VES Thesis Buried Under Opposition

Victoria L. Merriman '98, a visual and environmental studies (VES) concentrator in Dunster House, finds herself in a rare predicament: She has completed her thesis, a video performance entitled "Burial," but may not be able to perform it.

Merriman's project--which she described as an "exploration of afterlife and the process of mourning"--requires the excavation of a large hole. It was originally intended to take place in either the Radcliffe or Malkin Athletic Center (MAC) Quad on May 2 during the Art First Festival.

That is, until she ran into opposition from the masters of the residential houses surrounding these two locations.

"From the outset, they've resisted my efforts without good reason," said Merriman, asserting that the masters of Lowell, Winthrop, Eliot, Kirkland, Cabot, Pforzheimer and Currier Houses have taken an irrational "not-in-my-backyard approach."

This leaves Merriman--who over the past 12 months has enlisted the services of 50 people, including 12 undergraduates, and invested $5,000 in grant money as well as her own funds--without a place to perform a project which is supposed to be the culmination of her four years at Harvard.

For their part, the masters of the Houses surrounding the Radcliffe and MAC Quads diverge in their explanations for refusing Merriman permission to use their respective spaces.

In a joint e-mail massage to Merriman dated April 17, masters William A. Graham of Currier House, James J. McCarthy of Pforzheimer House and James H. Ware of Cabot House expressed their concern that the recent suicide of Cabot house resident David matter of her piece--which emphasizes death andinternment--"not something that anyone here feelsis helpful."

Ware reiterated the anxieties of his fellowmasters in an interview last night.

"It is so recently in the house that we've hadthe death of a student that I am concerned theQuad may not be an appropriate place at this timefor a piece emphasizing death," said Ware, whostressed that he was speaking for himself.

Merriman said she tried to allay the concernsof the Quad masters, whose common space was herfirst choice, by explaining that she treats deathsensitively in the piece.

"It's all about mourning and grieving, so whatcould be more appropriate?" she said.

In their own e-mail message to Merriman datedApril 16, the masters of house surrounding the MACQuad justified their rejection of her requestalong more use-specific lines saying, "We want topreserve it for use as play and picnic area."

Elaborating on this point, Eliot Master SteveA. Mitchell said he was opposed to "a public spacebeing used for a private purpose."

Merriman dismissed Mitchell's concern, citingsupport for her project from several UndergraduateCouncil members as well as many other studentgroups.

"The students are the people using that space,so it really makes no sense that if studentssupport this project [the house masters] can usethat as a reason," Merriman said.

She noted spontaneous outpourings of supportfrom several "perfect strangers" as furtherevidence of student sympathy for her work.

Still, Mitchell said his opinion on the matterwould not change "unless every single student wholives in this part of campus says they're notconcerned" about Merriman's project.

Moreover, both groups of masters were unifiedin their position that their rejection ofMerriman's request was not meant as a "judgment onthe artistic merit of her piece."

Ware also acknowledged that the technical scopeof Merriman's thesis did not help to soothe themaster's additional fears.

As part of her project, Merriman said she plansto dig a 6-by-6 foot hole five feet deep inwhichever space she uses. Over this she willsuspend a transparent box containing 25 prostheticlegs from a 50,000-ton hydraulic crane, finallylowering the box into the hole and covering itwith earth.

The overall effect, explained Merriman--whosays she drew inspiration from watching a horseinterred with a crane--is meant to simulate aburial.

In their message to Merriman, the RadcliffeQuad master voiced their doubt "about the abilityfor this to be a low impact affair," nothing thedense network of conduits under the Quad whichmight be damaged by an excavation.

In their turn, the MAC Quad masters feared forthe safety of the grass in that part of thecampus, "which we have worked hard with thegrounds people to keep...growing."

Merriman responded to the latter contention bysaying, "If there's no grass, I can't mess it up."

Whatever the outcome of this affair, Merrimansaid she fears the impasse may not be resolvedbefore her intended opening date on May 2.

Her thesis adviser, Richard Rogers, a seniorlecturer in VES, said it would be "very, veryunfortunate and very, very, sad" if Merriman couldnot exhibit a piece which he claimed "wasimportant to be shared with the community."

For the time being, Merriman said she hasinvestigated a multitude of alternative sites,including a lawn near Dunster House and a spot bythe Science Center offered to her by councilmember David W. Lerch '99--who had reserved thespace for his own thesis project.

"I am looking at every patch of grass I canfind on campus, "Merriman said.

She is even exploring the possibility ofborrowing a plot of land in Rehoboth, Mass., a45-minute drive away, from the family of a fellowVES concentrator.

"By hook or by crook I will put this thing on,"Merriman said