Date March 7, 2024
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To infinity and beyond, then back to Brown: Design challenge repurposes 1960s moon footage

Hosted by Brown’s Multimedia Labs, the Moon Design Challenge encouraged community members to transform vintage NASA materials into out-of-this world art projects.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Rhode Island is a small world, after all.

Leo Selvaggio serendipitously experienced that when he found himself at the Creative Reuse Center of Rhode Island last year, searching for sustainable materials to add to the inventory for Brown’s Multimedia Labs, which he helps run as a senior specialist in creative technologies for the Brown Arts Institute.

Instead of beelining for the scrap fabric he originally went there to purchase, Selvaggio and his colleague Kelly Egan, assistant director of creative technologies, found their eyes wandering toward a stack of massive transparency prints and canisters of film featuring images of moon craters from a NASA lunar mission in the late 1960s.

After perusing the material, the two agreed it was too cool to pass up — they’d both purchase some for their own use. “And then, on a whim, I was like, ‘Should we buy some for the Multimedia Labs?’” Selvaggio said.

canister of film
The canisters of film used in the challenge were originally part of a repository of NASA materials housed at Brown. Photo courtesy of Leo Selvaggio.
That idea and subsequent purchase inspired the creation of the Moon Design Challenge, which encouraged Brown community members to incorporate the film into any kind of creative work and share their creations back with the team.

It was only after announcing the challenge that Selvaggio learned that the images were, for years, part of the Brown/NASA Northeast Planetary Data Center, a repository of NASA materials and resources housed in Brown’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences; the department had only recently donated the materials to the Creative Reuse Center, and now they were back at Brown, being used in a completely different way.

After setting up a pickup station at the Multimedia Labs, which are located in Brown’s Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, the materials were gone within days. Selvaggio and Egan returned to the Creative Reuse Center, where they purchased the rest of the materials and restocked the station. That batch didn’t last long, either.

It was a full-circle moment that bolstered Selvaggio’s conviction that students, staff and faculty on College Hill embrace curiosity and collaboration.

“Our goal is to try to engage the creative mind of our community here at Brown,” he said. “We want to encourage people to get together, make with each other, think disruptively and hopefully share things back with each other.”

Chilsea Wang, a senior concentrating in public health, works at the Multimedia Labs as a 3D printing creative technical assistant. Wang said she’s been a regular in the space since 2021, using it as a creative launchpad to help reflect upon and synthesize her coursework and extracurriculars.

When she learned about the challenge, she was instantly inspired by the myriad and mysterious thematic elements of the moon.

Using the film in lieu of traditional paper, Wang modeled and 3D-printed an East Asian square paper lantern frame. A battery-powered tea light flickers through the lantern, in the same way that the moon reflects the sun, and paper adorned with poetry and song lyrics in English, Spanish, French, Chinese and Korean spirals around the lantern.

“The moon bears witness to our most interior emotional and physical longings, including the ones we dare not speak except when shielded by the night,” Wang wrote in an artist statement that accompanied the piece. “Though the moon waxes and wanes, it is ever-present, like the liquidity of our tenacity in the face of change.”

collage featuring wrappers and moon film
Janet Isserlis, assistant director of the Curricular Resource Center, created two different artworks using the moon film, including this collage featuring clementine peels and Red Bird mint wrappers. Photo courtesy of Janet Isserlis. 

When Assistant Director of Brown’s Curricular Resource Center Janet Isserlis saw a campus announcement highlighting the challenge, her curiosity was immediately piqued.

She had no idea what moon film looked like, but she was eager to know. Plus, she said, it was a good opportunity to achieve a personal goal: since 2019, Isserlis has aimed to make a “daily drawing, collage, something, anything,” she said. “ … That doesn’t happen as much as I’d wanted it to, so an external prompt was helpful in getting me to make something.”

Isserlis combined some of her previous artworks — one of which she made over 30 years ago — with the old moon materials into two collages, creating something entirely new.

Though the materials have run out, Selvaggio said the challenge was indicative of the type of programming his team would like to continue offering. As the lab looks to broaden collaboration with the Brown Arts Institute, Selvaggio hopes that more students, faculty and staff will use its creative technologies — which aid in everything from video production and podcasting to 3D printing and virtual reality —  to pursue their interests.

“We’re one of the many resources available at Brown that people often don’t know about,” he said. “I’ve met so many people that finally hear about our space, and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I never knew about this — I would have been here every day.’”