The best way I can describe Ari Melenciano is that she is a renaissance talent. As an artist, researcher, and creative technologist, Ari is always finding new ways to express herself, speak to social issues, and find ways to use her art to enhance the lives of everyday people. Ari talked about her residency at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, which helped her create Afrotectopia, a multi-day new media arts, culture and technology festival. She also spoke about growing up around art and music, including how technology ended up being the catalyst for the work she does now. I don't want to spoil this great conversation too much -- we were both coming off of this year's Black in Design Conference, and I think you'll really feel the spirit and energy that both of us still had from the event! Ari is out here doing important and vital work, and this episode captures that perfectly. Thank you Ari for showing us a vision of an equitable future!
The best way I can describe Ari Melenciano is that she is a renaissance talent. As an artist, researcher, and creative technologist, Ari is always finding new ways to express herself, speak to social issues, and find ways to use her art to enhance the lives of everyday people.
Ari talked about her residency at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, which helped her create Afrotectopia, a multi-day new media arts, culture and technology festival. She also spoke about growing up around art and music, including how technology ended up being the catalyst for the work she does now. I don't want to spoil this great conversation too much -- we were both coming off of this year's Black in Design Conference, and I think you'll really feel the spirit and energy that both of us still had from the event! Ari is out here doing important and vital work, and this episode captures that perfectly. Thank you Ari for showing us a vision of an equitable future!
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Maurice Cherry: All right. So tell us who you are and what you do.
Ari Melenciano: Hi, I'm Ari. I'm a artist, creative technologist and researcher.
Maurice Cherry: Now for those who are listening who might not be familiar with that term, "creative technologist," can you, I guess unpack that a little bit? To you, what is a creative technologist?
Ari Melenciano: So a creative technologist is someone that predominantly kind of combines art and technology together to create interactive, mostly. It's mostly computer based work, so it could be exhibition design or building apps or UX and UI , doesn't exclusively have to be that, but it also incorporates those skills. But people that are generally creating things through electronics for artistic expression.
Maurice Cherry: When did you first hear that term?
Ari Melenciano: I might've first heard that term while I was in graduate school studying to be a creative technologist. So the graduate school that I went to is called Interactive Telecommunications at NYU. So it's a program that combines art, design, technology and engineering and the courses are all surrounding this idea of creative technology.
Maurice Cherry: Nice. Now I guess speaking of NYU, I know a lot of the things that you're doing right now, which are mostly around education, also kind of involve your research work at NYU. Can you talk a little bit about the residency that you have with ITP?
Ari Melenciano: Yeah. The residency I just completed, it was offered to me once I had graduated from the program. So they invite a few students to stay just for an extra year and continue their research in whatever you want to research. For me, my general interests surrounded ways that I could push the possibilities and boundaries with human computer interactive technologies, and I also wanted to explore ways that societies is impacted by technology, so considering different ways that social inequities have been replicated through technology.
Maurice Cherry: Interesting. I want to also dive a little bit into that. Maybe we can do that a little bit later. You're also teaching at NYU, right?
Ari Melenciano: Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Maurice Cherry: What are some of the courses?
Ari Melenciano: I'm teaching two classes at NYU. One is in the program that I graduated out of ITP and another one is in the photography department. The course at ITP is the one that I developed based on an exhibition by Vitra Design Museum . So it's called, Designing Club Culture.
Ari Melenciano: For me, I wanted to create a course that for one, would bring race and culture into the ITP space. So it very much does that of us were thinking about music and its progression from being slave music and lacking a lot of instrumentation because slaves only had what was around them, everyday materials and then moving from slave music to funk music and then to jazz. We're missing some genres, but jazz and then eventually to genre and kind of studying how these genres have all been affected by the society and what was going on at the time around them or what they had access to, so jazz being a lot like funk music, but really replacing words with instrumentation and kind of getting more... Becoming trained in European instruments is what led to lots of jazz music and just studying all these different patterns between society and music has been really interesting and kind of sharing it with the students.
Ari Melenciano: Then us thinking about club culture and this kind of new life after the second world war of all this leisure time is now available to people and what are they doing with it in the nighttime. This club culture has allowed people to explore social experiments. So they would create these spaces and then some spaces they would say, "Okay, take all your clothes off and we're going to put these white nightgowns on everyone and now we're going to do this collective kind of beat making with a bunch of different instruments," or another space might have an actual vegetable garden on their floor. But all these different spaces, they're being very experimental and thinking about; how can this space impact the people and what's pretty much our subliminal manifesto within this space? Because the sixties and seventies was so much about protesting and creating communities of people that think similarly, one of the first times in ways that we can get together and celebrate all of our similarities.
Ari Melenciano: So a lot of that, a lot of studying and theorizing of what has happened in our country and even outside of it. Italy has been huge and disco-
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ari Melenciano: ... club culture and other spaces outside of it, but then also thinking of, "Okay, well what technologies do we have now that can reenact kind of what people were doing then and push it much more forward?" So teaching a lot of different technologies that allow students to explore audio, visual kind of experiments, so we're learning different softwares like Max and Ableton and ways that we can create music, live composed music and then also have the music conversation with the visuals that are projected in our space. The students are invited to, as a final project, create a kind of quick club experience for 20 minutes where outside people are invited in and able to experience it.
Ari Melenciano: Then the other course is in the photography department and that one is called, Documenting Downtown with New Media. So that's photography, the photography department being very interested in kind of what's going on in the ITP space. So them wanting to bring the technologies that we're using, a little bit of them, into the photography department so students get more acquainted with different softwares and apps. So we're exploring a lot with AR right now.
