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When masks reveal

Students design face masks that uncover personal and collective experiences from the Covid-19 pandemic. ­­­

A Covid-19 mask is typically seen as a form of protection. But what if our masks became opportunities for exposure — the physical expression of our thoughts, preoccupations, and the way we relate to the turbulence of the outside world?

That was the challenge faced by MIT undergraduate students assigned to design a mask that reflected individual and collective experiences during the pandemic. As part of the interdisciplinary course 4.302 (Foundations in Art, Design and Spatial Practices: Design and Scarcity), run by the MIT Future Heritage Lab and the MIT Program in Art, Culture and Technology (ACT), the assignment was inspired by the global Co-MASK project initiated by the course’s professor, Azra Akšamija, a faculty member in the Department of Architecture. Whereas Co-MASK focuses on designing do-it-yourself fabric face-coverings for protection from Covid-19, the students were encouraged to envisage a mask that would serve as a physical extension of the mind and the body — a site of exchange and a way of relating to a larger community.

The personal and the planetary

The “Design and Scarcity” course introduces theoretical and practical tools for art and design in fragile environments — an expression of the ethos of ACT, which highlights the importance of artistic methods for experimental problem-solving and rigorous critical practice. Supported by the MIT Alumni Class Fund for undergraduate curriculum, this class was developed by Akšamija as the residential version of her Design & Scarcity MITx course, the first online hands-on art and design course at MIT. 

The students interpreted the idea of fragility in diverse ways. While reflecting on personal experiences of isolation during the pandemic, the process of designing the masks became a means of empathically connecting with contemporary global movements and shared traumas. In their engagement with issues such as racial discrimination, migrant exploitation, and ecological damage, the masks are manifestations of the concerns that pervade the student experience and their priorities as designers. The project addresses the fragility of environments at multiple scales; from the personal to the political to the planetary — and right down to the scale of the virus itself, which is simultaneously fighting for its own survival.

This expansive scope mirrors the aspirations of the Co-MASK project, which is intended to be borderless and multilingual. “The Co-MASK designs created by the students indicate one of the central needs that Covid-19 pandemic made evident for us all,” says Akšamija. “That we — humans and non-humans — need to come together in a new way and demonstrate solidarity with the most vulnerable in our planetary community.”

Reinterpreting shelter

The work of several of the students engages critically with the question of shelter and the protection of individuals and communities.

“American Dream,” a mask designed by Diego Yañez-Laguna, a second-year undergraduate art and design major, addresses the plight of migrants held at borders. “The goal of this mask is to show how the immigrant experience in the United States is far from the American Dream,” explains Yañez-Laguna. “That message of opportunity and welcome is represented by visual references to the Statue of Liberty — but the corruption of these ideals is shown through the use of barbed wire, which represents a history of mistreatment, scare tactics against migrants, and an obsession with borders and division.”

Caleb Amanfu, a fourth-year undergraduate double-majoring in architecture and mechanical engineering, chose to use a bandage as the primary material for his mask, “Seen” — a representation of societal repression. “This mask is trying to call to attention the feeling of being seen and not heard while calling into question the systems and societal situations that cause those experiences to persist,” says Amanfu. “This mask, like the systems themselves, is preventing the user from speaking up while simultaneously ‘suffocating’ them under the problems they are trying to speak out against.”

For Janice Tjan, a third-year undergraduate double-majoring in mechanical engineering and art and design, the project was an opportunity to give voice to the experiences of homeless children during the pandemic. “Blazon Mask” is designed to bring the inside out, providing a site for the wearer to self-advocate and display their anxieties. “The contrasting colors, rudimentary stitching, and scout-like badges contribute to a loud look and a youthful attitude,” says Tjan. “These masks are made from recycled cotton fabric (old T-shirts and bedsheets), which adds to their bricolage appearance and amplifies the creative voice of the maker.”

Mind and material

The students were tasked with investigating the social, environmental, and technological implications of specific materials — materials that also offered an outlet for psychological expression.  

Felix Li, a second-year undergraduate art and design major, titled his mask “Resonant when Struck,” evoking both the materiality of porcelain and the sound of breakage. “For as long as I can remember,” he says, “I’ve used the same set of cheap Chinese supermarket porcelain bowls and plates. These fragile but strong ceramic vessels are a monument to my heritage, my parents, my Asian identity. The shattered and scattered form reflects the collective pain and grief across the AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander] community.”

Eva Smerekanych, a second-year undergraduate architecture major, sculpted her mask, “Clean,” from polymer clay to represent how eating disorders might be exacerbated during a period of isolation. “Polymer clay is a soft, waxy medium with the unique trait of remaining malleable over long periods of time,” she says. “As such, this medium provokes a sense of uncertainty about the future. Will it crack? Will it get warped? Squished? Stretched? This uncertainty mirrors the uncertainty that triggers many to develop eating disorders.”

The guiding theme of scarcity prompted many to investigate the environmental cost of their chosen material, a point powerfully communicated by “Ocean Blues,” a mask designed by Izzi Waitz, a second-year undergraduate architecture major. Made by knitting together 10 single-use synthetic blue masks, her mask evokes the sight of plastic caught in a fishing net. “An abundance of masks, gloves, hand-sanitizer bottles, and other forms of Covid waste are pouring into our oceans and landfills,” says Waitz. “These synthetic materials, with a lifespan of 450 years, pose a large threat to marine life.”

Open futures

The students’ masks demonstrate how an artistic environment for research and learning can expand conventional approaches to design. The culture of experimentation fostered by ACT opens new ways of confronting contemporary critical issues — but it also makes space for personal expressions of fragility and vulnerability, feelings which can be the source of transformative creativity.

The project’s negotiation between the public and the private will be further amplified at the 17th International Architecture Exhibition Venice Architecture Biennale 2021, where the masks of Akšamija and her students will be on view in the “Future Assembly” collective exhibition in the Central Pavilion in the Giardini. The Future Assembly is a reflection on the past 75 years of UN multilateralism, inviting Biennale contributors to envisage new approaches to impactful collaboration, and to imagine how a future multilateralism can expand beyond the human-centric worldview to become a more-than-human assembly. 

As one of this year’s exhibitors, Akšamija invited her students to portray the Covid-19 virus as a stakeholder in the Future Assembly. Given the fact that the virus survives and mutates through human transmission, the form of the mask represents a shelter for human beings and a threat to the virus’ survival. Yet the masks designed by the students also express the instinctual needs that the pandemic has made so apparent: the necessity for strength, inspiration, and hope for the future at a time that calls for resilience and resourcefulness. By redefining the personal in terms of the collective, these masks reveal the central paradox of the pandemic: the virus that divides us has also exposed the fact of our infinite interconnection.

Story originally published on June 1, 2021 by Matilda Bathurst for MIT News.