GSA Showcase 2021: Storytelling, showreels & expanded studios

Katie Goh talks to GSA students, tutors and researchers about the challenges and opportunities of creating online showcases, and bringing their work to these new spaces

Article by Katie Goh | 09 Jun 2021
  • GSA Showcases

The last year could be summed up with just one word: adapt. At The Glasgow School of Art, the need to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic has predominantly meant moving online, for tutors, students and staff. The studio has become both smaller and bigger, with students working in their bedrooms in different spaces, some even in different time zones, while their tutors wrestle with the challenge of recreating the studio experience on Zoom.

The exhibition space has also been reduced and expanded: rather than hanging work in one physical space, the GSA’s Degree Shows and showcases have moved online, with students photographing their individual work before ‘hanging’ it on a scrollable website for viewers to peruse. Three recent showcases – the Fashion Showreel, the Portfolio Preparation Course Showcase and the PhD Showcase – all exemplify this adaptation from in-person to online, with some surprisingly positive results for both students and tutors.

“We knew the course and the showcase would have to be online from the get-go,” explains Joanie Jack, who runs the GSA’s Portfolio Preparation Course alongside Deborah Holland. “Throughout the year, we created teaching videos that demonstrated different techniques from our virtual studios at home. Our course is very hands-on so we wanted the students to be able to watch us work in conjunction with the exercises we were giving them over Zoom.”

“Our classes became really interactive,” adds Holland. “The students became more confident with the online nature of them. We’d have classes where you’d come as your favourite colour or shape or form. Because everything was so new, we weren’t sure it would work – but it did!”

Innovation and experimentation with the online nature of the Portfolio Preparation Course extended to the end-of-year showcase too. The course’s students were tasked with curating and self-selecting their work in the context of a scrollable website page, rather than the typical physical exhibition space.

“I had to be quite careful with ordering the slides because there wasn’t the sense of travelling through my work that you would have with an exhibition,” explains Aoife Hogan, one of the students on the course. “I had to story tell through sequential slides and lay out how I wanted the viewer to experience my work through this visual, rather than physical, process.” Photographing became a key skill in order for the showcase to convey the feel of the artwork. For one of Hogan’s slides, she enlisted her siblings to hold up a piece of work that’s all about hands so that the work’s environment becomes part of the viewer’s experience. “I wanted to show what the work would be like in a space and how you would interact with it.”

The end-of-year Fashion Showreel faced a similar challenge: how do you bring the experience of the catwalk to the viewer online while working remotely? Professor Jimmy Stephen-Cran, Head of Fashion and Textiles, looked at what the global fashion industry was doing and asked third year Fashion and Textile Design students to devise a new kind of catwalk.

“We know what a GSA fashion show looks like,” explains Professor Stephen-Cran. “The students’ collective and individual task was to outdo the conventions of a GSA fashion show. I asked them to act as designer, artist, curator, exhibition maker, collaborator, musician, filmmaker, inventor…” Rather than simply ask the students to make their collection and model it themselves, they were encouraged to play with form for their 30-second showreel videos, expanding their practice to stop motion, collage and abstract animation, time lapse, motion capture, digital puppetry and projection. “And if they didn’t want to show their end product, they could show their process – for example instead of focusing on a knitted garment, they could make the knitting the focus itself,” adds Professor Stephen-Cran.

One student, Rosie Ridley, used stop motion animation to show her collection, a technique that she hadn’t used in years. Her collection is modelled on paper dolls who walk across Abbey Road, after The Beatles. “I’d been using a lot of 1970s materials in my collection," she explains. "I came up with the idea quite last minute but I thought it would be funny and whimsical and fitting for my work.”

The Fashion and Textiles department was substantially impacted by the stay-at-home mandate, cutting many of the students off from essential machinery that lives in the GSA studio. But while these processes were impacted, other skills were prioritised, such as digital illustration and portfolio curation. “I’ve always struggled with illustration in fashion,” explains Ridley. “But because I had more time to play around with digital software this year, I managed to develop an illustration style that I really like that I’ll use in the future. I think the way I present work developed too; I’m used to presenting in sketchbooks which wasn’t viable this year – so I learned how to put a digital portfolio together much earlier.”

Similarly, for the first-year candidates taking part in the GSA’s PhD programme, the online nature of their showcase opened the door to more innovative ways of presenting work. Normally an in-person conference, the annual PhD Research Methods Symposium was adapted into an online showcase and seminar by Head of Doctoral Studies, Professor Susannah Thompson.

“The PhD showcase is from first-year students who have only been on the programme for three months,” explains Professor Thompson. “They’re at the start of their journey so it highlights tentative and speculative research; it’s more of a snapshot of research to come with the aim of sharing with other PhD students and GSA staff.”

Normally the students present a 20-minute paper, followed by a Q&A session with the audience. Because that wasn’t possible this year, Professor Thompson instead arranged for a seminar to follow the PhD showcase, which would enable the responses and discussion of an in-person conference.

Claire Eaglesham, one of the PhD students who took part in the showcase and seminar, says that the online format allowed for more experimentation than a live event. Rather than presenting a paper, accompanied by some powerpoint slides at a conference, Eaglesham instead created an online, animated version of herself to do the talking. “For my presentation I tried out some new software. I wouldn't necessarily say this was any more or less challenging than if it was a live event – just different!”

As well as a more innovative approach to presenting research, the online PhD showcase had major benefits for disseminating research and it reached a far wider audience than a live symposium would have. “The website is an easily accessible resource for me to share with others,” says Eaglesham. “Since the showcase went live, I have shared it with other researchers and individuals who have been interested in my project.”

This is a benefit Professor Thompson has noted too. “I think there is something you can’t replicate about being in a room with people and that energy isn’t quite the same, but on the other hand, more people were able to attend the online seminar – people with caring responsibilities or in different time zones who wouldn’t have been able to make it in person.” Professor Thompson is strongly considering continuing with a version of an online showcase and seminar even when in-person events return.

Across all three showcases, the increased accessibility of moving online was undoubtedly the biggest asset, for teachers and students. For Aoife Hogan who is currently applying to universities and colleges, her online Portfolio Preparation showcase has become a vital tool for displaying her work during the application process – as well as something to send family and friends overseas. “It’s also made me think more about how people engage with art,” she says. “I think it’ll impact my practice going forward, even when physical exhibitions return. It’s made me more appreciative of the texture of work and the sensory experience of art. That’s been lost over the last year with moving online but trying to recreate those experiences has been a really fun challenge.”