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By Kris Kerzman , Published September 01 2013

Concordia art exhibit uses Instagram to define happiness

MOORHEAD – Katie Pepera inspects a collection of photos hung on a wall. They depict people from all walks of life. Many are eating or laughing around picnic tables. Some are photos of pets and a few of forested landscapes.

She singles out one in particular.

“That’s my dad on the tractor,” Pepera says.

If that sounds like an snapshot from a family album or a standard shot found scrolling through an online photo stream, you’d be half right. That photo of Pepra’s dad hangs in an art gallery, but it came from her Instagram account.

Specifically, it’s part of a new, ongoing exhibition at Concordia College’s Cyrus M. Running Gallery that is filling its walls with submitted Instagram photos from audience members. The exhibit, “From a Cup to Instagram: Art and Social Engagement in the 21st Century,” is on display at the gallery through Sept. 22.

Pepera is assembling the show along with fellow art history senior Lauren Johnson and Concordia art professor Susan Lee. But the exhibition isn’t a finished thing put on display; it’s more of a participatory experience. The public can have their images added to the wall by tagging Instagram photos with #happycord, and Pepera and Johnson will then print them out and hang them up.

The idea came from discussion in Lee’s museum studies about doing something a bit outside the norm, Pepera said.

“We really liked the idea of engaging with the viewer and challenging them with the notion of ‘what is art,’ ” Pepera said.

Lee added that they wanted to introduce the notion of snapshot photography as a new element of art history.

“We wanted to challenge this notion that art is for the few,” Lee said. “With something like this, everyone can participate.”

In addition to the photos, the display has an atmosphere created through “happy” songs suggested by audience members, a place to write a word or phrase that evokes happiness, and a place for two people to sit and have a structured conversation about happiness.

The exhibition coincides with Concordia’s Faith, Reason and World Affairs Symposium scheduled for Sept. 9 - 11, which is also themed around happiness.

The two students were moved to try their hand at this kind of exhibit thanks to the influence and consultation of North Dakota State University art department chairman Michael Strand, who has presented these kinds of participatory social projects for the past several years. The Concordia show includes documentation and objects from Strand’s “Cuplomacy” project, which passed a cup Strand made between four faith leaders across the United States.

Strand said that expanding his idea of social practice art work meant the Concordia organizers needed to go beyond having his work displayed, so he asked Pepera and Johnson to roll up their sleeves and try a project themselves.

“They’re harvesting information in a new way with this idea they came at independently, which is cool,” Strand said.

In addition to his involvement with the Concordia event, Strand will also give a presentation on his work as part of the symposium.

Collaborating with other artists and curators on such projects is an experience he’s still getting used to, but this experience has been “really healthy,” Strand said.

“There have been multiple levels of involvement. I loved the idea of working with Concordia and their students and having our institutions working together,” he said.

Lee echoed his sentiment and talked about the impact Strand’s work is having not only in the area, but nationwide.

“His work is very engaging, the way it breaks us out of the gallery environment,” she said.

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo, and its online publication, ARTSpulse. For more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net/artspulse.