AUC's Visual Cultures Under COVID

By Soha Elsirgany
Covid-19 brought the world to a standstill in Spring 2020. Soha Elsirgani spoke to AUC Department of the Arts students and faculty about their struggle to adapt to the new norm when much of the education process changed. As the different departments struggled, and much of the "student experience" was lost, the faculty came up with innovative ideas, pushing forward as pioneers in education. How did they cope?

None of this would have been possible if the pandemic took place ten years ago. We are lucky that the world was equipped with technological facilities that played a major role in communication and finding creative ways for art expressions online.

Haytham Nawar, Chair of the Department of the Arts


When the world came to a stop last Spring, the Arts program of AUC had their creativity tested to the limit.

With Covid-19 prompting social distancing measures and a full year’s classes adapting to being held online, much was lost in the educational processes and outputs of a department which relies heavily on live, personal connection to produce and share its creations. Yet, within the challenges, there were silver linings, opportunities, and hopeful adaptations as students and professors of the visual and performing arts were pushed out of their comfort zones in the wake of a pandemic.

According to the Chair of the Arts program Haytham Nawar, it’s been a really challenging time for the Department. Despite all the unexpected challenges that arose, Nawar testifies to the fast response of the faculty and all the efforts they put in making the transition to remote education easier, and the students’ cooperation in adapting and finding optimal solutions to a changing curriculum. Some struggles were shared among all the programs, such as technology and accessibility variables, wavering enthusiasm and motivation, and a general sense of discrepancy between goals and possibilities – yet each program faced its unique challenges differently, demonstrating that much like art, it boils down to a matter of perspective. “This shift was particularly daring on performing arts that were up until now mostly conservative and related to the physical space,” Nawar says.

Stills from the livestream of Music Majors recital concert


The Film program felt the strain of remote teaching affect the quality of their experience, especially last Spring. “Regarding film in particular, when we teach practical issues such as directing for instance, it’s almost impossible to do online,” program director Malek Khouri says. “We were truly facing a disadvantage. It affected both, our activities and classes.”

Students of Film would have normally benefitted from the University’s equipment, as they learn to handle professional film cameras, shoot scenes for their projects on campus, and collaborate together as directors, actors, and light and sound designers in practice. Classes on the theoretical or historical topics, were all held virtually. “Generally speaking they went well and without major problems. But the experience of professor to student was definitely lacking, and I’d say maybe 50% of the student experience was lost,” Khouri says. His frustration lies in falling short of the program’s established standard, which enabled students to produce quality works with all resources at their disposal. However, the Film program’s main annual activity ‘Cairo Egyptian Short Film Festival: Visions’ took a step back before taking a leap forward. “We had to cancel the third edition planned for [last] March, but we then became the first film festival to go online, not only in Egypt but in the Arab region,” Khouri says. The five-day line-up of short films by undergraduates was streamed in April on Facebook Live, instead of the planned 5 screening rooms at AUC Downtown.


Still from the play Tragedy, a Tragedy. Photo courtesy of AUC Department of the Arts

Distant learning for the Theatre program shared many frustrations of their neighboring Film program. As program director John Hoey describes: “A lot is reliant on looking into the other person’s eyes, watching them work and watching them think to help them get better results.” He similarly directed his efforts to upholding their main activity against the odds. “It was critical to maintain our performances. A lot of universities and art organizations around the world have cancelled their activity, some without putting much effort to replace it,” says Hoey. For years, Hoey believed live performance needed to catch up with the digital world, a notion theatre purists and the whole industry discouraged, given that all plays’ rights were for live performances only and not online distribution.

Enter Covid, and this began to change. He found his recent adaptation for The Imaginary Invalid by Moliere was well-suited for a Zoom play. Hoey and his team ended up creating it with nine people in separate locations, taking the theatre’s existing stages and dividing them into socially-distanced green screen sound rooms. Student Amira Fahmy served as the play’s set and light designer by developing virtual background scenes for each Zoom camera. “A lot of people did Zoom plays, but the way we made it look and how we did it in safe rooms, using digital backgrounds with video overlays and effects on Zoom… I haven’t seen this quality from anywhere else, and trust me I’ve looked,” Hoey says, joking on how it would have been much easier to imitate than develop from scratch. Their second play Tragedy, a Tragedy used broadcasting technology and five different programs before reaching a YouTube livestream, stretching the bounds of making and experiencing a play. Hoey also introduced a new experimental class named Digital Performances, which examined how digital and virtual experiences replaced live events and how to recreate experiences that can’t be done live. “What we’re always trying to maintain is creating the best visual environment for the audience – whether on a stage, on Zoom, or anywhere else,” he says.

Theatre students surprised him with projects he wouldn’t have gotten in normal circumstances.

“I was expecting Zoom plays but they went far and beyond, making models for scenery that were epic, and including Virtual Reality. My job is to remember the past, their job is to think about the future.” For Hoey the challenges highlighted an essential aspect of an art education: how to think creatively and find novel solutions while preserving the artistic intent.

