Role Models: Ari Melenciano, Creative Technologist and Researcher at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program

Today’s Role Model is Ari Melenciano. Ari is a multidisciplinary artist, designer, creative technologist, researcher and DJ. She’s passionate about exploring how different forms of design impact the human experience. She entered the tech world a few years ago as a graduate student of New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and has been mind-blown of all the capabilities, ever since.

What’s your official title and how long have you been in this role?

I’m currently a Research Fellow at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Graduate Program (ITP). It’s a year-long post-doc position and I’m approaching the second half of it. I’m also a creative technologist educator; the founder and producer of New Media Arts, Culture and Technology Festival, Afrotectopia; and occasionally consult for NYC’s Department of Education’s CS4ALL initiative – which aims to bring technology to communities of color in public NYC schools. All of these roles are relatively new. I just graduated from grad school this past May and am figuring out what I want to do, career wise. I also DJ; I have a residency in Brooklyn, and have traveled from California to Cuba to Colorado to DJ and VJ with my sound interactive visuals that I’ve coded.

What attracted you to this role?

The fellowship has been an incredible experience. I graduated from NYU’s ITP in May 2018 and was asked to stay for an additional year as a research fellow. I continued exploring the imaginative uses of creative technology while also contributing to the ITP community (which is an unbelievably inspiring space). My research is wide-ranging, from studying public policy and the social implications of technology on marginalized communities for activism purposes, to speculative design to spatial computing for new methods of sonic composition. As faculty of NYU, we also get to pick which initiatives we’d like to work on and lead.

One of my initiatives is producing our annual 1 + 1 = 3, which was started by Shantell Martin and is a collaborative experimental performance between VJs at ITP and music artists at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. In being passionate about how tech impacts society, I’ve started a meetup at ITP called Tech & Society (along with other students also invested in civic tech), where we talk about current social concerns related to tech issues, head to events around NYC, and eventually collaborate to build projects of our own.

Being a creative technologist educator has been such a  great learning experience. For one, when you teach, you have to understand your complex topics at such a fundamental level to be able to explain it, clearly. Learning technology at such a fundamental level is such a powerful skill in building more intentionally complex works. Being in a classroom is also so inspiring, as it’s a space to bounce ideas and be in the midst of so much creativity. I give prompts to my students and watch them take it in so many different fascinating directions.

Being the founder and producer of a festival has been such a great learning experience, as well. It’s a huge workload to produce it, and I’m still figuring out how to build a team around me to make it easier. But the festival, itself, is so rewarding. Last year was its inaugural festival. When I first started creating it, I had no budget. Thanks to the great support of NYU (ITP, especially, and other departments) and tech companies like Google, it was realized and it created a huge impact in the tech landscape here in New York City.

The event was sold out soon after being announced; had close to 300 predominately Black innovators working at the intersections of art, design, tech and activism; invested $10k in Black/POC businesses and creatives; created a $5,000 scholarship and more. Finding ways to use my art and energy to better the world around me is the core passion in whatever I do. Afrotectopia has allowed me to do just that for the community that I work the hardest to empower: Black people.

Walk me through a typical day in your role. What activities do you engage in? What types of meetings do you join? When’s lunch?

I’m usually on the train heading to job number one, which is creative technology education, around 6:30/7am. My commute is spent catching up on reading books and checking emails. Once I get in, I always make some chai tea and prep for my classes of the day. Some days I have two classes to teach, and other days I only have one. I teach Digital Design and Fabrication, Programming for the Arts, Programming for the Physical World and A.P. Computer Science Principles. When I’m not teaching, I’m usually developing lesson plans for my other classes.

Once I’m done with planning, I’m experimenting with the machines I have in my classroom (the school has a digital fabrication lab with a laser cutter/engraver, 3D printer, desktop CNC machine, and more), building my research for my NYU role, and working on my personal projects. The school feeds all staff lunch everyday, which is such a treat. I always grab my lunch and bring it back to my classroom because I always have a thousand things I’m juggling and that lunch break is a great time to catch up. The school I work at understands my prior responsibility to NYU and lets me leave early and head to the university in the middle of the day. So, after being at the school during the beginning of the day, I’ll then head to NYU to teach a workshop, attend a meeting, or work on my own research. Each day is so different.

What skills/technologies help you succeed?

I really love the work I get to do with creative technologists and a lot of opportunities are constantly popping up. It’s hard to say no and focus on one thing, so I’ve ended up having just about 4+ jobs and a bunch of side projects. This requires a lot of organization, time management and efficiency. I don’t have much of a routine yet. But having a calendar with every event, task, etc. listed makes my life a lot easier.

What’s the most fun or creative part of your role?

Being a researcher at NYU is pure joy. It is entirely what you make of it. And with me being someone who likes to embark on a lot of different personal projects – it’s a perfect fit. I love having the opportunity and space to build, discuss my ideas with professors and students, and learn from the community around me. Being an educator of a field that I already am very personally invested in also makes it a great fit. I get to design my curriculum around some of the most exciting and emerging possibilities with technology, which is also the type of work I’m developing in my free time.

What are the biggest challenges you face in this role?

My only challenge in being a researcher is time. There’s so much that I want to do, but there’s never enough time to cover it all. There are a lot of new technologies I want to get more into, but learning new technologies takes time away from the projects I’m already developing. It’s a lot about finding balance and navigating through all the sparkly distractions of technology because the possibilities are so limitless.

Being an educator can be challenging in that it takes a lot of outside preparation just to make a class run smoothly. Creating projects, lessons for the day, having all of their work graded in a timely manner – it’s all very time consuming, especially as a first-year teacher. But as you return each year, the experience gets easier. You have curriculum that you’ve already built and can refer to each year while making iterations of improvement.

What teams/individuals do you work with cross-functionally? Can you give an example of a time when you collaborated with another group/individual?

As a researcher at NYU, get to I work with students, professors and other faculty across the university. For example, after my first year at ITP, I started making coding tutorials on youtube – to expose and share the possibilities in creative technology, as well as for representation purposes. I never got to grow up seeing Black women do the kind of work I’m doing, so it’s important for me to show others in my community that they can do these things, too.

Dan Shiffman, a professor at ITP, is also the king of coding tutorials on youtube and has an amazing collection of videos. When he came across my work, he immediately supported it. Tisch gave him a studio recording space to do his videos and I work with him in managing the space.

In the first year of creating and producing the Afrotectopia festival, I was still a graduate student at ITP. I worked with about 20 different NYU departments and tech companies to realize the event. This year, I’m building on a lot of those relationships to create the second annual festival and expand it to be much larger than a yearly festival. These sorts of collaborations include hosting events in different spaces. For example, we’re having an Afrotectopia event at NewInc., the incubator arm of the New Museum, on April 12th.

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