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Virtual High: How Otis College’s 2021 Annual Exhibition Came Alive Online

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Despite the campus closing due to the pandemic, program chairs and faculty discovered dynamic ways to approach this year’s Virtual Annual Exhibition that also prepared students for life in a post-pandemic art and design world.
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Behind the scenes of Otis College Fashion Design's One World Fashion Show Videos

Behind the scenes of the Fashion Design program’s “One World” fashion show video shoot. Photo by Monica Nouwens

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The faculty, chairs, and assistant chairs of Otis College’s BFA and MFA programs have seen a glimpse into the near future while preparing students for this year’s Virtual Annual Exhibition, and their outlook is bright. The past year has presented unique opportunities—no one will ever diminish the challenges students confronted when the College adjusted to a new virtual learning environment last March—but unforeseen breakthroughs have been made in how better prepared they are for life after Otis. “Virtual school” wasn’t just out of necessity. All the gains from the collective problem-solving of the students and faculty, all the adapting and agility, has really prepared them for working in a world that is now permanently altered.

“We’ve had many conversations with students encouraging them to approach the challenges during the pandemic not from a Plan B mindset, but rather to work with the idea of a new normal,” says Kathrin Burmester, interim chair of the MFA Fine Arts program. “We saw it as an opportunity to support our students in preparing them and their practice for a world that will be more comfortable than ever to exist virtually.”

Prior to last year, Annual Exhibition at Otis College was a weekend in May that concluded with commencement, when students from all undergrad and graduate programs showcased their work or a finished culminating project in gallery exhibitions, architectural installations, product demonstrations, and the fashion show, among other ways. In planning for a second year of having to present this exciting event online due to public health restrictions, there was the benefit of time, experience, and also real-time observations of how the art and design worlds were changing. Insight from focus group sessions with students and industry veterans—who often descended on the campus for the Industry Night part of Annual Exhibition—went directly into the design of this year’s website. Many programs also have developed their own ancillary virtual showcase events for student work. 

“The industries we have been in contact with over the last year said the pandemic upended every aspect of their business. But it also created some positive outcomes, with the most significant being the use of digital tools to create virtual experiences for their customers,” says Steve McAdam, chair of the Product Design program at Otis. “The post-pandemic reality is that online digital tools and virtual communication and experiences are here to stay. Mastery of the use of digital tools to communicate and create will become a valued asset that industries will be looking for in new hires, and we need to prepare students accordingly.”

For the faculty and chairs, helping students hone their creativity and problem-solving skills through remote instruction will culminate in May’s virtual celebration, when students will have been primed in the capturing, display, and promotion of their work. They will do so using a variety of today’s necessary tools—video, Zoom, virtual galleries, websites, social media—and across all mediums of fine art, fashion, digital media, graphic design, architecture, product design, and toy design.

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Finding Opportunities

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Product Design is a prime example of the kinds of creative problem-solving students and faculty have had to make this year. Typically during Annual Exhibition, groups of students showed their work in kiosks in the North Building on campus. “There is an exponential effect that happens when you pick up an object,” McAdam says. “You feel its weight, texture, and form. You can play with it and see how it works. The engagement between the person enjoying the object and the object itself are in a physical space, not in a virtual context.” 

Some students have been able to book time in Otis’s labs and shops to finish their work, but others moved back home and resourced materials available to them. To level the playing field for all students, McAdam and Product Design faculty have emphasized the stories their students need to tell about the process of their work from concept to completion. “There is a story embedded in every object, and every object, intentionally or not, speaks to who put it there. Our focus in the program is on critical thinking and creativity,” he says. “It is important that students tell the story behind what inspired the project because it shows the evidence of their creativity and individuality.”

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“Virtually, you have to talk about yourself in a more rehearsed, less spontaneous way, and if you are not excited about your work, no one else is going to be.” —Product Design chair Steve McAdam

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Pre-pandemic, this type of storytelling happened organically in physical environments. McAdam likens the preparation for Annual Exhibition to a Broadway show and getting set up for opening night. “There is a lot to do in preparation for the exhibition, and by the time it’s finished the students are too tired to have stage fright or to be lost for words,” he says. “Virtually, it’s more challenging. You have to talk about yourself in a more rehearsed, less spontaneous way, and if you are not excited about your work, no one else is going to be.”

This year, students will record videos during which they’ll introduce themselves, give their background, and present their work. “They will become much more adept in preparing their visual portfolios than they were last year, whether they are digital or physical,” McAdam says. “They’ve had to put themselves in a different space, where the objects they’ve designed had to stand on their own and do a lot of the talking.”

