Percepticon: Shattering the Status Quo

Student poses with TV monitor in exhibit

“I love how interactive the project is,” says Nadia Malaya '22, who designed sets for the installation. “The viewers will co-construct the exhibit with us as they contribute to the space, cooperate with each other, and engage with the objects displayed.”

Since perception is a mostly subconscious process, says Nadia Malaya ’22, of Moscow, Russia, “it’s important to be more aware of what affects it, and to therefore have a greater understanding how we perceive the world around us.”

Enter Percepticon, an interactive, three-room installation created by students and faculty from the departments of film & media and theater that runs this weekend (Oct. 26-28) in Beardsley Hall. Think museum meets escape room—a chance to explore and engage a patchwork of audiovisuals designed to rattle your perspective and shatter the status quo.

The creative team took care to offer “an unsettling immersive experience,” says Amy Kim ’19, an Honors English literature major and film & media studies minor from San Diego, Calif.

“You will be subjected to the rooms and relinquish more control than you might be accustomed to,” adds Sunka Simon, professor of German and film & media studies. But don’t mistake this for a cheap scare.

“We want it to be something people embrace and see as a productive challenge,” says Simon. “Not just a brain spin but something they will really have to troubleshoot and think about.”

Supported by a Mellon Diversity grant and the Office of the President, the exhibit invites groups of up to five College community members to spend 20 minutes absorbing each of the inter-connected rooms. There’s an array of eye-grabbing material, including TVs with captivating footage, but it’s not just a visual exercise, says Laila Swanson, assistant professor of theater.

“There are things to touch, to make,” she says. “In one room, groups will conceive of a narrative together.”

The exhibit traces back to a workshop that Simon and Swanson; Logan Tiberi-Warner ’11, former administrative assistant for film & media studies; and Bob Rehak, associate professor of film & media studies, held last fall that focused on genre and mise-en-scène. It connected not just film & media studies with theater but “the analytical and hypercritical with the hands-on application that can often be lacking,” says Simon.

“We realized that the students melded together really nicely and had a common language,” adds Swanson.

To that framework they added the theme of perception and notions of gender, race, class, and cross-cultural thinking. (Simon and Swanson hail from Germany and Norway, respectively, and the four participating students are bilingual.)

“We hope each installation will push participants to question and interrogate unconscious biases about race, gender, and sexuality,” says Kim, who helped design the “Lost in Translation” room, “as well as explore the tensions caused in the mis-translation of cross-cultural identities.”

Another room explores propaganda and surveillance, and challenges people to think about what they share, and to whom, says Kevin Medansky ’19, a French and francophone studies major at Haverford College and film & media studies minor at Swarthmore.

Student tapes poster to wall“We hope each installation will push participants to question and interrogate unconscious biases about race, gender, and sexuality,” says Amy Kim '19

“To be brutally honest with someone about your life and what you care about, should you be behind a faceless computer screen or simply prompted to talk by someone who validates your experience and asks follow-up questions?” asks Medansky. “Or does your opinion even matter, if your phone knows you better than you do? We hope to offer a space in which [community members] can engage with these questions and more as they ruminate on influence, intimacy, and privacy.”

The room will also illuminate the pervasiveness of propaganda. 

“What we’re really trying to ask is how much are we okay with as people? As individuals?” adds Mikail Ahmed ’22, of Alpharetta, Ga. “We want to make people aware of the forces pushing and pulling on them, so they can think it through logically. And maybe to show people how they can change it into a force for good.”

The third room, loosely based on The Blair Witch Project, examines the human instinct to build narratives, and how the stories we tell ourselves bend our worldview.

“I love how interactive the project is,” says Malaya, who designed sets for the installation. “The viewers will co-construct the exhibit with us as they contribute to the space, cooperate with each other, and engage with the objects displayed.”

The creative team shared a DIY ethos from conception to premiere. In the weeks leading up to the exhibit, Simon says the faculty became “experts at filching” equipment and props from their homes and all across campus; among the finds was bent diploma stock on which participants will craft propaganda. In the final hours, they hurried the furniture and televisions to Beardsley on dollies.

But the faculty’s primary role was learning-based. Swanson worked closely with Malaya on set design and Simon with film & media studies-focused students “to apply what they were learning and see the impact of the applications on their medium,” says Simon.

And though the students received independent study credit, it was a highly collaborative project. They threaded their individual strands into a compelling whole, says Swanson.

“The ideas they came up with and the ways they were able to implement them blew my mind.”

Percepticon runs in Beardsley Hall (enter by the Science Center side) today from 3 to 9 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Sunday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

To learn more about how Swarthmore is investing in its vibrant intellectual culture, visit lifechanging.swarthmore.edu.