Remembering Red Burns

On Friday we received the sad news that our teacher and inspiration Red Burns​ had passed passed away. Red was the founder of ITP, the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where several members of the Foossa collective earned our graduate degrees.

ITP is a magical place where creativity and collaboration flourish. It is a place that encourages innovation through play. It is a supportive environment where we can cultivate and integrate our multiple interests and identities: as artists, as designers, as technologists, as entrepreneurs, and as humans.

Thank you for everything Red. You opened up my eyes to new worlds and changed my life, just like you did for so many other fellow students who walked through your doors at ITP. None of my work with Foossa would have been possible if I had never met you.

Red taught a required course for all 100+ members of the first-year ITP cohort called “Applications of Interactive Technologies,” or as we called it, simply “Applications.” My classmate Ari Joseph discusses the purpose of Applications in an essay he shared on Facebook and with the ITP Alumni email list:

The only constant is the word application. You can’t learn the right way to use an Arduino, or the right way to use Processing, or the right way to use a Sony Portapac, or the right way to use a Pic card, or the right way to use Macromedia Shockwave, or the right way to use javascript. An application only makes sense within the context of a problem (“I want to help refugee family members be able to reunite with one another more efficiently”), or with a message to communicate (“I want to remind people who unexpectedly become caretakers that they aren’t alone”). “Applications” is a reminder that without a problem to solve or a message to convey, a skill is void of meaning and direction. (emphasis added)

Every week in Applications, an eminent guest speaker from the world of art, technology, design, or other field would give a presentation to our class. The following week, an assigned small group of students would have to present in class their creative response to the work of the previous week’s guest speaker.

I had the honor and the horror of being in the first group. Our group’s presentation was a creative response to the work of the first week’s guest, artist/designer/landscape architect Vito Acconci.

Our group presented our ideas for reinventing public space, making it playful and multifunctional, much like our interpretation of Acconci’s work. We chose Central Park as the venue, and each member of the team chose a different site in the park to reinvent.

Through the process of doing the group assignment for Applications, I built lasting bonds with my teammates and also developed a new interest in public space. I had gone to ITP with an interest in building online communities in cyberspace, but Red and Vito Acconci helped me see the importance of shared physical public space as well, which sparked my curiosity and shifted the trajectory of my work.

During the first session of Applications, Red would present to the incoming class of new students a list of what she wanted us to know and what she hoped for us in our time at ITP. Luis Daniel, a fellow ITPer, has published a version of this list on his site. Below is an abridged version of that list, all points that I am reflecting upon today, and which I would like to share with you.

What I want you to know:

  • That the biggest danger is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.
  • That there is a knowledge shift from static knowledge to a dynamic searching paradigm.
  • That creativity is not the game preserve of artists, but an intrinsic feature of all human activity.
  • That there is a complex connection between social and technological trends. It is virtually impossible to unravel except by hindsight.
  • That you ask yourself what you want and then you work backwards.

What I hope for you:

  • That you combine that edgy mixture of self-confidence and doubt.
  • That you think of technology as a verb- not a noun.
  • That you remember the issues are usually not technical.
  • That you create opportunities to improvise.
  • That you observe, imagine and create.
  • That you look for the question, not the solution.
  • That you are not seduced by speed and power.
  • That you don’t see the world as a market, but rather a place that people live in – you are designing for people – not machines.
  • That you have a stake in magic and mystery and art.
  • That you understand the value of pictures, words, and critical thinking.
  • That poetry drives you, not hardware.
  • That you are willing to risk, make mistakes, and learn from failure.
  • That you embrace the unexpected.
  • That you value serendipity.
  • That you listen. That you ask questions.That you speculate and experiment.
  • That you play. That you are spontaneous.That you collaborate.
  • That each day is magic for you.
  • That you turn your thinking upside down.
  • That you make whole pieces out of disparate parts.
  • That you develop a moral compass.
  • That you welcome loners, cellists, and poets.
  • That you are flexible. That you are open.
  • That you can laugh at yourself. That you are kind.
  • That you consider why natural phenomena seduce us.

I’m still processing my feelings, gathering my thoughts, and remembering old stories about Red, working on making “whole pieces out of disparate parts.” Today I had a magical day, doing some of things that Red hoped for us. I played, embraced serendipity, pondered nature while observing and listening to the waves lap onto the shore. I will continue to look for the question, not the solution.

Perhaps it is time for me to pick up the cello again.

​Rest in peace Red. Thanks again for the the opportunities that you gave us.

We can honor Red’s legacy by contributing to the Red Burns Scholarship Fund.

ITP30 Red Tribute Video from ITP on Vimeo.

Additional References