Art and Art History Faculty Member on Documenting Difficult Times
Marc Fischer, Adjunct Professor of Art and Art History at Columbia College Chicago, tells us about practicing his craft and teaching during quarantine. Fischer began teaching at Columbia in Fall 2009 and has taught courses including Performance Art, BFA Portfolio Review, and various Special Topics courses over the years.
What do you like most about teaching at Columbia?
I like the diversity of Columbia's student population and the extraordinary resources the school has to offer. The library is one of Chicago's hidden gems and it's painful to me that I can't visit in the usual way right now and share it with my students very easily. I also have a ton of respect for my faculty colleagues and all they are doing to care for each other during this challenging school year.
How has the quarantine changed the way you teach?
Both of my classes are online or nearly entirely online. I try to make them as “live” as possible, which means that I want to have live discussions over Zoom, on camera. This kind of teaching requires being extra energized to try to hold everyone's attention and after about two hours I feel like I've given an epic performance. In the absence of being able to visit libraries safely, I've been looking at a lot of digital library collections and am particularly excited about sharing those materials with my students. Connecting with everyone on a more personal level takes a lot more emailing and messaging, but I'm committed to making students feel like they are getting the access that they deserve.
What projects are you currently working on?
My collaborator Brett Bloom and I are currently working to reprint our 2003 book, Prisoners' Inventions, which was written and illustrated by our friend Angelo, an artist who was incarcerated in California and who was also my pen pal for over two decades. The book is focused on the many inventions Angelo documented during his time in prison. He died in late 2016 and the book has been out of print for many years. I'm excited for people to be able to read it again.
With my personal project, Public Collectors, I've started a new project titled “Public Collectors Police Scanner.” Every day, in one listening session that may be as short as 15 minutes or as long as an hour, I've been listening to the Chicago police scanner online and taking notes on a single sheet of paper, transcribing details that I think are interesting and revealing. Often when the page fills up, my work is done. I'll be doing this every day for quite some time. Probably at least 100 days.
Can you tell us about your quarantine projects, QUARANZINE and The Quarantine Times?
QUARANZINE was a publication printed under the name of my Public Collectors project that functioned as a printed space for creative work produced during the COVID-19 pandemic. Each issue was printed in my basement using both sides of a single sheet of paper with various ink colors and paper stocks. I printed 100 different issues starting on March 15, 2020 and ending 100 days later on June 22nd. I'd post copies around my neighborhood and mail them out to people who wanted to support the project.
Ed Marzsewski of Lumpen Times, Public Media Institute, and Lumpen Radio called me on the phone to tell me he wanted to create The Quarantine Times as a website and eventual publication that would pay Chicago artists to contribute work about their experiences during the early days of the pandemic. At first it was going to last a month, then two months, and finally three months. He hired me on to be an editor and work with artists and writers that I invited, and to help them edit their work and get it ready for the website. I was able to get everyone paid and collaborated with some incredible local people.
Why do you think QUARANZINE and The Quarantine Times are important?
I think both projects demonstrate ways that people can create opportunities for each other and check on each other's wellbeing while also creating something meaningful. Listening to the police scanner, the police respond to a lot of wellbeing check calls. We should be doing that for each other, and we can show others how to do that in their art as a fundamental part of their practice. I feel like the pandemic has been one of the most creatively productive periods for me in quite some time and the stories shared in QUARANZINE and The Quarantine Times are often inspirational narratives about what people are doing, quite literally, to survive. I've been taking on a little creative work at a time every day and that strategy has helped me maintain my sanity and develop models that might help other artists keep active, too at a time when most of us just want to curl up into the fetal position.
Nearly every issue of my one-page publication was a collaboration with another creative person—all accomplished over email—and in about a dozen cases with people I'd never met in person and did not know before they reached out to me to collaborate on an issue together. I think both projects are a reminder that we can always use our creativity to not just make new things, but also to take care of each other in the process.
What can we learn from this project or about art during a quarantine/global pandemic?
Artists can be incredibly resourceful and are sometimes able to do extraordinary work under the worst possible circumstances. Artists are also often highly sensitive and fragile people who may, very reasonably, be paralyzed by what we are dealing with right now, and that's understandable and okay, too. People shouldn't feel guilty or ashamed if they aren't operating on all cylinders right now. It's a very difficult time to be a teacher and a student, but hopefully sharing what others have been able to accomplish in their art will be motivating to people.
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