Iteach at Sierra Nevada University, a small liberal arts college in Incline Village, near North Lake Tahoe. This spring, we had three students involved in our BFA process when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Under ordinary circumstances, our BFA students have a semester focused on installing a solo exhibition at one of our two campus galleries. They work with a committee of faculty members over the course of two semesters, and then install and unveil their show, giving an artist talk. It’s modeled on the thesis show process graduate students commonly follow in an MFA program.
Our cohort of students this term was Lucas “Maddog” Angier, James Cowan, and Murielle Campbell. To say the pandemic threw them a curve ball would be an understatement. When Nevada’s social distancing measures were put into place, SNU moved all of its instruction online, and the art faculty decided that the students wouldn’t be installing their work in the campus galleries. We would move the exhibitions and the artist talks online. This article is intended to give a taste of what the experience was like—and what successes and disappointments arose from the process.
SNU’s gallery director Anza Jarschke hosted the receptions, and Daniel Kelly, Director of Marketing, streamed the broadcasts over a multiplicity of platforms—YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, Twitter, Periscope, and Twitch. Anza—who emceed, hosted the chat, and managed audience questions—remarked: “My ongoing joke has been, ‘I knew I’d need skills in the apocalypse, but I didn’t know it would be these ones.’”
Creating a refuge
The first student to launch a virtual reception was Maddog, who was working primarily as a printmaker. His work was a profusion of prints with bold black outlines, blocked in with vivid colors, with a recurring eye motif—sometimes disembodied, sometimes embedded in columnar forms that reference aspen trunks, often throwing out thick eyelashes like palm leaf spears. He took his bedroom, and basically wallpapered it with his work—the prints reaching from floor to ceiling, as if he had taken refuge from the pandemic by crawling into his own images.
And in fact, that was partly his strategy: “This has been extremely therapeutic—feeling so cooped up,” Maddog said. He conducted his reception with lights swirling around his space, and for some stretches, with music playing in the background. Having drawn a lot of inspiration from his experiences of the art at Burning Man, he explained, “My goal was to have similar things that you might find in Black Rock City.” It was like he was compelled to make a snow-globe miniaturization of it in his own living space.
A virtual venue means more presentation decisions
James came next. His work was a series of paintings that, from a distance (or rather, in low resolution, since I never got to see them in person) looked like abstract canvases existing mostly in grayscale, with contrasting splashes of texture threaded together with waving lines. On closer inspection, there are figurative elements delineated in a cartooning idiom, and the wavy lines reveal themselves to be pipes, tubes, or cords—some convoluted system of conveyance. Characters—usually children—are hidden among the scumble, and blocky, graffiti-derived forms are woven into the pictures, suggesting de-gravitized sections of architecture.
James created a Keynote presentation, adding some effects to his transitions, in an attempt to add visual interest. “It was a relatively new way to proceed, and there was still an aesthetic balance to be found between function and overzealous effects during the show,” he said. “The animations I put into my presentation were just a bit glitchy when viewed over the internet. I ask myself if they were needed to get my point across or just something flashy to put the painting on blast.”
One visual approach I did find effective was James’ method of exploring the paintings by creating slow animated “fly-throughs” along the paths of the tubes and wires. Though that flying motion wasn’t as smooth as James hoped—with a bit of visual stutter as it was broadcast—the effect of having him narrate as we moved through the invented spaces of his images was involving. It had something of the feeling of moving through someone’s mind, as they’re thinking through a problem or a memory.
Pros & cons of virtual walls
Murielle’s work was a series of paintings of women, often nude, with supernaturally flowing hair. One woman is partially covered by running blue rivulets of hair, which make her look half-submerged in water, an Ophelia awake to her viewers. Another woman, bruised, is on a floor leaning against a bed, her blond hair flowing across it like ruffled sheets, the farthest strands defying gravity to corkscrew up towards the ceiling. Perhaps the most arresting image, painted in a muted reddish palette, features a woman grabbing her own hair in a fist—and at the end of that dark stream of hair, another head is attached, disembodied but apparently alive.
Before her live stream, Murielle installed her paintings in a virtual gallery online through the app Artsteps. You can “hang” images in a virtual 3D space, which the viewer can navigate through by clicking around. Murielle liked the flexibility of the space in the app, but recognized it as a compromise: “I liked being able to design the gallery to my liking,” she said. “Not many galleries will let you move walls around or even paint walls black. … I feel like it was the best option in my case. I wouldn’t have been happy with just showing them off on a webpage or on a PowerPoint.”
I can see how an app like Artsteps could be a useful pre-visualization tool, to lay out work in a flexible way before doing a physical installation. As a teacher, it allowed me some insight into Murielle’s visual strategies—the way she was thinking through connecting the images, and having them play off each other in the space. But as an experience, it’s the architectural equivalent of trying to make tofu taste like meat.
