Empowering the Artists of Tomorrow Amid the Pandemic
By Christine Byrd
Theaters, concert halls and art galleries have been closed for nearly a year, but the global pandemic hasn’t stopped artists from creating. If anything, it’s fueling rapid incorporation of technology across all artistic mediums and inspiring new ways to create and share art.
“I look to our students to be the leaders in incorporating technology in the arts,” says Molly Lynch, professor and chair of dance. “When we talk about empowering the artists of tomorrow, our students are right on the front edge of this fundamental shift in the arts, and we as faculty are supporting and encouraging them.”
Here’s a look at how the support of faculty and additional resources from the school are helping student artists thrive amid challenges.
Without access to campus art production studios, students resourcefully carved out spaces at home to make their art, whether in their childhood bedroom, an emptied dorm space, on an apartment balcony, or in a garage. The faculty worked closely with students to help them create tool kits with interesting materials at hand, rethink workspaces, and arrange and equip them to maximize their own creativity and productivity.
“Students have been able to tap into these really personal spaces of making,” says Jennifer Pastor, a professor of art who teaches sculpture. “They can’t escape meaning. Some are isolated far away from home, or back home with parents, transitioning or coming out in a non-supportive environment, or conjuring spaces they used to inhabit, and they make use of all of it. They blow me away.”
Several students are at home on other continents for now, and live classes may occur in the middle of their night. Sarah Awad, who teaches drawing and painting, adjusted to this by recording instructional videos students can watch on demand, and providing personalized critiques on their work via video recordings, as well.
For those aspiring to be professional artists, the pandemic offers a realistic, if premature, look at a professional artist’s daily work in isolation.
“I’m so much more self-disciplined than I was before,” says fourth-year art major Alexis Miranda. “Also, I’ve had the opportunity to become more comfortable with myself, figuring out what works for me in my personal space, and what morning routines help me feel better during the day.”
Using videography skills she gained from two courses on performance art, Miranda recorded the process of making an artwork about “cancel culture,” in which she inscribed words on a wooden slab and then plastered it over.
“How do you communicate to an audience that no one’s going to be in the presence of?”
Videotaping the process of making the piece was fundamental to the work itself. This issue of documenting their work has now become essential to student artists, who have to consider how to share their creations with audiences all over the world, according to Pastor.
“How do you communicate to an audience who’s not in the presence of the work?” asks Pastor. She points to artists like Robert Smithson, whose work Cinema Cavern and Nonsites, and David Hammons’ Ballroom where the physical presence of an audience or site is absent and absence itself is meaningful, as newly relevant to students in the pandemic.
“This experience may yield some independent contexts that I’m hoping they invent and take with them as they create their own context as young artists,” Pastor adds.
The art department will leverage technology to allow artists to begin working together on campus, and to showcase installations to remote viewers via the web. An installation space is set up in the Art, Culture Technology building that allows up to three artists to work together and connect with an entire class via high-speed internet connection, high-res cameras, and a 70-inch screen. Similar portable setups are being developed as well for students to work with at off-campus sites, and faculty make regular “studio visits” to students via Zoom.
Image: Student Alexis Miranda painting in a makeshift art studio inside her San Francisco apartment.
Music students have carried on practicing their instruments and honing their skills thanks to online classes over Zoom, but finding ways to perform together from afar remains a significant challenge.
“Remote teaching has badly affected the music department because we can’t perform together or even rehearse together because there’s always a lag on the internet,” says Kei Akagi, UCI Chancellor’s Professor and director of the jazz program.
In one innovative twist, Darek Oles, professor of music, recorded certain ensemble parts at home and then sent them to his students to dub their parts over.
Soon, though, the department will play together and perform remotely thanks to experimental software called Jack Trip that music professor Michael Dessen has been working with for years. This winter, the school will unveil its first performance using the technology, and on March 3, 2021, UCI will have its first ever virtual jazz concert for the public.
“It’s really a new world where we’re going to rely on this new equipment that’s barely out there, very experimental, and has to be acquired. But we’re getting close to having some combos be able to play together in real time,” says Akagi. “This gives the students something to work for, because they miss performing for an audience. Now, we’re seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
One silver lining in the closure of performance venues and newfound openness to Zoom is that professional musicians and other artists are more readily available to drop by classes virtually for guest lectures. The music department has already brought several world-renowned musicians for guest lectures, including five-time Grammy winner and Guggenheim Fellow Billy Childs, to teach and inspire students at this difficult time.
