March 22, 2019 | Feature
blueno the transfer student
reflections on “untitled (lamp/bear)” and the transfer student experience
As a result of my upbringing, I’m fairly fond of bears. Being a native Californian and a former UCLA Bruin, it’s almost part of the job description. My childhood was marked by the grizzly proudly flying on the California flag and speckled with several frightening encounters with the real thing at Yosemite. However, there is little today that could overshadow my affection for one particular bear. This bear happens to be 23 feet tall and an admittedly alarming shade of blue. I speak, of course, of the sculpture officially known as “Untitled (Lamp/Bear)” but perhaps best known as Blueno. However, I must confess that Blueno hasn’t always occupied a warm place in my heart. I couldn’t understand why anyone would think it was a good idea to disrupt the tranquility of the surrounding colonial architecture with such a loud and assertive figure. It was only until I spent some time on this campus that I came to understand how Blueno’s journey, in some symbolic way, mirrors my own as a mid-year transfer student at Brown.
No previous affinity for bears could have prepared me for the sky blue monstrosity that confronted me the first time I stepped onto Brown’s campus this past summer. I applied to transfer to Brown without ever visiting the school in person, and although I had heard tales of the azure member of the Ursidae family currently residing on an otherwise well-composed campus, I was still thoroughly taken aback when faced with dear ol’ Blueno in person. The sun shone on the bright grass with a peaceful breeze winding its way through picturesque brick buildings, yet there stood this bizarre and disturbing colossus. The more I looked, the more his details unsettled me. From his blank expression to the lamp protruding through his spine hanging ominously over me, everything about Blueno was disconcerting.
My shocked and confused frame of mind soon gave way to exasperation, which was quickly replaced by irritation. I found Blueno disruptive, distracting, and generally in poor taste. Blueno stood in contrast to the cohesion of the rest of the buildings, so different from their history and maturity. I remember standing in the stifling humidity of the Rhode Island summer, staring into those chipped unseeing black button eyes and thinking that this ridiculous sculpture belonged on Brown’s campus about as much as I did. My anxious mind conjured up all sorts of scenarios about how I would stick out in this prestigious place just as much as this nonsensical sculpture.
Blueno has been dealing with these reactions since he came to campus and indeed since he was built. Constructed by the Swiss artist Urs Fischer in 2005 and installed on Brown’s campus in 2016, he experienced a mixed reception. Some students were bemused while others thoroughly disapproved of his rather conspicuous presence. A 2016 Blognonian poll found that students thought Blueno was uglier than the SciLi (and that’s really saying something).
The debate over Blueno is not exclusive to the Brown University campus. Blueno is not the only one of his kind—he has several siblings installed around the world. These include one in the the Hamad International Airport in Qatar and one which simply sits next to an art collector’s home overlooking the ocean. Blueno’s relatives are distinct from him only in their color, which is a bright yellow that’s perhaps even more perplexing to me than Blueno’s color first was. No matter where these bears are placed or what color they come in, the only unified reaction they seem to garner is opposition. Reportedly, children in the airport in Qatar refuse to go near Blueno’s canary yellow sibling due to its “creepiness,” according to Piran Cafe writer Bob Ramsak. Art collector Adam Lindemann, the owner of one of Blueno’s siblings, used the bear as retaliation against his neighbor who threatened to build a windmill shaped house. Lindemann expressed concern that the bear would be rejected by the community. According to him, the only reason this hasn’t occurred is because there isn’t public access to the sculpture.
In all these instances, I think it is safe to say that “Untitled (Lamp/Bear)” tends to be considered as somewhat of an outsider. Even if people aren’t directly put off by him, he never exactly blends in with his surroundings. He will always be, at his core, entirely out of place.
This experience of dislocation is one I am sure many of my fellow transfer students have felt on campus. We are new and unfamiliar, and there are times when I feel as out of place and conspicuous as a 20-ton blue teddy bear. We aren’t like the Penone tree with its deceptively lifelike exterior (even with its gravity-defying rock). Visitors on tour at Brown often have to be informed that the tree is a sculpture or else their eyes will simply glide past it. This is not the case for dear Blueno or the transfer students at Brown. We don’t meld seamlessly into our surroundings as if we were always meant to be here. We laugh at jokes we don’t understand and stumble our way through the lingo of the school. The first time I went to Andrews I froze when asked “Credit or points?” because I had no idea what a credit was.
During transfer orientation, an advisor assured us that we wouldn’t be walking around like characters from The Scarlet Letter with bright red T’s identifying us. While we may not have scarlet letters on our jackets (or rather, our industrial-strength winter coats), there are days when we might as well be the same bright shade as Blueno as we walk around campus looking cluelessly at unfamiliar buildings, unwilling to ask directions and admit that we don’t have any idea where we’re going and that we’re going to be late to class. We spent our first few days at Brown trying to learn the five different names every entity here seems to have (our transfer advisors eventually sent a helpful pdf) and the acronyms that go along with all of them. I still rely entirely on Google Maps to navigate around campus.
My transfer class has been on campus for over a month now, reaching the point where we’ve learned not to call Jo’s “Josiah’s.” However, there are still times when we are unmistakably “other.” This is not to say that other students react negatively to us—it is simply that it is too easy to feel as though we are imposters hidden among the real Brown students. I’ve heard many of my friends express confusion at how they’ve managed to “sneak past” the admissions office to get here. The first words out of my mouth when I saw my acceptance were “I’m not worthy.” Most of us seem to be in a drawn-out state of suspicion and disbelief. Some transfers choose not to introduce themselves as such while others, like me, still do so in order to explain some of the faux pas that we will inevitably make—any “first-year” mistakes or gaps in our knowledge. Who is Gail? What is Dear Blueno? Why is there a Beekeeping Society without any bees?
It’s hard to feel deserving of this place, and sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m not just a visitor surrounded by infinitely more qualified people. I’ve come to realize, however, that this feeling is not at all unique to transfers but is rather an inevitable piece of growing up. Everyone has something that they feel makes them incongruous, whether it be their background, some physical feature, or just a bad case of imposter syndrome. The hope, of course, is that this is not a permanent state. At this point, Blueno has been thoroughly accepted into the Brown community. Blueno-themed Facebook pages seem to be everywhere, and students have even created Blueno Spring Weekend tank tops and laptop stickers. I think many (if not all) will be sad to see him go when he is moved in 2021—coincidentally, the same year I graduate. It is this acceptance that I, and I’m sure many others, hope to eventually feel at Brown. I hope that by the end of my time here, I can say “I go to Brown” without hesitation or incredulity and that soon, when I talk about this community, I will be able to say “we” instead of “they.”
When speaking on the overall philosophy of his work during a lecture on campus in October 2016, Fischer said that “Art is more of a question than an answer.” The time a student spends in college is the same. Coming to Brown wasn’t the answer to finding what we were supposed to do, it was just the place that would provide the environment for us to work on that answer. We might not ever find it, honestly, but that doesn’t mean that we’ve failed in any way. This is just another step in a very long process that will probably never end. We’re not supposed to feel like we know exactly what we’re doing or like we fit here seamlessly. Blueno certainly didn’t—and honestly I think he still doesn’t—but nevertheless he is part of this campus. He is exasperating, perplexing, and altogether ridiculous, but those are the very things that have made him part of campus culture. He’s strange and out of place, and so is every student when they arrive here. But if Blueno in all his bright blue glory can be welcomed so wholeheartedly, then I think our chances are pretty good.