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

Applications ITP NYU

Group Presentation Notes from Applications of Interactive Telecommunications Technology with Red Burns

One of the required courses I have to take at ITP is Applications of Interactive Telecommunications Technology, taught by Red Burns, the founder and chair of the program.

Course description:

This introductory class is designed to allow students to engage in a critical dialogue with leaders drawn from the artistic, non-profit and commercial sectors of the new media field, and to learn the value of collaborative projects by undertaking group presentations in response to issues raised by the guest speakers. Interactive media projects and approaches to the design of new media applications are presented weekly; students are thus exposed to both commercial as well as mission-driven applications by the actual designers and creators of these innovative and experimental projects. By way of this process, all first year students will, for the first and only time in their ITP experience, be together in one room at one time, and will, as a community, encounter, and respond to, the challenges posed by the invited guests. The course at once provides an overview of current developments in this emerging field, and asks students to consider many questions about the state of the art. For example, with the new technologies and applications making their way into almost every phase of the economy and rooting themselves in our day to day lives, what can we learn from both the failures and successes? What are the impacts on our society? What is ubiquitous computing, embedded computing, physical computing? How is cyberspace merging with physical space? Class participation, group presentations, and a final paper are required.

We have guest speakers each week, and then the following week, a different group of students have to present their reaction to the speaker’s presentation.  The reaction can be almost anything – it’s very free form and open-ended.

Our group (group #1, lucky us) went today.  We were reacting to last week’s guest speaker, poet, artist, designer and all-around genius Vito Acconci.  He’s on Wikipedia too.

Our group decided to present our new ideas for reinventing public space, making it playful and multifunctional, much like our interpretation of Acconci’s work.  In our case, we chose Central Park.  The members of the team chose different sites in the park to reinvent.

Here are my adapted speech notes from the 2 reinvented sites that I presented:

The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir

The reservoir was built between 1858 and 1862, based on the design for Central Park by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Olmsted is also known for designing Prospect Park in Brooklyn and the Mont Royal Park in Montreal, but more on Olmstead and Vaux later.

The reservoir covers 106 acres – 43 hectares (or 1/8th of the park’s total surface area). It is over 40 feet (12.2 meters) deep, and contains over 1 billion gallons (4 million cubic liters) of water.

Up until 1993, the reservoir was an active part of the City’s water supply system, and was used as a holding reservoir for distributing water to the City. In 1994, it was renamed after former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who had a 5th avenue apartment overlooking the reservoir and enjoyed jogging around it.

Today, it serves a purely decorative function, with joggers and walkers who taking advantage of the 1.58 mile foot path (2.54 kilometers) around it.

But what about the water itself? That is a lot of “public” space that is inaccessible to the public.  So we decided to put some life into the reservoir:

We brought back some of Jackie’s relatives from the dead and reincarnated them as genetically-engineered robotic cyborg sea creatures. Meet Big Edie and Little Edie, Jackie’s aunt and first cousin.

They are the stars of Grey Gardens, a 1975 film that documents their isolated existence in their dilapidated Long Island mansion of the same name. The film made the Edies cult star sensations and gay icons.

And now they are immortal fixtures of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis reservoir. They definitely add a more mischievous sense of fun, fabulousness and intrigue to the reservoir.

And here is Jackie herself. A sea creature of Central Park – Half octopus and half fashion icon. She is New York’s answer to Tokyo’s Godzilla and Scotland’s Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster.

Jackie is pretty in pink, so she color coordinates with the cherry blossoms that bloom around the perimeter of the reservoir in spring time. And she’s multifunctional too. She is a tame sea monster. You can ride Jackie. Visitors can get on her tentacles and she will transport you from one end of the reservoir to another. Thus reducing the travel time from one end of the Park to another, and uniting the aquatic space of the reservoir with the terrestrial space of the rest of the park.

The Sheep Meadow

The Sheep Meadow today is a 15-acre (6 hectare), lush, green meadow for relaxing and enjoying one of New York City’s great skyline views.

But the original concept behind the meadow was a little less pastoral. One of the conditions for entries in the 1858 Central Park design competition was the inclusion of a parade ground for military drills but park landscape was perhaps not the best place for military displays.  – and may perhaps too totalitarian according to our interpretation of Acconci’s parameters.

Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who won the design competition, included the parade ground in their design only reluctantly. The Park Commissioners were soon won over to their point of view, however, agreeing that military use conflicted with the vision of a quiet and serene atmosphere.

To re-enforce the pastoral and bucolic nature of the “Green” as it was then called a flock of sheep was added in 1864. A sheepfold (a house for sheep) was built in 1870 and twice a day a shepherd would drive the animals to and from the meadow.

But in 1934, Robert Moses, the “master planner” of mid-20th century New York banished the sheep to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and the sheepfold was converted into what is now the famous restaurant Tavern on the Green.

Solution:  Bring back the sheep.

Although the view from the Sheep Meadow is interesting, it can also get a little boring.  Many people sunbathe there in good weather, but sunbathing is bad for you.

There are a few sheep left in Central Park, but they are in the Central Park zoo’s petting area.  This area is small and sad.  Set the sheep free!

Also, many urbanites are alienated from their source of animal products.  They don’t really see or interact with their source of meat or animal fibers.

So the new Sheep Meadow with sheep will be multifunctional interactive.  There are many different ways that people interact with sheep.

We want it to be playful and not be too totalitarian in dictating its use.  It will be a real pasture and giant petting zoo.  But the sheep will also be raised for meat.  This will be organic, free range meat, with a low carbon footprint, suitable for even the most stringent of locavores.

The wool can be used to make clothing for the homeless in the winter time.

Children can play with their furry friends, and rich Uptown girls can frolic like in rustic setting without leaving the city, much like Marie Antoinette did at her faux-rural private estate on the grounds of Versailles.

After the presentation, a couple classmates suggested that I should make some t-shirts with Jackie on them.  Click on the image or here to customize and order your own Jackie O shirts.  Like the ITP shirt that I designed, I will donate the Zazzle royalties that I make to the ITP student social fund.

Group 1 Rocks!

BTW, I can’t draw good or nuthin’, but I sure had a lotta fun fotoshoppin’ tentaclez onto faces and stuff fo’ this project.  And yes, Squidbillies was a definite inspiration.