Vis-a-thon 2021

The Death Behind the Smiles


Asta Zerue Habtemichael Doctoral Student, Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island

Jack Madden PhD, MFA Candidate, RISD, Digital + Media


Joy Ko

While we live the American dream, we are oblivious to the toxic chemicals (PFASs) that we interact within our daily life. We as consumers of these products help their bulk production and we get exposed to these pollutants through physical, chemical, and biological interaction on a daily basis. Using light effects, projection, and collage work, a sculpture was created to deliver a message about both the pollutants and the role humans play in their sources, fate, and transport.


“During the initial brainstorming stages of the project, I had in mind creating a 3D simulation model to tell the story of persistent organic materials and personalize the issue with the individual who would be experiencing the simulation. However, through our discussions, I came to learn how physical pieces of art could be more advantageous for creating a message that I had in mind.

Asta Zerue Habtemichael

“This project was a great opportunity to reflect on art’s consciousness. When tackling the subject as pervasive as pollution and waste it's unavoidable to contribute to the issue in the construction and display of the piece. The same issue would be encountered in a project that examines climate change where every material, fabrication method, or source of energy plays into the larger issue. We needed to think about how to balance this problem of creating something while being conscious of how the creative process contributes to the issue the artwork is trying to raise awareness.

Jack Madden

“In the process of developing the narration and how that story can be told through the art piece, I came to learn there are a lot of similarities in thought process, approach, and rigor that I use in my scientific research design with that of the process that goes into designing and creating an art piece. Through this collaboration, we both learned new things about each other’s fields which made it easier for us to later develop a project that was salient to the message we want to convey.”

Asta Zerue Habtemichael

“I had an eye-opening experience through this project. Prior to this experience, communicating the science that I do was mostly limited to writing blogs, presentations, and peer review papers. The collaboration in this project has introduced me to a variety of communication tools and raised art consciousness.”

Asta Zerue Habtemichael

Installation Video

“I made several design choices that reflected the conceptual intent of the project, from using materials from my own trash to using scrap wood, and reclaimed hardware. The amount of scrap material was kept to a minimum and once the piece is finished its material will not enter the waste stream unless it is thrown away. Having viewers be aware of these considerations is important to the piece; it shows that as creators and consumers there is sometimes very little choice in what materials are available and also little control of the waste stream after you throw something away. We are all a part of this with little direct power over the issue but we can work consciously to increase awareness and call out the chemical manufacturers who do have direct power over the source of these pollutants.“

Jack Madden

Tools Used in the Project

Scrap Wood + Hardware Personal Trash Glass Base Ball Fan Magnets


© The Death Behind the Smiles, 2021

This material is based upon work supported in part by the National Science Foundation under EPSCoR Cooperative Agreement #OIA-1655221.
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.