December 02, 2007

The Undergrads

A Fun Little Essay I Wrote (It's long, no need to read it all, just enjoy the picture):

PROMPT; Use any technological method/apparatus to create a visual image in the style of one of the art movements discussed in Britt [our textbook]. Write a 6-8 page essay on what you were trying to do and on the process by which you did it (and how you discovered/developed the process).



In 1533 Hans Holbein the Younger painted “The Ambassadors.” The painting depicts two ambassadors: one to England and one to the Emperor. Between them are two shelves, an upper and a lower, filled with instruments and books. The floor is a symmetric tile mosaic, brown with two white circles to each side of the shelves. The ambassadors stand on each of the white circles, framing the shelves and drawing the viewers’ eye to the contents. The ambassadors themselves are dressed quite differently. The ambassador on the left, England’s ambassador, is wearing an extravagant, full-bodied satin coat with fur trim. The ambassador on the right, the ambassador to the Emperor, is wearing a conservative robe with very few frills. Both ambassadors wear hats and lean casually against the shelves, casting stoic looks at the viewer. On the shelves the instruments include a celestial globe, a sundial, a lute, and more. The books contain arithmetic and hymns. The items on the top shelf rest on an oriental rug and in the background hangs a pleated, forest green drapery. In the middle of the painting and smeared to the lower left is an anamorphic skull that can only be rendered when viewed from the lower left of the painting. (UK National Gallery)

The painting and the scene depicted in it are decidedly not modern, nor were they intended to be. For my project I wanted to put a modern twist on a classical painting. What would “The Ambassadors” look like today? What would “The Ambassadors” look like if it were set in a place like MIT? Would the ambassadors be dressed the same? What would be on their shelves? What would be in the background, what would be on the ground? We can’t even assume that the men would be ambassadors. Would it even be a painting? What about the anamorphic skull? I’ve answered all of these questions with my modern reproduction of “The Ambassadors,” entitled “The Undergrads.”

In 2007 Mason Tang photographed “The Undergrads.” The picture depicts two undergrads: one a senior and one a freshman. Between them are two shelves, an upper and a lower, filled with gadgets and books. The floor is covered in cheap carpeting and is littered in a half-hazard manner with rulers and magazines. The undergrads stand on either side of the shelves and draw the viewers’ eye to the items on the shelves. The undergrads themselves are dressed quite differently. The undergrad on the left, the senior, is wearing a suave, flashy, and very stylish suit with purple iridescent tie. The undergrad on the right, the freshman, is wearing a t-shirt, khaki pants, and a leather jacket. Only the freshman wears a hat but both lean casually against the shelves, casting stoic looks at the viewer. On the shelves the gadgets include laptops, an iPhone, an electric guitar, and more. The books include Ender’s Game and How to Get Around MIT. The items on the top shelf rest on a binary Welcome mat and in the background is a mural depicting the Union Jack. In the middle of the photograph and smeared to the lower left is an anamorphic depiction of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Terminator” that can only be rendered when viewed from the lower left of the painting.

What used to be an old, classical painting has been transformed into an example of hyper-realism that, instead of painted to look like a photograph, is in itself a photograph that has been “painted” to look less like so. Through judicious use of Photoshop and other visual tools, “The Undergrads” is the modern, MIT reproduction of “The Ambassadors,” created with and focusing on technology. The differences between the works is now clear, but the meaning is not. Why is “The Undergrads” the way it is? In which aspects can it be compared to “The Ambassadors” and in which does it diverge?

“The Undergrads” depicts two undergraduate students at MIT, one a senior and one a freshman. It was important to me to still have two men in my rendition of “The Ambassadors.” I kept the four year age difference between the original ambassadors by including a freshman and a senior, but I modernized “The Undergrads” by including a minority. When “The Ambassadors” was created, minorities were less prominent but at MIT minorities are everywhere and need to be included. Obviously the outfits in “The Ambassadors” needed to be updated. I made sure that the man on the left was dressed significantly nicer than the man on the right in street clothes. This represents the two different states possible for undergraduate students. Normally, as depicted by the undergrad on the right, students dress casually, comfortably, and in such a manner that they don’t get laughed at. Note the backwards baseball hat, a clothing item only appropriate when dressing casually. The hat is absent from the undergrad on the left. When not constantly working or writing essays, MIT undergraduates are usually applying for some type of job, bringing about the second possible state for undergraduate attire. Hats are no longer appropriate for formal attire so the senior undergraduate lacks one. His tie and suit are the modern day version of the satin and fur-trimmed outfit worn by the ambassador on the left. The stoic looks are carried through to the modern representation because rarely are MIT students, either those dressed for a job interview or those dressed for essay-writing, happy and smiling.

