Teaching Artists in a Pandemic

August 2, 2020   •   By Rob Reynolds

LAST NIGHT, we were at it again, but a little less than before  

It was either the 93rd or 94th night of the ritual, neighbors taking to decks, balconies, and garages at eight o’clock, clapping, banging on pot lids, blowing horns, clanging cowbells, and shouting thank-yous to health-care workers. Just the same, there was a note of weariness in it. 

Is this the way the world ends? 


In the time since the initial invitation to share a few notes in this venue, more than 639,000 people have died from the novel coronavirus COVID-19 globally, approximately one-fourth of them in the United States. 

A single well-documented death, the murder of George Floyd under the knee of a police officerreframed any discussion about the virus by pointing to another pandemic: institutionalized racism. While radically incommensurable, if there is one lesson that the pandemic and the documentation of racialized violence share, it pertains to the systematic inequality that pervades the United States. 

With the politicization of a national response, the pandemic feels like an ambient nightmare that we cannot shake, casting my artist’s attempt (below) to grasp the technical findings of epidemiologists in the early days of the crisis in a much different light. 


If taken as a matter of natural evolution, COVID-19 seems neither an accident nor a matter of intention, but an expression of the relentless machinic logic of genetic adaptation [1]. Despite its brutal indifferencesince its discovery I have been trying to learn its lessons on everything from prevailing notions of the human, to conceptions of ecology, to how we move through the world. As my philosopher friend Tobias Rees might sayCOVID-19 is an epistemic event, and as such it changes the nature of knowledge itself.  

Similar to the way that the experience of nature and the sublime was forever disrupted by climate change — and our knowledge of its anthropogenic origins — COVID-19 is also a singularity event. Its ubiquity has changed the way the world looks and feels. Public discourse constantly invokes the menacing glint of abjection. Or, as Julia Kristeva would describe it, a condition where the clean and proper (in the sense of incorporated and incorporable) becomes filthy, the sought-after turns into the banished, […] and we find ourselves in a state of radical ambiguity, in perpetual danger.[2]

Video still from The Word for Weather is Knowledge, 2020

From its symptoms, to a clear understanding of its transmission, to its deployment as a political cudgel, uncertainty seems to underlie nearly every aspect of the pandemic. This is also the case in attempts to trace the progression of COVID-19 from the horseshoe bat RaTG13 [3], to pangolins, civets, umpteen wet market mammals, and world-traveling homo sapiens. 

 For artists, this might lead to visualizing a deeply entangled web of living and nonliving thingsDislodging fantasies of human exceptionalism, humans have been decentered by the virus. From the virus’s perspective, humans are equal parts ideal substrate, perfect host, and a force multiplying network for COVID-19’s ability to spread from person to personMolecules linger in the airidle with stochastic mystery on the sleek surfaces of our built environments, giving death a new kind of ambient presence. 

 I am relearning lessons popularized by the first Earth Day 50 years ago and trying to remember the sense of possibility evoked by famous photographs of Earth from space like Earthrise — taken by William Anders aboard the 1968 Apollo 8 mission — and The Blue Marble from 1972. COVID-19, a truly global pandemic, reminds us that while the Earth’s scale is incomprehensible to the human sensoriumit is smaller, more finite, and freaked with instantaneous feedback mechanisms than we imagined. All living and nonliving things are radically interdependent, air quality does in fact improve quite quickly if we don’t turn on our cars and trucks, and so on. 

Rob Reynolds
Earthrise (Whole h.earth painting 2), 2020
112" x 84" (284 cm x 213 cm)
oil and alkyd and acrylic polymer gesso on canvas

I also find myself less concerned about art than ever as more urgent issues press themselves upon us. Makers are already responding rapidlycurators are hosting live discussions, and art will mutate, transform, educate, prevail just as it has in past times of trouble. Nevertheless, air is hissing out of the experimental foundation of the art world, as the fits and starts of pandemic dynamics make it unsafe to gather, and bootstrapped spaces that do vital work are in financial peril. 

