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Stony Brook Professor Creates Soundtrack to Civics Lesson

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Margaret Schedel

Margaret Schedel is an artist, and while she doesn’t consider herself an expert on politics, she recognizes its increasingly visible place in the country today.

“You kind of have to be aware of politics these days,” said Schedel, chair of the Department of Art and a professor of Composition and Computer Music in the Department of Music, both in the College of Arts and Sciences. Schedel is also a core faculty member at the Institute for Advanced Computational Science.

So when she was afforded a chance to contribute her artistic expertise to a Bill of Rights anniversary exhibition, she felt it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. The project began when Schedel saw a call for 10 commissioned video games to be part of the Federal Hall National Memorial on Wall Street in New York City to commemorate the 230th anniversary of the Bill of Rights for an exhibition called “Shall Make, Shall Be: The Bill of Rights at Play.”

“I came across the call for proposals and I knew Laine Nooney, one of the co-curators, who was a doctoral student at Stony Brook,” said Schedel. “And I also knew another of the co-curators. It seemed like a very goofy call, but it looked like it would be fun.” Nooney is currently an assistant professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University.

The exhibition called for 10 games, each treating one of the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution. Schedel read over the amendments and decided on the Tenth Amendment, which states:  The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Amendment art installation
The game installation at Federal Hall National Memorial.

“I thought the Tenth Amendment was an especially interesting one,” she said. “It hasn’t been used much in cases except in our lifetimes. But the Tenth Amendment has started to become weaponized. We were really intrigued by this and when we wrote the proposal in 2019, we mentioned that things like healthcare and abortion were going to hinge on this. And recent history shows that we were right about that.”

Schedel quickly settled on a game concept built around players collectively developing the structure. She sought out Melissa Clarke, a former lecturer in the Department of Art and Simons Center for Geometry and Physics artist-in-residence, who is in an arts collective with Schedel.

“I’ve worked with her before, and we make interactive experiences out of data,” Schedel said. “We create things using data and sound and visuals. This seemed like a perfect fit.”

Though not connected to politics professionally, Schedel and Clarke were immediately intrigued with that angle of the project.

“We talked to lawyers and researched the cases that were decided by the Tenth Amendment,” she said. “It’s been really interesting following the news now and having a little bit more knowledge than I would have had otherwise.”

The team created a game where the players decided whether a power was delegated to the federal government or the state government. If the players delegate all the powers to the federal government, thereby centralizing the political power, the game and accompanying music become repetitive. If more powers are delegated to the states, both would become increasingly busy and chaotic. The key to winning is to have a balance of power between the federal government and the state government.

A seven-and-a-half-foot tall, nine-sided column with nine tablets houses the game at Federal Hall National Memorial. Players begin by considering random cases that were decided by the Tenth Amendment that come up on all the tablets simultaneously. Players then vote on whether the case should be a federal or state issue, and the cumulative results influence the music they hear.

Amendment art closeup
Close up of one of the game screens on the installation.

“They read a case, vote yes or no, and that decides what happens with the audio,” said Schedel. “If people give all the control to the federal government, they’ll hear something really boring. We have a whole rap by [rapper] Toni Blackman and if you give the power to the federal government, you don’t get to hear that. But if you give control to the player, how they interact with it determines how much of the rap you hear. The more active you are, the more of it you hear. We made several versions that get progressively more complex. The faster you move, the more complex it gets.”

The cumulative effect is a result of the inputs of the nine people participating, mirroring the collaboration and compromise that theoretically is experienced in the real world. Putting the proposed game together required a large interdisciplinary team, and they brought in former students Kari Barry and Omkar Bhatt, both Stony Brook graduates.

All 10 amendments are represented at the exhibition, which was originally scheduled to be displayed at Carnegie Mellon University. After being postponed because of the pandemic, the display was moved to Federal Hall, where the Bill of Rights was originally proposed by the Congress that met there in 1789.

The Federal Hall National Memorial exhibit opened in Federal Hall’s Grand Rotunda on July 4, 2022 and will remain on display through August 31. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

 — Robert Emproto

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