Under the two undergraduates is a cheaply carpeted and untidy floor. Unlike the time period of “The Ambassadors,” mosaic tiled floors are very uncommon, especially in areas frequented by undergraduates at MIT. Instead, short dirty carpet is the norm, providing a cheap and low maintenance ground-covering that is easily replaced upon certain destruction. Symbolic of the disregard typical of the average undergrad, garbage and magazines litter the ground. Unlike an intricate mosaic pattern that contains symmetry, the monochromatic carpet featured in “The Undergrads” is unable to accommodate any symmetrical distribution of the characters above it, instead providing blandness for the bottom portion of the picture. MIT undergraduates simply don’t care about the carpet. The green drapery from the original painting is replaced with a wall-mural of the Union Jack in the reproduction. Draperies are beyond uncommon at MIT, characteristically replaced by wall murals painted by undergraduates. The amount of work that goes into creating a giant wall-mural is proportionately similar to the time that would have gone into creating a large green drapery, especially when you account for how little time undergraduates have to create such works of art. The Union Jack represents one of the many different identities MIT undergraduates choose for themselves. Groups of undergraduates all have different ways of life and ideals which are often displayed in the form of a mural on a wall in a prominent area. An interesting comparison can be made between the floor and the backdrop of “The Ambassadors” and “The Undergrads.” In “The Ambassadors” the floor was intricate and the backdrop was plain. In “The Undergrads” the floor was plain and the backdrop was intricate. This shift is indicative of the shift in priorities that occurred somewhere in the last 474 years. Whereas we now care about what we see at eye-level and don’t care about the floor, in 1533 the ground was more important and fixtures at eye-level were less so.

An overabundance of technological gadgets litter the two shelves in the modern recreation of “The Undergrads.” In “The Ambassadors” there were several staples in the items featured: tools, books, instruments, and a rug. “The Undergrads” includes modern objects in each of those four main categories. Tools featured in “The Undergrads” include a laptop with webcam, a camera with tripod, a stapler, Nalgene bottle, Bawls soda, iPhone, Rubik’s cube, power drill, Nintendo Wii and controller, OLPC, and Slinky. Specific substitutions of original gadgets from “The Ambassadors” includes the laptop, capable of running Google Earth, replacing the globe and the camera replacing the telescope. New additions include the red Swingline stapler. Essential to every undergrad, a stapler makes sure a TA doesn’t end up with just one page of your PSET or essay. The Nalgene water bottle is crucial for hydration and due to wonderful technological breakthroughs, is nearly indestructible. It’s perfect for those days spent studying for hours in the library or repelling off the great dome at three in the morning. It is, of course, branded with an MIT sticker to make sure it never loses sight of its roots. The most caffeinated beverage known to man, the Bawls soda, is another crucial element of undergraduate life. At 11 o’clock, when it’s time to start your homework and you’re exhausted, nothing keeps you going like a Bawls soda. iPhones are a recent addition to the undergraduates of today, but an important one. E-mail, telephone, internet, and music are now all wrapped into one expensive package, giving the lucky undergrad in possession of such a tool the ability to completely disappear from the world around them and enter a state of tranquility and seclusion. Whenever an undergrad is placed into a position of awkward first meetings it’s important to have some type of ability or neat talent to break the ice and catalyze conversation. The undergrad’s weapon of choice is, in most cases, the Rubik’s cube. A sub-minute solve is enough to excite conversation from even the dullest groups. Any engineer is going to need to build amazing creations to bedazzle the world with and such creations would be impossible without a power drill. When not writing essays and building, the Nintendo Wii and its amazing controller provide hours of distraction for MIT undergraduates. Super Mario Galaxy, Super Smash Brothers Melee, Guitar Hero, Worms 3D, and Resident Evil are staples and melt away the hurt from a failed exam. An object of much consternation that is very much relevant to many undergraduates is the OLPC. What at first appears to be a cute, lime green computing machine quickly turns into a frustrating and maddening attempt to paste code and recover files. MIT has dozens of staircases scattered throughout campus, all begging for a Slinky to walk down them. Using just the tools on the shelves, the undergrads are able to create a website devoted to cataloguing a Slinky travelling down every single staircase in campus.

