Ali Momeni, an assistant professor of art at Carnegie Mellon University, gestured wildly as pictures flew across the wall behind him. His face was lit and his black and red scarf swayed from the movement of his body. Momeni’s presentation about his artwork was a piece of art in itself.
Prior to teaching at CMU, Momeni was an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he founded an urban projection collective called the MAW — Minneapolis Art on Wheels. “We’re doing live projection performances in public spaces with physical inputs. This was always the twist for MAW,” Momeni said.
One of Momeni’s graduate students found lost objects all over Minneapolis and created a presentation with an old map of Minneapolis, locating he lost objects. The map was a projected flash document. Projected next to the map was a series of changing phrases typed into a Photoshop document by a cowboy poet named TJ.
“We would come to the corner of 26th and Lindale … and we’d pull over our bikes and start projecting,” Momeni said. “This night, within 15 minutes, the police show up.”
Momeni explained to the police officer that he was a professor at the University of Minnesota and this was a student art project. Momeni recalled that, in the middle of his explanation, “[the police officer] looks up at the screen, and at this point TJ had typed, ‘I’ve lost everything I have and I feel great.’ So, this guy stops paying attention to me, he turns to his cop colleague, and says, ‘Man, that’s what Pat was saying the other day.’”
“This was the moment when I realized, okay, Photoshop on a wall — powerful tool,” said Momeni.
Momeni discussed “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” a famous book by Stephen Covey. There is a three-way Venn diagram in the book: knowledge, desire and skill.
“That overlap in that Venn diagram, those are your habits,” Momeni said. “A part of my work, and trying to find my medium, has been trying to massage this habit-overlap region into something that is meaningful.”
South of the town of Farfalla, Egypt, the MAW project set up Bedouin trucks as projection systems and projected a collage of drawings onto rocks in the middle of the desert. The projections were made in support of the efforts of the Women’s Desert Liberation Front.
“This work had no audience, obviously. There was no one there in the desert. It really was a way of creating images that become a part of something else,” Momeni said.
Momeni recently presented a video of this project at an American Association of Landscape Architects conference. They were freaked out by the impermanence of the work. Momeni responded, saying, “Things can come, and things can go: Experiences last.”
Exquisite Corpse was an installation done by MAW in San Jose. Exquisite corpse is a game played by artists in which one drawer draws a head and the next drawer draws the feet and the third draws the torso and pictures are passed back and forth between artists until they are completed.
Playing on the game exquisite corpse, MAW had a series of remote artists from France and a few professional artists in the area contribute incomplete drawings to MAW in San Jose. MAW printed these drawings out and allowed people in the street to complete the drawings. The drawings were then projected onto a wall. Momeni played a video of the event with eerie background music as he discussed the project.
Momeni worked with another artist, Robin Meier, on a piece of art for an underground art gallery.
“We were commissioned by a company in France … that has a series of caves, about 15 miles of caves underground where they age their champagne, and about two miles of these caves is a contemporary art gallery.”
Momeni and Meier created a large horn out of dibond, the same material that makes up the Epcot Center. A vial of champagne is suspended in the center of the horn. “Every hour or two these fellows who work in the caves with their blacks suits, they ceremoniously come over and pour some champagne in there and generate some bubbles, and our machine listens to those bubbles and accompanies them with bubbly sounds,” said Momeni.
Momeni and Meier also worked on a set of projects together called the Trilogy of the Sisters.
The first piece is called Truce, and it was born out of an article in Nature magazine by Gabriella Gibson.
“About three years ago … we found out that mosquitoes listen to each other as they fly,” Momeni said.
Mosquitoes listen to each other and match pitch, flapping their wings at the same rate, probably to get an evolutionary advantage. It occurred to Momeni and Meier that mosquitoes might be able to harmonize as a choir.
To get the mosquitoes to fly without moving, Gibson developed a technique where mosquitoes are put to sleep on a block of ice. A small amount of wax is melted onto a thin wire, and this is affixed to the sleeping mosquito’s back, between the wings. The mosquito then wakes up and flaps it wings, but does not go anywhere.
Three mosquitoes were placed in front of speakers and microphones so the mosquitoes could hear each other and so buzzing could be amplified. Sure enough, the mosquitoes followed each and harmonized in a manner similar to an Indian classical singing style known as dhrupad, where brothers with similar voices harmonize and follow each other’s pitch.
Momeni and Meier moved on to leafcutter ants for their next installment of the Trilogy, The Tragedy of the Commons, also inspired by an article in Nature magazine.
“They call [leafcutter ants] super organisms because they function as one organism,” Momeni said. Leafcutter colonies can consist of millions of ants, while still having only one sexual organ. Leafcutter ants are all sisters. Leafcutter organisms are entirely altruistic.
Momeni and Meier created an artificial home for a colony of leaf cutter ants, which included housing and a foraging area. They decided to modify the foraging area.
“What we did in this foraging area is we proposed to them these poetic, symbolic choices,” Momeni said. “What are you going to choose if you have these beautiful rose petals that are very few and are going to dry out really soon, or a big pile of green leaves that doesn’t smell quite right. It smells like eucalyptus; it’s a natural deterrent.”
“They obviously make a joke of this problem,” Momeni said. “They optimize any possible situation.” The ants consumed raw material so quickly that the given choice almost did not matter.
Three months in, the ants got out. They went to the fridge in the room, where all the leaves were stored. After cleaning out the fridge, they went to the cafeteria.
The third installment of the Trilogy, If The Lion Could Speak, consisted of bees living in a see-through observation hive and loudspeakers inside the hive. The speakers played a resampling of the LP that went out with the Voyager VII, which had a sampling of the world’s music in case the spacecraft reached other life. The installation was housed in a public garden in France.
“I’m pressing the right button and nothing is happening,” Momeni said. “That must be the end.”