Drexel Professor Wants to Help Us All Have a Big Talk

Civil Dialog mockup

Drexel Professor Frank Lee will turn a building on Drexel's campus into an interactive art installation intended to create a space for civil discourse.

There’s a lot to talk about right now and social distancing hasn’t made it easy to get it all out. Drexel University Professor Frank Lee, PhD, who is known for visually appealing and nostalgic architectural art installations, is hoping to provide a forum for conversation with some assistance from a seven-story building in Philadelphia.

Lee’s latest project is an effort to promote a wide-ranging interaction on social issues and current events in hope of fostering catharsis and closeness in a world that’s growing more isolated and anxious by the day. To do it, his team of students and technologists will moderate a twitter thread and present select comments in an animated graphic that will be projected in high definition above West Philadelphia on the side of Nesbitt Hall at 33th and Market Streets on Drexel’s campus. The project, called “Civil Dialogs,” is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and will be held on four nights, from 9-10:30 p.m. from Aug. 12-15.

Civil Dialog - Beta Test 5/22

“Our hope is that this project will create a lasting, productive and informative dialogue between groups who may not have otherwise had the opportunity to communicate openly to one another,” said Lee, a professor in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and director of the Entrepreneurial Game Studio in Drexel’s ExCITe Center. “We want this to be a space where residents and viewers can develop empathetic views and become co-creators of public space – both virtual and on Drexel’s campus.”

civil dialog user experience

The conversation will take physical form on the south wall of the Nesbitt Hall building, which is the home of Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health. It will unfold on social media in a comment thread facilitated by @Civil_Dialog, an account managed by Lee’s team at the Entrepreneurial Game Studio. Discussion questions will be tweeted by the team and it will select replies that will be projected on the building.

Both the Twitter thread and building display will be live streamed on Twitch and Twitter Periscope so that people around the world can fully participate in the dialogue.

A wide range of topics for the conversation will be provided by students from Drexel’s Pennoni Honors College. Led by Dean Paula Marantz Cohen, PhD, students and faculty members in the College have been facilitating community discussions on challenging issues facing our nation — including sexism in politics, criminal justice reform, environmental justice, gentrification and systemic racism — for a number of years via its Pennoni Panels events. Cohen sees this event as another way for people to engage in the important work of listening and learning through conversation.

“This project reflects Frank Lee’s usual originality and creativity. He is always trying to find new ways to link his digital media skills with civic space and engagement.” Cohen said. “We in the Pennoni Honors College are glad to promote this and encourage our students to take part.”

Lee’s previous undertakings connected Philadelphians from around the city by turning the 29-story Cira Centre office building into a giant arcade game using its LED array on several occasions. And, most recently, he used the building as a canvas for new games created by area middle-school students. With the Civil Dialog project, which was inspired by a Westphal College student project from 2010, called Social Graffiti, Lee is once again striving to help people connect – this time from a greater distance, but perhaps in a more meaningful way.

“We really want this to be a chance for people to express thoughts and feelings that have been weighing on them during the pandemic,” Lee said. “It’s important that we all keep talking about these issues in a civil fashion. In many ways this conversation has already been happening, so this event is just one way to remind us that we are all in this together and we need to do our best to listen to and support one another.”

In addition to Lee, a number of students from Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, and alumni of Drexel’s Entrepreneurial Game Studio, helped to execute this project, including Tom Sharpe, Utkarsh Dwivedi, Kate Wagner, A.J. Easterday, Sarah Roach, Anna Panczner, Isabella Haro-Uchimura, and the students of DIGM591 from Winter 2020.