Robin Mandel ’97 to Share Multimedia Art and Engage Community

From November 5 to 8, students walking through the Sci Quad between 7 and 8 p.m. will see a strange and exciting sight: projections of their peers singing displayed on the walls of Kohlberg, Beardsley, Sci Center, and Martin.

The series, entitled “Chorus,” will begin with large projections of one singer and expand to four; on November 9, it will culminate with all four singers performing an octet with their projections from 7:30-7:50 p.m.

This is the work of Robin Mandel ’97, a multimedia artist and Assistant Professor of Art at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In addition to “Chorus,” “Hold Still,” an exhibition of his recent sculpture and other work, will run from November 8 to December 15 in List Gallery. Mandel give an artist’s talk on the 8th at 4:30 p.m. in LPAC cinema, with a reception in the gallery to follow.

Mandel came back to campus a couple of years ago to give a lecture, and Andrea Packard, the curator of the List Gallery, and the Studio Art professors were greatly impressed by his art and its intellectual inquiry. They received a Cooper grant to bring Mandel to campus and fund exhibition catalogs, which will be available for free during the show.

One major piece in “Hold Still” is “Siren,” which, as Mandel writes in the catalog, “uses three spinning projectors, each playing a clip of a vocalist singing individual notes for as long as her breath can sustain.”

He continues: “As she sings, her image steadies; as her breath runs out, her image spins, and remains in motion until the next note begins. A breath is a simple physical act, but one with poetic potential as it relates to voice, speech, and song. By visually linking the breath to the legibility of the video image, Siren underscores the fragility, physicality, and necessity of that simple gesture.”

“Chorus,” in many ways an expansion of “Siren,” seems to do a similar thing. The singers will also hold notes for the length of their breath, and the spinning projections will now be greatly enlarged. For one of the singers, Maximillian Barry ’19, “Chorus” is inspiring in its innovation.

“I’m an art major, so seeing an alumnus doing art as a career was pretty encouraging,” said Barry. “It’s not like anything I’ve ever seen before; it has a very strange quality to it: spinning projections and haunting singing. There’s not very much performance art that goes on on campus, so I think that will be cool to have.”

But although Barry really enjoyed working on “Chorus,” it’s not for everybody.

“One person [Mandel] contacted wanted to [participate] but felt uncomfortable proceeding because their image will be blown up so large,” says Packard. “That’s very understandable, but it made me realize how exciting and brave the students who are participating are; they’re going into uncharted territory, and that’s part of the excitement.”

For Mandel, that bravery becomes a metaphor for intellectual engagement on a diverse campus.

“It was very important to me that this project reflect the community in which it was shown,” he wrote in an email. “I want these voices and faces to be of the community in which they are seen and heard.”

He expanded: “The whole project is modeled on the idea of intellectual discourse, and turning that into something you can hear, turning it into some kind of a song. This discourse is not always easy to hear, not always harmonious, but it is, ideally, open and free and engaged in with a spirit of generosity.  As such the sounds of the singers are sometimes discordant and sometimes harmonious, but always in the same key.”

Site test for “Chorus,” showing a video projection of a vocalist on the facade of Kohlberg Hall (courtesy of Robin Mandel)

To me, this is a beautiful idea, and I also simply love the idea of spontaneous singing on campus. Singing, I feel, is something that brings people together, and I hope “Chorus” will do that for the college community.

“Hold Still” also promises to be exciting. In addition to “Siren,” it contains many other thought-provoking works of art, among them “Entertaining Illusion,” a piece which involves projected images on a wine bottle and wine glass.

“A bottle, a wine glass, two spotlights, one pane of glass, one very long table, and two video screens comprise the setup,” writes artist Elizabeth King in the catalog. “The proposition? To make that bottle and that wine glass surprise us.”

That’s no easy feat, particularly as Mandel surprises his audience and then invites us to figure out the trick, a process that, for King, is rewarding in and of itself. I won’t tease more of the pieces here, but be on the lookout for the ordinary made strange. (This is, after all, Swarthmore — since when was anything here ever ordinary?)

“What Mandel’s is doing is a relatively new aesthetic and conceptual language and it’s a really effective one because it takes art outside of its usual box and it brings it into places where people aren’t expecting to encounter that kind of experience,” says Packard. “It breaks down barriers between people who categorize themselves as ‘Oh I don’t know anything about art.’”

And whether you’re an artist or not, check out Mandel’s work in a couple weeks, when List Gallery will become the home of wonders, and the people and buildings of Swarthmore will sing. For more info, see the List Gallery’s webpage on the exhibition:


Images courtesy of and Robin Mandel


Reuben Gelley-Newman

Reuben Gelley Newman '21 is a prospective Honors English major and is also involved in music on campus.

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