Ari Melenciano: My main goal with it is to kind of just push the students in my class to be a lot more creative and think about photography and the way that you compose photographs and exhibit photographs in much more different and more immersive ways. It won't just be still images, but sometimes we're exploring with moving images or we're developing our own soundscapes or we're creating images all based on the color. So we're doing photo walks and capturing photos where each photo has a certain color and it all is found in a collection of photos. But really just practicing a lot more of thinking about the spaces that we're in and having our eyes and ears more open and thinking about ways that we can project these works with the technologies that we have access to today and not being so traditional.
Maurice Cherry: The club culture core sounds amazing.
Ari Melenciano: Thank you.
Maurice Cherry: Aside from, I think, just that final project of make a club because I think for, and I could be speaking completely out of turn here because I'm old, but I feel like people look at clubs as just something to consume and not create-
Ari Melenciano: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: ... and the fact that you're adding these rich cultural layers on top of it showing how the club is not just a place to go, but it's a space that was created out of a certain need and those needs come out of society and economics and-
Ari Melenciano: Exactly.
Maurice Cherry: ... social justice issues and things like that. Even thinking of how you said in the sixties and seventies creating those spaces, I feel like that's happening now-
Ari Melenciano: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Maurice Cherry: ... at least in terms of protest because of just how society is still really messed up-
Ari Melenciano: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: .. but that whole concept of centering it around the club and then you're including music and everything in that, I want to take that course. That sounds really good.
Ari Melenciano: Thank you.
Maurice Cherry: I was just hearing a podcast. He's a jazz vocalist, his name is Gregory Porter and he has this podcast called, The Hang. In his recent episode, he was talking with Gilles Peterson who heads up... Well, he's a DJ, but he also does a lot of work with Blue Note Records. They're a recording label. They do a lot of, I guess experimental jazz, mostly; traditional and experimental jazz I mean. Clear that up. They were talking about some of these sort of similar things about sort of the cultural space and nuances of music and how that's formed around DJ sets and clubs-
Ari Melenciano: Yeah, yeah.
Maurice Cherry: ... and things like that. It's amazing to think of something that we might perceive as just a recreational activity-
Ari Melenciano: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Maurice Cherry: ... as also just being a physical and mental space for connection and expression and catharsis and all these other things.
Ari Melenciano: Absolutely. Yeah. So much was going on then. Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, and still now. It's funny, you mentioned some of these things and I'm like, "We have a lot of those things going on right now." They're were probably called... Well, they are called different things and I think that may make them, I don't want to say harder to find, but maybe maybe more difficult to understand because they're called so many different things like maybe it's a maker space. Maybe they do call it a club or I know here, actually in Atlanta not too far from me, there's a place called, The Met, which has a lot of these similar types of things and they call some of the things they do, space labs, and it's like if you don't know what the vernacular is, you're like, "Oh what? What's a space lab? What is that?" But it's very similar in what you're saying, people are getting together and making music in real time, but it's also a space just to be outside of the normal regular society and everything.
Ari Melenciano: Yeah, to be entertained all at once. It's also changing a lot. That whole club culture is gone in a lot of ways. The only ways people come together is through festivals. That's due to... Like you would go to clubs because the DJ is playing music that you've never heard before or you could only hear if you enter that space.
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ari Melenciano: So now we have Spotify and Tidal and there's no need to kind of really gather to hear all these music. So it's finding new spaces for people to congregate.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, it's amazing how much technology has changed-
Ari Melenciano: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Maurice Cherry: ... music in many different ways. Of course, it's changed it for the musician, but also-
Ari Melenciano: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: ... like you said, for the consumer, you can have all of these streaming services, your entire collection and your favorites, your playlists. It's like why would you need to go out to a club-
Ari Melenciano: Right.
Maurice Cherry: ... when you've got the club in your pocket?
Ari Melenciano: You groove to it at home.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, exactly.
Ari Melenciano: In your own comfort.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. I didn't even think about that with now people connecting through festivals, because now I do have a lot of friends that they do the festivals circuits, especially ones that are into EDM.
Ari Melenciano: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: They'll do the festival circuits, but then even with things like Afropunk-
Ari Melenciano: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: ... or down here we have, A3C, which are sort of these similar types of festivals that have music and they've got panels. It's like a whole multi-modal type-
Ari Melenciano: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: .. of experience of the music.
Ari Melenciano: Yeah, definitely.
Maurice Cherry: Now you're also doing some consulting on curriculum, right?
Ari Melenciano: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Maurice Cherry: With NYC Department of Education?
Ari Melenciano: Yeah. So they reached out and have been interested in kind of... I've always been in the education space for a while and so they've been looking for ways that the pedagogy that they're teaching right now is to mostly sixth graders of the steam pedagogy, how it could be made more culturally relevant. So the work that I'm doing is considering... They have a few main identities including religion and sexuality and race and nationality and culture, and kind of thinking of ways that the work that I'm building can showcase to the students how you can bring your identity and yourself to the work that you're doing and how else do you can use technology to be these sort of digital activists, digital citizens and create experiences for other people to become more aware.
Ari Melenciano: So different projects have included, one of them I've been building is this sort of subway map that shows which lines in New York City are more accessible than than others and getting some really surprising data. The G Train only has one disability accessible station out of almost 14 stops. Yeah. So kind of just highlighting what's been going on and showing students examples of how they can be activists, many activists with creative technology.
Maurice Cherry: Interesting. What are the challenges with developing curriculum that for such a wide range of students?
Ari Melenciano: I think there's... It's a big team. It's not that big, but it is like you're collaborating and we're all remote. I get to work on this in my own home. So I think just being able to figure out, "Okay, what is the main curriculum designer within the curriculum? How can I create works around that?" But they've also given me so much freedom to really just create whatever I want because they're familiar with my work. They're just saying , "Really, we just want your innovation and just create works where you're doing what you've already been doing, but enough for sixth graders." I think the biggest challenge for me is using, because a lot of it is on Scratch, and I'm still used to tech space coding and not block-based coding.
