Shades of RED

Not every art student can boast that they've exhibited their work halfway around the world before they even graduate. But thanks to a collaborative project last fall between The Art Institute of Boston (AIB) and Zhaoqing University in China, students in Carmin Karasic's 'Web as an Art Form' and 'Digital Media I' classes have displayed their work in China, India, and Russia without ever leaving the United States.

The project, called RED, is a visual exploration of the color red, and how students in two very different cultures interpret it. It is the brainchild of Karasic, an instructor of digital media in AIB's Photography Department, and Tom R. Chambers, an American visiting lecturer in digital/new media art and digital photography at Zhaoqing University.

Chambers had the idea for RED and Karasic readily agreed when he proposed the bilateral project. "Collaboration, especially online collaboration, is an essential element of my classes," Karasic says. "So when the opportunity to have my students work on a project with art students in China presented itself, I saw it as a unique learning experience for everyone involved."

The color red in China has cultural, political, and even sacred significance. Not only is it the dominant color on the flag, it is also considered the luckiest of all colors, and gifts of money are often presented in red envelopes. From wedding ceremonies to revolutions to Communism itself, red is symbolic of the Chinese psyche. Mao Zedong is even sometimes referred to as a 'red sun'. For Americans, red also has political meaning, being one of the colors on the flag, and it is used to differentiate the Democrat and Republican parties (ie., blue states and red states). But more often it is associated with romantic and carnal love, violence and bloodshed, and a state of danger and emergency.

Photography student Julia Hobart decided on a collage of images, including some nude photographs she had shot earlier, to show positive and negative connotations of the color red. "I wanted to show the many different things that red can symbolize in my mind," she says. "So I put in the city and I used the nude image to represent passion. I also put in images of war and an apple to represent sin."

"From the beginning, we expected to see sex and danger in the American work and more political themes in the Chinese work, and that's basically what we got," admits Karasic. Yet the project wasn't without some upheavals. Some of the AIB students' work was so explicit in nature, it would have been censored in China so the students had to either tone it down or be left out of the project. "It taught them about freedom of speech and expression, and how that exists, or doesn't, in other places," says Karasic.

While the subject matter revealed one aspect of cultural difference, the style in which the students executed their work uncovered another. The Chinese students mostly followed a general design standard, while the AIB students' work reflected a more eclectic approach that combined photography and mixed media in addition to digital tools. "As Chinese society and culture go, the images reflect a sense of pride in their long history and civilized society, but what seems to lie deeper is the formalized approach due to the long-standing adherence to recognized forms and proper procedures," says Chambers. "As American society and lifestyle go, the images reflect a much looser existence with a lack of well-defined societal values." Chambers believes such a difference reflects the collective spirit of the Chinese versus the emphasis Americans place on individuality.

In Lino Ribeiro's case, his piece reflected that American independence. The senior Fine Arts student didn't even use the color red. Instead he created a photo montage of himself and his roommate, Ko, with two images of Ko taking center stage flanked on each side by Ribeiro waving a flag. Ribeiro hand-made the flag, which he calls 'The Americkan Flag', by scanning in samples of Old Glory's red, white, and blue colors and then inverting them on Photoshop to get the green, black, and white values. If one were to view the photo inverted through Photoshop, his new flag would appear as the original American flag.

"I didn't just want to respond with the opposite meaning of the same color," he explains, noting that his piece was more about the symbolism of what red means to him rather than an obvious use of the color. He even shot the pictures he used on 'Battle Green' in Lexington, MA, where he grew up and where the 'redcoats' first faced the colonists at the start of the Revolutionary War. "It's a symbol of rebellion, one of the most important and enduring American traits," he says.

RED was one of the last projects Rob Coshow took part in before he graduated from AIB in December 2005. A photography major, he saw it as an opportunity to use his work to reach across cultural and language barriers. "I first tried to envision what the color red really means to me and tried to incorporate pieces of my environment into a visual means of communicating with people who don't speak English," he says.

His finished piece, he says, represents an emotional state and embodies his passion for the human form, various textures, and the relationships in his life. "Originally I wanted it to be fairly literal, but as I began to work, I started to think about where I live, my apartment, my friends, my girlfriend, and how the color brought all those things together."

RED was exhibited at Zhaoqing University in November 2005, and via projection at 'The Carnival of e-Creativity & Change Agents Conclave' in New Delhi, India in January, and in April at the 'AniGma 2006 Digital Media Art Festival' at the State Art Museum in Novobirisk, Russia. Karasic is hoping to find gallery space to show the exhibit here in Boston, but for now she is featuring it at HyperArtSpace, the Boston Cyberarts' online gallery.

For the students involved in the project, knowing that their work is being viewed around the world is reward in itself. "This project solidified my belief that it's a complex world, but digital technology gives us the means to share our art in a way that was once impossible," says Ribeiro. Coshow agrees, "It was really cool to know that people I'll never meet halfway across the world were looking at my work. All they know is my name, but it's like they got to meet a piece of me through my art. It's a way to communicate that goes beyond the barrier of language."

Bria Peach
Marketing Communications Coordinator
Lesley University
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A.