Q+A with Shrankhla Narya, MFA candidate in Design
Thu. May 21, 2015
Describe your design practice.
Shrankhla Narya: My practice as a designer is rooted in the belief that future designers will have to critically examine the theoretical, philosophical, and social aspects of design. My formal education in engineering, social science, and aesthetics has allowed me to develop an interdisciplinary approach towards design and examine its relationship with human needs and environments.
I believe that human-centered design, backed by in-depth research, can open doors for innovative solutions to real world problems.
What attracted you to the graduate Design program at UT Austin?
SN: The graduate Design program at UT Austin was an excellent mix of research and skills. I wanted to spend two years doing a course that would not only allow me to do studio work, but would also let me conduct research in areas that truly interested me. The program at UT Austin has been an excellent mix of making and thinking. The fact that we can take electives from any department makes it all the more valuable in terms of the variety of thoughts and experiences that we are exposed to.
What is your current research focus?
SN: My current research work seeks to investigate alternative narratives of technology use that are not driven by the prevailing consumerism of the privileged quarters of the world. I am beginning to streamline my research to investigate and suggest technological interventions for underprivileged people, currently focusing on day laborers in Austin.
Although I acknowledge that policy change and changes in the social structure are very likely the best methods of empowering marginalized communities — in the absence of enlightened legislation — I believe that technological interventions, deployed with an understanding of the social context, can support and complement this process of empowerment and inclusion.
Projects such as Krama and MissU and my ongoing research with day laborers in Austin can be taken as responses, in their own contexts and via their own perspectives, to the larger question “Who do we talk about when we talk about users?” Whether dealing with the most vulnerable sections of the society or engaging small and isolated communities to better understand the many dimensions of inclusion and exclusion, my work describes encounters with technology informed by different cultural, economic, political, and linguistic constraints.
What issues were you trying to solve in your Krama project?
SN: Krama is Sanskrit for progressing step by step towards a desired goal. This project is a speculative system for the future. Krama's aim is to build an alternate economy for the lower caste people (regarded as untouchables) in India by fostering upward mobility for them, both socially and economically. The lower caste people in India have faced extreme discrimination for centuries, and were denied access to public water wells, places of social gatherings, temples, and schools.
Krama creates 3D-printed DIY solar energy kits and portable water purification units for them and helps them learn how to produce resources for themselves, eventually leading to the possibility of an alternate economy for them to function in.
SN: MissU is an app that allows for communication through subtle visual cues displayed on physical objects around the receiver. The idea was born out of my need for long distance communication with my mom, where the time difference between our geographic locations and her lack of exposure to technology and English were the primary hindrances. The app communicates with the night lamp at the receiver’s end (who does not need a smart phone) through arduino and wireless shields.
In the future, we wish to develop 3D printed lamp shades with screens to display the icons and change color based on the sender’s mood.
How has your research or work developed over your time here so far and what are you looking forward to in the next year?
SN: My work has undergone some significant changes since the time I joined this program. I was a fresh chemical engineering graduate from India with no prior work experience. The past 10 months have been an excellent learning experience, along with a rigorous process of unlearning. I have found the area that interests me most, which is at the intersection of interaction design and social design. Arriving at a research area that one can commit to for a long period of their life is never easy, but I am glad that I have been able to find something that brings together my interest in technology and certain questions about our society that have troubled me for a long time.
I will be spending the next few months talking with day laborers in Austin and organizations that work with them. I hope to take my first significant step towards understanding a culture that is alien to me.
Interview with Brent Dixon (MFA in Design, 2015) as he prepares to begin work at the United Nations
Thu. May 28, 2015
Describe your background and what lead you to the MFA Design program at UT Austin.
Brent Dixon: I was a round, jowly, and gassy baby. When I was two years old my parents put me in a baby beauty pageant, and I won "Champion Chubby." As a kid I drew on everything and did science experiments in my room. One time I set my bed on fire by trying to electrify Nickelodeon Gak.
Fast forward: After finishing my undergrad in journalism, I co-founded a web and mobile design shop with a couple of friends. We always designed our first prototypes around a table with our clients, using markers, paper, tape, and hot glue before making something digital. From there I started working in consumer finance, eventually using some of the same design processes to help create financial products for people with limited access to credit. I also led design workshops for business people, and realized how much I enjoyed teaching. A friend and I started a group that organized pop-up hacker spaces for kids, which brought me back to hot glue and science experiments that set things on fire. I came to the UT Austin Design MFA program because I wanted more of that in my life. This program opens up the entire university as one giant playground.