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As a counterpoint, the student work across the three areas of emphasis in the Digital Media program—Animation, Game & Entertainment Design, and Motion Design—is apt for virtual showcasing since it is, by medium, digital. For in-person Annual Exhibition, student displays often comprised computer monitors, signage, business cards, and display art that students utilized to contextualize their work. In the past this included costumes, sculptures, and even video game or virtual reality consoles. But the primary work was digital, “the advantage being that students can be revising and tweaking it right up to the moment somebody walks up to them,” says assistant chair Kathleen Milnes. 

But what’s often lost on casual observers is that Digital Media work isn’t just bits and bytes, says program chair Harry Mott. “All the stuff that we do is people business,” he says. “We need to have those skills. We need to create things, but it’s also a very people-driven business. That’s why we spend a lot of time with students on everything from presentation techniques, to interview techniques, to just being really nice. [Someone] at Disney was talking about the fact that our students are so nice.” 

More than showcasing their collective work, Digital Media students looked to Annual Exhibition to meet employers; it wasn’t unusual for a student to be hired on the spot. To help fill that gap, Mott, Milnes, and faculty have been leveraging their relationships in the industry to get their students in front of prospective employers in other ways. “In terms of our instruction and our guest speakers, it’s been easier to get people because they don’t have to drive anywhere,” Milnes says. “The flexibility that online provides has been helpful, both in terms of Annual Exhibition, as well as just industry exposure.”

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“The opportunities in our fields have grown because the work can be done remotely. Right now, animation, because of all the streaming services, is booming.” —Digital Media assistant chair Kathleen Milnes

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In addition to guest speakers for lectures, Milnes says they will hold Zoom sessions with industry professionals for virtual senior reviews. “Students have learned how to use this as a mode of communication, because as some of our recruiters said, even if we are back physically, and if the studios are back physically, the ability to hire people who work remotely and interview people from anywhere is really a value,” she says. “The opportunities in our fields have grown because the work can be done remotely. Right now, animation, because of all the streaming services, is booming.”

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New Creative Toolboxes

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Students in the Communication Arts program and its two areas of emphasis—Graphic Design and Illustration—also have added significantly to their creative and practical toolboxes. “Our students have come to be incredibly adaptive, learning new tools like Zoom, Miro, Mozilla Hubs, and Cargo, as well as leveraging older tools like HTML/CSS that are uniquely suited to the task of making for the screen,” says Joe Potts, interim assistant chair of the Communication Arts program, which will be utilizing the Virtual Annual Exhibition website to showcase student work. “They’ve applied their ingenuity not only to the work itself, but also to its presentation, and to ways of communicating using a wide variety of channels—phone, Zoom, email, Discord, Slack, Jitsi, Microsoft Teams, etc. The flexibility of adapting on the fly to a uniquely challenging situation, and leveraging the tools at hand while actively asking questions of a perpetually shifting situation has provided them with a powerful set of tools that will open up all kinds of possibilities in a post-collegiate work environment.” 

For the students in the College’s BFA and MFA Fine Arts programs, showing work in a gallery setting was made possible through Senior Thesis Shows and MFA Thesis Exhibitions, which have been staged during the spring semester in both the Bolsky Gallery and throughout the Galef building on campus, with students installing their work—following health and social distancing guidelines—and then presenting it to audiences through virtual critiques and showings on Zoom. Guests have been invited to see the shows in-person by appointment, following strict health guidelines.

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This year, Fine Arts seniors will create their own website, in addition to including their work in the Virtual Annual Exhibition site, and also are working on a billboard project, posters, and they have experimented with creating interactive pieces for social media platforms like Tik Tok. They spent the spring semester undergoing a professional exhibition process, writing proposals and design ideas for how they want their work presented, and designing and producing a catalog.

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“The primary lesson from last year’s Virtual Annual Exhibition is that, as an artist, you have to produce a knock-out experience no matter what. This year we turned the restrictions into a way to do something completely different. In the end, more people saw our shows during the lockdown than they ever have.” —BFA Fine Arts chair Meg Cranston

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“Exhibitions aren’t showcases, they are profound, closely considered artistic experiences,” says Fine Arts chair Meg Cranston. “The exhibitions, catalog, website, and billboard the seniors create are works in themselves, artistically considered and designed…. The primary lesson [from last year’s Virtual Annual Exhibition] is that, as an artist, you have to produce a knock-out experience no matter what. This year we just ran with it. We turned the restrictions into a way to do something completely different…. In the end, more people saw our shows during the lockdown than they ever have.” 

