Virtual degree shows: How art school graduates are responding to the coronavirus pandemic

We speak to the students behind SadGrads2020 and the GSA Degree Show Simulator

Whilst the coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on many university students and teaching, it has been particularly disruptive for this year's UK art school graduates who have been deprived of the normal proceedings of Degree Show exhibitions. These events, individual to each art school, showcase the works of students across all disciplines in an accumulative exhibition of their most finalised works at the end of their degree programme.

While big institutions such as the Tate and the Museum of Modern Art have been able to create a level of virtual viewing for visitors online, there has equally been humble efforts to establish a formal display of work by this year's graduating artists without utilising the physical gallery space.

With universities failing to offer the promise of a relocated degree show date to its students, graduating artists have taken the matter into their own hands to showcase 'virtual exhibitions' for people to engage with their work from the comfort and safety of their own homes during the pandemic.

The Instagram account SadGrads2020, founded by Edinburgh College of Art graduate Jody Mulvey, has successfully showcased the degree work of 394 emerging artists from art schools across the UK. Initially set up to create a sense of solidarity amongst art schools and students who have had their degree shows cancelled, the page currently stands at over 5,000 followers and furthermore provides a supportive network for the art community to sustain creative momentum during these unprecedented times.

Jody Mulvey runs the account by taking submissions from students of their finalised degree show work or likewise proposals and images that reflect their creative practice, and then posts them to the page alongside a short description of the artists work, degree programme, art school attended and how visitors can access more of their work. Speaking on the creation of the page, Mulvey says, 'I hope that it inspires people to be proud of what they've achieved in their duration of time at art school, despite this hugely upsetting situation. In a broader sense, I hope that I am able to create a network for people that outlives their time at art school, provide a platform for people to showcase their work, and in turn create opportunities for emerging artists.'

In response to the cancellation of the Glasgow School of Art Degree Show, the online GSA Degree Show Simulator is a virtual recreation of what would have been the 2020 showcase. Created by Benjamin Hall along with other GSA students, it uses online technology to impressively replicate the interior space of the exhibition's intended location of Glasgow Stow College.

The student led initiative features 136 graduating students from all programmes in the BA (Hons) Fine Art and Design department including Painting and Printmaking, Sculpture and Environmental Art, Photography, Fashion, Textile Design and Commercial Design.

Speaking to Hall on how the exhibition has successfully overcome the financial, medical and geographical restrictions coronavirus has caused, he says he 'hopes that anyone, anywhere with a computer who comes across the simulated show can have a valid and immersive experience of it, stumbling across a huge variety of work as they would have done so in a physical space.'

To provide a great level of accessibility to audiences, the team utilised the game engine 'Unity', as it allows navigation with the most typical mouse and keyboard controls (WASD), with extra accessibility functions to help even those unfamiliar with the most simplistic of gaming controls, to still enjoy the show. Visitors can freely walk around the exhibition as in real life or select an artist's name from the on-screen map to skip to their exhibit.

While some artists faithfully recreated what they would have shown physically in the cancelled show, others created things possible only in the virtual space. To recreate the degree works, the team used 3D modelling, photogrammetry to scan sculptures, live video and audio techniques to create photo textures as well as the occasional hand-animated page-turning of someone's work brochure.

Through these modern creative technologies, that provide the public with a comfortable and self-initiated exploration of the works, the site has already had over 1700 visitors from all over the world, which Hall informs us 'is more than even the busiest opening night of an ordinary degree show'.

The team of students, comprised of Benjamin Hall, Jay Darlington, Molly Johnson, Olga Chatzifoti, Jackie Hoefnagels, Paulina Brosz, Marc McGearty, Angus MacDonald, Luca Guarino, Joe Habben and Joe Weisberg, have provided not only solace to this year's disheartened GSA graduates, but a totally equal counterpart to any physical degree show that may arise. Through the site there is also a charity drive for Glasgow SE foodbanks through the Trussell Trust, which graduates hope can help support the people of Glasgow during this tough time. If you're a regular visitor to the Glasgow degree show, had planned to attend this year or simply interested in what the future of art looks like in a world of developing virtual technologies, the GSA Degree Show Simulator website is well worth a visit.

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