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The Ruby is a catalyst for creativity and a home for making art at Duke.

Inspiration through Installation: Making Cornered in the Ruby

Published By Robert Zimmerman
Published on: October 2, 2018

Part sculpture, part light installation and video animation. Cornered is a strikingly original work of art, realized at the Ruby and now on display through October 18.

A new video installation on view now at the Rubenstein Arts Center is the product of one of the first arts project residencies in the Ruby, and was a test of both its creator and of the new facility.

Corneredcreated by Duke faculty member Raquel Savatella de Prada, addresses the plight of West African migrants who cross the Sahara hoping to reach Europe only to get stuck in Morocco. The country of Morocco is represented by a table with intricate, geometric latticework inspired by traditional Moroccan design. Images projected from inside the table onto a dome represent the migrants trapped there.

Cornered is part of In Transit: Arts & Migration Around Europe, a multi-site art installation at Duke this fall.

Read on to follow the creative process and collaborations behind Cornered.

Origin and Inspiration

Dark shot of people poised at the top of a high fence
Migrants climb the fence into Melilla (Reuters, 2014).

The seed was planted in 2014 with this photo, or one very much like it, in the Spanish press. A visit to the M. C. Escher exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art brought the idea more into focus as a project, so that when Salvatella de Prada got an email about Africa Initiative funds in 2016, she submitted the idea and was funded. She spent the rest of 2016 reading articles, books, papers and watching documentaries and other online videos. In May, 2017, she was able to visit the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Nador to see the situation first hand.


3D rendering
Ben Yang's 3D rendering of a Moroccan-style table.

In the spring of 2017 Salvatella de Prada started making both physical and virtual models and enlisted students to help.

“Yuchen Zhao, a Master’s student in Computational Media Studies, helped me with the technical difficulties of the projection,” Salvatella de Prada says. “We worked together on making the first dome and then on making the foam board table and the projections.”

“I asked Ben Yang, a very talented student from my 3D Modeling & Animation class, if he would turn a sketch I made showing how I envisioned the table into a 3D model. He did a great job, and I played with his image in Photoshop to create other material that helped me move forward.”

Starting in Spring 2018, another student assistant, Lexi Bateman—a senior majoring in Visual Arts—helped with preparation of different screen materials for testing and with the move in and out of the Ruby residency, among other things. “She also designed the beautiful cards next to the entrance of the exhibit,” Salvatella de Prada says.

To the Ruby

Salvatella de Prada during her first Ruby residency.

Salvatella de Prada set up shop in one of the multipurpose studios of the Ruby for most of March, 2018. Her plan was to use the laser cutter in the makerspace to cut the panes for her table—but it was not yet in place.

“Now thinking about it,” she says, “it was great there were issues like not having the laser cutter, because that gave me time to actually experiment with other things I had in mind. Having the space to actually set up video and try things was incredible. I had my first mockup of the table, and then I could put all of the reference pictures on the wall. If I had to do all that in the office, I would be putting them on the floor, and on the ceiling. Having all that space was just fantastic.”

Instead of working on the table, she concentrated on two of the main elements of her video. She brought in an aquarium and took video of ink drops billowing in the water, and used a film studio upstairs to shoot video of dancers.

A frame of Salvatella de Prada's ink video, filmed in the Ruby, and used in the animation for Cornered.

Cutting the Panels

The laser cutter was wobby without its front wheels, so service was called.

Fortunately, there was an opening for Salvatella de Prada to move back into a Ruby studio at the beginning of summer—this time, with the laser cutter up and running. Her hope was to have all the panels cut by the time she left for Europe at the end of June. But it turns out that laser cutting is not a trivial process. She did tests cuts of paper and cardboard before moving to wood.

Each panel takes about three hours to cut, so when she returned to Durham in late summer, she spent many hours in the makerspace tending the machine. It wasn’t such a bad time—she enjoyed talking to other makers about her project and finding out about theirs.

Assembly and Launch

Salvatella and Titov gluing the final seam between panels
Gluing the last seam in the table with Dimitri Titov.

Dimitri Titov, who constructed the dome, joined Salvatella de Prada for an intense Labor Day weekend in the makerspace, assembling the table. Although the process was not trouble free, the panels did come together, the table stood on its feet, and it was gorgeous when lit from the inside.

It wasn’t until the week before the September 27 opening that everything was put together. There was plenty of debugging to do. The projector was too conspicuous, so a platform was made to cover it, but then it started to overheat, so ventilation holes were drilled. And of course there were computer glitches to work out.

Salvatella de Prada, after her Ruby Friday talk, speaking with Duke senior Rebekah Wellons.

“I hope students are inspired to use the facilities in the Ruby.”—Raquel Salvatella de Prada

The exhibit is open, and initial reactions are enthusiastic.

“I hope it can spark ideas,” Salvatella de Prada says. “Of course, looking at all that’s happening right now, most people probably don’t know about this crisis, so I hope it creates some awareness. For students, I hope it is something they can keep in mind—maybe in the future they can help, one way or another.”

“In terms of the creative aspect, I hope students are inspired to use the facilities in the Ruby. I hope seeing something they are not used to—like video projected on a surface that is not flat—will inspire them to do something new in their own work.”

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