Annually, MFA candidates write a thesis paper, mount individual thesis shows throughout the spring semester, hold open studios, and stage a group show of everyone’s work that coincides with Annual Exhibition. This year, the group show will be presented both physically and virtually. Open studios also were held on Instagram with students taking over the MFA Fine Arts Instagram account for a day during the month of April. “We learned last spring that the loss of materiality was a significant one for students,” says interim chair Burmester. “As a response, we committed to keeping the studio spaces available to students throughout the academic year, while staying in compliance with all safety regulations. At the same time, students have become quite dextrous at crossing between the physical and virtual worlds, for example, making physical objects installed in the gallery or critique room and at the same time effectively representing an object on a screen.”

Work by Otis College MFA Candidate Sharon Louise Barnes

Work by MFA Candidate Sharon Louise Barnes as exhibited in the Bolsky Gallery at Otis College

Work by MFA Candidate Runze Wang as exhibited in the Bolsky Gallery at Otis College

Work by MFA Candidate Runze Wang as exhibited in the Bolsky Gallery at Otis College

Work by MFA Candidate Johee Kwak as exhibited in the Bolsky Gallery at Otis College

Work by MFA Candidate Johee Kwak as exhibited in the Bolsky Gallery at Otis College

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The students, it seems, understand this reality proactively, and are taking more pointed interest in how their work is captured for these virtual showings, working with photographers the department has hired for the MFA Thesis Shows. “In the end, there’s potentially much more ownership of their work that extends to the level of exhibition, and not just, ‘I make work and I put it into a gallery,’ but really understanding the concept [of exhibition] much more,” Burmester says.

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Virtual Visibility

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Each year, Architecture/Landscape/Interiors seniors designed, fabricated, assembled, and installed a unique built environment for the display of their studio projects in a required spring semester course called Constructions. Pre-COVID, these designs were installed on campus in a portion of the fifth floor of the Ahmanson building for Annual Exhibition. For A/L/I students, the aspect of building the structure they ideated was more important than having guests come and see the work itself. “It’s a big deal to go from the abstraction of a drawing to a space you inhabit,” says A/L/I chair Linda Pollari. “It takes quite a bit of experience to understand what you’ve drawn, or even a detail that you’ve done, and what the result will be…. We don’t make the building. We don’t make the interior. We don’t make the landscape—with the exception of the senior show. That’s our loss.” She hopes the students will still be able to conceive and build some physical component of the digital model they’ll instead be creating this year.

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“This is an opportunity, truly, for our students to get an experience of professional practice and collaboration.” —A/L/I/ chair Linda Pollari

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In the A/L/I program’s pivot to Virtual Annual Exhibition, Pollari sees some parallels in what the students are experiencing and what many of her working faculty already know. “Virtual is what they do,” she says. “They are in firms like Cuningham Group, they are working in China, so their interface is already virtual, they’re collaborating internationally. This is an opportunity, truly, for our students to get an experience of professional practice and collaboration…. I do think we’ve gotten more exposure from the digital exhibition. I would suggest that we keep it even when we return to the physical show.”

Toy Design seniors typically made physical, three-panel displays for Annual Exhibition, which, in the past, were used to illustrate their personal brand as well as the different toy brands in their work. “This mimics the International Toy Fair, where companies each have their own space to showcase their brands and products however they choose,” says interim chair Joyce Mesch. In addition to the student galleries on the Virtual Annual Exhibition website, the program is creating its own showcase website to share with prospective employers.

Invitation to the Toy Design program’s student showcase

Invitation to the Toy Design program’s student showcase

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“I think there’s actually some really cool advantages to this,” says faculty Molly Womack, an Otis alumx (’16 BFA Toy Design) who teaches a senior exhibition prep class. “One might think this is so limiting because it’s all just digital, but we are creating this amazing website that will live on for years to come, so that when somebody comes to Joyce saying, ‘I’d really like to see who your students are, I’m looking to hire’—because that happens very often—they can use this website as a tool to go back and see students’ work.”

And like some of the other programs that use Annual Exhibition as a recruiting opportunity as much as a senior showcase, Toy Design faculty have figured out how to recreate opportunities for students to virtually engage one-one-one with potential employers. For this, they will launch a special industry showcase, during which students will host individual breakout rooms on Zoom to meet with industry professionals. 