Murielle’s YouTube stream was unceremoniously shut down about halfway through. Daniel surmised the work had run afoul of YouTube’s nudity filter. Murielle was annoyed to lose a chunk of her live audience, but felt “almost honored to be able to say I have had my art censored.” Her work directly addresses female agency. Her painted women often confront their potential objectification with forthright gazes, sent directly at the viewer. Being labeled “impermissible” functioned, in a way, as a technological confirmation of her artistic preoccupations.
When I asked Anza (who is non-binary and uses the pronoun “they”) to sum up their experience as a host, they said: “I believe we need community now more than ever. The virtual BFA receptions were unquestionably important to maintain a semblance of our community, but I would be fooling myself to believe that they built something that wasn’t already there. In the comments, our current (and past) students were cheering on the presenter and giving accolades to their work. It re-lit the bridge already between us that had grown dark in these times, but didn’t create one out of thin air.”
Anza also noted that after receptions, community members usually stick around to chat or connect over dinner. “The hardest part for me was in that moment at the end of each talk when I said, ‘Well, that’s it for now. Stay safe and wash your hands!’” they said. “It felt so empty and so far away from what I want to be fostering.”
I think I felt my own sense of disconnect most sharply when James was talking about the backstory to one of his paintings, which had started as a retrospective illustration of an eye surgery he had undergone at 18 months. This piece of painted autobiography became connected, for James, to the experience of his nephew – who suffers from an illness that has required long bouts of hospitalization. The viewers – myself included – started mashing down on the heart react on Facebook live, sending up flocks of red icons. I felt a twinge of resentment that, to express my reaction, I only had at my disposal some icons designed to package emotions into monetizable quanta. At the same time, I was grateful for the opportunity to express something.
Gallery director’s tips & tech reviews for your own online art event
By Anza Jarschke
Pick a platform
I’m not tech wizard (although I’m quickly becoming one). But my first advice to hosting an online reception would be to figure out where your audience is and meet them there. Pick one platform. It’ll make your life much easier. One of the goals of our receptions was to build and test our multiplatform livestreaming ability and engagement for other events in the future (like a virtual graduation). So we would push the same content to YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo, Twitter, Periscope, and Twitch all concurrently. I would only monitor for comments on YouTube and Facebook, and someone else would watch Twitch. To push out to all these platforms was heavy on my personal internet connection and compromised the viewer experience until we brought in a broadcaster with a more robust tech setup.
Know your programs
We worked with two main programs, 1. Open Broadcaster System (OBS) which is a free, opensource, program that is amazing and I cannot say enough wonderful things about it and 2. Vimeo’s Livestream Studio program. From there we would livestream to our Vimeo Pro account where we had linked the many other accounts and let Vimeo do the actual simulcasting. Both of these programs allowed us to build out the stream and add videos, images, picture in picture, text, and more, while also controlling audio and video feeds. I personally loved OBS for its ease and intuitive use, but we had to switch to Livestream Studio for more functionality within our Vimeo Pro account. Vimeo gave us the ability to have a guest link where the artist could log in. With OBS, I had a personal zoom call on my computer with the artist that I screenshared out (so this meant my computer and internet was: 1. streaming my video and audio to the artist 2. Receiving the video and audio of the artist 3. Processing the production in OBS and 4. Actually sending the OBS produced content to Vimeo for livestreaming. PLUS I was often also trying to watch the streams online to make sure they weren’t glitching and monitoring comments, so that was another 2+ video streams I was trying to view all at the same time. It’s a small miracle I didn’t actually melt my laptop or router.
I recommend having a broadcaster in addition to the presenter. It’s ideal if you are in the same place, and the broadcaster is running tech, and the presenter is just presenting. A huge amount of our challenge was getting a video stream from a separate network (with varying strengths of internet on their end) and also pushing it out—hence why we switched to Livestream Studio to be able to use the guest link to reduce processing on my end. Also, have the fastest internet you can. Even if it is the lowest tier (like me!), I actually hardwired in with an ethernet cable to bump up my speed and stability. Every little bit counts.
Sound quality 101
A quick note about audio: I didn’t have a fancy microphone, but I found that wearing headphones and having the headphone microphone closer to my mouth made a much clearer audio than just having my laptop pick up all the noise in my house. If someone is sharing audio from a file, have the audio route directly into the program instead of playing on your speakers and having your microphone pick it up. That takes a bit of research, but is doable.
Don’t wait for perfection
Finally, just do it! If you wait until you have the perfect equipment and know everything, you’ll never do it. There are expensive and intimidating livestreaming kits and switchers, but we went for it with what we had. Create your own content and broadcast away!