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ari Melenciano: And Scratch is very, very limiting. So it's been a lot to just learn how to use that and be able to express myself fully in ways that I'm able to with other programming languages.
Maurice Cherry: Well, and this is I guess sort of a plug here, but if you've heard of Glitch-
Ari Melenciano: Yeah, that's true.
Maurice Cherry: Might well look into it. It's kind of a more, I think, well featured IDE just in terms of being able to easily sign up for an account, get started-
Ari Melenciano: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: ... do peer collaboration and things like that. So if you're interested I can certainly, I can put you in touch with some people.
Ari Melenciano: Thank you. No, I've actually been using it. Yeah. It's just like what's easy enough for sixth graders to understand because Glitch is great. I've said it so many times to them, suggested so many times, but I think it's also just Glitch is very similar to like p5 where it's you have the code-
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ari Melenciano: ... and sixth graders, they're still learning how to code. So it's what's the simplest way to get all of it across to them?
Maurice Cherry: Right, right.
Ari Melenciano: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: Now you've created one of your most well known projects while you were at NYU-
Ari Melenciano: Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: ... which is Afrotectopia. For our audience, can you talk a little bit about sort of how you got the idea for that and really just just what it is?
Ari Melenciano: Yeah. Afrotectopia, it stemmed very much out of a personal experience. Me entering ITP when I did was really one of my first times in a tech oriented space. I wasn't a technologist before that. I was an artist. I always grew up as an artist. So being in that space and getting exposed to so many amazing ways of pushing my art forward in directions I would have never even imagined and months prior was very exciting. So learning all these technologies, I got really excited, but then I'm thinking about how I'm going back home after I create different things. I created a camera while I was there and other products and designs and my friends at home being excited about it, but them telling me that they don't think that they could do these kinds of things really frustrated me because I'm in a space that really the only difference between where I grew up and NYU is just the access to the technologies and softwares and teaching and training to use these things.
Ari Melenciano: As I got more ingrained in it, I'm realizing this up is not difficult at all. It has a learning, but once you get in there, it's very easy to really just put pieces together. A lot of creative technology, I don't mean to simplify it and make it look a lot easier than it is, but in some case, a lot of it is just putting these technologies that have already been developed by other people together in strategic ways to create your own things, that sometimes it can be as simple as that. So learning how all this tech worked and learning all the possibilities, I was very excited, but also disappointed that my friends for one, felt like they couldn't do it and that they also just didn't have access to it because I know if they had access to it they would be creating amazing things as well. So that was a frustration for me. Then navigating my program, it just wasn't and it still isn't very racially diverse.
Ari Melenciano: So that was frustrating for me and being the only black student in my class and saying, "Well, you know, if we're using these technologies in this way, it's not going to serve our community in the best way. So maybe we should be more mindful," and just constantly having to be in a space of educating what's actually going on outside of ITP doors and literally what's actually going on right outside ITP doors because lower East where we are is a very black and Latino space. It just felt like there was just such a disconnect between what's going on actually in society and what's going on within these programs, tech programs that are teaching. Then also just not having a community of people to be mentored by and mentor and learn from and learn with. I was creating a lot of work that was considering race and critical race theory and justice and all of these different things, But it felt very siloed. I didn't really have people to bounce ideas off of with or to get feedback from people that actually understood what was going on.
Ari Melenciano: So I wanted to tackle a lot of these different things in a space, in a community, build a community of people that we don't have to educate about race before we jump into tech and where race is not absent of conversations around surrounding tech and it's centered in the tech conversations and we're able to just see each other's work for one and just like get to know each other and build with each other and celebrate the pioneers that have been doing this kind of work. The first one happened while I was still a graduate student also completing my thesis project in March, 2018. ITP NYU was very supportive in helping realize it and giving us a space and resources that we needed to produce it. The first one, it really created a big buzz around New York City of people are interested in having this kind of environment where they can enter and be black and also in the tech space and not feel like they're going to be the only ones when attending or the tech conversations are going to be completely dismissive of their culture.
Ari Melenciano: So it was around a couple hundred people that came and it sold out quickly. The things that we were discussing were very much ways that we can use technology to eradicate a lot of the racial disparities that are happening today and how we can better set up our future. So that was really exciting. And then the second one happened about a month ago and Google hosted us at this one and was really even more exciting for me because I've been studying a lot about pedagogy of just being an educator and also the way that communities develop are developed. With pedagogy, I've been thinking about ways because generally for me, I just don't like being on panels at all and I don't really like attending panels because it doesn't feel like it's the most conducive way to learning. It feels very much like you have a few selected expertise, "expertise," to share their work, which is great. It's always great to learn about people, but then it's so hard to get to know who else is in the room and what they know.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah.
Ari Melenciano: I feel like there's just so much intelligence within spaces and especially when people are congregating around a certain issue, they're all bringing in so many different levels of expertise and ranges and lenses. For me, I wanted to get out of that whole hierarchal approach within pedagogy of top down and be more horizontal and invite more voices to the table, as many as possible. So the framework of the festival was very much not having any panels, but much more of doing these things called collective conversations. I would invite a few people, selectively invite a few people to kind of just come share their work just so we can get things started and kind of develop a theme within the conversation. But then everyone else would have opportunity to talk about how they relate to that work or that theme or just moderate each other and creating a conversation. Then other ways would be through workshops and performances.
