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The art of unexpectedness

Before his show at Gammage, Sanford Biggers schools some ASU art students.
Sanford Biggers: An artist who understands how to embrace the unexpected.
November 19, 2015

While visiting ASU, Sanford Biggers explains how to embrace unplanned creativity — and unintended reaction

Interdisciplinary artist Sanford Biggers is a hard guy to pin down for an answer.

It’s not because the New York artist, pictured above right, is evasive or shy; he just wants his work to have multiple meanings and outcomes.

Take, for example, the teaser he provided for “Moon Medicine,” his upcoming show at ASU Gammage:

“We’re an all-black boy band but it’s not all black men and the entire band might not necessarily show up,” Biggers said with a straight face and a slight glint in his eye. “There’s a lot of room for improvisation. I don’t even know what it will be like.”

Others have described "Moon Medicine" as a music and optical experiment that weaves funk, film noir, punk, sci-fi, traditional Samoan dance and Buddhism with original video content and improvised “turntableism Turntableism is using a record turntable as an instrument.” and “VeejayingA Veejay is a video tracker and editing tool that can also be a real-time video sequencer or effects generator..”

That’s a mouthful, but Biggers wouldn’t have it any other way.

“When I started to construct my creative language, I used to think that art was about delivering a specific message to a viewer. But one critique early in my career changed the way I viewed my work,” said Biggers, who is an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Visual Arts program and is in Tempe as part of a 10-day residency sponsored by ASU Gammage and the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

“There were people from Haiti, China, Mississippi and they all saw my work differently. I recall using some boat imagery and one person saw it as slavery while another person saw it as freedom. I then realized that maybe it wasn’t a bad thing if you unveil your art and ascribe different meanings from personal experiences.”

Biggers’ work and installations have been celebrated through exhibitions both nationally and internationally, including the Tate Modern in London; the Whitney Museum in Harlem, New York; the Yerba Blue Center for the Arts in San Francisco; and institutions in China, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Poland and Russia.

Woman vamping on stage.

ASU intermedia graduate student
Veronica Aponte stands center stage
during her class performance and
likens toys to audience members.

Photos by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

He said he intentionally complicates issues such as politics, religion, identity, race and art history to offer new perspectives to established symbols. This past Monday Biggers offered his perspective — as well as a critique — to an intermedia class taught by Angela Ellsworth in ASU's School of ArtThe School of Art is part of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts..

The class presented a 10-minute interactive piece called, “Omni Optic,” which touched on themes of surveillance, technology and privacy. Part of the presentation included setting up Biggers by recording a brief presentation he gave of his work, and playing it back minutes later on a large screen.

Biggers acted neither surprised nor outraged by the intrusion, but embraced the concept. In fact, he liked it so much that he invited the class to participate in his Saturday performance.

“What you just saw right now shows there’s room for improvisation in any performance, even on the fly,” Biggers said. “My boy band just got bigger.”

“Moon Medicine” starts at 7 p.m. Saturday at ASU Gammage in Tempe. Tickets are $20, $15 for ASU faculty and staff and $10 for students and members of the military.

For more information visit ASU Gammage.

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Three ASU faculty members appointed Regents' Professors

Petra Fromme, Billie Lee Turner, Rob Page named Regents' Professors on Friday.
November 20, 2015

ABOR votes to confirm Page, Fromme and Turner to prestigious post

Three Arizona State University faculty have been named Regents’ Professors: Petra Fromme, Robert Page and Billie Lee Turner II.

The three were nominated by ASU President Michael Crow and were approved by the Arizona Board of Regents on Friday.

Regents’ Professor is the highest faculty honor and goes to full professors from one of the three Arizona public universities whose exceptional achievements have brought them national or international distinction. With the most recent vote, ASU has a total of 83 Regents’ Professors.

The three newest honorees all came to ASU within the past 15 years, drawn by the university’s commitment to innovation.

Page, an expert in honeybees, had been at Ohio State University and University of California, Davis, before moving to ASU in 2004 as founding director of the School of Life Sciences.

“I thought, ‘Why would I want to go there?’” he said. “But I saw this can-do attitude. There was this energy of being active and being able to accomplish what you set out to do. I met Michael Crow and saw the energy he had and the vision he had for the university.

“It was an exciting thing I wanted to be part of.”

