Amid the brown landscape the unrelenting snow left in its wake, there will soon be a paradise of greenery. Since winter break, Sasha Zwiebel ’15 has been working on plans to create an immersive sensory experience for her Media Studies senior thesis project. Standing just taller than eye-level and equally wide, Zwiebel’s installment—lined wall-to-wall with artificial grass—will be finished by next Friday, April 17.
The structure will be made with wood and, from the front, will resemble a simple cube with a narrow window four feet below the top. From the side, however, Zwiebel’s plans reveal a sloped roof, with another window on the top of the slope. Pointing at the window four feet from the top, Zwiebel said, “You enter in this slit, and you’re already almost vertical, you kind of have to crawl into the space. And once you get in, you’re pretty much immediately hit with this diagonal.”
The bottom half of the structure is just the base, so once on the inside, visitors will be a few feet off the ground. “So you have to kind of, crawl up into it and then up on this diagonal, the idea is that you turn around and you look up and the whole interior is covered in grass,” Zwiebel said. In total, her project is filled with 250 square feet of artificial grass on the floor, ceiling and walls, donated by SYNLawn.
“This is about four feet high, so if you were lying down you couldn’t really reach the ceiling necessarily, but your legs you probably could,” she said about the part of the structure that the viewer is actually inside. “You could sit up in it, definitely, but you couldn’t stand up. I’m sure people will probably end up standing up through [the window in the roof], but you’re not really getting the effect of the grass if you do that.” She added, “But it might be fun.”
Zwiebel’s inspiration for this project came from fond memories of her childhood. “It’s really about that immersive experience, and it’s just about the feeling of the grass around you, and just completely being immersed in grass,” She explained. “For me it brings up different memories of lying on grass hills and feeling both kind of safe by the earth around me but also expansive looking out into the sky.”
As for the sensory experience of her project, she added that she considers herself a naturally observant person and was inspired by her parents’ interests. She said, “I’ve always been interested in material. Where my dad loves to build and my mom’s in fashion, so I’ve always been touching material.” The idea for her project, she explained, is that the artificial grass is not just a texture, it’s also visual, with the bright green grass and the sky out at eye-level.
As for what she hopes other people will experience, she said, “I’m not necessarily trying to make it a capsule of my own memory, but more a capsule of an experience of laying on the ground and looking up at the sky and feeling totally encapsulated by grass.” The project is very open to different interpretations, both physical and emotional. “I feel like it might feel a little claustrophobic in there, which it’ll be interesting to see how it will feel when its open in two weeks,” Zwiebel added.
“For me, I’m a media studies major, so I’m really interested in the nature of media and how one particular medium effects you sensorily,” Zwiebel went on to say. “In my thesis I’m studying a lot of different designs that are about this trend in design and art towards creative works that are effective and sensory that provoke different emotional resonance.”
As an example, she pointed at the upholstered chairs in the Retreat. “Instead of just designing this chair as a nice pattern—even though this is a completely ugly pattern—it looks nice and it’s cheap.” Rather, Zwiebel would hope to design something that would feel good for someone to sit on.
Though Zweibel has strong opinions about these everyday experiences, the process of creating an all-immersive structure for her thesis did not follow a clear path. When Zwiebel first came back to school after winter break, her professor rejected her first three project ideas. Slowly, she said, she began to come up with the idea that she would create some space covered in a material.
Zwiebel wanted to use the Collaboratory for her piece, but the artificial grass ended up causing a problem: It was too heavy. “So then I was really struggling with how to make a small, immersive space that’s covered with something that’s relatively cheap but still feels really textural and immersive,” she said. “So then I ended up having to build my own structure, which I think will actually be the most beautiful and successful way of doing it.”
Cost was another hurdle Zwiebel had to overcome. There were fears that the type of materials and the amount would be too expensive to be a part of her project. Her determination, however, won out in the end. “So I just spent one day, I had a class later, and I had other homework to do but I was just like, I’m going to call every single artificial grass company in the United States until I get a donation,” Zwiebel said. Of the eight companies that she called, SYNLawn was the one that ultimately donated the artificial grass that she needed.
SYNLawn is an artificial grass company that strives to have a product that promotes environmental sustainability. In an emailed statement, a SYNLawn representative wrote, that their products have an extended lifespan, reduce one’s carbon footprint, conserve water, and use renewable and recycled materials in manufacturing, making it a “green” medium in more ways than one. They went on to say, “At SYNLawn New York, we take great pride in our communities and in educating new generations about the environmental responsibility of SYNLawn as a sustainable and beautiful alternative in landscape applications. We were happy to assist Sasha Zwiebel in her design project at Vassar College. She has a very bright future.”
Zwiebel has worked on larger projects like this before both in and out of academic settings. “I was in sculpture, so I made a lot of bigger projects, and also my dad’s going to help me a lot. He’s done a lot of construction and architecture, and also growing up with him as my dad, he’s always taught me how to cut wood and made me interested in building since I was little.”