Ari Melenciano: The way that Afrotectopia has been designed is it's very much sort of like an intellectual festival of we're learning, but we're also having a lot of fun. So we're dancing and being entertained and seeing a lot of different forms of art. And also, as I mentioned early, of just how are you building your community? And I've had conversations with people making sure that I'm aware of how I'm doing it or just reminding me of the importance of it. One way that was brought to my attention was what you're building your community off of. So the difference between the last one and this most recent one was the head space that I was in-
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Ari Melenciano: ... of me being this artist that's... As I entered NYU, that's really the time that I was becoming a lot more aware of the racial dynamics within the country because I'm coming from a space that's predominantly black, but it's also a predominantly black space that's pretty well off. So we don't understand the racial dynamics of the country in the same way that people in other more, less accessible areas would experience. So that kind of spoiled black experience-
Ari Melenciano: ...would experience, and so that kind of spoiled black experience in a way, blinded us a lot, but it was also countrywide. The country was blind to a lot of racial dynamics because we were thinking that we were living in a post-racial society with Obama, but the change of presidency, it woke a lot of us up. And though black people were always aware of the racism, it woke us up even more, I think, to what's actually going on and people just being openly racist in ways that we hadn't experienced and in media. So I think that just that shift also woke me up a lot in thinking about what's going on here and how can I use my privilege of being an NYU student and having access to all this space to make sure that everyone around me is as aware as I am?
Ari Melenciano: And so I think that speaks a lot to your question of what got me into even just technology and considering that as a tool to be more culturally or racially active and as a sort of racial activist, in a way. I think it's just where I was at the time, I happened to be in the tech space and learning about all these things and doing a lot of my own research on critical race theory and just generally what's going on, and thinking that, "Okay, well, if I'm in this space and using all these technologies that are becoming more and more relevant to everyday lives, how can I make sure that people are aware of the ways that we're using it to further oppress other groups of people?"
Ari Melenciano: So all of that to say, to come back to Afrotectopia, that the shift changed from being this person that constantly used technology for race and racial justice, to then also being this person that wants to consider the future. I had a conversation with a friend, Rashida Richardson, who mentioned to me that we are doing a great job of being in the streets and protesting, but we don't really have exact visions of the future and what are we protesting for? And so her saying that to me really created a sort of paradigm shift for me of, that's true, and it's also something I really want to get to, even more of just developing these visions for how our standards of living could be and what we should be fighting for so that people in the streets have something to fight for.
Ari Melenciano: And so we can be very specific when the time comes where people are asking, "Okay, well what is it that you want?" And we can very clearly express that. So that shift also translated into the second Afrotectopia of, it was a space where our foundation of the community was shifting from being a space that's surrounding these ideas of whiteness and ways that whiteness can be very destructive to humanity, and instead shifting to all the intelligence that's inherent of blackness and centering our own greatness and learning about our own history and how we'll use all of this intelligence and cultural memory that we have innate in ourselves to build these speculative futures that would be very healthy for all of us.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, I love that idea of going from a speculative future to an actual future, to a reality.
Ari Melenciano: Yeah, yeah.
Maurice Cherry: Wow, there's so much that you said that I want to unpack. And I'm also thinking of that in context of the fact that both of us just recently attended the 2019 Black in Design conference, and their whole theme was about black futurism and it had panels about, by creating spaces for joy and how we use technology and design to craft this future for ourselves. I liked that idea of having collective conversations when it comes to these types of topics because I feel that the past, I don't know, maybe five to seven years has really galvanized a lot of people in different ways, largely because of things which have happened in society. And there are people that will say that technology is the reason that a lot of this has even started to really galvanize people. Like when you think about, for example, Michael Brown in Ferguson. From there, there was this preponderance now of police forces using body cams. So the plus side is that we now have this footage that is showing these sort of acts as they happen. The downside is now we have footage of these acts as they're happening, because one, it can galvanize people, but then it also can be a form of trauma just depending on how people circulate it and use it and all that sort of stuff.
Ari Melenciano: Yeah, I mean, it also serves as just a way to numb people. We're seeing this back to back to back, and it's not really riling people up as much as it has been before when it was first being released. And also, it seems like it's kind of coming out of... Like police are all of a sudden becoming this way for some people. But I was just reading this book on Basquiat and his work with his painting called Defacement. And it was around the time in the '80s when several police officers murdered one of the artists. And that he wasn't even prominent at the time, it was just an artist that Basquiat and other artists in that area, Lower East Side, knew and how much that affected them and how a lot of that... That killing in itself really woke up the Lower East Side as far as white people didn't realize that them getting off by the police was really racially motivated and how their black friends would actually be the ones that are getting locked up or getting killed.
Ari Melenciano: Just that happening woke the people up at that time, and that not being able to be documented by social media and all of that. Now we're able to document it and people are seeing it much more consistently. In the beginning it was great because people felt like, "Oh, this is happening. We need to fight it." Which is exactly what we should be doing. But then it becomes so prevalent, you're scrolling through your Twitter feed and you're seeing another person dies. Okay. And then another person dies. And it's definitely creating a sort of stagnancy that's not good for our society.
Maurice Cherry: And it's funny, I'm thinking of that... Well, not funny, but I'm thinking of that. And there was a lot of art that had came out around that incident. I think it was around the time of Basquiat doing the Defacement piece. I know Andy Warhol did a print, I think Keith Herring also did something. And something that I've been hearing, I want to say fairly recently... I'd say certainly since, like I said, the past five to seven years, is how more designers should be using their work as ways to kind of speak to what's happening in society and not just about... And not saying that you can't just also talk about tech topics, like browser issues or stuff like that. But then also, how are you using your work outside of this strictly technological space in order to help impact the community around you and everything? And one thing that I can see from your work is that it exists at a lot of different intersections. It's art, it's design, it's tech, it's a digital activism, it's race, it's culture, all these different things, pedagogy, speculative design, all this stuff. With all these topics, how do you make sure that your work reaches as many of these areas as possible?
