Red Burns died last week.
It’s sad to me that her name doesn’t stir up more recognition outside of the interactive art community–though prestige was not what she was about. Granted, my Twitter feed was buzzing last Friday night with fellow alumni chiming in on how their life was changed by this fiery old woman.
If you don’t know who she was, have a look at Red’s New York Times obituary (which was finally given its due), or visit her page on ITP’s website (though it reads like an awards list folded into paragraphs). She was the founder and head of my graduate school program, the Interactive Telecommunications Program in Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.
While the links above and my explanation may provide statistical fodder, I think it’s the stories of those we’ve lost that really paint a picture of a person. I’m going to share two of mine.
I won’t claim that I knew Red Burns extremely well, but I was always grateful that she knew who I was amidst a small army of students. Many students were intimidated by her, as she was a straight shooter that didn’t hold anything back. Upon my first semester in the fall of 2004, I decided to diffuse this perception by marching into her office and striking up a conversation. I walked in and asked her exactly how many days she sat outside of the Canadian National Film Board to get a job. “How do you know about that?!”, she asked. “I read it in the forward of John Maeda’s New Book, ‘Creative Code'”. She grumbled something, saying how she didn’t expect her anecdote getting printed and Maeda sending her a copy in French as a joke. She promptly called an assistant into her office and demanded they run down to St. Mark’s Bookshop and fetch her a copy immediately.
The aura of no-nonsense definitely surrounded her. From that point on, I definitely wanted to do well by her, but wasn’t worried she’d throw me into some penalty box.
Fast-forward to my last semester in the fall of 2005, and I found myself with a group of fellow students trying to “disseminate an idea” for one of Doug Rushkoff’s classes. Our idea, an origami workshop, was anonymously advertised all over the fourth floor of 721 Broadway. We had a good turnout, and we proceeded to subject our attendees to slides, handouts, and green tea in an effort to get everyone to ultimately contribute towards an origami tree.
What fascinated me was Red’s response to the tree–she was so impressed with it that she insisted it remain up after the Winter ITP show. Here was this project that didn’t utilize Processing, PICBASIC, or any homegrown physical computing, yet it was triumphed because Red recognized that it had facilitated social change.
I’d say the most important thing I learned at ITP was to not be afraid of new technology–nor be obsessed with it. Working in the industry I’m in, I find that I have to constantly remind myself of this lesson.
In the end, I have Red and the wonderful community she created to thank.
She will be missed.