“I think that we’re going to have some really interesting turnout from companies that are international, or are not located in L.A.,” Womack says. “That’s going to be exciting to give those students connections to a bigger network.” To prepare, Womack has been bringing in industry professionals for weekly critiques to get her students ready for the presentation process.  

“I can’t believe it’s almost been a year,” says Mesch, “but I think one thing we’ve learned is to just do the best we can with what we have. Let’s cut the suit to fit the cloth.”

Speaking of cloth, the Fashion Design program had been fully entrenched in plans for its annual runway show when the pandemic closed the campus last year and student projects with such industry mentors as Ruth Carter and David Meister were sent home with students. It was a challenging time to not have access to industrial sewing machines and one-on-one instruction from the faculty. Due to public health constraints there also wasn’t an opportunity to pursue the runway show, however, the program showcased the students’ sketches and photographs of their garments on last year’s Virtual Annual Exhibition website

This year, Fashion Design faculty, staff, chair Jill Zeleznik, and the mentors from both 2020 and 2021 have had the benefit of the past academic year to create a more ideal way to virtually showcase the breathtaking work for which the program is known. The program’s solution is an imaginative video of each mentor project that is produced with the same level of professionalism that goes into the runway show. There are models, impressive lighting, and dramatic music that will be shown to an engaged and broad audience online. 

To prepare, students and faculty have worked around the limitations of doing studio-based instruction—pattern-making, fabric selection, fittings—over Zoom. “What we do is all individualized,” says Zeleznik. “This year we reached across the world to connect with our students and mentors in different time zones through email, text, Zoom, and WeChat. If a student is local we’ve given them dress forms, patterns, sewing machines, and fabric bundles. One faculty has scheduled his course around international students who are in different time zones.”

Fashion Design faculty Mitra Rajabi during a Zoom fitting with students and mentors. Photo by Andre Hylton

Fashion Design faculty Mitra Rajabi during a Zoom fitting with students and mentors. Photo by Andre Hylton

Zoom fitting with Otis College students for the Jonathan Simkhai mentor project.  Photo by Andre Hylton

Zoom fitting with Otis College students for the Jonathan Simkhai mentor project.  Photo by Andre Hylton

Fashion Design chair Jill Zeleznik during a Zoom fitting with students. Photo by Andre Hylton

Fashion Design chair Jill Zeleznik during a Zoom fitting with students. Photo by Andre Hylton

Behind the scenes of Otis College Fashion Design's One World Fashion Show Videos

Behind the scenes of the Fashion Design program’s “One World” fashion show video shoot featuring designer David Meister’s mentor project. Photo by Monica Nouwens

Behind the scenes of the Fashion Design program’s “One World” fashion show video shoot featuring Universal Studio’s mentor project. Photo by Monica Nouwens

Behind the scenes of the Fashion Design program’s “One World” fashion show video shoot featuring Universal Studio’s mentor project. Photo by Monica Nouwens

Behind the scenes of the Fashion Design program’s “One World” fashion show video shoot featuring Universal Studio’s mentor project. Photo by Monica Nouwens

Behind the scenes of the Fashion Design program’s “One World” fashion show video shoot featuring Universal Studio’s mentor project. Photo by Monica Nouwens

Behind the scenes of the Fashion Design program’s “One World” fashion show video shoot featuring designer B. Akerlund’s mentor project. Photo by Monica Nouwens

Behind the scenes of the Fashion Design program’s “One World” fashion show video shoot featuring designer B. Åkerlund’s mentor project. Photo by Monica Nouwens

Behind the scenes of the Fashion Design program’s “One World” fashion show video shoot featuring costume designer Ruth Carter’s mentor project. Photo by Andre Hylton

Behind the scenes of the Fashion Design program’s “One World” fashion show video shoot featuring costume designer Ruth Carter’s mentor project. Photo by Andre Hylton

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Once they were ready, the students dropped off or sent in their finished mentor project garments to the Otis campus for fittings on live models that were facilitated by Fashion Design faculty, staff, and Zeleznik, with the students Zooming in for feedback. The work will come alive in the videos, which will be shown as part of Virtually Cool, the 2021 Scholarship Benefit and Fashion Show, which is free and open to the public. “These new challenges will not stop us from developing a class of talented and flourishing creatives,” Zeleznik says. “Virtual Annual Exhibition and the videos will provide a great opportunity for our students to showcase their work to a wider audience.”