“My Heart Is In the Work” opens at The Frame

On Friday night, The Frame Gallery glowed with the words and stories of Carnegie Mellon students. Small, square screens and projections stood out against the dark night, the only source of light within the gallery. The installation show is titled “My Heart Is In The Work,” recalling the university’s motto, famously penned by Andrew Carnegie. The show explores the stress culture perpetuated throughout the Carnegie Mellon community. As told by senior communication design major Sam Ahmed, who created the show, stress culture can be defined as “a culture where two consecutive all-nighters merits a badge of honor, rather than concern.”

Mounted on each wall are grids of screens reminiscent of the digital screens many students encounter on a daily basis. Columns of square light boxes showed social media posts from members of the Carnegie Mellon community. While names and faces are censored, each post reflects a student’s struggles or successes related to their experience at this university. Some student visitors pointed to pieces and chuckled, remarking “Look it’s me!” or “I know who posted this.”

“Some of these [posts] are jokes, and some of these are legitimately harmless, funny jokes,” Ahmed said. “Some of them are maybe more coping mechanisms to hide a deeper problem.”

Interspersed throughout the Facebook and Twitter posts are quotes printed in large, black letters. The quotes are taken from the article, “The happy mask: Carnegie Mellon must address stress culture,” written by Katie Chironis (DC `12) for The Tartan in 2012.
“[Chironis] wrote the article when I was a sophomore,” Ahmed said. “That was the year Henry Armero died, and stress culture was a really big issue, and it wasn’t talked about as much. And she wrote this amazing article that went viral and everybody was posting it. I wanted to incorporate that, and I think everyone should read it.”

Between the grids of screens are slideshows that project unattributed quotes onto the university’s spring 2014 dean’s lists, which used to adorn the walls of the Cohon University Center, statements such as “I’d rather stick needles in my eyeballs than come back here,” “this isn’t even worth it,” and “I’ve never felt more dumb in my life.” Every few minutes, the slideshows would turn black and flash “are you okay” before repeating their cycles.

In the middle of the room is a collection of notes written by students. On index cards, many detailed times when their stress wasn’t worth it, or times when stress was overwhelming yet they felt inclined to continue with their work. Others wrote why they felt their struggles with stress were worth it in the end.

Introduced to stress culture in high school before enrolling at Carnegie Mellon, Ahmed didn’t see that it was a problem until he watched his friends struggle. “I didn’t realize how bad of an issue it was for me until my friends told me that this isn’t how it’s supposed to be,” he said. Since enrolling, Ahmed has worked on several different projects focusing on stress culture and the different ways students express their stress.

Ahmed said that his installation focuses on microaggressions: subtle actions that in isolation are not too damaging, but when added up represent a larger problem in a community. “‘[Microaggression]’ is a term that traditionally used to describe situations that involve racism, and I’ve taken that term to be applicable in a lot of different situations. I think in this one, it’s very applicable,” he said.

“I want people to take a closer look at the way they communicate with each other, whether that be learning to reach out for help or the more subtle things,” Ahmed said. “Looking at microaggressions, and seeing how when you say something like, ‘Did you do your homework?’ and maybe someone’ll reply, ‘No,’ and you say, ‘Oh come on, you only have four classes.’ Things like that are sometimes okay, but sometimes the person really is having a hard time with a reputably easy class, or less units, or is just having a hard time. Trying to do less of that in our culture would be a good way to start addressing the problem.”

“My Heart Is In The Work” will be on display at The Frame through March 7.