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Parsons Gets Radioactive at New York Public Library



radioactive
Science. Romance. Danger. Tragedy. All these words describe a new book, RADIOACTIVE: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout, written and illustrated by Parsons illustration professor Lauren Redniss. The book, a finalist for the 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize, chronicles the romantic and scientific partnership of Nobel Laureates Pierre and Marie Curie, and the contemporary ramifications of the Curies’ groundbreaking discoveries. The book’s artwork has inspired an exhibition now on view at the New York Public Library.

The frustration and discord behind the Curies’ great scientific discovery of radioactive elements was nowhere to be found in the classrooms of Parsons, where Lauran Redniss’s students put their skills to work to create a website for the NYPL exhibition. Mixing animation, interactive book pages, and other digital tools, the website enhances the experience of visitors to the exhibition and also lets audiences far from New York engage with Radioactive. The site even features a digital tool to create the camera-less photographic process called “cyanotype,” which Redniss used to create the book’s artwork. Using archival images from the NYPL’s collections and real-time weather data, the tool allows users to digitally simulate the process and make their own cyanotype “prints.”

Viewing the finished website, one would never guess the speed with which the Parsons students put the project together. A fall 2010 collaborative course called Radioactive, offered by the school of Art, Media, and Technology, brought together 14 graduate and undergraduate students from various disciplines. Over the semester, they immersed themselves in Redniss’ research and met frequently with New York Public Library curators to understand the exhibition and create online tools to complement and extend the physical display. The project was completed and delivered to the NYPL in one semester (15 weeks).

In contrast, Professor Redniss began working on RADIOACTIVE in 2008. Inspired by Anna Atkin’s Photographs of British Algae, an early example of cyanotype printing, which she happened upon while doing research as a New York Public Library Cullman Fellow, Redniss became interested in using the medium to tell a story of the invisible forces—both emotional and scientific—that animate our world. “Thematically, using cyanotype made sense, because it is a process based on exposure, It resonated the idea of radiation.” said Redniss.

The challenge—and accomplishment—of crafting a visual narrative about the invisible was not lost on the Parsons students, who threw themselves into the project with the same curiosity as their professor. “The students responded to the themes of the book in surprising and idiosyncratic ways. One student created an interactive game that explores the imagined afterlife of Marie Curie. Another student made an animated video about the atom,” said Redniss. “All the music on the site was created by the students. The individual pieces are tied together with an innovative navigation system. It was thrilling to see the site come together.”

Learn all about the exhibition Radioactive, which is on view at the New York Public Library, 40th Street and Fifth Avenue through April 17, by visiting the student-designed website at http://exhibitions.nypl.org/radioactive/



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