In Liz Magic Laser’s five-channel “reality show” video installation In Real Life (2019), five contestants—freelance workers from around the globe—complete challenges aimed at bettering work/life balance. A graphic designer wears blue-light-blocking glasses to improve his sleep after a day at the computer monitor, while a social media guru seeks advice from a life coach on how to prioritize free time with friends. Laser hired the contestants through online gig labor websites like Fiverr and Upwork. She then recorded their conversations on Zoom, an online video conferencing platform that has rapidly become a household name for remote workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. The work reflects on the sense of disjuncture—feeling at once overextended and isolated—produced when we are far away from the people we work with.
Laser has recently returned to Zoom, but not as an artistic medium: like many others, she is transitioning to remote work. The graduate art classes she teaches at Columbia University and the School of Visual Arts are currently, like those at most institutions of higher education, online only. Students and instructors are confronting the challenge of working alone together to produce and evaluate artworks in virtual space.
Coincidentally, the last work that artist Carissa Rodriguez screened for her video students at Harvard before the university announced its campus evacuation was Laser’s In Real Life. Across disciplines, arts educators are introducing a new medium—video conferencing services—into their teaching. Although Rodriguez teaches a screen-based medium, which makes the adjustment seem less challenging than teaching sculpture online, she said that the move to teach via Zoom still “feels like our course just got flattened.” To Rodriguez, the platform seems a notch too self-reflexive, collapsing screenings, critiques, and discussions onto the equalizing plane of her students’ monitors, the same site where they browse social media and binge-watch TV shows. “Our classroom is now the screen,” she remarked, “and that’s also what we’re interrogating.”
Laser has found that her success with Zoom as a production tool, medium, and object of critique has not caught on in the classroom—at least not as a stop-gap measure for her students’ current production crises. Art education’s physical resources—studios, kilns, editing software, darkrooms, woodshops, and peers—are no longer accessible and have been replaced with corporate-style telepresence. Even if the technology worked perfectly and every student had a finished basement to convert into a well-equipped studio, there is still the fundamental problem concerning what kinds of art (and art instruction) a computer screen can do justice to. For instance, it’s impossible, under these circumstances, to provide comprehensive video instruction for material and spatial mediums like sculpture. As it becomes necessary to leave some studio practice standards behind, creative decisions about instruction will clarify what remains of art-making as the institutional resources that art relies on are temporarily unavailable.
ARTIE VIERKANT, AN ARTIST and educator who has mined the internet as an artistic medium for more than a decade, notes that the financial ruin and attendant resourcefulness brought on by COVID-19 evokes an earlier period of precarity for artists. “The 2008 financial crisis became a moment to interrogate why and how we made work in the first place, and to ask who that work was for and how accessible we wanted it to be,” said Vierkant, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. He was one of several artist-educators I spoke to during their first two weeks of self-isolation. In 2008, Vierkant notes, it felt necessary to stop relying on the spaces and conventions upheld by traditional gatekeepers of art and culture. “I don’t think it was a coincidence that Post-Internet art popped up in the midst of a financial crisis that was driven by real estate. This move to forge forward with newly available technology for conceptual, post-studio practice was really timely and apt. I think it had a lot more revolutionary potential than was realized within the art world.” On Twitter, Vierkant floated the idea of reviving “surf clubs” (web-surfing groups that coalesced around co-authored blogs) as settings for experimental arts education. These would provide conviviality under social distancing restrictions, but would evade the privacy compromises bundled with most institutions’ video platforms of choice. In recent weeks, Zoom, for one, has been scrutinized and sued for relaying user data to Facebook, among other security risks.
Like many educators, Travess Smalley, whose work and teaching already fluidly navigate between physical and digital space, bemoaned the loss of face-to-face intimacy that is essential to his teaching. Smalley leads an intensive, daylong first-year foundations course at the Rhode Island School of Design, one of several institutions that has decided to make courses pass/fail for the semester. The straightforward objective of the course—“to make things and to talk about making things,” as he puts it—will now be realized through weekly online drop-in sessions (designed to accommodate students in different time zones) punctuated by lectures by Smalley. He jokingly proposed meeting his students in Minecraft, a voice-chat-enabled, Lego-like video game where the goal is to build and “craft” with “mined” resources: an apotheosis of the virtualized material finding, production space sharing, and community gathering that COVID-19 restrictions necessitate.
