Forced to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic and remote instruction, the Weitzman School of Design's Fine Arts department launched a virtual exhibition of seniors' thesis projects.
Unveiled on May 20, the Error 404 Exhibition features the work of twenty-four seniors who completed the year-long seminar and studio course FNAR/DSGN 488: Senior Seminar Project. The course pairs students' individual works with studio spaces, group critiques, and seminar-based discussion.
After Penn transitioned to virtual instruction in mid-March, faculty lecturers Kayla Romberger and Ivanco Talevski met with the class and decided to adapt the traditional senior exhibit to include as many aspects of the physical plan as possible, but showcase the works through the form of a virtual, 3-D exhibition model. Senior theses are typically displayed in the Meyerson Gallery directly following spring break in March, and students typically spend their break planning for and designing their exhibition space.
The virtual art exhibition was created by 2020 College graduate Stara Diamond and 2020 College of Liberal and Professional Studies graduate Natalia Cabalceta, who were responsible for helping to build 3-D models of each student's work and importing them to the virtual platform. Diamond and Cabalceta created 360-degree digital renderings to best allow viewers to experience the gallery in virtual reality.
“It was definitely challenging to navigate all the students getting their work into the right format because a lot of people hadn’t used 3-D software before, and they weren’t really sure what it meant to have a 360-degree render of their work,” Diamond said.
One of the more disappointing features of the digital exhibition was that it did not allow the seniors' work to be animated, Diamond said, which forced them to find ways to signify that a piece of art had a moving aspect to it, for example a rotating or interactive piece in an exhibition.
For example, she said, 2020 College graduate Eliza Culp wanted to include the circular movement of roller skates in her personal exhibit, so Diamond and Cabalceta compiled multiple photographs of roller skates to depict the object in various states of motion.
In addition to the online exhibit, the studio-seminar course includes presentation and publication components. While the final publication is still in progress, students hosted an event over Zoom called Lightening Lectures presented through the Institute of Contemporary Art, the Penn-affiliated contemporary art museum in University City near the Charles Addams Fine Arts Hall. The online lectures were open to the public, and garnered an audience of around 90 people.
Romberger said the Error 404 Exhibition allowed for a sense of connection that was otherwise difficult to find in quarantine.
“It’s so different. I think it’s because we won’t have that experience of just being in the presence of an artwork, but we’re in this funny space that connects us to all the graduates in art and design that are going through the same thing,” she said.
The students were able to share their virtual exhibit on the website Thesis Shows 2020, created by students from the Rhode Island School of Design, which displays thesis exhibits from students in universities across the nation, including from Yale University and Princeton University.
Though the students spent months preparing to showcase their final works in a physical setting, Romberger said one of the benefits of a virtual exhibit is the fact that one’s work can live on the internet indefinitely, which she said is great preparation for how professional careers in art and design may actually function.
“I think it’s a possibility in the future that really removes a lot of the limitations of having a physical gallery space, and instead allows us to create any kind of architectural space and have our work shown exactly as we wanted it to be — floating in the air or detached from the wall,” she said.
Diamond’s work was a 3D scan of herself that centers around disassociation, or separation of one's thoughts from one's body.
“I think that’s particularly relevant now, as we start to move into the virtual world and parts of us start to be detached from ourselves, but also relevant socially speaking, as we may experience dissociation, which is something that I’ve experienced,” Diamond said.
In the fall, the recent graduates hope to display their work physically as a series at PostScript, an off-campus Philadelphia gallery that is run as part of the University's Fine Arts program. PostScript is a public, multi-use exhibition space that is designed to support and connect students with Penn alumni and artists in the greater Philadelphia area.
“Beyond the logistics, the thing that was so admirable about what happened was the resilience and flexibility of the students," Romberger said. "They did the best they could, and it was really collaborative. The reason we were able to pull it off was because they were working together and communicating."
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