Looking back on a Fulbright year at MIT, one might write about beautiful New England foliage, vegan poutine fries, boat trips to the east (Provincetown), train trips to the south (New York City), van trips to the north (Acadia), hippie scenes, Boston pubs, progressive Churches, and the very beginning of the American project. Yet, what occupies a special place in my heart in post-Fulbright times is something entirely different: a room at MIT, called ‘The Cube’.
The Cube is the beating heart of MIT’s Program in Art, Culture & Technology (ACT), in which I completed my Fulbright project. The Cube consists of a large central floor used for classes, lectures and performances. It’s a space of intellectual exchange. This central floor is surrounded by two levels of individual studios in which ACT students develop their work. The stairs connecting the studios are colored in yellow, green, blue, red and orange, reminiscent of the many rainbow flags one sees so often in the streets of Cambridge and Somerville. The Cube has a light system, a sound system and enormous screens; a huge disco ball hangs from the ceiling. The Cube looks more like an underground music club than an academic auditorium. Dispersed throughout The Cube one finds all kinds of leftovers from artistic experiments: chains, screens, glue, paper, wood, cameras…
The Cube was also the place where the greats of MIT’s programs in art, architecture, media and urban studies have roamed: from Stephen Benton (inventor of the rainbow hologram) to Dennis Adams; from the late Otto Piene to Krzysztof Wodiczko and Ute Meta Bauer. Today, educators like Gediminas Urbonas, Judith Barry, Nida Sinnokrot, Azra Akšamija, Laura Baladi, Renée Green and Professor Emerita Joan Jonas continue to uphold The Cube as an international center for artistic and architectural adventures.
Back in Europe, I want to commemorate The Cube through three vivid memories.
First memory. At the beginning of the academic year, entering The Cube was always an experience that required ‘social guts’. Not yet knowing the students and professors present, the first days in The Cube meant approaching people informally and introducing my work. Step by step and still rather shy, I set out to integrate myself among The Cube’s dwellers. But one day upon entering The Cube, I encountered the following situation: a group of students had enthusiastically put on the projectors and sound systems for a sudden energetic karaoke session. A mic gets pushed into my hands; a mic gets pushed into the professor’s hands. Loudly, Beyoncé songs resonate throughout The Cube. Needless to say, The Cube constitutes a ‘safe space’ where students feel they can be themselves. It’s a space of expression: musically, vocally, intellectually.
Second memory. During the academic year, war breaks out in Ukraine. This time, the class that I usually audit on Tuesday evenings starts with an in-depth discussion about armed conflict, colonialism and the spectacularization of war on social media. The discussion makes sense, given the professor’s close links to Eastern Europe. Everyone around the table is heard. An open and inclusive dialogue unfolds. This discussion holds great value in my memory because it was symptomatic of the overall dialogic culture that is so present in the classes and corridors of MIT. Discussions and debates are respectful and organized in a way that all voices are heard, whatever their stance might be. Situations whereby the loudest voice wins out are actively avoided. I consider The Cube as some sort of material infrastructure enabling reciprocal dialogue. The Cube constitutes a physical dispositif, allowing for arguments and their rebuttals to emerge.
Third and last memory. During one of the classes, a fantastic anecdote (albeit a real one) came to light. Just underneath The Cube’s ceiling one finds a ‘sub-ceiling’ on which one or two people are allowed to walk (for safety reasons). But fast forward now to the secret yet real anecdote. In the early-2000s, there was a professor at MIT who played a pivotal part in the development of open-source software systems. Why the mention of the sub-ceiling? This professor had created a secret little home in a corner on this sub-ceiling; in fact, he kind of lived there. He would sleep there every night, then use MIT’s washing facilities to get back into the world of research and technology. Some years ago, ACT’s current professors even found an old mattress underneath the ceiling: a ghostly reminder of the open- source software developer’s secret life in the upper areas of The Cube.
This last memory affirms a feeling that I was subject to during my time at MIT. The feeling of constant inspiration, the ongoing and insatiable urge to investigate, to discover, to develop. One can effectively sense, almost ‘breathe’, this vibrant intellectual energy in the corridors of MIT, and even more so in The Cube.
Unfortunately, the future of The Cube is uncertain today. The Cube’s overarching department, MIT’s School of Architecture + Planning, is set to relocate in a few years to The Metropolitan Warehouse, a large brick building a few blocks away.
Nevertheless, I am grateful for the time I got to spend in The Cube. ‘Free zones’ like The Cube are of immense importance for young people to realize their capabilities and flourish in life.
The Cube constituted a space in which the Fulbright adage of cultural exchange could come to full fruition. It was a space where I discovered new theories and developed new insights, even to the extent that the latter inaugurated new directions in my journey as an academic. But it was also heart-warming to see how The Cube’s students grew into world-class, renowned artists and researchers, even in the period of one academic year.
Thank you, Fulbright, and thank you, MIT, for the loving memories of a room…The Cube.
Louis Volont is a Belgian Fulbright Visiting Scholar in Sociology to MIT. Louis Volont is an urban and cultural sociologist, based at the University of Antwerp. He worked formerly as an independent researcher in a Brussels-based artists’ cooperative. Thereafter, he earned his PhD (2021) on the theme of urban activism in Antwerp, Rotterdam and London. His main research interests are urban commons, creativity and imagination. At the University of Groningen, he was a lecturer in the sociology and philosophy of aesthetics. In October, he will be heading to MIT’s Centre for Art, Culture & Technology. Louis lives in Antwerp, is married to Selena, and loves aviation.Articles are written by Fulbright grantees and do not reflect the opinions of the Fulbright Commission, the grantees’ host institutions, or the U.S. Department of State.