Pandemic Art: Dada and Creativity Practicum

Last fall, I took the Olin class Creativity Practicum, a studio class about understanding and finding your own voice in art and design. One of the first assignments has you watch a video titled “I Could Do That” by the YouTube channel The Art Assignment. The video talks about why people who look at art, such as a Pollock painting, and say something along the lines of “that’s not art, I could do that” should really think before they speak, but that’s not relevant to this Frankly Speaking piece–no, I mention the video because for approximately two seconds, a piece of art was splashed across the screen, and it completely changed the way I approach art.

But before we get to that, a little bit about me: I’ve been drawing since I could pick up a crayon. Art-making has been a part of how I express myself, reflect, and tell stories for my entire life. In high school, I made art like this:

Skull & Mirror

Extremely detailed, highly accurate observational work. And I loved it! The process of observational drawing was (and still is) extremely meditative for me, and I’d sometimes become so absorbed in the process that I’d stand for four or five hours straight. However, I didn’t work quickly. A single piece would take me weeks or even months to finish.

Creativity Practicum, on the other hand, pushes you to work fast. There isn’t any emphasis on the quality of work you put out, or even on the idea that you’re “making art” at all. Each week you explore a different idea–sometimes a specific artist’s work, sometimes a more abstract concept–and then on one page of a spread you’d put images you associated with the week’s assignment, and on the other, you’d create a summarizing image and write a half-page reflection. I went about completing the first assignment in the way I usually do, and inevitably didn’t finish, but didn’t think much of it because I didn’t need to have a finished piece. And then I watched the aforementioned YouTube video, which features this collage by Hannah Hoch:

Hannah Höch, Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer  Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany – Smarthistory

The title is Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany. Concise… but I was captivated by it. I love how the crowded composition makes your eye dart around the picture, and how carefully cut out and placed each individual part is (such as the man juggling his own head near the center of the image, which, upon closer inspection, seems not to be his own head). I love that it’s disturbing and funny in the same breath. And, ironically, I love that whenever I look at it I think, “Wait a minute–I could do that!”

I was already thinking about the different images that came to mind for each assignment and taking note of them. What if instead of putting all this time and energy into a piece I crafted by hand, I simply took those images and arranged them in concert (or in chaos) with each other? I tried it out:

Untitled Sketchbook Page

Okay, this was cool. Only one problem: the pages of my sketchbook were curling from all the glue. Then I remembered a girl in one of my high school art classes showing off some of the pages she’d made in Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal, an interactive workbook that asks you to–well–I’ll let you figure it out. Her pages were wrinkled and torn and the notebook didn’t even close, but the pages inside were incredible. So I made the conscious decision to actively destroy every single page I worked on.

Throughout the semester, my art improved tenfold. Not only that, but instead of making one piece in four months, I made thirty. Less than half of them are things I’m proud of, and almost none of them are portfolio-worthy, but for the first time, I felt like I was conveying complex ideas and showing my personality through my work.

At home in the pandemic, I was constantly in the company of my childhood pet, Hobbes. His relentless affection was mostly reciprocated, but I sometimes felt he was a bit… needy. One day for fun, I made this:

Resist! (Sketchbook)

Hobbes began to feature prominently in my work. Everyone in the class became familiar with him, and not just because whenever I unmuted they could hear distant meowing. For the class’s final project, a collection of postcards, I decided that each one would feature Hobbes among images from photographs I’d taken. And throughout the whole process, my mind kept returning to the collages of Hannah Hoch.

Hoch was part of the Dada art movement, which developed in Europe and New York in direct response to World War I. Hoch’s work specifically centered around identity construction–what does it mean to be a “modern woman” in the aftermath of such a devastating event? During the pandemic–which hasn’t ended!–I felt comfort in the way that Dada embraced nonsense. Nothing else in the world made sense, after all–why should our art?

Although we’re back at Olin, things still don’t feel “normal,” and there’s no promise they ever will be. But I can continue to grow, as an artist and a person, in spite of that. And I’m glad to have found my “mews.”


Our Hopes: Returning From Online Classes

This semester we are returning to Olin in-person, after two and a half semesters of classes online or a hybrid of online and in-person. Olin classes typically involve building things, using tools, and lots of teamwork.While many classes had extremely creative solutions for moving their content online, things were undoubtedly different. At the end of the summer, I interviewed several current juniors and seniors about their experience with online classes, and what their hopes are as we go into an in-person fall semester.

While students had widely varying experiences with different parts of their online classes, everyone I talked to said that the experience was overwhelmingly lonely. “It did feel lonely and isolating at times… you’d run into those moments where you’re like, ‘Oh, I am sitting alone in my room, scribbling on a piece of paper, hunched over my bed.’” one student said. Multiple students said it was “harder to check up on people,” and that they felt less connected with their teammates than they had during in-person semesters.

While everyone experienced loneliness, students had different experiences with other aspects of online learning. While for one student professors seemed inaccessible and writing an email felt overwhelming, another said it was easy to find time to talk to professors because they only had to write an email and set up a Zoom call. The Zoom chat was especially polarizing: some people found it overwhelming and distracting, some felt more engaged using it, others really enjoyed having a “backchannel” to share links, and others only liked it as a place to type a brief check-in. A few students said that assignments and due dates were more well-documented and easier to keep track of than they’d been in-person, while others felt like the wide variety of online tools being used–Canvas, Slack, Discord, and custom class websites, to name a few–made things more confusing.

At the end of each conversation, I asked students what their hopes were for this semester. Here are some of their responses:

  • “I am super excited to be back on campus! I just really want to be around people again, I’m very excited to work in teams and in groups, and in the AC–or the MAC is what it’s now called”
  • “I hope I can maintain relationships without being in the same space as a person”
  • “I want to share my stupid ideas with people more”
  • “I hope that I can still find assignments online if I miss them”
  • “I’m really excited to have more space, like, not be confined to a single bedroom”
  • “I don’t think my priorities have changed that much, but I have a better idea of how to attack them now”
  • “I want to talk to professors more”
  • “I… do not know, right now, because I’m just expecting things to be difficult, and… I just hope to be able to stay afloat, in whatever way I can”
  • “I want to focus more on activism, and ethics in engineering and everything you do”
  • “I’m really hoping for a dynaming of rebuilding community that is patient. I hope that people share with one another and that we maintain this compassion that we built in zoom land, understanding that just because we’re back in person now doesn’t mean people’s lives are dramatically easier”
  • “I want ‘normal plus plus’”

Although we’re already two weeks into the semester, much still feels uncertain. What are your own hopes for this semester? I hope that as we continue to settle into a kind of routine, we can support each other and ourselves in achieving these hopes as best we can.