New campus art exhibition tackles human rights, justice, and privilege through the prism of outer space

Megan Lam, who studies architecture design, installs the new Gallery 360 exhibition, “Infinitude” in the Curry Student Center. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Upon entering Gallery 360’s new exhibition, Infinitude, visitors’ eyes fall immediately on vintage footage from the 1990s of a smiling Jeff Bezos waxing poetic about the internet. The video then jumps to a scene of Afghans in a life-or-death moment fleeing their country by hanging on to the side of a U.S. Air Force plane.

The tension between the two images serves as an artistic take on the forces of capitalism colliding with the stark inequalities, environmental harm, and sociopolitical injustice that play out in society, explains Northeastern’s consulting curator, Amy Halliday.

Students install the 'Infinitude' exhibition at Gallery 360. Artwork includes, at left, Sofia Karim's Lita’s House – Gallows. The campus art display tackles human rights, justice, and privilege through the prism of outer space. Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

That work, Amnesia Express, by American digital artist Josh Begley, includes footage of U.S. soul and jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron reciting his poem, Whitey on the Moon, tracing earthly inequality at the time of the 1969 Apollo moon landings, to today.

The result of that commentary, along with five other artists’ works, comprise Infinitude―a term coined by 19th century U.S. author Ralph Waldo Emerson to describe the limitless potential of the self-reliant individual.

“The ‘private man’ was someone who was able to stand apart from society and not be subject to its laws and expectations,” says Halliday.

“But that’s taken to an absolute extreme with our examples of contemporary techno-kings like Elon Musk and Bezos,” she says, referring to the respective tech billionaires behind SpaceX and Amazon.

The Bezos video plays in a constant loop over a flat panel television. It includes clips of a rocket launch by his Blue Origin space tourism company. A seat on the first flight in July was auctioned off for $28 million.

As the wealthy compete against one another in a modern-day space race for well-heeled private passengers―and stoke visions of settling Mars―Infinitude raises questions of class, colonialism, entitlement, and individualism, Halliday says.

The idea for the exhibition sprang from an existing transatlantic collaboration between Northeastern law professor Patricia Williams and the founders of Visible Justice, a research collective based at University of the Arts in London.

Visible Justice is a gathering place for artists, activists, journalists, and others “working at the intersection of visual culture and social justice” to discuss topics of inclusivity and giving voice to the marginalized, according to the group’s website.

Infinitude “grew out of a shared long-term interest in the interface of law, new media, and public policy,” says Williams, whose research delves into individual autonomy and identity in the context of legal and ethical debates on science and technology (think biases in algorithms).

Williams and Halliday, working with Northeastern’s interdisciplinary research hub Center for the Arts, ran a joint colloquium on a range of topics such as policing and racial justice with Visible Justice founders Max Houghton and David Birkin at the start of the pandemic. Houghton teaches photojournalism and documentary photography at the London College of Communication, and her students were engaging in discussions similar to the ones raised at the colloquium.

“The topics and concerns ranged widely from police brutality, to redlining, to dog-whistle language,” say Houghton and Birkin in quotes provided by Visible Justice. “All the questions circled the question of freedom, and to whom it is afforded.”

Infinitude runs through Jan. 22, 2022 on the first floor of the Curry Student Center. The featured artists―Larry Achiampong, Mónica Alcázar-Duarte, Chitra Ganesh, Sofia Karim, Katie Paterson, and Begley―are U.S.- and U.K.-based. Some of them are debuting new work created especially for the Northeastern show.

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