Guillermo Bernal SMArchS '14 and Erin Genia SMVisS '19 receive 2019 Schnitzer Prize in the Visual Arts

Note: this article is condensed and reposted from Arts@MIT. See original article here.

Guillermo Bernal SMArchS '14 and Erin Genia SMVisS '19 received the Arts at MIT 2019 Schnitzer Prize in the Visual Arts.

Established in 1996, the Harold and Arlene Schnitzer Prize is awarded each year to current MIT undergraduate and graduate students for excellence in a body of work. Students submit their artistic portfolios for consideration. The first place winner receives $5,000, second place $3,000, third place $2,000, and honorable mention $1,000. Their work is presented in an exhibition in the Wiesner Student Art Gallery in June.

The 2019 Schnitzer Prize winners attest to the broad range of visual artistic expression that thrives at MIT. Awardees work in virtual reality, art and cultural education, indigenous art, and painting.  

Guillermo Bernal believes virtual reality should be more expressive. “If you go to any state-of-the-art virtual reality platform, you’ll see avatars with faces that are static masks,” says Bernal, a PhD student in the Fluid Interfaces Group at the Media Lab. “I’d like to give them facial expressions, to show whether they are happy or surprised or even angry.” Bernal’s solution, and the project that earned him top honors in the 2019 Schnitzer Prize, is “Emotional Beast,” a virtual reality headset that monitors the user’s emotional state, and transmits it to the skin of their virtual avatar. Using a head-mounted display, Bernal’s system captures facial movements, heart rate, electrodermal activity, brain signals, and respiration, which are then transformed into emotive expressions in the avatar.

“My goal is to pull avatar design away from the so-called “uncanny valley” and make the avatars more relatable,” says Bernal. “Watching avatars wearing expressions similar to ours can help us become more empathetic.”

Erin Genia’s work explores the confluence of indigenous culture, sound, and memory. A veteran indigenous artist, Genia is a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate tribe, part of the Sioux nation based in South Dakota. She introduced sound into her work during her two years at the Program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT.)  “I was looking for a new way to express indigenous concepts and philosophy. I was drawn to sound because it is non-linear, which is often the way we tell our story,” says Genia.

Her work titled “Acoustic Tipi” features a seven-foot mahogany tipi decorated with indigenous images and equipped with four cow-hide drums. The piece was featured at last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, and will remain on display at this summer’s Venice Biennale. Genia has also produced “Sound Vessels,” an installation of clay vessels that transmit a variety of sounds, including a heartbeat, boiling liquid mud, and Dakota phrases, via a multi-channel amplifier.

“Being at MIT exposed me to so many technologies I hadn’t had access to,” says the artist, who hopes to create a gallery space for indigenous art after she graduates.