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O’Brien takes audiences on a journey in New Media Artspace exhibit


On the third and fourth floors of the William and Anita Newman Library stands a vacant, nearly pitch-black room. Students are either too busy checking in books they forgot to return or standing in line with their phone in their hand, patiently waiting to use the public desktops centered on the main floor. Not one student bothers to glance over to the corner and notice the New Media Artspace, and if they do, they turn their head right back to their computer screen.

The purpose of renovating the old telephone phone booths of the library was to create an innovative exhibition space for the New Media Arts program. The initial exhibition featured for this newly renovated space was Unexposed, completed by the first cohort of students to complete the New Media Arts minor at Baruch College. The New Media Artspace has even allowed artists like Nicolas O’Brien to show their work, in an effort to increase the attention the arts deserve at Baruch.

Nicholas O’Brien’s The Four Tools, currently being featured in the New Media Artspace, is a series of 3D animations addressing issues of labor, technology and personal history. In order to address each of these subjects, he focuses on four different but trivial objects that have intersected his life in some way. O’Brien narrates each of these animations on screen, pondering over the social and cultural meaning of the coat rack, the church key, the eraser and the broom. O’Brien could have named this piece of work The Four Things, but instead he called it the The Four Tools. The word “tools,” unlike “things,” serves much more purpose, because it is needed in order to fulfill a void.

On the first floor is the on-screen animation focused on the broom. The broom reminds O’Brien of the origins of his working life in a gas station. While working in the gas station, he would sweep, creating lines and patterns of dirt while whistling, an activity he typically associated with happiness or being content. A minimalistic activity such as sweeping or even reading a book ignites a feeling of happiness within the human mind.

The coatrack serves a bit of a different purpose for O’Brien. He reminds viewers that the coat rack is in all actuality a timestamp, marking the beginning and ending of someone’s day. He creatively calls it a “visual archive,” holding all the markings of one leaving and coming. Aside from marking departure, it holds meaning in the sense that it marks sociality. He makes this point when describing how essential it is as part of someone’s home, saying that it is an item no home should be without. With both of these tools, O’Brien exposes their hidden symbolism and everyday profundity in the human life.

In the same sized room on the fourth floor is the part of the series dedicated to the church key. O’Brien describes the church key as a humble object that only does what it is meant to do: open an object. This object serves the purpose of opening and releasing the contents of a sealed place. In most instances, we use a church key to open a cold can of soda or a bottle containing an alcoholic beverage. O’Brien says that when the action of opening a can or bottle with the church key occurs, it usually gathers people together and unifies them in conversation. It is in this moment that space is created for confession and repentance, according to O’Brien. It is a symbolic tool for O’Brien that unlocks more than just the contents of a sealed object, but more of a tool for unlocking a safe place with confessions between individuals.

The last part of the visual series is on the fifth floor and is focused on the symbolism of the eraser. O’Brien recalls when he stopped using pencils, which then led to him rarely encountering the eraser. It was not until he realized the true symbolic meaning an eraser had that he began to miss it. An eraser has the ability to erase, of course, but it also has the potential to heal a wound and be a form of forgiveness. One of the more interesting points O’Brien makes is the fact that the eraser is the first tool that allowed for humanity to be okay with change or revision. This is partly because—though there are things that are erased—what remains is elevated with importance, like a spotlight. The same idea can be applied to humans as we choose to eliminate our flaws and what is left behind truly characterizes us.         

Nicholas O’Brien’s exhibition, The Four Tools, will run through May 2 at the New Media Artspace. A public artist lecture and closing reception will be held on May 2 at 6 p.m. at the Baruch Performing Arts Center’s Engelman Recital Hall.

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