Fromme, who has pioneered the study of membrane proteins, said her colleagues were surprised when she went to ASU in 2002 from Germany, where she had two offers to become department chair of biophysics.
“I turned them down to come to ASU and they could not understand it, why I would want to go to the middle of the desert,” she said. “I was attracted to ASU because of the unique, innovative and interdisciplinary research environment, which let my research thrive beyond what would have ever been possible at any other university in Germany or the U.S.”

Turner, who studies how humans affect the environment, came to ASU in 2008 from Clark University in Massachusetts, attracted by that same innovative spirit.

“What was attractive to me was the scale it was undertaken, which transcended the modest scale of geography and became truly transdisciplinary in orientation,” Turner said.

“I’ve enjoyed every moment I’ve been at ASU. It’s been a great intellectual enlightenment.”

Here is more on the three honorees.

Petra Fromme

Petra Fromme

Paul V. Galvin Professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the School of Molecular Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
She is a world expert on proteins and has been a pioneer in using new technology to research their molecular structure. Her discoveries and innovative research methods, which incorporate physics and engineering, will potentially lead to new drugs to fight deadly diseases and new methods of creating clean energy.
Fromme directs the Center for Membrane Proteins in Infectious Diseases at ASU and was part of an international team of researchers who, for the first time, used X-ray Free Electron Lasers to determine the three-dimensional structure of a protein. In 2012, the journal Science cited the team's research as one of the top 10 breakthroughs of the year.
Fromme also is director of the new Center for Applied Structural Discovery at the Biodesign Institute, where 12 faculty and their students from different disciplines work together on innovative projects to understand the structure and dynamics of proteins, potentially leading to improved manmade technologies.
She has had hundreds of publications. Fromme was the senior author and leader of an international team that published a paper in the prestigious journal Nature last year about how X-ray laser technology can show images of photosynthesis as it splits water into protons, electrons and oxygen.
“Each time we work on novel ideas that have never been formulated before, other scientists say it’s impossible until we show it’s possible,” Fromme said.

Robert Page

Robert Page

Provost emeritus for the university, Foundation Chair of Life Sciences, College of Liberal Arts and Life Sciences.

He is a world expert on honeybees and has made several landmark discoveries about their complex social interactions.

Page has published hundreds of articles and in 2013 authored a book, “The Spirit of the Hive,” based on his study of bee genomics and evolution. His research identified the primary sex-determination gene, which plays a key role in honeybee behavior.

He was the founding director of ASU’s School of Life Sciences and was the vice provost and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Page is a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the German National Academy of Sciences.

“My colleagues in the School of Life Sciences are working on things where we have common interests and there are large areas of non-overlap, and those are the most important,” Page said.

“Those are the areas that allow you to move in a new direction you wouldn’t be able to go in on your own.

“I have world-class colleagues that have lifted me on both sides – administrative as well as the research.”

Billie Lee Turner

Billie Lee Turner II

The Gilbert F. White Professor of Environment and Society, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and a professor in ASU’s School of Sustainability.

Turner is a pioneer in the field of sustainability science.

He was among the first researchers to use data to better understand how humans affect the landscape. He chaired the international committee that established “land system science” as a program of study and was instrumental in founding ASU’s interdisciplinary School of Sustainability.

Turner’s research, which includes the discovery of how the ancient Maya peoples’ activities contributed to the collapse of their society, has changed the way communities and countries think about the environment and climate change. Currently he is working on the design of urban landscapes to reduce their environmental footprint while maintaining human well-being.

“This is a big university with a lot of talent in it, and to be selected from that kind of talent is quite an honor,” he said.

Coming to Arizona prompted Turner to shift his research emphasis from rural to urban areas.

“I spent most of my life working on questions of land change and the implications for the environment for people in the tropical world, focusing a lot on tropical deforestation,” he said.

“In coming here, I have switched my orientation from looking at land change in big, wild rural areas to the question of Phoenix. I’m very much paying attention to how one could redesign the landscape in the Phoenix metropolitan area so it would reduce the environmental problems.

“What can you do at the micro level? What does the shape of the different vegetation types in your yard mean for the microclimate of that parcel?  Can you add that up to the climate in the neighborhood? Can you add that up to the northeastern part of the Phoenix metropolitan area?

“I’ve always had a good sense of where the big problems are.”

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News