The location of her project is very specific. “The aesthetic restriction is that it’s at an angle, and I only want you to be able to see sky out of it,” Zwiebel said, referring to the window at the top of her structure. “It needs to have enough space between it and a building and trees to get that angle up and over anything. Joss Beach is going to be wide enough and long enough.” She added, “And also, it’s too close to graduation to put it on Chapel Hill lawn because they’re really particular about the grass because it would make the grass a little bit brown underneath.”
Without any difficulty with the weather, Zwiebel hopes to keep her installment up for at least a week or two. Her final thesis is due the following Friday, April 24. For the writing aspect, she is creating a taxonomy of different spaces artists, designers and architects that have designed the same sort of miniature immersive spaces as what she is trying to create. This component is also where she will go into more detail about her thought process and research for her project.
“I’ve been struggling to write the paper. It’s been a long task for me. I’ve started three different papers,” Zwiebel said. “Each one has some sort of substance, but nothing that I felt got at what I was doing, so I kind of reversed that process, and went for what images do I like, and then, what works have inspired me to create this installation, and other works that I think are something that new in a trend that I’m seeing.”
One of her main inspirations, Zwiebel mentioned, is Diller Scofidio, an architecture firm that does experimental work in New York City,
In her own experience, Zwiebel has been able to expand her exposure to different areas of design in different parts of the world. One of her advisors came out of their meeting in London during Zwiebel’s junior year abroad experience at the Vassar Media Studies Program at Goldsmiths. “I didn’t do what everyone else does. Goldsmith’s has a really good design program, so I went into their design program, and it was every day 10 to 5, classes and really intense, but really practical. It taught me a lot about design thinking and taught me that I really wanted to go into design thinking and design.”
Zwiebel added that the Media Studies major itself has been instrumental in changing her approach to looking at the world. “It’s made me think critically about every material that I’ve come in contact with all the time,” she said.
Within the major, she added, “I guess I would say my focus has been urban studies, and I have a studio art correlate. But I’ve taken mainly studio art, art history, media studies and art classes.” Her path towards finding her major, even, took her in many different directions. “I had no idea what media studies was.” Laughing, she said, “I don’t know if I do, still. I came in as studio art, but found I wanted something a little bit more theoretical. And then I went to CogSci and I was really interested in creativity and the brain. And then found I didn’t really seem to connect with a lot of people there, and was in this Media Studies class that made a lot of sense for me.”
“I just really understood a lot of the theory. And as an artist, I’ve always been real interested in materials I use, so it was really nicely informing the art that I make, and really made me think about every material that I use and every form that I create.” She added, “And it’s also just a super expansive, weird field that you can just do whatever you want in.”
Zwiebel has received guidance from Professor of Art Harry Roseman, and Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies Lisa Brawley for her media studies major.
Roseman wrote of Sasha in an emailed statement, “Sasha was in my sculpture class last term so I already had been impressed with the relationship between her ideas and her ability to follow through. I think it is very difficult to pull off a combined visual and written thesis. Often the visual aspect becomes an illustration for the ideas in the written thesis. The art becomes extracted from the art.And even if the student is trying for something they don’t wish to name as art, the work can become an explained teaching aid as opposed to something that can stand as a work on its own.”
He went on to write, “Sasha’s ideas for this project went through a number of iterations. My co-advisor, Lisa Brawley and I met with Sasha a number of times together as well as separately. As of this writing the structure has been planned but has not as yet been constructed. It is going to be a very ambitious and difficult work to build. I am optimistic that Sasha can pull this off.”
As for the piece that Zwiebel plans to build, he wrote, “I would say that this is a very well thought through project. It sits somewhere between sculpture and architecture. Remember that this is not a functional structure in the way that we think of function, as having a specific pragmatic use. Thus an answer to the second part of this question is rather elusive: ‘..Do you think that the types of work that Sasha is doing can translate well into the real world?’ She is making a concrete interactive object that will be out in a world, Vassar is in some ways, as you imply, not the ‘real’ world, but in other respects it is. I don’t mean to be disingenuous in answering this question. If we are talking about this issue in a monetary fashion or in a critical context, these are two very different questions.”
He continued, “I think Sasha’s project has conceptually evolved to the point that it will be a work that is experiential in a way that makes the viewer/participant have an experience that is visceral as well as intellectually thoughtful. If she allows the work to stand on it’s own then I think she will have reached her goal in exploring experiential design/space.” He added, “The written thesis is where she can explain her thought process and talk about her research. I am very much looking forward to this works realization—which says a lot.”
Brawley was in London with Zwiebel when she went abroad. “She’s helped me a lot with the theoretical background and forming the paper side of it. And Harry Roseman is my sculpture professor,” Zwiebel said. “So he’s been really helpful with critically looking at this piece and thinking about, is this actually a piece of art with integrity or is it just something to prove my thesis. This isn’t just to prove what you’re writing about. This is a piece of art in itself. Which I think it is now, hopefully that will be successful.”