To peek inside Room 317 on the top floor of Fayerweather Hall on a recent Friday afternoon was to see a space completely transformed.
Gone from view were the normal work tables, vaulted ceiling space and heavy wood beams. Visible instead were a floor covered with shiny silver paper, walls made from packing boxes, and a cardboard coffin. Only the metal stools remained, but these too had been rearranged, this time into short rows for the anticipated audience.
This was the site of Have You Seen the Ghost of John? a 15-minute live production created by Amherst’s Artist-in-Residence Macon Reed and her class of nine students, in collaboration with artists from the New York City-based collective Whoop Dee Doo and a cappella singers and dancers from Hampshire College.
Reed’s spring-semester class, “On World-Making: Context, Narrative, Myth and Truth,” is an in-depth exploration of the imagination with a focus on fantastical worlds. It is also, in part, a class about collaboration and failure, as Reed would later explain, sitting outside of Room 317 a few days after the production.
“We talked at the beginning of the semester about failing in a positive way and letting failure be constructive,” Reed said. “Nobody arrives as the ‘perfect artist,’ if that’s even a thing, overnight, and it’s not an innate talent situation. They have to try, and fail, many times before they arrive there.”
Reed harkened back to her early 20s, when she lived in a redwood forest for a year and had other experimental opportunities that she said were “so important to my education as a human.” She contrasted that with the younger generations, who seem, she said, under much more pressure to compete and get everything right the first time.
“I think it’s really sad sometimes. They need more failure and fun,” she said. “And things that aren’t always goal- and productivity-oriented.”
Even for Reed—whose installations have shown at such venues as Mana Contemporary, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, ICA Baltimore and Athens Museum of Queer Arts in Greece—the class was about exploring the unknown. Reed has worked in sculpture, video and painting, among other media, but students in her class also worked on fantasy dioramas, scripted a Star Trek parody film about colonization, and created puppets and other figures.
“I’ve never done this before, where I had students doing something I don’t totally know how to do,” said Reed. “So we’re diving in and learning together.”
Have You Seen the Ghost of John? began when a giant, walking box, draped with brown paper and sporting three holes for a face, appeared and gestured for the hallway full of visitors to make their way into the room.
“You’re about to see something really special,” Reed announced to the crowd. “A lot can happen in 15 minutes.”
What followed was a series box-themed vignettes, from a wedding between two cartons, to aliens commenting on the “corrugated lord of the cosmos,” to the ghost of John Lennon emerging from the coffin and singing. The show culminated in so-called “box ghosts,” dressed in browned strips of cloth, performing an a cappella original about pretty boxes.
A few days later, the nine classmates, a mixture of Amherst and Hampshire students, were hard at work on their next project. Gone was any sign of the show, except perhaps for a few of the boxes, which the students were busy transforming into small spaceships and other props for a film.
Sophie Ewing ’22, who played the boxes getting married with classmate Maeve Brammer ’22, was painting a football-shaped spaceship. Ewing said that she had enjoyed the opportunity to focus on projects that didn’t have a specific timeline or objective.
“It’s a really good opportunity to throw out crazy ideas and have them come to fruition,” she said.
Brammer agreed, noting, “There’s something really special that happens when you focus on the imaginative.”