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Monstrous images examine society’s creepy creatures — and ourselves

An intriguing exhibit features hands-on installations in libraries across the University Park Campus

What makes a monster?

Installation by Kurosh ValaNejad

Installation by Kurosh ValaNejad

That’s the name and theme of an expansive exhibit spanning five libraries across the University Park Campus.

What Makes a Monster? explores the historical, anthropological and cultural aspects of monsters in society, representing an unprecedented collaboration among the university’s divisions, including the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

The exhibit’s primary location is in Doheny Memorial Library; it also has satellites in the Helen Topping Architecture & Fine Arts Library, the USC Norris Medical Library, the Science and Engineering Library and the VKC Library for International and Public Affairs.

Library co-curators Tyson Gaskill and Anne-Marie Gregg have assembled a show that covers a wide breadth of monsters throughout history, from the imagined to the horrifyingly real.

Creature features

The selections give visitors a fascinating glance at thousands of years of documented cultural obsession with monsters across civilizations in myth, in history and even modern media. In addition to being filled with intriguing visual representations of monsters in massive, ancient tomes and intimidating 6-foot-tall statues, the exhibit showcases also offer an intimate, philosophical examination of the theme in society at large, and more pointedly, in ourselves.

An idea that permeates the show is that what a culture chooses to vilify is often a harsher reflection on the culture itself than the purported villains.

From the “Degeneration and Devolution” section, which includes works such as “The True History of the Elephant Man” to “The Misunderstood Monster,” featuring Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, many of the showcases illuminate how ignorant and harmful societal conventions have historically demonized any beliefs, ailments or viewpoints counter to the dominant culture.

Helping to create a more self-reflective and interpretive experience of the library’s exhibit is a dynamic interactive installation, featuring three pieces of artwork that shuffle in and out of rotation, designed through a collaborative effort between library curators and SCA.

The installations were created with “The Body Scrub Device,” developed by Kurosh ValaNejad, a research artist at the USC Game Innovation Lab, and coded in Unity by Media Arts & Practice Ph.D. candidate Todd Furmanski. Body movements are tracked with a Kinect sensor, and the data is used to project images onto a large rear-projection glass screen.

Going to the dark side

Installation by James Cox

Installation by James Cox

The dark side of human nature is evident in sophomore Brady Thomas’ interactive installation. As a person approaches the glass panel, a series of real comments pulled from the Internet arise on the screen and the name of the show is directly invoked to ask, “What makes a monster of you?”

“I wanted to do something about illusion and internal ugliness. After going through a few iterations of what I wanted to do, I decided to look at a very modern kind of monster,” Thomas explained. “It just so happened that I was reading an article about these horrible tweets directed toward game developer Brianna Wu, and I became inspired to do a piece about the ugliness and bile that gets spewed on the Internet, and how anonymity can turn us into monsters.”

Another one of the library installations, created by Interactive Media and Games Division MFA candidate James Cox, embellishes upon the way that monsters have been visualized in history and expands that line of thinking to include the realm of early modern video games from the 1980s.

“The exhibit hits on many aspects of monsters, ranging from diseases to film to conspiracy sightings, yet one untapped medium was video games. I wanted to make a piece that could bridge this gap and using a pixilated style was the most recognizable way,” he said of his eye-catching, Technicolor display that stands in stark contrast to the more muted, neutral color palette of many of the other showcases.

Both of these projects were adapted from class projects for “Fundamentals of Procedural Media,” taught by SCA professors Peter Brinson and Margaret Moser.

It’s hard not to be drawn in by the “Body Scrub” installations as you walk past the doors of the Doheny Memorial Treasure Room.

The glass panel display is in the center of the room, framed by the open double doors; they are the first thing anyone sees as they enter the exhibit. They are essentially responsive posters or virtual fun house mirrors, flashing and changing with any movements around them.

Surprise and curiosity flash across the faces of passersby as they learn how to interact with the artwork.

“When people interact with the display, they effectively control the animation,” Cox said. “It allows the audience to create their own meaning and interactions with the work.”

The hands-on installations mark a new direction for the library and serve as an example of what can be done with interdisciplinary collaboration.

What Makes a Monster? will be on display until May 31.

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Monstrous images examine society’s creepy creatures — and ourselves

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