In how to listen: 2015 Design MFA Thesis Exhibition at the Visual Arts Center, you displayed your educational work with children and focus on bringing technology into the classroom in an easy way for teachers. How did you begin working with this age group and thinking about education?
BD: One of the best ways to learn is to teach. I wanted to learn more about things that will have a big impact on our future — technologies like synthetic biology, robotics, digital fabrication —but that felt far outside of my realm of expertise. Designing hands-on workshops for kids provided a system to distill these big topics down to something learnable, fun, and usually messy.
Organizing the workshops helped me meet parents, teachers, and other people working in education. Austin, in particular, has this amazing community of people working to bring hands-on, curiosity-based learning into classrooms. I had actually avoided schools early in organizing these workshops because I was afraid of red tape, but spending time with educators who teach 6 year olds to solder and use power tools opened my eyes to the universe of smart, inspiring people as well as the huge amount of work to be done in formal education.
For the how to listen exhibition, each designer contributed sound clips for a compilation of influences on your projects. Can you tell us more about your selections? Number 41 (a first-grade girl scratches a turntable for the first time) and 58 (a third-grade girl describers her experiments and inventions) and particularly good.
BD: Number 41 was from a one-day workshop at Travis Heights Elementary. We had an extremely amazing of artists, scientists, and educators who volunteered their time to lead workshops with the kids. Three of those mentors were from Dub Academy, an Austin-based DJ and music production school. They taught kids at Travis Heights about new and old school DJ technology. That clip was from a little girl learning how to scratch a record for the first time.
Number 58 was a girl from Walnut Springs Elementary, one of the schools I worked with during my MFA research. In addition to the inventions she describes in the clip (which are amazing) she also helped write a grant to get the school a 3D printer. Later in the interview she encouraged other kids in Austin, saying that if they wanted something like a 3D printer or a community garden at their school: "Just write a grant! You can do it! It's easier than you think!" I was blown away by her.
You recently accepted a position with the U.N. What will you be doing and how did this opportunity come about?
I'll be working with a new group designed to help Secretariat organizations use emerging technologies to address challenges. A mutual friend introduced me to the head of the group and we've spent the last six months brainstorming and getting to know each other. I'm extremely excited to get started.
Q+A with Rachel Stuckey, MFA candidate in Studio Art
Thu. May 28, 2015
Describe your background.
Rachel Stuckey: I'm a third generation Austinite who grew up enthusiastically participating in my high school film literacy course, Center for Young Cinema classes, and youth events at SXSW and Austin Film Festival. I spent the first couple years of my undergraduate studies at the Savannah College of Art and Design's film program and finished at the University of Colorado at Boulder's Experimental Film program, which is where I received my BFA. While in Boulder, I worked for the International Film Series and First Person Cinema, an avant-garde film showcase that has run since 1955. I also taught an after school video art class hosted by Boulder LGBT Pride and the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. I moved back to Austin to do freelance film and video work and establish Experimental Response Cinema, a volunteer-run micro cinema.
Why did the Studio Art program at UT Austin appeal to you?
RS: After several years of work and study in exclusively film and video environments, I wanted to expand beyond the relatively small community of experimental cinema for my graduate studies by working in a mixed-disciplinary program. Transmedia's video/digital media/performance hybrid approach, nestled within a larger studio art program, along with the department's awesome faculty, UT's research resources, and the media arts community in Austin — UT was a perfect fit. I also hope to teach, so having the opportunity to TA has been wonderful.
You're wrapping up your second year in the graduate program. You've been working on a new project, Welcome to my Homepage!. How does this work depart or act as a continuation of your previous video work?
RS: Welcome to my Homepage! is a net.art project that, unlike my single-channel video works, is changing all the time. It's an expanding cyber-dwelling that begins with the recognizable layout of a house and reaches further and further into the abstract ether of the web. It houses smaller video works and other digital art works as I make them and is also hyperlinked with projects I've made on New Hive and Tumblr, meaning unsuspecting users of those sites could encounter a doorway that routes them into the Homepage!.
It's part memory palace, part drafting board for new ideas, part net experiment. Homepage! also features a residency program, Welcome to my Guest Room!, where interested visitors can sign up to do whatever project they want in the attic space. Recently I've been using elements from Homepage! for a narrative video installation, T0WARD CY83RGN0S1S, that explores ways net-culture can manifest offline as technological occultism and internet-borne disorders.
You recently had an exhibition at Hello Project in Houston. What did you learn from the experience?
RS: Jon Hopson, Hello Project's director, approached me with the idea of building a show around a single-channel video work I had made. It was a nice push to start thinking more spatially about my video work in a very practical way, which has since influenced my practice in general. The installation included a single channel video, It Takes All Sorts, projected on an entire wall with surround sound audio that located the viewer in the middle of patronizing conversations, medical tests, and intercom announcements. Across the room were a collection of looping videos on monitors and arrangements of gaudy artificial flowers featured in the video, dimly lit in deep purple and hot pink.
