Photo by Dave Titensor

The Cry Closet Behind Nemo Miller's viral sensation

University of Utah art student Nemo Miller’s life changed on April 24, 2018, when her final project for her woodshop class became international news.

It took one tweet from a fellow U student and about 24 hours for word about Miller’s work, The Cry Closet, to reach nearly every corner of the globe. The response was uniformly emphatic but ranged drastically in sentiment.

Some thought the three-foot-by-three-foot “safe place” installed in the J. Willard Marriott Library during finals week was the perfect antidote for stressed students who needed to take a breath, regain composure, and get back in the action. Others, many of whom didn’t realize the installation was an art piece and not an intervention devised by the university, deemed it an unnecessary measure to comfort an already overcoddled generation.

The response’s magnitude was overwhelming, but the disagreement didn’t bother Miller BFA’18. Success, for her, was gauged by the number of students helped and the discourse created. And the volume of both continued to rise for days and weeks.

To learn more, I chatted with Miller and Kelsey Harrison, an assistant professor in the Department of Art & Art History, who gave the assignment.

GOMBERG: Kelsey, tell us about the assignment and what inspired it?

HARRISON: The project asked students to apply critical attention to a shared social space, to notice who uses the space, why, how, and to observe what and who is missing. I asked my students to design and fabricate an object that would solve a problem they identified. The assignment emphasized the role that the material world plays in shaping social reality, and therefore the role that those who make the material world (sculptors, architects, etc.) also play.

GOMBERG: Nemo, what was your process in tackling the project?

MILLER: The first iteration of The Cry Closet was born in conversation early in the semester. The idea was tongue-in-cheek because I thought it’d be funny to make a closet since I identify as a lesbian. The title was used to reinforce this humor, which led me to think of a more serious and potentially genuine application. As the semester progressed, the closet actually became something I felt I needed to escape the very daunting reality that I was graduating soon and had no concrete plans*; I made the assumption that I wasn’t the only person on campus to feel this way.

[Web exclusive] GOMBERG: Kelsey, what other problems did students in your class identify and address?

HARRISON: Most students identified problems in broader societal terms. One student felt there weren’t enough spaces for slow, aimless conversation and connection between people, so they built a context inside which that could happen. Another lamented the loss of playfulness in adults, and so they built a large interactive environment to invite adults to play.

GOMBERG: Nemo, what was it like to watch your work get such an intense and far-reaching response?

MILLER: It was surreal. I was in class when a friend tagged me on the original tweet; at that time, it only had a few hundred likes and retweets. I went back to the art building and was so excited—I was “local Twitter famous.” Then, I remember watching the likes and retweets grow exponentially, and I bounced back and forth between excited and overwhelmed. The next day it was trending on Twitter, and after getting several media interview requests, I realized the magnitude, and it became a lot less exciting.

GOMBERG: Kelsey, one of the conversations that came up among fans and critics alike was about how Nemo’s art project should have been graded. Will you share your grading criteria for the assignment?

HARRISON: Popularity is not a criterion. I don’t even ask myself if I like the work when grading it. I am looking for complexity, consideration, and risk. I am looking for students to push themselves to the edge of their capacities and understandings. I grade from multiple perspectives since, to be successful in artmaking, we have to work within both the art discourse and the broader social context. Nemo’s work engaged with the daily lives of U students and with art history simultaneously.

[Web exclusive] GOMBERG: Nemo, what advice do you have for students whose work goes viral?

MILLER:

  • Hang on; it’s A LOT of attention really fast, and then it’s gone just as fast.
  • If you are getting interview requests, vet them first.
  • When reading the comments, make sure you are able to read the negative ones with a heaping tablespoon of salt. I had a few I was reading that I let get to me, mostly because they were about me and not my work.
  • Ask friends to send you some of the more positive comments they see. Once the trolls come, it’s harder to see positive comments.

GOMBERG:  The Cry Closet was covered by news outlets from Teen Vogue to the BBC to USA Today. What was your favorite coverage, and why?

HARRISON: My favorite piece of media on The Cry Closet was Tucker Carlson’s April 27 “Liberal Sherpa” segment. His line of logic stemming from Nemo’s work was revealing of the way he and his ideological peers see the world. From the existence of The Cry Closet, he inferred that feelings were being excessively accommodated, thereby attacking the masculine characteristic of emotional repression, and thus leaving us less able to fight wars. I learned so much about the world he lives in because of how he interpreted a cultural object. Nemo’s work showed us how different our cultural lenses can be. The object becomes a kind of Rorschach Inkblot Test that reveals us more than it reveals itself.

Also, I love that the Internet generated the media attention and not the other way around. The public told the media what was culturally relevant. The piece was instrumentalized as a sign of millennial fragility, which surprised all of us since we weren’t looking through the lens that made that interpretation possible.

MILLER: I have two favorites. The first was also the Tucker Carlson segment, for the same reasons Kelsey mentioned. The other was the Slate article “Let’s Embrace Our Blubbering and Make Cry Closets Happen.” I appreciated its slightly sarcastic tone, interpretations of society’s rules around the display of emotions, and the way they talked about how some people were hysterical over people needing a break to have human feelings.

This article also did a good job summarizing how our society doesn’t allow for expression of feelings, such as crying, in public. It said, “There’s an unfortunately popular misconception that being a mature adult means taking all of life’s gut punches with stoic silence and a stiff upper lip.” That hits on the lack of emotional maturity and expression that I think is stunting our society from really progressing.

[Web exclusive] GOMBERG: Final thoughts?

HARRISON: I am so impressed with the way Nemo handled the insanity that is viral attention. I think the attention, whether negative or positive, indicates that the subject of Nemo’s work is a timely and relevant one. What a way to finish your BFA.

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