arrangement of units.

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When the units were finished, they were installed in two different locations for one week each. The outpour of student support for the project was exciting and the triangles were used in many unexpected ways (as percussive instruments, juggling platforms, quartet practice spot, etc) Students were enthusiastic about the new greenery, especially since the Boston weather is often pretty harsh and it's close to impossible to sit outside on the grass during most of the year. Many students requested that the installation become a permanent fixture, and in the end, the triangles found a new home at one of the dorms on campus, where it can continue to be available to students year-round.

The sheer amount of community support and positive feedback in response to this project show that the living and working spaces we inhabit on a day-to-day basis really do matter and play a role in a student's mental and emotional wellbeing. Designing mentally healthy spaces has huge potential for growth and exploration, especially on college campuses where students are away from home and put in a high-stress environment. When retrofitting is not an option for existing spaces, introducing mentally healthy objects is a cost-effective and non-evasive alternative that has a lot of opportunity to grow!

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A big thank you to James Roggaveen, Dabin Choe, Eric Wang, Alex Hong, Matt Ko, Rick Huang, Minerva Zhou, Wei-en Lee, and Sarah Liu for helping me during the installation process! The final installation would not have been possible without them.