Like Vierkant and Smalley, Constantina Zavitsanos, who teaches art at the New School, has similarly been committed to expanded perspectives on production and distribution for some time—both in their classroom and in their practice. Zavitsanos has always allowed students to attend class using Zoom, an option often necessary for those who cannot attend in person because they are disabled or sick, or because the work they create is best presented outside of traditional classroom critique. Zavitsanos’s de facto consideration of disability and access accommodates remote learning rather than casting it as a disruption to the norm, while also opening deeper questions about the presumed defaults of art-making for the class as a whole. When a student has a reason not to use the physical classroom to display their work, it reveals the physical and conceptual limits the classroom imposes. Zavitsanos’s approach also underscores the ableism inherent in equating physically showing up with learning.
“I think a lot about what other possibilities for mediation and transmission there are,” Zavitsanos said. “I don’t always think access has to be an accurate mimesis or an exact copy of what is going on. We can convey things in multiple modalities. We have to adapt.” Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Zavitsanos’s courses were already operating in what the artist calls “noncontiguous” spaces and temporalities. Zavitsanos sometimes offered instruction via Zoom or accepted students’ prerecorded performances for group critique. Though it should not take a pandemic to reveal the validity of this approach, Zavitsanos’s access-driven teaching emulates post-studio practices that can survive shifts in mediation while fostering “ways to make on the run, or from bed.”
MANY EDUCATORS HAVE approached dramatically altered spring semesters by embracing such contingent ways of making—without a chop saw, while taking care of children—and in so doing have opened larger conversations about making work without the expected institutional resources. “I think it’s important to not only talk about coronavirus, but to talk about how different types of practice are possible in pressed situations,” said Aki Sasamoto, who teaches sculpture at Yale. There, art students have petitioned for a partial tuition refund. The institution’s ninety-minute group critiques have been transformed into online reading and discussion groups on “flexible practices.” At the University of California, Los Angeles, Candice Lin is remotely teaching her ceramics students to fire their work at low temperatures with backyard materials: coal, fans, and barbecue grills. Kenneth Tam has considered adapting his syllabi to include exemplary models of work made with limited resources, citing Paul Thek’s “Teaching Notes: 4-Dimensional Design,” a list of fifty-two open-ended assignments that Thek gave his Cooper Union students between 1978 and ’81. Number Twenty-Five reads in part: “Design something to sell on the street corner. Design something to sell to the government.” Thirty-Nine includes “What are the personality problems of being an artist?” And Fifty asks,“What is capitalism? Communism? Socialism? What is leisure?” Written amid New York City’s economic low of the 1970s, Thek’s list offers an extraordinarily resourceful approach to artistic practice, art’s social and political purview, and the give-and-take relationship between object making and ideas.
Studio art faculty have long been asked to do a lot with a little. As it has in all other aspects of social and economic life, the COVID-19 pandemic has clarified certain abuses of higher education, particularly around the serious issue of adjunct labor, as detailed by artist and educator Kaitlin Pomerantz in a recent Hyperallergic article. The order to move classes online requires educators, Pomerantz explains, “to rewrite syllabi, learn new technology, use our own devices and data plans, and field the manifold needs of our students,” all without clear instructions or additional pay. Art educators are still troubleshooting questions about how to work with students remotely in real time, and the challenge is opening up existential questions about art as much as logistical ones. These are profound dilemmas that students and instructors are being forced to confront on the spot, and under immense stress: professional, financial, and health related. Several instructors commented that they now serve as mentors for rattled, displaced students who suffer under their school’s assumptions about the resources and obligations of their family homes (if they are fortunate enough to have homes to return to, much less convert into live-work art studios). And they all expressed empathy for their students, many of whom are not only distressed, but disappointed because they’re unable to make the work they want to make, or because they aren’t getting what they’ve paid for as consumers of higher education.
Out of necessity, art educators are adapting their teaching to ask what can be done in our distanced circumstances, often with implications beyond the immediate crisis. “It feels like my students are in shock. I hope they understand that they don’t have to produce as if this were business as usual,” said artist Fiona Connor. Connor has been facing a nineteen-hour time difference while teaching at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena from her native New Zealand, where she recently and temporarily returned. One of the first questions she posed to students individually via email was “What is making work?”
The material deficits and reliance on mediation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing reflection on the fundamentals of how art is taught and how it enters into discourse. It would be opportunistic to turn a public health crisis, made worse by early governmental neglect, into an artistic prompt. Still, the personal, pedagogical activities that are taking place now will greatly expand the kinds of places where art school happens, and where art is made—hotel quarantine, suburban driveways, on the bus, in a voice memo—and where it can continue to belong. Though particular challenges posed by the shift online vary widely across disciplines and institutions, the crisis invites a fundamental rethinking of art education—one that’s already revealing lessons for the post-pandemic future.