Published February 24, 2021
UB’s Palah Light Lab will receive $38,500 of a $3 million grant awarded to Michigan State University by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s Just Futures Initiative for the project Creativity in the Time of COVID-19: Art as a Tool for Combating Inequity and Injustice.
Faculty members in MSU’s College of Arts and Letters will work with satellite partners over three years to develop and feature online and physical exhibits that display visionary artwork created during the pandemic that helps to understand and analyze the present in ways that can be applied to conditions that contribute to a socially just future.
The Mellon Foundation awards Just Futures grants through a competitive process to multidisciplinary, university-based teams across the U.S. that are committed to racial justice and social equality.
The Palah Light Lab, based in the Department of Media Study, College of Arts and Sciences, utilizes a feminist and queer-centered approach as part of an interdisciplinary mission of political engagement and social justice through instruction, poetry and gaming.
With MSU as the nexus, Palah joins that university’s other partner institutions at Washington University in St. Louis and the U.S. Air Force Academy.
“This grant is so important for a new lab like Palah that was established in just the last couple years,” says Cody Mejeur, visiting assistant professor of media study at UB. “The funding allows us to build out our network and community outreach, and is a sign of the many creative things still to come.”
That idea of community engagement, which is central to Palah’s mission, is among the reasons MSU invited UB to collaborate on the grant and join the conversation that is helping to create the larger exhibition goal, according to Margaret Rhee, assistant professor in the UB Department of Media Study.
“Given what we’ve accomplished already, the Mellon resources can further strengthen and support our work,” says Rhee, who co-directs the lab with Mejeur. “It’s great to be part of this community that values the trans, feminist and queer perspective.”
As part of its involvement in the grant project, the Palah Light Lab will develop ongoing COVID-19 art projects; recruit artists and activists to assist in collecting art for exhibition; develop and distribute a survey collecting creative practices in accessible ways to individuals in marginalized communities; co-host art events and skill share opportunities; and organize and host a capstone satellite exhibition in 2023.
Rhee and Mejeur say they’re eager to get started and continue growing the lab they organized last year with dedicated student assistants Blair Johnson (Poetics) and Leonardo Brita (Media Study) on the graduate side, along with undergraduate leads Awa Sow and Morgan Sammut, who is affiliated with the lab through Mount Holyoke College.
The Mellon funding will also be directed toward further development of Mejeur’s groundbreaking video game Trans Folks Walking.
The game is an anthology of first-person narratives that explores different choices drawn from trans experiences. Each game level consists of an approximately five-minute story narrated from a trans perspective, such as which restroom a trans person might choose when presented with options designated for either men or women.
“The game explores how each choice — that which corresponds to your gender assigned at birth or how you identify — is accompanied by potential anxieties, fears and consequences,” says Mejeur. “Each game level will present a different experience and give players an opportunity to participate in the corresponding story.”
Although Trans Folks Walking is not the only game to explore the trans experience, Mejeur says its vision is broader than many similar games.
“There are certainly games that talk about the trans experience, but most are focused on a particular element, such as the experience of transitioning,” says Mejeur. “This is the first to my knowledge that is attempting to bring together many trans experiences and stories.
“Our team imagines the game as an anthology of trans experiences, and it may be the first of its kind.”
Mejeur says the team, consisting of Ronny Ford (English, MSU), Austin Wilson (Media & Information, MSU), Wes Turner, and Famous Clark (Media Study, UB), is excited about expanding the game. The alpha demo version, which includes one level, has already been exhibited with MSU at Science Gallery Detroit, an interactive initiative blending art, science and technology aimed at 15- to 25-year-olds.
Games made by and for trans people are rare, according to Mejeur.
“This one, which is trying to be a community-based art effort that brings together many people, allows trans people to have narrative control of their stories, rather than hoping mainstream game companies will care enough to include our experiences.”
Rhee sees Mejeur as a leading designer who brings an illuminating perspective to the art of video games.
“It’s gratifying to see this work being supported,” says Rhee. “It is a great moment for the Palah Light Lab and a hopeful forerunner of great things to come.”