Ari Melenciano: You're bringing up something that I'm thinking about a lot, of just, "What are we using our art for?" And I've had conversations with people that have brought two things, one was in a conversation, one was just reading and the other one was a conversation. And one of them was, I was having a conversation with someone who said, "What would black people be doing if we didn't have to create things about race?" Yeah, that really stuck with me.
Maurice Cherry: Oh, yeah. Wow.
Ari Melenciano: And then another one was Toni Morrison's quote of racism is distraction. And no matter what you do, there's always going to be something to prove. And so those things have really shifted me, have really just opened me up in ways that I'm very thankful for. And my trajectory into ITP, I said before, and I may not have elaborated on of, I entered as an artist who was not focused on my cultural or racial identity at all. I just wanted to create beautiful things and use art for aesthetics and create fun experiences for people and leave people in awe in some way. And so entering ITP, my work and all the research that I was doing while there, it just was swallowed up by all the racial dynamics in the country, and all the work that I was doing, critical race theory, all of that just seeped into everything that I did. And that was really inspiring for me in some ways, but then it also became extremely exhausting because I'm no longer what I have always been of just this artist that loves to just create, but now I'm making sure that all of my work is speaking to society in a way that is more accepted.
Ari Melenciano: And I also had the mentality of, "We as black people should be creating work that is advancing our community always." But that sort of trajectory is very exhausting and we're losing a lot of innovation and creativity that could exist if we weren't focused on proving to people and educating people on all the things that is going on that's wrong. So my idea of that has been going back and forth, and right now I've been in a space where I'm really trying to get myself away from having my work... And it's also just generally my interests. Like I love black culture and I love just celebrating it and learning about it, but I also need to be careful that I'm not continuing to put myself in spaces where I feel like I need to be a spokesperson or need to educate or use my work in ways that grants will find. It's so easy to get grants based off of social justice work, and it's very hard to get grants off of your own personal interests.
Ari Melenciano: So I'm trying to figure out ways to just be an artist that can remove herself more and go back to creating art. And I feel like all black people should have that ability to create work that doesn't speak to exactly progressing the community in traditional ways, but you being joyous and an artist and exploring your creativity as a black person is progressing us in ways that aren't direct and aren't more accepted. But it is doing it and it's also healthy for yourself. You have to sustain your own artistic soul. So I'm kind of battling and going back and forth thinking about that and also being very critical of... And just thinking about the quote I mentioned to you and what the person said to me of making sure that I give people space to do that as well, black people. And that also contributed to the shift in the second year. It was also about us just designing and being creative and not entirely centering racial justice in every conversation that we had.
Maurice Cherry: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, I think that boundary making is ever present. I feel like that's something that black creatives, particularly ones that have work that tends to be focused around black culture and black people, it's a constant shifting of boundaries. Sometimes those boundaries are very permanent and concrete, some boundaries are a bit more porous. I know for me, in the past few years I've had to be very strict about, "This is what I will do, this is what I won't do." And it's interesting how that ends up being perceived as being bossy or difficult to work with, when it's more so about preserving my energy and making sure that I'm giving myself enough mental space to just be able to give my best self to the work. Because to me, at the end of the day, it's about the work. If the work is not there, then it can't speak to the issues that I want the work to speak to.
Maurice Cherry: And so I tell people, I don't speak at conferences, largely because conferences can be a pain in the ass to deal with. But also I just don't because there's so much mental energy that you have to exert between going back and forth with conference organizers and they have to get the hotel together and they have to get the travel together. Then you got to get all that and they want to have your presentation three weeks in advance, when I may still be thinking about how I'm putting this all together and may not have it together until the day that I have to give it. And they want you to give a run through of it, and it's like, "Oh my God, why are you putting all this structure?" Not to say that structure is a bad thing, but you're putting the structure around something which to me is still a forming idea.
Maurice Cherry: Like even when I think of Revision Path, it's been around for a while, but I feel like it's still growing and changing based on the reality of where we are in the industry as black people. So I've told people, "Yeah, I don't speak at conferences. I'll speak at your school, to your K through 12, to your college students. I'll do that," because I feel like those are spaces where conversation can happen, where the next generation can be inspired. Whereas conferences are kind of just like spring break for people that have an expense budget to me. I could be completely off for other people [crosstalk 00:33:00].
Maurice Cherry: But I go to conferences to network. I don't really want to go there to just speak and get my my profile up. I mean, not to say that's a bad thing, but I want the work to speak for itself and I need to be able to give boundaries to that kind of stuff. But yeah, it can be exhausting. For you, how do you make those areas, how do you make those boundaries? What are you doing for self care to make sure that the work doesn't overwhelm you in that way?
Ari Melenciano: And I also just want to point out that it is a balance. With everything that I've said, it's a balance. It's not like me moving from one space to another and completely closing the door on the past space. Creating spaces for both people to protest in the street and to create the future. Both, because both are necessary. And creating spaces for people to use their art for social justice, because that's very necessary, and also creating spaces for people to use art for their own fulfillment in ways that might not be directly social justice or racial justice.
Ari Melenciano: But for me, I think it's definitely been a challenge of even mentioning to you that I don't like panels, but I still have a few more lined up for October. So I've also see the benefit in it because for one, people are getting to know the work better in being in a panel, and the conversations can be good. It's just for me, I know that in the spaces that I develop, that they won't have panels. That's just not what I want. But respecting that other people have their own interests and see their own gains out of different things. So it's not like this pure binary kind of thing. But also just saying, generally, no more. And that's something that I'm not very good at, and I just had to send a few emails of saying, "I just don't have the bandwidth to do this and I'm going to have to remove myself." I think generally if I see a good opportunity I'm like, "Yes, yes, yes," and then plate my gets way too filled and I'm just exhausted. So I think practicing this idea of no and moving slower is something that I'm really trying to generally just work on and explore ways that I can do and still feel excited about the work that I am doing.
