Performance art surveys students about their opinions of the workload at CMU

Credit: Jessa Westheimer Credit: Jessa Westheimer

On Friday, Oct. 5, students exited class to find a strange sight on The Cut: a group of figures, cloaked in white hazmat suits, standing across from The Fence. As students drew closer they could see blue paint splattered over each of the figures. There were five of them, and they were not sculptures but people, students who the viewers might recognize. They were standing motionless with their eyes closed and hands at their side. Suddenly, it became clear to onlookers: this is performance art.

It was a human Likert scale. A large sign stood adjacent to the performances, held up by two large paint cans, and instructed viewers to apply paint to the person who best represents their stance on the following statement: “Carnegie Mellon creates a manageable workload for its students.” In front of each performer lay a sign, a can of blue paint, and a few brushes. In all caps, the signs read Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, and Strongly Disagree.

A blue frown emoticon was painted across the performer for Disagree. Blue hearts were painted on the chests of the performers for both Strongly Agree and Strongly Disagree.
As classes got out at 11:50 a.m. a mass of students flooded The Cut, and many walked over to see what was going on. A crowd formed. Many students understood this as a criticism of Carnegie Mellon’s rigor, and the lack of discourse surrounding it. Others did not think it addressed Carnegie Mellon’s workload well. Some weren't sure it was art, and many walked right on by.

Quan Wyndeer, a sophomore acting major, was surprised to see that anyone had painted on the section for Strongly Agree. “I think that a lot of people struggle with workload but don't really know how to bring it up…” Matthew Kirshner, also a sophomore acting major, chimed in, “and they feel a responsibility to just shut up and deal with it.” Wyndeer continued, “if you say something about it, you might be perceived as weak.”

Jessa Westheimer, the artist, calls the artwork “Human Likert: A Manageable Workload.” She explained that in the preceding week she was working constantly and hadn’t slept more than two hours a night, “and I wasn't even the busiest person I know.” Through this performance, she sought to “just make it very obvious what everyone was thinking,” and show students that they are not alone in struggling with the workload here.

A group of three students stood near the Agree performer, discussing the work’s flaws as a data visualization. “There’s no set amount of paint that people can use, [so] you can't really tell how many people painted on each person,” Yael Canoan, a first-year architecture student, commented. Perry Nasech, a first year in the school of art, also mentioned that people probably weren't concerned with how much paint they were applying.

“Human Likert: A Manageable Workload” successfully captured the attention of many students, despite some of their criticisms. Emily Schneider, a sophomore biochem major, said “I came out of Doherty and immediately saw this and was like ‘What's going on, I need to investigate.’” She thought the work was interesting and found the message clear. Yugyeong Lee, a senior architecture student, said that “it made me want to participate because it's different from other surveys they do at school.”

After around 45 minutes, the performers took a short break, opening their eyes and chatting with one another. For the first session, they had been instructed to “Stand here, eyes closed, no talking, no moving.” For the second session they could be more relaxed, and stood with their eyes open, occasionally talking to the viewers. One of the performers, Kendra Adegbesan, a sophomore neurobiology major, said that she liked overhearing discussions: “I feel like when our eyes were closed they didn't think we were people, so they would talk very openly, saying ‘YEAH I REALLY DISAGREE I HATE THIS SCHOOL!’” She continued, “I've had a lot of people paint aggressively on me today.”

Ashley Burbano, the performer for Agree, criticized how students often complain about the workload without addressing it. “I feel like on college campuses you have to be sort of self-advocating to get what you want, or else nothing will change.”

Not all, however, felt that the performance had to be used solely to solumnly contemplate the workload at Carnegie Mellon. Jin Lee, a senior statistics major, was excited by the opportunity to paint all over his friend, even though she represented the opinion he disagreed with. Jin exuberantly picked up a brush and painted a blue arrow over the forehead of the actor for Strongly Agree, referencing Aang from Avatar the Last Airbender. As Lee said, “I figured that since everyone else has been drawn on more, it's fine, figuratively speaking.”