By John Mirisola '11
“Multiple Universes,” because anybody who has more than two conversations with Brian Glenney would be unsurprised to discover that the assistant professor of philosophy could only be just who he is, do just as he does, with the help of some metaphysical gymnastics. Dr. Glenney is, it seems, every potential version of himself, all at once.
Young Brian is a well-known Seattle area graffiti artist. He is convinced that good art must be subversive; it must “defamiliarize the familiar.” So he defamiliarizes. Decades later, Glenney still finds places to paint: legal walls, indoor skateparks, nephews’ bedrooms. It’s rebellious expression reborn through the eyes of a family man.
A sixteen-year-old Brian joins a band, The Guilty, with two indie rock soon-to-be-legends: David Bazan and Damien Jurado. They play 30 shows in just over a year, but split up before Glenney has the chance to unleash himself upon the musical masses.
He starts two West Coast “skate churches.” Imagine youth group with more bruised shins (and also, significantly: more punks, skate rats, and vandals than would ever find reason to attend a normal church service).
Glenney earns his Ph.D. from USC, where he works with Dallas Willard. He becomes a published philosopher, specializing in the study of perception, philosophical psychology, and the life and early work of Adam Smith. In 2012 alone he publishes five scholarly articles, and he has nearly completed a new book.
Dr. Glenney, David Botticello ’12 and Zach Capalbo ’12 wander Harvard Square, arms telescoped zombie-like, wearing heavily modified blacked-out ski goggles, the fruit of their collaborative development and construction of a sensory substitution device that converts visual stimuli into sound. Shapes and colors are represented through different beeps and hums. They have come to Cambridge to test the device in an open environment. Though still in its formative stages, the device works: after they overcome the window-bumping, elbow-bruising learning curve, Glenney and the students can navigate crowded streets, climb stairs, and follow a path, completely blindfolded. They believe their device could one day, quite literally, give new sight to the blind.
Passersby, as confused as they are inspired, frequently mistake the group for Harvard researchers.
“Neal.” Dr. Glenney speaks conspiratorially to a former student on his cell phone. “Check Facebook in an hour to see brilliance,” Brian says. For a week, Brian and Gordon staff member Jean-Paul Disciscio have been experimenting with camera lenses made from actual fish eyes. They have juw5 taken the very first successful image using the fish-eye camera—a distorted and surreal portrait, now Glenney’s Facebook profile picture.
Over the next few days, they make more pictures: shots of Jean-Paul, of the Glenney family, of the unfortunate fish. Brian has hopes of eventually building an art exhibit around the images—maybe a coffee table book. A long-time vegetarian, Glenney is interested in exploring what our world looks like through the unique perceptual equipment of a fish—and in sharing those sights with others.
“It is time to rebrand the wheelchair image,” Dr. Glenney declares in a Huffington Post blog. “Visual representation matters. When I consume images about objects, ideas, and other people, I can't help but generate unconscious attitudes about them.” So with Boston artist Sarah Hendron, Gordon College creative cirector Tim Ferguson Sauder, and the disability advocacy group Triangle, he's been updating the wheelchair icon.
Glenney and Hendron met in Glenney’s improvised Philosophical Psychology Lab in the basement of Frost Hall last year and decided to change the representation. The image used for years on handicap parking spaces and in other public areas depicts an awkwardly rigid body, indistinguishable from the profile of the front-and-center wheelhair; the updated icon focuses on the active, embodied person using the chair as a tool for mobility.
The groundswell beneath the initiative is building steadily. Churches, cities (including New York), businesses and nonprofits (including Gordon College) are making the switch to the new symbol in response to the Accessible Icon Project’s charge to rethink the damaging perceptions fostered by the traditional icon.
Perception, art, advocacy. These are the common forces that govern Dr. Glenney’s many worlds. How we see things matters, how we respond creatively matters, how we take care of what’s around us matters. This is the gravity that pulls all Glenney’s efforts into orbit.
John Dixon Mirisola is a communications specialist in the Office of College Communications at Gordon.