Ari Melenciano: And also just creating works for different needs. So as I mentioned earlier, it's so easy to get grants off of saying, "Oh yeah, I'm making a work about racial justice and this and this is what I'm exploring, yada yada." Because I feel like the people that are giving the grants are generally white people who are very interested in learning this kind of stuff. But it's things that we are very well versed in as black people, so I don't want to continue repeating myself in these different forms for money. So it's me thinking of different ways to sustain my art and create works that are not for... It was very easy for me to just constantly... The work that I was creating was based off of the money that I was getting from different opportunities, and so now it's been much more of taking a step back and really developing my own projects first, and then finding a space that those sit in well and presenting them in that form. So it's been a juggling, a lot of different things to figure out.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. And I guess speaking of some of those [inaudible] projects, as I was doing my research, I saw that you are YouTuber also.
Ari Melenciano: Yeah, yeah.
Maurice Cherry: You got videos where you're teaching coding via p5.js, you're doing these dope musical experiences with, I think I saw the OP-1 from Teenage Engineering in one of the videos. One, why did you start doing videos? And two, I'd love to get more into the sound design sort of stuff that you're doing, because that's really interesting to me.
Ari Melenciano: Well, I started creating videos because it was around the time that I had finished a year at ITP, and I'm really excited about all the things that I'm learning, but also still frustrated with the lack of racial diversity within, generally, the tech space. And so for me, I was also doing a lot more representational projects and understanding that the fact that I may have not considered myself ever capable of being... Because before entering ITP, I never saw myself as being a computer scientist or engineer in any way. And me realizing that a lot of that was also contributed by the fact that I just never saw people that looked like me doing this kind of things. I never saw a black girl, Latina girl considering creative technology and doing this kind of work, and if I had, how much that would've shifted my mindset in thinking of myself as capable.
Ari Melenciano: So I wanted to use myself as a sort of representational tool for other people to be able to see themselves, and see that creative technology is not just this white man's game, but it's something that so many of us can do, and whether we want to bring our own culture in or not, we just have the ability to do it. So for me it was a big part of that, and also just democratizing education because NYU is just so expensive and exclusive. And so how can I bring all the things that I'm learning out people to that are interested in learning it too, but just can't cough up the money to attend or put themselves in that position? How can we all kind of grow together? And so that was the idea behind the YouTube series, of just creating these videos that give very foundational skills and using p5 and coding and ways to solder and engineer enough for them to be able to build on top of and take it in directions that they want to. But at least getting the access to do it.
Ari Melenciano: And I haven't really kept it up because for me, I've just gotten tired of being in front of a camera and want to just take a break, and I think I might just be good on those videos and leave it at that. Though there's so many things I would love to teach. It's just thinking of the right frame and how to do it. And you had another question.
Maurice Cherry: About the sound design, yeah.
Ari Melenciano: Yeah, yeah. And so for me, I grew up loving music. I would create my own beats as a kid with Garage Band. And then I started to DJ in college and afterwards. And so getting more into DJing and just loving sounds and mixing sounds. I eventually bought this mixer that wasn't really about turntable DJing, but more about going into the sounds and mixing different parts of the sounds. And so I've just found myself getting more and more interested in every element of sound, like the psychoacoustics and different drum machines and sequencing and relation, just different ways of technology expanding the possibilities of music and sound design.
Ari Melenciano: And so getting very into that and then also just having a strong inclination towards, or just drawing towards beautiful machines, sound machines can be really fun and beautiful. And you mentioned the Teenage Engineering OP-1, and that was the first sound machine that I ever bought. And just loving the way that it looked, for one, and how you could really get into all these different elements of sound synthesis. Yeah, just getting more and more into that, and so now I've been building my library of machines, doing these live compositions using a bunch of different machines and having them talk to each other, and then also doing more experiments with modular synthesizers and kind of building my own synthesizer set. And really, for one, it's kind of just an exploration in the potentials of sound-
Ari Melenciano: It's like kind of just an exploration and the potentials of sound and bringing in sounds, but also thinking about sound structure and like with the modular synthesizer I can do these sort of Euclidean pattern-making that's very similar to like African jump patterns and thinking of the history of music and techno and how thinking about cultural memory and the ways that we've constructed music historically as black people. I like to consider ways that I could do that with these new technologies and it being this sort of relationship between the organic kind of forms of music historically within African culture and black culture and then moving it into these advanced technologies. Similar to how techno was doing, but even further with modular synthesizers, has just been something I've been so fascinated with and practicing a lot lately.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah, I'm really interested in sound design. I think one from just the practical level of being a podcaster and I work with sound a lot, but before I got into any of this [inaudible]
Maurice Cherry: Learned about how to compose and write music from technology from video games. I was relaying the story actually over the weekend about how Final Fantasy is what taught me how to be a musician. Like I got into the story and the characters and the music, but the combination of all of it swept me up to the point where I was learning music on my own and I think my mom saw that and then was like, "Oh I need to put him into like a music program." And I grew up in like the deep South rural country. But there was no like big tech centers or even honestly possibilities of that sort of stuff.
Maurice Cherry: So I remember I had one of these little like $10 recorder things that I got from, I don't know, like Family Dollar or something. And I would literally have it up to the screen while the music is playing, record it, play it back on my little keyboard that had like 32 keys and could barely, you know, like not a real keyboard. But like trying to transpose the music as I'm listening to it and my mom is like, "Huh, I should get him into that." And so I started playing
Ari Melenciano: I was going to ask, how are you showing that so your mom could see it?