Books play a crucial role in any undergraduate’s rise through MIT, but not necessarily the books that may first come to mind. Instead of textbooks or workbooks most MIT undergrads can be seen reading Science Fiction like Ender’s Game, the book open on the lower shelf. How to Get Around MIT is another staple to the undergraduate’s bookshelf. Detailing all the ins and outs that the tours never divulge, the GAMIT keeps undergrads privy to all the “unwritten” rules of MIT. How to Get Around MIT can be seen on the bottom shelf right under the open copy of Ender’s Game.

Replacing the Lute from the original painting is an electric guitar and a clarinet in “The Undergrads.” Most people have never heard of a Lute but all modern college undergrads know about Queen, Dragonforce, and Jimi Hendrix, all rocking the electric guitar. Without the electric guitar there would be limited impromptu jam sessions and limited forms of musical expression. The same applies to the clarinet on the top shelf. A more classical instrument than the electric guitar, it still allows undergrads a chance to unwind and be expressive. Both the electric guitar and the clarinet conserve the importance of music from the original painting but add enough modernism to convince the viewer, without a doubt, that they are looking at a modern painting.

“The Ambassadors” features an oriental rug, giving all of the items on the top shelf a place to rest. Unfortunately, oriental rugs aren’t nearly as prominent in modern times as they were when “The Ambassadors” was painted. Instead, door mats and plain rugs tend to cover the grounds of MIT. The now-obvious solution to modernizing the oriental rug is a binary welcome mat. No intricate patterns cover the rug, just simple ones and zeroes that spell “Welcome” in binary. Although the concept of binary, a base two counting system, was probably around in 1533, it was nowhere near as popular or widespread as today. 1533’s oriental is MIT’s binary and the welcome mat reflects that.

The final element of “The Ambassadors” that I wanted to modernize is the anamorphic skull smeared across the bottom of the painting, a skull that can only be viewed from the lower left of the painting. Nobody knows the real reason Holbein painted the skull so prominently into “The Ambassadors,” but many theories exist. One theory is that it represents mortality and death. Another is that he anticipated his painting being hung in stairwells and wanted people walking up to see the skull. (Kren) Whatever Holbein’s motivation for including the skull, it’s one of the painting’s most famous features and needed reproduction in “The Undergrads.” Skulls are not nearly as fashionable today as they were 474 years ago so a new anamorphic image was needed. A robot skull fits nicely with the technological advances currently being made at MIT and science fiction is a staple at the Institvte, so “The Terminator” was the logical place to turn for a robot skull. As in the original painting, the robot skull can only be viewed in a completely rendered form unless viewed from the lower left of the photograph.

Holbein’s “The Ambassadors,” although itself quite un-modern, has been modernized using technology to create “The Undergrads,” a look at undergraduate life at MIT. Careful thought went into recreating the many aspects of the original work and updating them so as to fit the modern atmosphere of the premier technology institute of the country. Everything from the outfits worn by the two characters, the flooring, the backdrop, the items on the shelves, the rug, and the skull were overhauled to create a display that, while resembling the original painting, accurately depicts MIT life. Although the tools and outfits have changed, the ease in replacing the elements from “The Ambassadors” with those of “The Undergrads” reflects that although the specific nature technology has changed, the general nature has remained the same over 474 years. Maps are just as important today as they were centuries ago. Rugs, instruments, and wall-coverings are still used today for the same reasons they were back in Holbein’s time. The details differ, but the necessities of a comfortable life are fundamentally the same now as they were many years ago.


sammaurer said...

man Snivs, Gabe looks pimp. as always.

Anonymous said...

wats the shiny thing at ur feet?i guess it's mentioned in the essay..but too lazy...

Travis said...

Liked the essay...what prompted you to include in the pic the things you did?

Snively said...


I included what I did because all of those things are electronic gizmos and neat gadgets that

a) I have with me here
b) I like
c) Fit on the shelf

katekalb said...

Your essay was very creative. Of course, I love the modern take on the painting as well. :)

I'm curious -- did this essay have a prompt or have to fit within certain parameters? If so, what were they?

Michael said...



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