MIT alumni and researchers are spotlighted in visiting artist Vik Muniz’s newest documentary, “This is Not a Ball,” which explores the scientific and cultural meanings of the soccer ball.
In the documentary, the Brazilian artist interviews various people — from Japanese kemari players to Pakistani factory workers — to answer the question: "Why do we play and why are we so drawn to the ball?" The documentary premiered June 13 on Netflix to coincide with the 2014 World Cup.
Featured prominently in the film is MIT alumnus Marcelo Coelho SM '08, PhD '13, an artist and designer who graduated from the Fluid Interfaces Group at the MIT Media Lab. Coelho headed up the scientific research for the film, helping weave together a multifaceted narrative about an object (a ball) that cuts across traditional disciplinary borders. “Spheres are everywhere,” Coelho says, “from molecules to planets.” For this task, he connected Muniz with fellow MIT researchers Edith Ackermann and Skylar Tibbits SM '10, who discussed developmental psychology and programmable materials with Muniz, respectively.
Coelho and Muniz’s collaboration began in 2012 when Coelho brought Muniz to campus through MIT’s Visiting Artist program, which every year embeds leading artists into the rich educational and research culture of the Institute. Coelho first discovered Muniz’s art in the course of his research. “I was doing my work on materials and human-computer interaction, researching how people use materials and make meaning from them,” he recalls. In doing so, he came across Muniz’s images, crafted from unlikely, everyday substances, such as dust, chocolate, and even industrial garbage.
At MIT, Coelho worked with Muniz to etch a millimeter-wide image of a sand castle on a grain of sand through the use of a focused ion beam and scanning electron microscope. The resulting prints were enlarged to debut in a comprehensive exhibition of Muniz’s work at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The experience, as it turned out, would produce a long-lasting collaboration. “Vik is really inspired by MIT,” Coelho says, “and that's how the true collaborations ended up happening. In some ways, he could have equally been a scientist. He’s incredibly curious and being at MIT through the Visiting Artist program allowed him to exercise that side of his thinking.”
Coelho also helped orchestrate the film’s defining moment: creating an art piece made of more than 10,000 soccer balls on the field of Mexico’s Azteca stadium. Forming an enormous ball, the entire installation took about a week to create, Coelho says, and involved designing the necessary software to figure out how many balls were needed and where they should go. “It’s funny,” he says, “this was the biggest scale project I’ve worked on, and the sandcastle was the smallest.”