But there are still many roles for artists to play: activist, organizer, provocateur, social critic, poet, observer, translator, transformer, archaeologist, microbiome robot technician, punk tactician, healer, visionary satirist, creator of new meanings, maker of worldsFor now, our most important task: patiently staying in and cautiously stepping out, generating new ways of intervening in the world under our given circumstances, and making it better. 

In the immediate and near term, the call of service and activism has borne out an admirable all-hands-on-deck redirectArtists and curators are stepping up to openly resist the racialized and Sinophobic messaging that has been so prevalent since the pandemic began to unfold. Artists have also been using their skill sets for activities that include supporting protesters; continuing to provide masks, food, and 3D-printed face shields, to front-line health-care workers; and marshaling resources for the public good. The latently transactional dimensions of socially engaged art have been suspended, as many artists are pitching in for no special credit. When we get through this long haul, I hope we will see the barriers between art, activism, engineering, biology, ecology, philosophy, and the social sciences become even more porous: there is an important role for artists to play in the transformations to come. 

The prospect of long-term forced isolation pushes even the least tech savvy among us with access to consoles to engage with networks, social media, and the digital tools that have become elements in many artists toolkits over the last decadeIt’s also useful training for the hyperlocal shift we need to make to get even close to hitting long-term emissions goalsLike viral mutations, new forms of cultural production are being inventedand we can only predict that no single form will dominate. 

While the role of artists and cultural workers is shifting (hopefully toward deeper entanglements with ecology, equity, and social justice), an immediate concern for many is the practical question of survival. Many artists work from month to month with frayed or nonexistent safety nets. 

As we consider the communities that are most underresourced, we should also be thinking about who has access to technologically enabled processes.” The concern is that the virus could create a new class of technologically elite cultural producers, excluding creators across entire swaths of the global population. 

We may need new assemblages to address this potential issue. I have been very fortunate to teach studio practice and critical theory for the last five years in a low-residency graduate art program at Sierra Nevada University, a small, private, nonprofit operation near Lake Tahoe. Its founder has built an interdisciplinary program with artists working in in 2D, 3D, sound, performance, dance, video, and beyondOn its best days, it is a sort of 21st-century Black Mountain College grounded in the Great Basin of the American West, with a self-aware nod to the legacy and ghost presence of land art and conceptual practices that came into being in the area. 

But we really aren’t physically there very much: we meet in person during residencies lasting just under two weeks, once in winter, once in summer. Otherwise, we stay in touch via mentoring and seminars using web-based video and customized project management software that serves as virtual studio and seminar space, social media apps, and the now ubiquitous Zoom. 

It is understood that this low-residency model has its ups and downs, and that it is as much an evolving experiment in pedagogy as it is a matter of necessity for many artists with myriad other commitments and deeply entrenched local roots seeking an MFA. On the upside, students and faculty live and work all over the country, with a broad range of practices, interests, and life experiences locally embedded in more than 20 distinct locations(With a carbon footprint a fraction of the in situ MFA model facing so many difficulties right now.) The implicit challenge of this setup is that much of our interaction is mediated by the interfaces of the platforms on which we connect, each with its own convenience, and its implicit inefficiencies. These platforms, after all, were not devised for visual art production — but as artists were no strangers to use value mutation. 

The Sierra Nevada University–MFAInterdisciplinary Arts model might be a harbinger of an emerging, decentralized, and networked model for secondary education in response to the challenges of safely teaching and learning in the socially distanced postpandemic world. The program has its own strange genius: we are habituated to thinking of each other, tracking each others work with something akin to persistence of vision; we traverse the gaps, peer through open digital windows into each others lives, and do the best we can until we can be together again in person. And despite the distance and the challenging signal-to-noise ratio involved in connecting through our screens, deep bonds are forged and continue to grow. In a sense, as we have been living and working with each other in this virtual space, the program has made us unexpectedly well suited to the recent exertions of social distancing, sheltering in place, and who knows what may come. 


Rob Reynolds is a Los Angeles-based artist and Transformations of the Human Artist Fellow. He is a graduate of Brown University and the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, and also attended Cornell University, School of Art, Architecture and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. 


[1] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/03/200317175442.htm

[2] Julia Kristeva, The Powers of HorrorApproaching Abjection. P.18-20  

[3] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982220303602