Interdisciplinary Alumnus Leo Selvaggio Uses Art in his COVID Experiments for the Common Good

Leonardo Selvaggio MFA ’14 discusses his work creating COVID Experiments and his hopes to provide essential workers with personal protection equipment.

As the world continues to navigate life during the COVID-19 pandemic, Columbia College Chicago students and almumni alike are using this moment to Shape What’s Next and tackle today’s challenges with creativity. Leo Selvaggio is using his ingenuity to create innovative ways to provide essential workers with personal protection equipment during the current global pandemic. Sevaggio ’14 is an Independent Interdisciplinary Artist and a graduate of Columbia’s Interdisciplinary Arts MFA program. In 2014, he was awarded an Albert P. Weisman grant for his work founding URME Surveillance, a collection of products that protect the public from facial recognition surveillance systems.

Selvaggio is currently an Instructional Media Specialist for the Brown Multimedia Labs and Brown University. In addition to helping others stay safe, Selvaggio says “COVID Experiments” is part expressive catharsis, part design for the common good.

Can you tell us about your COVID Experiments project?

I wouldn't say it’s a project, per-say. It’s more so a sketchbook documenting experiments – some expressive, some useful, some absurd – which have all helped me manage my stress and anxiety during COVID-19.

I started reacting to the things around me, such as the idea of social distancing. I started asking, “How do we gauge what distance means?” In a world were so many cognitive processes are substituted by technology, I wanted to make a speculative model of a prosthesis that helps us maintain social distance.

Then, of course, you have to consider all the ways we social distance, both during COVID and before. How do we socially distance ourselves based on the perceived class, race, age, gender, sexual orientation, aggression, seduction of others? This is still just a thought experiment, but putting on the prosthetic, bumping into everything no matter where I walked, really gave me an appreciation for my own lack of awareness of space. It was also just fun to wear.

The most fruitful experiments have come out of my frustration at the lack of PPE (personal protection equipment) available, especially for non-medical essential workers: our grocery store, fast food, sanitation, gas station workers, who are disproportionately financially disenfranchised, risking their lives for minimum wage, without hazard pay, and not being given significant PPE at work. So, I decided to design some PPE for this community and am attempting to work locally to produce these designs for employees. Using a baseball cap as a base, I can significantly reduce the production time needed to make a face shield, meaning more can be made to scale for all of our essential workers. Furthermore, the DIY version of this design allows for individuals to make a face shield at home using just a set of safety pins, wire, and a couple of beads. My hope is to get as many workers as possible in some form of PPE.

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What do you hope people take away from this project?

I don't know that the intention of these experiments was for people to have a takeaway. That being said, everyone is different, and it is ok not to be productive, it is ok to be sad. You do not have to thrive during this pandemic. I am not thriving, despite what my production might be. I am surviving the only way I know how: attacking the problem. That’s what works for me. If that is what works for you, then I encourage you: make, design, intervene with reckless abandon, without censorship, because you never know what your experiments may lead to. If you don't think you are creative enough, you are. If you want to do something, but are creatively exhausted, consider making some of these face shields and partner with local businesses. Protecting our essential workers benefits all of us.

You have made masks for past projects including your 2014 Albert P. Weisman winning project URME. How is mask making evolving in your work?

My URME Surveillance project – which provided the public with a 3D printed prosthetic of my face to protect them from facial recognition systems, while also creating disinformation about my identity within those same systems – is something I have been working on and trying to understand since I made it over six years ago. Since then, my concern has shifted from a concern with the violation of privacy, to include an exploration of white hetero-normative male privilege – specifically my own. The prosthetic essentially asks others to perform said privilege in public space by wearing this mask and embodying a value system that is most agreeable to the patriarchy. This ask and idea is highly problematic. However, over the last several years, when contextualized as symbol for that value system and tool for discussion with myself and my audience, the mask has the opportunity to peel back the layers of oppression known to anyone who isn't a white cis male, and give us an object to collectively think around these large questions. The mask's original intention was to hide. What I understand now, is its power to reveal. It is a physical manifestation of societal value, and a lens through which one is both seen yet not surveilled.

I think that one thing that working with masks has done for me, is that it has allowed me to objectify myself and distance my identity from my physicality. Because of the project, anyone can potentially be me. I don't feel as unique, or special as I once did, and there is a sort of freedom in that for me. I have always speculated that in a URME Future, facial recognition technology has been rendered useless because the idea that faces are stable indicators, identity at all has been obliterated. In this future, I could be wearing your face, you could be wearing your friend's face, and your partner could be wearing their own face because our sense of identity isn't dependent on the physical stability of our bodies. So yeah, you could say it has evolved.

How did your studies at Columbia prepare you for your career?

I graduated from the Interdisciplinary Arts MFA program in 2014. I had incredible mentors: Paul Catanese, Melissa Potter, Miriam Schaer, Jeff Abell, Annette Barbier, Cliff Meador, Jessica Cochran to name a few, and an awesome cohort of fellow students. They were the strength of the program without a doubt, and because my program was small, I got an incredible amount of access to their expertise, and they shared their own practices with an openness that I never imagined. I will always be grateful for the investment these educators put into me. But if I am being honest, Columbia College taught me how to be scrappy. I learned how to be a generalist so that when I collaborate with someone, it is because I want to, not because I need to. Columbia College prepared me for the real life of an artist without a trust fund, by making me figure out things like logistics, marketing, and sustainability, from the get-go. The program taught me how to pivot when I hit a roadblock and how to demonstrate my value to people with the resources I want. Most importantly, it taught me how to build a practice on my own terms.

For more information about Selvaggio’s work, visit his website here.