Do you have any other shows coming up?
RS: I'll have a new projector performance in the New Media Art and Sound Summit in Austin on Thursday, June 11, and It Takes All Sorts will be screened in an experimental film event curated by Dani Leventhal at the Women's Studio Workshop in Rosendale, New York, this August.
Rachel Stuckey presents work in solo exhibition at Hello Project Gallery
Mon. May 4, 2015
Rachel Stuckey (MFA candidate in Studio Art) presents her first solo exhibition at Hello Project Gallery. The exhibition, It Takes All Sorts, will be on view April 24 – May 23, 2015.
Juliet Whitsett talks about fighting cancer, raising children, and attending graduate school at UT Austin
Wed. April 29, 2015
Juliet Whitsett is a graduate student in Art Education and is writing her thesis on the principles that guide and motivate those who direct the Public Programs at the Friends of the High Line in New York. She is investigating how the recognition of these principles contributes to understandings regarding the development of art education in a community.
Whitsett received a BA in Art Education and certificate in Art in Special Education from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is proud to call herself as a teacher, public program coordinator, community arts educator, Salsa and Texas Swing dance instructor, plant lover, traveler, cancer survivor, stepmother to 13-year-old Kai, and mother to 3-year-old twin girls, Fischer and Sequoia.
She answered questions from Professor Paul Bolin by email.
Paul Bolin: Tell us about your background and what led you to the Art Education program at UT Austin.
Juliet Whitsett: When I was finishing my bachelor’s degree in Art Education, I told myself "There's no way I am applying for a job as an art teacher after graduation. I want to have some more adventures first.” So that’s what I did.
I moved from Madison to Austin and became an AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer teaching gardening to children. VISTA really shaped my life. I made contacts in the environmental education world, and I took a position as an Environmental Educator at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. I infused the arts into my entire curriculum, and I saw how they could be used to teach about the natural world.
After the Wildflower Center, I took a job as a guide with an international organization that leads trips for young adults to various parts of the world. Journeys focused on adventure travel, volunteerism, and language study. My work with them took me to the South Pacific and Central and South America. I landed in Mexico, where I lived for two years polishing up my Spanish and learning how to teach Salsa, and directing an art, dance, and Spanish camp for U.S. teens.
In 2009, I moved back to Austin. While working for a high-end landscape business, I discovered I had cancer. I spent six months in chemotherapy and one month undergoing radiation.
One day after a chemo session, I was listening to a piece on the radio about John Cage, and something about it made me reflect on creativity in a new and different way. I marveled at how he was so rewarded for his divergent thinking and how he followed so many visions. Hearing that flipped a switch and rekindled an interest in returning to my roots as an art educator. I took the GRE while undergoing radiation. A few months after I completed treatment, I began the Art Education program in the fall of 2010!
PB: What were the most challenging parts of the program, and conversely, the most rewarding?
JW: In the summer of 2011, I wanted to find an incredible internship. I wanted to work for the High Line in New York; however, the Public Programs Department of The Friends of the High Line did not have an internship program. I was fairly persistent and, recognizing that my experience with both art education and environmental education was the perfect fit, they accepted me as their first summer intern.
A few weeks before leaving for New York, I found out I was pregnant — with twins! Determined to fulfill my dream of living in New York for a summer, I spent the first three months of my pregnancy away from home, writing curriculum and executing public programs.
I encourage graduate students to find an internship that they really want. I learned so much and gained incredible contacts. I ended up working for Friends of the High Line the following year, writing some of their summer curriculum — Babies in Tote — from Austin. Eventually, the High Line's public programs became the subject of my thesis.
It is now 2015 and most of my classmates graduated in the spring of 2012. It has been a long haul. Writing a thesis while juggling sweet and inquisitive twins — now preschoolers — and a tween stepson, as well as working full-time and writing a thesis is challenging.
Now that I am in the throes of my final thesis edits and my last classes are wrapping up, it's starting to sink in that I really did this! I couldn't have done it without my loving husband's support or without the patience and confidence of you, my faculty adviser.
PB: Do you have plans once you finish the program?
JW: I’m going to do is celebrate my master's degree with my family and friends! I will continue to contribute to the world in a creative way, and right now, I’m enjoying teaching art and gardening at Austin Discovery School. In my younger years, I avoided Art Education in search of adventure. I'll be 40 this year and I have had my fair share of adventures, so I’m excited to embrace this next step.