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Volcanoes, Vampires, and More

This year, Caltech students have more options for arts-oriented classes to choose from with topics ranging from Victorian media to volcanic disasters to map making and more. The courses are part of the new Caltech-Huntington Program in Visual Culture, established last year with a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Designed to expand Caltech students' exposure to different forms of artistic media, the program also includes guest lectures, field trips, and artists-in-residence.

"We are providing our students with a really important tool kit to draw from by offering them more exposure to classes with visual elements," says Dehn Gilmore, director of the program, which is administered through Caltech's Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS), in collaboration with The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

One facet of the program involves hiring new faculty and instructors. This fall, Anne Sullivan, the Weisman Postdoctoral Instructor in Visual Culture, will teach two new undergraduate courses, Consuming Victorian Media and Volcanoes. She will also teach an astronomy-related class called Picturing the Universe in the winter term. Sullivan says that the classes are based on her own academic interests in 19th-century British literature and culture, as well as previous experiences as a writing instructor at UC Riverside.

"When I'm designing classes, I find what I am really excited about but then make it relevant to everybody," she says. "What's great about working at Caltech and close to The Huntington is that I can enrich my own work in scientific literature and culture. These will be collaborative classrooms, where students learn from each other and the instructor, and the instructor learns from the students as well."

The course on Victorian media will look at historical concerns around the consumption of media, which at that time included books, art, and other forms of live entertainment. The students will read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, in which the main character becomes obsessed with Gothic novels. "Similar to the way we are concerned with screen time now, and how we consume media, 19th-century people had concerns about media consumption, such as of Gothic novels, which were thought to be overly stimulating and too scintillating," she says. The students will also read Dracula by Bram Stoker, which includes mention of typewritten notes, telegrams, and phonograph recordings—items that, according to Sullivan, would have been considered new forms of media technology at the time.

The volcanoes class will focus on various forms of media depicting famous disasters brought on by the eruption of volcanoes, including Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, which destroyed the Italian city of Pompeii; Indonesia's Mount Tambora in 1815, one of the largest eruptions in recorded human history; and Mount Krakatoa, also in Indonesia, whose 1883 eruption changed the color of sunsets worldwide for some time afterward. Students will study "pyrodramas" of the 1880s and 1890s, big outdoor shows that dramatized the Vesuvius eruption for crowds of thousands of people. The shows involved water-pump systems to create the effects of lava, bonfires, and fireworks. The course will also include a field trip to the Getty Villa in Malibu, which is currently exhibiting Buried By Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri.

"I remember learning about these disasters as a kid and being horrified, but now I am fascinated," says Sullivan. "By examining literary and visual representations of disasters, students will engage with larger questions about how we perceive the past and how we conceptualize our relationship with nature."

Lectures, other field trips, and guest visits also make up part of the visual culture program. For example, Bill Odenkirk, a writer for the show Futurama, among other credits, will visit Assistant Professor of Philosophy Charles Sebens' class Philosophy Through Science Fiction. Other activities include neon art tours, a science fiction costuming event, and a geology illustration workshop.

In addition, two new artists-in-residence will join Caltech this year. Lia Halloran, an artist whose astronomy-themed exhibit Deep Sky Companion is now on display at Caltech's Cahill Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, will arrive in the spring; and Jessica Helfand, a graphic designer and professor at Yale University, will arrive next winter.

While HSS has offered courses in film studies and art history for many years, the visual culture program provides a framework for organizing and expanding upon these offerings. In addition to Sullivan's courses, for example, students can learn about map making and its role in the history of exploration with Professor of History Nico Wey-Gomez (in the spring) and engage in creative work in undergraduate courses taught by the artists-in-residence in the winter and spring terms. A full list of courses is online.

"We are giving students hands-on experience," says Hillary Mushkin, research professor of art and design in mechanical and civil engineering, who is teaching a class on data, algorithms, and society together with Claire Ralph, lecturer in computing and mathematical sciences. "Students can better understand how other artists work if they try out the various techniques themselves."

Written by Whitney Clavin

Whitney Clavin