posted 2012-12-18 18:48:50

Hunter Professor’s Art Installation Spotlights the Plight of Undocumented Youth

Professor Miranda exhibits work at New York Hall of Science 

Amal Abbass

Staff Writer

On a cloudy Sunday in Queens, an array of youngsters joined forces on the lower floor of the borough’s New York Hall of Science in hopes of eluding a giant rat. They’d just made it past one of the imposing rodents when an orange, worm-like creature rose out of the ground. “What is that monster?” one of the kids shouted, shrinking away in horror.

That monster is the creation of Ricardo Miranda Zúñiga, Film and Media Studies professor and award-winning artist. His piece, titled a geography of being: una geografia de ser, is part of the Hall of Science’s ReGeneration exhibit. According to its website, the exhibit “explores the connection of cultural vitality to immigration, urbanization, and sustainability through the intersection of art, science and technology.”

Miranda’s dynamic ReGeneration installation seeks to explore the role of undocumented youth in society. Visitors take on a role in a video game in which myriad obstacles, including the aforementioned rats and monsters, give players a glimpse at the challenges imposed upon undocumented immigrants.

In an email, Miranda said that his piece was inspired by the United States Senate’s failure to pass the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) in 2010.

He was in “disbelief” when the Senate rejected the act, which he believes would have benefitted undocumented immigrants. “They’ve grown up in this country; for many English is or has become the primary language; they’ve studied in this country; they’ve worked and [paid] taxes in this country; they are not criminals [...] It was at this point that I started brainstorming possible projects with the DREAM Act as a point of departure,” he said.

Miranda, the son of Nicaraguan immigrants, drew from his own background while developing the piece, and consulted with members of the New York State Youth Leadership Council to better understand the experiences of undocumented youth.

Miranda created symbolic images within the game based on council members Cesar and Vishal’s testimony on the experience of being young, undocumented immigrants in America. For example, white, phantom-like figures that stalk the game-player represent their expressed fear of “law figures.” Their experiences also inspired the game’s final level, wherein friendly characters help the player through an underground labyrinth until he or she reaches the surface. This action speaks to what Miranda called Cesar and Vishal’s “most powerful experience”: creating a community of youth activists.

Miranda’s research makes for an entertaining yet authentic experience. Elements of the game feel personal to anyone who has been through the immigration and assimilation process, either firsthand or alongside family or friends. In one level, the player must grab hold of falling vowels and consonants until he or she has grasped the language. Just before that, players find themselves struggling to keep up with a series of turning wheels—one second to breathe, and you’ll fall through the cracks.

Players are helped along by three kinetic sculptures, or “Undocumented Drones”: small, wooden creatures with little video screens embedded in their chests. These drones nod or shake their heads in response to gameplay, and offer tips on how to get to the next level. Peek inside one drone’s chest and her screen reveals that the football at your feet isn’t just for juggling. The drones are like friendly village elders, keepers of knowledge, and one’s outstretched palm reflected the communal spirit of the exhibit: as exhausted parents rested on nearby benches, children of different ages and ethnicities gathered around the large projection of the game, helping the player at the console make it past each threat.

Robert Rosa, one of the Hall’s “explainers,” revealed that a geography of being is very popular with the institution’s young visitors. “Kids nowadays are so into video games, so they immediately see this,” he said.

Though he has used video games in his art before, Miranda was unsure about the effectiveness of the medium for this piece. “One of the issues I had to resolve in this project is that there is a strong opinion that I wish to present through the video game, but I want it to be fun, I absolutely did not want it to be overly didactic with learning facts and presentation of research. So I had to risk the player entirely missing the message in order to not build a didactic video game,” he wrote.

Rosa said that while most of the game’s younger players don’t grasp the undocumented youth angle until parents explain it, they immediately understand that the piece is about overcoming challenges.

Watching the group of players expand from two or three to five or six in hopes of collectively solving the game’s problems, one couldn’t help thinking that the senators who could not come together for the DREAMers might take a note from the problem-solving youngsters gathered in the Hall. Their teamwork illustrated one of the chief takeaways of Miranda’s exhibit: though self-determination will carry you leaps and bounds, a community working toward a common goal will help you soar.

Visit ReGeneration at the New York Hall of Science, on display until January 13, 2013, and visit to play Ricardo Miranda Zúñiga’s video game.