Integrated Media Arts MFA Program Holds First Virtual Thesis Show

The Master of Fine Arts Program in Integrated Media Arts kicked off its first virtual thesis show on Friday, which features original work from various graduate students. Their projects range from portraits of historical subjects to self-reflective pieces examining identity and family. 

With distance learning in place, the IMA department developed a new way to honor the culminating work of students in the program, as they are required to exhibit their projects publicly. The virtual thesis show consists of six projects that are 25 to 50 minutes long and are available to view online. Each project is accompanied by an introduction in which a thesis advisor provides more detail about the director’s background. Though the bustle of an in-person occasion is absent, the virtual show makes viewing more accessible and the ability of viewers to choose projects mirrors streaming trends that mark today’s entertainment industry. 

Filmmaker Amanda Madden considers the virtual show an opportunity for more people to watch the films, though they hope to partake in a live screening in the future. “I actually think it makes sense to experience it in smaller, more intimate settings because it is so personal and trying to evoke a sensory experience,” Madden said of their project.  

Filmmaker Jeremy Levine and his brother Dan would have preferred to display their work in person to build stronger connections with others, though they admired the faculty’s ability to adapt. 

The department usually holds one show in December for fall graduates and one in May for spring graduates. According to Program Coordinator Natalie Conn, past shows were often large events attended by several faculty members and alumni. They took place in the Lang Auditorium, Black Box Theatre and TV Studio, and they were followed by a reception for attendees and presenters. This year, COVID-19 makes it necessary for the show to be virtual.

Among this year’s projects are Conn’s “I Think of Your Mother” and Fernanda Faya’s “Alone Together,” two nonfiction portraits that both take place in Queens. The former explores a 131-year-old flower shop during Valentine’s Day weekend and the latter explores the process of aging through the lens of immigrants in a senior house. Both subjects are retrospective, as they witness Queens transform through the years. 

Conn studies Donhauser Florist, a small shop in Astoria nestled between a house and a larger building. 91-year-old Gladys Gray had been making a living arranging flowers for the neighborhood and the nearby cemetery for years; she was raised in the house next door. With Valentine’s Day approaching, the shop experienced higher demands in delivering bouquets to old and new customers. One customer had been to the shop as a child and remembered spending his allowance on a $5 arrangement for his mother. Gladys’s son Billy, who is in charge of arranging flowers, was unsure of whether he liked working with his hands, but labored away throughout the video, carefully positioning each flower in an arrangement.

Billy arranging flowers in Natalie Conn’s “I Think of Your Mother.” Image used with filmmaker’s permission 

Faya interviews various residents of a Queens senior house and some of their caretakers. Residents recounted memories from their childhood, like Tamara, who lived through a famine in 1934. Scenes depicting residents going through their daily routines emphasize age the most; as one resident does her makeup, another is spoon-fed by a caretaker while in bed. Though they are in the same building and under the category of “senior,” residents experience aging in unique stages. 

Some students created hybrid documentaries, which merge nonfiction and fiction filmmaking. The genre captures the way someone might experience reality — with heightened imagination. Tarek Bouraque’s “Time Machine” combines history and time travel to tell the story of Mustafa Azemmouri, the first African to explore North America. In the film, Azemmouri travels from Morocco in 1502 to Paris in today’s world. Azemmouri bridges the gap between the past and the present by analyzing the impacts of slavery and colonialism. 

“The Life of Dan” is another hybrid work that melds nonfiction with horror as creator Jeremy and his brother Dan explore their relationship. Viewers are privy to the brothers’ lived traumas and struggles with anxiety and depression. Flashback scenes involving Dan’s hospitalization mutate into scenes of horror with jarring, nonlinear music and underexposure. 

Jeremy noted the similarities between personal documentaries and found-footage horror films. “Not only is the handheld searching camerawork often very similar, but both typically show a protagonist digging into the past to try to overcome something that haunts them,” he said. The film blends such handheld footage with footage from old family tapes and other horror films. The brothers take turns spinning the camera from one to the other, asking personal questions and bringing the focus back to interviews characteristic of documentaries. 

The project’s theme of family was new territory for Jeremy, who recalls asking his brother if he could make a film about his life. “I’ve been making documentaries about other people — often people from other communities — for a while, but I’ve never turned the camera on myself or my family,” he said. “In many ways, telling a personal story about mental illness felt scarier. But that was also a sign to me that it was the right place to push.”

The filming process was very collaborative, and Dan explained that they “kind of played it by ear,”  building on each scene as it came. 

“We had a loose idea of where we wanted the film to end up, but this was also very much a process of discovery — both within our own relationship and in the film itself,” Jeremy said. 

Jay Chieh-Chun Lee’s “All Good, Father” similarly takes the viewer on a process of discovery, exploring the relationship between the filmmaker and his father. A handheld camera captures images of daily life, such as cooking, digging bamboo shoots in a forest in Taiwan and unearthing the filmmaker’s father’s old home. Old family photographs surface in between interviews, weaving the filmmaker’s ancestry together. Lee examines the role tradition plays in his father’s parenting, discussing his own gender and his family’s journey of acceptance. 

Themes of intimacy and identity also underpin the documentary “Dear Elsa: 10 Letters + 10 Experiments,” in which filmmaker Amanda Madden embodies the poet, artist and performer Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven. Madden, who had never heard of the Baroness’s work, discovered her in a class. They were drawn to “how she was interacting with the world, playing with gender and sexuality.” Her experimental nature and emphasis on a woman’s right to experience sexual pleasure set a precedent for other avant-garde artists, Madden explained. They researched von Freytag-Loringhoven thoroughly and loved that she “shaved her head” and “made outrageous costumes out of trash.” Madden explores similar elements in the project by covering themselves in tin foil, plastic wrap and dried flowers. 

Pictures of Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven submerged underwater in Amanda Madden’s bathtub in “Dear Elsa: 10 letters + 10 Experiments.”  Image used with filmmaker’s permission

“I was so hungry to know her. I felt personally connected to her through time and space,” Madden said. “It’s hard to describe, but it seemed like she spoke to so many pieces of my own life and world that I was wondering about and struggling with.” 

Madden relied on their intuition when performing in the project. They interspersed fragments of von Freytag-Loringhoven’s work with their own reflections. They immersed themselves and photographs of the artist in water, questioning gender, shame, sex and the unsteady nature of the human condition. Madden said that the filmmaking process took over a year and a half and the narration played over the film was written in a month in quarantine. 

“Making this project has been an incredible journey and I have learned so much. It’s wild to be near the end of it and I am so curious to see how it will continue to unfold in me,” Madden said. 

Like the virtual thesis show, film festivals around the world are coming together online to compensate for the impossibility of viewing works collectively during this pandemic. Other universities are also finding virtual alternatives to shine a spotlight on graduating students who rely on these shows to exhibit their work. These shifts entail a few challenges, such as cultivating a strong online presence. However, they also forge new spaces and possibilities for sharing art. 

People can sign up to access the virtual thesis show via Eventbrite. It is free to attend and will be available until the end of the day on Sunday, May 31. A moderated question and answer session with the filmmakers will also take place from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. via Zoom on May 31. Viewers can find descriptions of all the projects on the IMA MFA page.

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