By Jenna Somers
When the COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed a sudden shift to online and virtual platforms for classrooms, exhibits and other communal gatherings, it offered a unique opportunity for the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy and The ArtLab Studio to collaborate on See You Again: Students Respond to COVID-19, an exhibit of Curb Scholars’ artwork on the pandemic and the vaccine rollout. The exhibit is currently showcased through virtual reality on ArtSteps and augmented reality on the mezzanine level of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s adult hospital.
The Curb Scholars’ paintings, graphic designs, collages, music, films and poetry featured in the exhibit, as well as the ArtLab Studio’s VR and AR designs, exemplify what it means to identify as a “creative” rather than an “artist,” said Wilna Taylor, assistant director of the Curb Center, who leads the Curb Scholars Program in Creative Enterprise and Public Leadership.
“I always ask new Curb Scholars, ‘Do you consider yourself an artist or a creative?’” Taylor said. “Because there is a distinction that is not necessarily good or bad; however, one’s attitude or orientation to these two labels could limit your perspective.
“Many of our students’ areas of study or focus are in the hard sciences, so they will say, ‘Well, I’m not an artist,’” Taylor continued. “Rather than giving them the language of limitation, we encourage the idea of being a creative: ‘I gravitate toward the arts and cultivate artists’ sensibilities or an arts practice.’ That language frees students to create without inhibition and to use the arts to talk about difficult subjects.”
According to Taylor, Curb Scholars are encouraged to use various modes of thinking when expressing themselves. Mentored by Curb Creative Writing Fellow Chris Ketchum, the students expressed their personal and complex reactions to the pandemic through the wide range of artistic mediums on display in the exhibit.
“More than anything, I hope those who view the Curb Scholars’ artwork see it as evidence of artists grappling with pandemic-related trials that all of us have suffered to varying degrees,” Ketchum said. “Their work isn’t indebted to COVID-19; rather, scholars made art despite the pandemic and its ravages. The exhibit is a way of making contact with the emotional experiences of others who have felt anything—despair, listlessness, anxiety, anticipation, hope—about the pandemic. In every case, their medium is empathy.”
“I hope that through the incredibly diverse set of artistic projects we have prepared in this new format that people across different backgrounds and who may have had unique experiences and challenges during this pandemic feel like their own story was represented,” added Curb Scholar and third-year student Michael Weirich, who created a culinary arts menu and wrote poetry for the exhibit. “In the future, this exhibition and those like it will serve as a window into this period of instability, uncertainty and adaptation that may not be otherwise conveyed without the creative amalgamation of these complex and emotional events into art.”
This “new format”—to use Weirich’s terminology—of VR and AR serves a complementary creative purpose. But, as with all new technology, its impact depends upon an audience’s willingness to accept it, according to Kendra Oliver, assistant professor of pharmacology, senior lecturer in communication of science and technology and director of The ArtLab Studio.
“There is always an activation energy to get people to buy into a technology,” Oliver said. “I think the pandemic generated that activation energy. The question now is how will going back to in-person spaces change this dynamic.”
In many ways, See You Again is the perfect exhibit to answer that question, as it not only reflects on the pandemic but transitions from the individualized experience of VR to the more communal experience of AR at a moment when society is transitioning to in-person activities.
Viewing this exhibit that reflects on the pandemic through VR and AR amplifies themes within the artwork and compels viewers to see the mode of deliverance as part of the art itself. For instance, walking through the empty gallery on ArtSteps on one’s personal device elevates the artworks’ themes of perseverance, isolation, uncertainty and the polarizing politics of the pandemic. The experience is one of solemn solitude, a catharsis engendered as much by the artworks as the mode through which they are viewed.
In the AR exhibit, people can congregate in the same space, but unlike a traditional gallery that displays artworks for all viewers to see alongside one another, the AR exhibit allows people to experience artworks individually. Viewers use their phones to scan QR codes next to empty picture frames that have bright red boxes in them. Once someone scans the code, a piece of art will appear in the red box. Again, the mode of deliverance becomes part of the art itself by reminding viewers of the transitionary period of the pandemic—people can “see you again” by sharing the physical space of the gallery, but the individualized viewing through AR augments themes in the art associated with physical distancing and feelings of solitude throughout the pandemic.
“As a creative myself, I found solace in solitude throughout the pandemic by creating, making and writing art,” said Miquéla Thornton, a fourth-year student and ArtLab Studio intern. “Because of that, I found myself resonating with the visual art, poetry, videos and music made by the Curb Center artists as I assisted in curating the AR gallery. The process of making art during a deadly pandemic forced me to ask myself, does what I’m making or writing even matter? To make art during a period of constant death and illness makes one question their contributions. This question piles onto the other endless questions surrounding the virus, policy, human empathy, the idea of returning to normalcy and what normalcy even means.
“Being in the presence of the See You Again exhibit allowed these questions to resurface and, most importantly, reminded me that I am not alone in the journey of not knowing the answers,” Thornton said. “Digesting art in a virtual arena allows one to feel alone in a gallery. However, being surrounded by others’ artistic expression, even after a year of seeing most things through a screen, makes one feel embraced by an extension of others: a passion not quite captured through Zoom and abstract answers to questions that remain.”
The See You Again exhibit will be displayed on the mezzanine level of the adult hospital at Vanderbilt University Medical Center through the end of December 2021. Pieces from the exhibit also will be featured in the Art of Healing Exposition, which is supported by the Curb Center and Master of Public Health Program at Vanderbilt School of Medicine and will run from Sept. 17 through Dec. 16, 2022.