Maurice Cherry: I would show it to her so she could see it and I would play it on the keyboard. And then so she's like, "Oh I want to get you into like a music program." So I started off playing trombone in seventh grade. I initially wanted to start with trumpet and like the band director had this thing where he'd want you to try out every instrument to see which one felt the most natural to you. And the trombone was the most natural. So I played it from seventh grade all the way up through really after I graduated college.
Maurice Cherry: I played all through middle school, all through high school. And not just like marching band stuff, but marching band, symphonic band. I joined my local community colleges jazz band when I was in like 10th grade. And so then that's like exposing to a different level of the work because in marching band we were mostly like transposing popular music.
Maurice Cherry: Like we were playing, "This is How We Do It" and "Water Runs Dry" and "My Boot", you know what I mean? Like we're playing that on the field. And then I'd go to my jazz band practice and we're playing Birdland and a night in Tunisia and we're playing also like old rock from like blood, sweat and tears and stuff. So I got this really rich musical education and like that got me into the jazz music. I was able to take over to marching band and then make compositions for my section, because I was section leader, make compositions for us to play in the stands and on the field based off of what I was learning here. So I get that sense of like this sort of, I don't know, kind of how technology has helped with music creation and things like that. So I'm interested now in getting into it cause I want to get back to those roots a bit and start creating and making more things.
Ari Melenciano: If you ever need suggestions, please, hit me up.
Maurice Cherry: Oh, I absolutely will. Yeah.
Maurice Cherry: I want to switch gears here a little bit because you've talked a lot about growing up as an artist and everything like that. So I'm curious to know kind of like what was your childhood like and what shaped you to where you are now? Like experiences, did you have people that inspired you? Things like that?
Ari Melenciano: My childhood, it started off moving a lot. So I was born in Miami and then we went to New York City and then Albany and then finally arrived, I grew up in Maryland, DC area, which is pretty suburban, but it's also pretty metropolitan. Like it's a metropolitan area of DC so we have access to the city and it's very city life, but just around houses. So, that was my upbringing. And then just loving, for me, I don't know, I just liked putting the pencil down. Never stopped. Like I never did that. I've always would create with anything around me. And it was very much like a fine art kind of creating as we do as kids of just painting. And I would make clothes like just hand sew things together. Really any way that I could possibly design things. And I always wanted my own laptop.
Ari Melenciano: And finally we got a household computer. And with that computer I would create like music, like using GarageBand. I would create short films in middle school. I love just like creating in any form. And so I think just, I also would study the works of architects, I love architecture because you're creating these really beautiful, ideally, beautiful spaces that people are interacting with every single day. And for me that became, it's always been important. What can I do that's enhancing the everyday life of everyone or as many people as possible.
Ari Melenciano: And so architecture became this big thing and I've always wanted to be an architect. I still do. I also read an article when I was in middle school of Steve Jobs and his work with industrial design, though he wasn't the industrial designer, the way that he was thinking about his products with Apple of being these tools and realizing that there are these are tools that everyone uses every day and he's thinking very viscerally in a way of how these tools are being communicated to other people and how they're allowing other people to realize their own artistry and how these tools are beautiful and the way that they're designed.
Ari Melenciano: Aesthetically pleasing and engaging to use. All these things really inspired me of how can I do these kinds of professions within whatever space that I'm in. So with the art that I create, it's usually the art that I'm creating is almost always functional. It's not just purely something to look at, it's a fun thing to use. It's functional and it's also an art piece in itself. So one of the projects that I created while at ITP was I built my own line of cameras and it being in a similar thread of the mentality of Steve Jobs of creating an object that people can use, but it's also pleasant to look at.
Ari Melenciano: So these cameras were colorful and they were a different shape. They weren't rectangular as most cameras, but several more different size and different colors and use all these different fun materials that in thinking of before going to do photography, why not it be something that's part of our wardrobe, but like something complimentary to our outfit since we're going to wear it.
Ari Melenciano: So thinking about that, and it was also a camera that merged a lot of different forms of photography from digital photography and it being convenient and easy to access and cheap because you don't have to pay for the film to get developed to then moving to also mimicking the experience of film photography and it being this tool that's experimental in the way that film photography can be. Of just like, you never know. You don't know if you're going to get a light leak in it if you're using a cheaper camera or if it's going to have a lot of grain and kind of bridging the best of both worlds in those different photography mediums and creating this camera that operates digitally but mimics the film experience and also is complimentary to someone's wardrobe.
Ari Melenciano: That was just me just loving art in ways that, and it really being very drawn to architecture and industrial design but not really knowing how to get into that kind of space. But finding creative technology as a beautiful way to just push the possibilities of all my artistic ideas forward in ways that I wouldn't have imagined possible before.
Maurice Cherry: Who are some of the people that inspire you to like keep going with all this cause, and I don't say this to say that it's overwhelming, but it certainly sounds like, again, these are like a lot of topics that you're dealing with and you're working across many different modes of expression. Who inspires you to continue and to keep creating?
Ari Melenciano: It's definitely not like one person that's doing things that I'm looking at. I'm just inspired by so many different people. For me, I grew up always being told... Like I grew up with a lot of different interests. I grew up always playing sports and always on a basketball team or track team, always playing a sport in high school and tennis and wanting to be in the school plays. And it would always be people telling me you're doing too much, like you need to pick something. And so I would hear that all the time and would get discouraged by how I was operating of just having all these different interests. But then I went to, while I was studying abroad in Barcelona, Spain and we took a trip to Salvador Dali's museum in [inaudible] Spain and I was so like fascinated, just completely inspired by the fact that he had designed this museum to hold his work.
