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woman in labAustralian artist Ionat Zurr participated in an online “hangout” as one of the BioArt Kitchen events in October 2020.

Researcher exploring arts audience engagement in pandemic age

Arts organizations across Canada and internationally are reeling with the complex impact the COVID 19 pandemic has on production, live performance, audience engagement, marketing, and sales.

Artists have risen to the challenge, using their creativity, research, and experimentation to engage audiences virtually.

For UWindsor professor Jennifer Willet, it’s an opportunity for new research through a Partnership Engage Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

“The arts have played a massive role during the pandemic engaging people online and helping to keep morale up during this time of isolation,” says Dr. Willet, director of Incubator Art Lab and a Canada Research Chair in Art, Science, and Ecology. Her specialty is BioArt, which uses living biological material as its media.

Engage grants support projects pairing post-secondary researchers with non-academic organizations to share expertise. Willet’s grant is a partnership between Incubator Art Lab and Mireille Bourgeois’ Halifax creative agency and gallery, Iota Institute.

“As an industry partner, Mireille has a dilemma. She has this schedule and these artists are booked,” says Willet. “How does she go virtual? This is a partnership. We’ve come together to research and expand Iota’s series into a cutting-edge engagement. These are enlivened by our practices through virtual means.”

To help both Incubator and Iota innovate during the pandemic, Willet has been experimenting with online workshops and creative presentations.

“We are doing lots of virtual workshops,” she says. “We made a mini paper laboratory. It’s a replica of the lab downtown (in the SoCA Armouries) and we did an online workshop with Science Gallery Detroit where people could download the plans and build a mini lab in their home.”

Willet made a video for the participants.

“I go over the piece and how we made it and how to put it together. I explain how to interact with your paper lab as a weirdo BioArtist. In mine, I’m pouring yogurt into the paper lab, leaving it outside for the critters to get,” laughs Willet. “Doing things like that to it. If we can’t go to the art, we’ll bringing the art to you.”

BioArt has always had workshops to teach techniques; now they have moved online. Some use things you can find in your refrigerator and others mail participants a kit of materials in advance.

The new funding will enable the research group to work with Iota to create a longer and more in-depth series, called “The BioArt Kitchen Hang Out.” Student employees paid from the $24,953 grant funding are conducting focus testing of the workshops.

Willet believes that future workshops and exhibitions will take a hybrid form with in-person and online elements.

“Maybe you ask people to watch a video that you’ve produced ahead of time and then they show up live,” she suggests. “Perhaps you incorporate artists from say, Copenhagen, online with live artists locally. There are layers of engagement. I think post-pandemic I’ll teach my BioArt class as a hybrid with in-person and online elements.”

—Susan McKee