To meet growing student interest in video production, Bowdoin’s Visual Arts Department has hired Visiting Artist Erin Johnson to teach several new video art classes. This semester, Johnson is offering a course called Introduction to Digital Media, in which her students are developing technical skills in digital media and audio production, exploring experimental, performance, documentary and narrative forms, and being introduced to video art history.
In September, Johnson started her new class with a unit on sound. Audio is one of the most important element of video, yet is often rushed over by new filmmakers embarking on first projects. “If I can get students thinking about and working with sound early, then when they start making videos, it won’t be an afterthought,” Johnson said.
After studying the history of sound art and looking at how sound can stand alone as art, Johnson asked her students to create short audio pieces that were specific to Bowdoin and based on historical research. The class headed to Bowdoin’s Special Collections and Archives for inspiration. “That first project was about Bowdoin, and was meant to engage them in a place they’re already part of in but in a new and different way,” she explained.
To help the class with their project, Marieke Van Der Steenhoven, the outreach fellow for Special Collections, pulled out several archival objects and photos, including student scrapbooks, letters and journals from 1819 to 1943 (one of them Arctic explorer Robert Peary’s scrapbook). The photos included two showing a submerged quad in the flood of 1942 and one dramatic photo of the 1964 Coles Tower fire. In the end, some students made their pieces abstract, others presented more of a narrative. “I wanted them to tell us something about a place without facts and figures, something new,” Johnson said.
Below are a few photos from Bowdoin’s archives, and sound pieces by two students.
After completing the sound art assignment, the 16 students began their first video projects. They were asked to write a letter to or from a nonhuman entity, and then to make a video illustrating this correspondence. Johnson said this assignment was inspired by Ukrainian artist Slinko’s video-letter to Karl Marx, and a video by Swedish artist Annika Eriksson about street dogs in Istanbul. “I asked [the students] to think about how the nonhuman entity relates to some sort of current political question, like climate change and immigration,” Johnson said. “Students considered how text can support or trouble images, and how landscapes, objects, and animals can serve as a lens through which to encourage viewers to question what is most familiar to them.”
Julia Maine ’16, whose video is shown above, is an earth and oceanographic major and visual arts minor. Johnson said she advised Maine to say something in her video that she was not able to express in her scientific research.
While Maine said it’s not likely she’ll become a videographer, she added that she’s fining it useful to learn video technology. “I am very interested in the communication of science via art…and I think video is increasingly being used for this purpose,” she said. “I have a feeling that the skills I have learned in this class will translate well to my life goal of communicating climate science to the communities that will be most impacted by climate change.”
Johnson’s students also worked on a participatory video event for the annual Ladd House art show, “340 Miles North,” which this year was based on the theme of activism. After setting up a screen, recording studio room, and editing station in Ladd House, the digital media students asked a number of guests to sit down for an interview. (It was family weekend, so students, relatives, staff and faculty were all at the event.) They then shot footage of people answering questions like, “What are your hopes and fears in this precarious era we live in?” Johnson said. “You can’t be an activist if you’re not thinking about the future and wanting things to change.” As soon as the interview was done, students rushed the footage to the editing bar, where their classmates quickly cut the interviews into a video that was streamed at the show that night.
Upcoming projects in the class include a collaboration with students from Senior Lecturer Paul Sarvis’s Making Dances class. Both the dance and video students have been asked to choose a location on Bowdoin’s campus, create a set of movements in response to the location and then film those gestures. Currently the video students are sifting through their footage, and creating, via editing, a completely new set of movements.
Students’ last project will be to make video installations that include found footage. These will be on display during the Visual Arts Department Open House on Dec. 11, from 5p.m.-7 p.m.