Katherine Lingle and her two roommates are dance majors living together as a Zot Pod, a household group of students who have been tested for COVID-19 and sequestered together. They rearranged the living room furniture in their Irvine apartment to serve as a dance studio on weekdays. The dance department offered 16-square-foot pieces of Marley, a standard dance floor, as well as 4-foot portable ballet barres to students, thanks to funding from the university and CTSA donors.
“Just adding the Marley square and ballet barre this quarter has helped me get into the mindset that ‘OK I’m taking a real ballet class right now,’ even though I’m in my living room and on Zoom,” says Lingle.
With dance companies around the world on hiatus, the students are benefiting from a series of remote guest lectures and master classes with a Q&A sessions with highly acclaimed dancers, choreographers and directors including New York City Ballet’s Wendy Whelan, Martha Graham principal dancer Abdiel Jacobson, Lines Ballet’s director Alonzo King, Hubbard Street’s Glenn Edgerton, José Limón’s Dante Puleio, and the namesake of Camille A. Brown & Dancers.
The students are also rapidly developing skills in videography and screen dance, along with the faculty. For this winter’s Dance Visions, the annual faculty dance showcase, students auditioned live on Zoom, and the faculty are collaborating with the students and the production team to find new ways to share their performance online.
“Many of us came to the conclusion that this has been a good learning experience,” says Cara Laughlin, a fourth-year majoring in dance performance. “I had no prior experience recording myself, working with camera angles, uploading videos or adapting choreography for the screen.”
Her classmate, Lingle, who serendipitously took a screen dance class in the spring, also finds the silver lining in performing online. “It was a huge learning curve, but it’s helping me add footage to my dance reel and preparing me for when I audition for companies in the future.”
“We’re learning to reach new audiences and connect with different people around the world.”
The shift toward screen dance and online performances is here to stay, says Molly Lynch, professor and chair of the dance department.
“Yes, certainly we’ll go back to live theater for the visceral and community experience, but there will also be more online videotaping and streaming along with it,” Lynch says. “We’re learning to reach new audiences and connect with different people around the world. That’s not going to go away. This is going to be a reset for dance in the 21st century.”
Image: Dance major Katherine Lingle gets ready for dance class in the living room she shares with two other students. Students were provided ballet barres, squares of Marley floor and other equipment for home use, thanks to the generosity of donors and the CTSA Student Resource Fund.
Phil Thompson, professor of drama, points out two main challenges with online learning for actors: Physical isolation and the delay caused by unreliable internet connections. This wreaks havoc with the very skills that students are trying to learn such as presence, timing and physicality. To minimize these difficulties, Thompson is focusing this year on speech work and accents which are easier to convey across the remote format, especially in one-on one-sessions.
As in all other areas of arts, actors, producers and directors are also rapidly developing their film skills, and creating makeshift recording studios at home, which Thompson says will serve them in the future.
“You don’t have to fly to New York to audition, and if you’ve had to set up a decent home studio, and put in the time to become a confident filmmaker, you’ll be ahead of the competition when the time comes to audition remotely,” Thompson says.
The current challenges also infused new energy into writing and creation of new artworks, according to Juliette Carrillo, associate professor of directing, who turned last spring’s directing class into a course on writing radio plays, or podcasting. In the fall, she teamed up with Vincent Olivieri, professor of sound design, who is teaching students how to build their own sound for the podcasts. Carrillo has also been experimenting with recording original monologues. Following the model of “The 24 Hour Plays,” she had UCI students write monologues and student actors perform them in the course of a single day, posting the readings online.
Soon, Carrillo will begin rehearsing with students currently located in Puerto Rico and Korea in anticipation of her spring production, holding out hope that some form of physically distant but in-person recording will be possible.
Carrillo and her colleagues have made special efforts to support professional artists and benefit UCI students by arranging guest lectures from such industry leaders as Stephanie McGee, the artistic director of the storied
New Orleans’ Junebug Productions, and acclaimed African American playwright Eric Micha Holmes.
“The live theater has been crushed, but the theater lives in people and the people are still there,” says Thompson. “We’re going to be super happy to be back in a room together, but I’m actually looking forward to what we carry out of this current experience — not just resilience and autonomy, but practice in perceiving what each student’s own method of learning is.”
Making their way
Despite the myriad challenges budding artists face right now, many are finding silver linings, and exploring new avenues of their personal artistic practice.
“My sense is that if you can make —literally make — your way through this moment when it seems to be impossible to create, when we’re faced with the surreal extremes of this crisis, then you will have the most to reap when we come out of it,” says Pastor. “Our students who ‘make’ their way through this are going to come out stronger, more inventive artists.”
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