Ari Melenciano: And then inside the museum you would go through all the different hallways and see all these different works and you would think that it's a collection of different artists that are presenting their work, but it's really mostly Salvador Dali and his artistic style is just so different moving from piece to piece. And so that really inspired me and knowing that there were people out there that weren't letting people put these boundaries on their work and that they were approaching every part of design in any way that they wanted to.
Ari Melenciano: And so that kind of just gave me a little more permission to continue being this way of like even with Afrotectopia, it's not just the conference that I'm designing as far as like who's speaking, but it's also in what form are we speaking? How is pedagogy being experienced? What's the branding like? Like what's every part of the experience, what all of that is like. And it's kind of just like a big art project. So I think just being able to find lights like Salvador Dali, who was pushing themselves in ways that a lot of people were saying, no, you need to confine yourself, was very inspiring for me.
Maurice Cherry: What is every part of the experience like? I love that. That's really great. So we've touched on this I think several times throughout this conversation, like between Afrotectopia and your other projects that certainly the work around blackness and culture and racial justice sort of within the tech space is very important. And it seems like ITP was a really pivotal part of you seeing that this is something that you could do in the tech space. I'm curious, and I don't know if there's something you thought about, I'm curious, if you wouldn't have went to ITP, do you think you would have manifested this in some other way?
Ari Melenciano: I don't think so. Which is crazy. I don't know what my life would have been like without ITP. ITP completely transformed my entire trajectory. I think I always wanted to get in this space and I was kind of becoming more involved with people that were doing this, like creative tech and lighting design, but still I never felt capable, myself, of being able to do it. And even the camera project, like I tried to do that before I entered ITP and was asking someone else to help me build it and it was taking forever. Like it never happened. And so being at ITP, I was able to do it myself. And I also think that's something I've been thinking a lot about as far as like collaboration because most of the work that I've been doing is very siloed of me. Kind of just like doing it by myself and learning all the different skills necessary to do it as opposed to collaborating with different people and building it.
Ari Melenciano: And I think it's great. Both approaches are great, but I feel like the idea of not collaborating can be very stigmatized negatively. And it's something I'm trying to, like collaborating I know is very important. It's something I always try to engage with in different ways. But I also think that not collaborating and attempting to learn the different skills yourself so that you don't need help and don't need to rely on other people is something that I generally try and practice and have found it to be, you know, really helpful. So that's also something I wanted to touch on.
Maurice Cherry: Now with all these amazing you know, projects and works that you've created, do you have like a dream project that you'd love to do one day? If you had the access and the funds and the time, what you would create, like what that would be?
Ari Melenciano: It definitely wouldn't just be one. There are a lot of dreams. I haven't been able to think that far in a while, of like an ideal project, but definitely having just like a sort of studio and building out of it and staying in there all day and reading books and creating at night would be a dream.
Maurice Cherry: Yeah. What are you most excited about right now?
Ari Melenciano: I'm most excited about, probably I have a stack of books that I've been trying to get to, to read. So getting through those.
Maurice Cherry: So with all of this stuff that you're doing, I'm curious, what does success look like for you? Is that something that you've thought about with all this?
Ari Melenciano: Yeah, and I think it's changed. As people get older, you kind of realign your values and reassess your values. And success for me is very much like there are a lot of things that I'm very passionate about and excited about doing, but I think I feel the most successful when those things are done and I'm able to just find moments of quiet and stillness and just like take a break for a while. And I was just watching a video on YouTube of the author of, I think it's like key to, I don't know, something about stillness and just like we're constantly moving and we have these projects like even completing Afrotectopia, it's like you complete it and now you're on to thinking about the next one. And for me, success is having that just like downtime, that peace, to not think about anything at all and just relax and be still and kind of just like create things completely for my own benefit. Not to show anyone or anything.
Maurice Cherry: I think the book, are you talking about "Stillness is the Key"?
Ari Melenciano: Yes. That one.
Maurice Cherry: I think someone mentioned that at work to me like a few days ago or something, so that that was a top of mind there. So with all of this, I'm curious where do you see yourself in the next, let's say five years? Like it's, it's 2025. Wow, that's, that's wild to think about. Just 2025, what is Ari working on?
Ari Melenciano: I think Afrotectopia should definitely still be around, building that out. I mean this past year we piloted a summer camp, so having that expand to not being just the pilot program, but this maybe nationwide after school activity thing or summer thing. So kind of that happening more Afrotectopia expanding to be something that's not centrally located in New York City, but something that's international. But then also me and my own work, I love being in academic spaces and academia so it would be great to be a professor and to also be back in school and learning myself. I think that would just be, I could see that in five years.
Maurice Cherry: Nice. Well just to wrap things up here, where can our audience find out more about you and your work and your projects and everything online?
Ari Melenciano: Ari Ciano is where all of my stuff is located. A-R-I-C-I-A-N-O.com for my website and then A-R-I-C-I-A-N-O on Instagram and Twitter.
Maurice Cherry: All right, sounds good. Well Ari Melenciano, it has been a pleasure to have you here on the show. Thank you really so much for not just, I think talking about, you know, sort of where you came from and how the work inspires you, but just even really for doing the work. There are a lot of gems here. I think, you know, certainly one thing about like what are we using our art for? But even just the notion of being able to take the work that we're doing, you know, as designers, as illustrators or whomever is listening to this show, of course, with the intersection of technology and finding ways to improve society, improve culture, and make these spaces for us to be, I think it's something that is really important.
Maurice Cherry: I'm still super inspired by black and design and where black people are in the future and I feel like you are one of the Vanguards that is really shepherding that movement. So thank you so much for coming on the show. I appreciate it.
Ari Melenciano: Thank you for having me. I always appreciate it. Thank you Maurice.