Interactive art project invites religious discussion

Friday , April 21, 2017 - 12:02 AM

By SEAN DOLAN The Herald-Journal

LOGAN, Utah (AP) — As new faces shuffled through Mikey Kettinger’s front door one night, they were greeted by smiling young people wearing black aprons and silver trays, offering gifts of finger food and conversation.

“Hi, I’m an atheist,” Raul Lira said as he offered a snack.

“Toasted baguette?” asked Darren Bingham, also an atheist, as he wandered around the front yard.

Beth Foley, a Mormon, presented a tray of lemon cupcakes.

“I made 120 and ate a lot of them,” Foley said.

They were participating in an interactive art project — called “Gifts from Atheists, Mormons and Muslims” — as part of Kettinger’s thesis exhibit for his master’s of fine arts.

According to the Pew Research Center, those three religious groups are at the very bottom of the “feeling thermometer,” meaning people feel the least warmly toward Muslims, at 48 points, atheists, at 50, and Mormons, a little less negatively at 54 points.

That got Kettinger thinking.

“My group, atheists, is at the bottom there, pretty much, right above the Muslims,” Kettinger said. “I thought, ‘How can I correct this problem or something, in a playful way?‘”

The first iteration of the project was quietly launched last year. He installed a mini fridge full of snacks and soda in a lounge on campus, along with a sign that conveyed the Pew data and offered everything inside as a gift from an atheist.

“I’ll give gifts to people anonymously on behalf of atheists. It might be kind of funny and people might like it,” Kettinger said.

It became a hit on campus. Everybody was talking about it, including his professors. Kettinger received nearly 20 personal hand-written notes, mostly from Mormons, thanking him for the project. It was the most response he had ever seen from his art.

“It was really having the effect I was going for,” Kettinger said. “Where people were like, ‘Oh yeah, just a nice, genuine gesture.”

Whenever Foley, a USU senior, saw the mini fridge on campus, she would always take a look at what was inside and took a snack on several occasions. She said some people told her not to take anything, but she said the whole point is to receive a gift.

As a music major, Foley said it’s important that art shouldn’t be above anyone but rather something that everyone is able to participate in and enjoy.

“Not only is he saying, I’m an atheist but I want to give you gifts, he’s also saying, I’m an artist, but I want to see what you have to share, too,” Foley said.

When she saw that Kettinger was launching another version of “Gifts from Atheists,” she got involved. As she offered her homemade lemon cupcakes to people from all different religions, she said it was easy to start a conversation and delve into deeper subjects.

“Here you’re strangers and you can talk about art and what it means,” Foley said.

Kettinger said his approach to art is similar to that of a journalist. He isn’t trying to persuade people, he just wants to present the facts and make people think. He said some religious people are uncomfortable with those who aren’t religious. They might think they lack morals because they have no structure or incentive for the afterlife. He wants to show that that isn’t the case.

By creating an environment where dialogue and interpersonal connections are easy, he hoped his art project would help people explore their own beliefs.

“I definitely think that it spreads awareness, it educates people, it builds community,” Kettinger said. “That’s why I do this, I want to educate.”

As participants took in the Pew data framed on the kitchen wall, sipped soda, coffee, water and beer and accepted offerings of hummus and chips, tomato and basil, goat cheese and pastries, the wheels began to turn, just as Kettinger intended.

Chase Gabbitas, a USU sophomore, said he think religions unintentionally segregate people. He said we often make friends with people who share our beliefs and don’t get to know people who are different.

Evan Hall, a USU senior, would agree. He said living in a state with one dominant church, he doesn’t know a lot of people from different backgrounds. At the art exhibit, he talked to people he might not otherwise interact much with.

The participants also pondered why Mormons, atheists and Muslims are viewed unfavorably.

Terra Pace, a Mormon, said she wasn’t that surprised to learn that members of the LDS Church are ranked third from the bottom on the “feeling thermometer.” Pace served an LDS mission in Brazil and found that most people were either curious to learn about her religion or they had preconceived negative feelings.

“Having visited other places and served a mission in another country, I can kind of see it from a different perspective,” Pace said.

She said getting together with people who have different beliefs can help them find things they have in common.

“My mom always says, ‘Food brings people together,‘” Pace said.

It wasn’t just atheists, Mormons and Muslims in attendance. Narson Momgol, a Tibetan Mongolian Buddhist, who moved to America two years ago, said he has never seen anything like this project. The idea behind it, however, is a key part of his belief system.

“Help somebody out is like helping yourself is what we believe,” Momgol said. “Life is like circle.”

It’s all part of Kettinger’s plan. He’s not a statistician, he’s a messenger. He’s not a scientist, he’s a storyteller. He’s not polarized, he’s neutral. His goal is to start conversations.

“Sometimes these weird experiences with interactive art projects really are effective in that, it seems,” Kettinger said.

Information from: The Herald Journal, http://www.hjnews.com

Sign up for e-mail news updates.

×