Visual Art

From across the PVA building’s courtyard, Duncan MacDonald who directs the Visual Art program holds the same view. “Learning about being adaptive and being resourceful is super important when it comes to art. I keep telling my students this experience is making you stronger,” he says. Some of the painting classes (at half-capacity) took their easels to work out in the courtyard. MacDonald’s own classes; a sound art class and a time-based-media class, were held online with relative ease in adaptability. “Luckily for us, the way we teach is fairly conceptual in nature with a lot of theory alongside practice, and that gave us an advantage,” he says. Adding that presenting artworks remained the big challenge, instead of a gallery or alternative spaces, there needed to be something else.

“We’re working on setting up the Mobile Media Art Lab, which will allow us to have building-sized projections with sound for presenting student’s work. The timing of the project worked nicely, and we can use this tool now for a different time and necessity,” he says. The Mobile Media Art Lab will have works finishing in December, and has its first presentations scheduled for January. MacDonald also noted how students have been engaging differently with their classes and using it as an antidote to the feelings of isolation, uncertainty, and limitation the pandemic has imposed. “In the world in general, not just with our students, I’m seeing a need for people to create things and be positive, to have an outlet for self-expression. It may not be the vaccine, but art can do that to one’s soul– pandemic or not.”

Music Technology

Students of the Music Technology program seemed to pour themselves into their craft when the university went online, according to program director and instructor David Rafferty. “In my ‘Music for Film’ class, a lot of students really adapted well. Several who were working from their studio setups at home, like Hazem El-Shiaty or Ali Refaei, got super productive in their creative space and within their restrictions were able to meet the expectations of the class with interesting treatments for their projects,” he says.

The Music Technology sub-program, which is more focused on media-based music experiences, had a smoother transition to working online because a lot of the content was directly related to computers. It’s a bit different from its overarching Music Performance program, directed by Chelsea Green, which covers instruments, music theory and more, and in which face-to-face interaction was more important between instructor and student. “Music is a time based experience. A challenge to teaching online is latency, or a delay in transition. Any small technical error makes it hard to respond in real time. There’s also an isolated bandwidth dealing with audio through computers, so having those limited windows to assess things online does really restrict the musical experience.”

Rafferty explains how the already symbiotic relationship between both program segments helped ease some of the challenges. “It’s very important for students to have the concert experience because it’s central to what music is. In Music Tech we record music all the time, and with my personal experience in live streaming and media production, we were able to do live stream performances for all their required concerts.” While this was not strictly part of their curriculum, it gave students hands-on experience as they worked with Rafferty. “They learned how to handle multiple cameras and sound setups for a YouTube live stream, as well as understanding the stresses of production.” Rafferty knew that music education needed to keep up with the real world, and Covid just presented an opportunity to showcase that. “Technology is way ahead of music education. Our work this year built an infrastructure that hopefully will be built into the curriculum later on. It will give students a backbone to prepare for the real world.”

Graphic Design

“On Design Collaborations” with Studio Safar (LEB), AUC Design Talks, November 2020.  Photo courtesy of AUC Department of the Arts.

Ghalia Elsrakbi, Director of the Graphic Design Department shared how the program adapted to the circumstances with agility by changing some student project requirements, opting for digitally relevant assignments instead of physical artwork. It came at the expense of hands-on knowledge concerning the physicality of materials, like printing methods and paper, installation options, which are central to the Graphic Design curriculum. Elsrakbi also made timely changes in the class she teaches on Information Design. “I took the opportunity to change the theme we were working on, and asked students to imagine future challenges, and how they will address them; What kind of preparations or awareness do we need to create in order to inform a community about what to do.” 

The Design program also reached new audiences through a series of online talks live streamed on YouTube, featuring several speakers from Beirut, Dubai, and Germany. “For the first time we did those talks online and not on campus, and we made them public. We invested more time to make use of those online tools to share knowledge outside the university,” Elsrakbi says. In her perspective, the teaching experience proved more challenging this Fall than it was last Spring. “Back in March we were mid-semester and got a head start having already established a relationship with the students, so it was easier to build on that when we switched to online,” she says. It proved more difficult to establish this relationship online from the start, especially with Freshmen, being new to the university experience and adjusting on many levels.

Seeking a Hybrid Balance

A consensus among the arts’ faculty members was that a hybrid model was best for teaching the current and coming semesters. This model entails some classes held in-person at the University, having students divided into smaller groups of around 10 (versus 20 or more) and attending in different time slots. The burden then falls on the instructors who are having to split each session into several. But it would give them and their students some breathing room to offset the limitations of online teaching. “This way we can establish some personal contact with the students to give them feedback on what they’re otherwise missing online, and have them interact on some level and be in touch with what their peers are doing,” Elsrakbi says.

Exchange with Studio Möbius (UAE)

Haytham Nawar, a strong believer in digital communication and expression, sees that the pandemic only accelerated a reform in education that was inevitable. He highlights the essential role of technological advancement during this transition. “None of this would have been possible if the pandemic took place ten years ago. We are lucky that the world was equipped with technological facilities that played a major role in communication and finding creative ways for art expressions online.” Asserting that refining the hybrid education model will capture the best of two worlds, he says that “although face to face education is very important, it is also essential to implement new skills and communication methods that are being learnt during remote education.” Time will tell what the future of arts education will look like, but for now let us trust in the resilience and resourcefulness of the arts. As Hoey puts it, “if we don’t fight for what we know are the best things in what we do, they will be lost.”

*Photos courtesy of AUC Department of the Arts.