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Interrogating the Technoscape

Interrogating the Technoscape

Digital + Media grad students are teaching a trio of Wintersession studios they conceived of themselves to explore how technology shapes – and is shaped by – history and culture.

Students in Narrative Games—a course conceived of and taught by Emily Pan MFA 17 DM—are exploring connections between gaming and human interaction.

The relentless release of new technologies in our daily lives carries with it the nagging feeling of the ground rapidly shifting beneath our feet—of a cultural landscape undergoing around-the-clock revision. And with each new must-have device, app and productivity tool, this dizzying feeling becomes more the norm. We keep up with innovation the way we keep up with Mr. Robot: on demand and from the comfort of our living rooms.

At RISD grad students in Digital + Media interrogate this “new normal” through research and teaching that explores how technology simultaneously shapes and is shaped by historical, cultural, political and economic factors. During Wintersession D+M students are invited to design studio electives open to the entire student body in which “the digital” is both the means and the ends of inquiry.

Through these intensive, five-week classes, students in the second year of the MFA program who wish to do so conceive of and develop innovative curricula that enrich their research, provide essential opportunities for professional development and deepen the department’s longstanding research agenda. The diverse subject matter these courses covers is “united by conceptual rigor and a desire to contextualize contemporary new media practices within an expansive cultural lineage,” says D+M Critic Aly Ogasian MFA 15 DM. “Classes developed by graduate students often have a lifespan beyond the program or form the basis of their professional teaching portfolios.”

“These classes are exciting because they each offer a new vision of the contemporary technological landscape [and] they all operate in deeply intellectual spaces that are startlingly unique.”
Digital + Media Critic Aly Ogasian MFA 15 DM

This year Evan Daniel 05 PT/MFA 17 DM, Stephanie Muscat MFA 17 DM and Emily Pan MFA 17 DM have drawn from a wide range of scholarly backgrounds and research methodologies to create studios aimed at probing hidden and/or overlooked phenomena in the contemporary technoscape. For instance, Data Object, Daniel’s course about coding as a means to understanding the complexity of human perception and ideas, pulls data from such sources as written text, audio, social media and human biology, and asks students to create interactive tools and systems that illuminate the invisible script of our times.

In Data Object code and information in general are presented “as a complex, multilevel, living experience, which is part of how D+M approaches questions of science and technology,” says Daniel. Likewise, in Pan’s Narrative Gamesstudio, students consider video- and other digital games as a medium for storytelling and shaping human interaction. As with Data Object, Narrative Games emphasizes the outsized role of digital technology in today’s world, but also challenges students to create digitally powered tools for exploring topics with histories that reach deeper into the past.

Excerpt from Stephanie Muscat’s Flat Earth Catalog

D+M’s student-designed Wintersession studios also allow degree candidates to collaborate with graduate students outside the department, as with Muscat’s evocatively titled course Pants on Fire, which she is co-teaching with Industrial Design grad student Tim Stoelting MID 17. And although the studio’s overarching themes—lies, deceit and their converse ability to reveal deeper truths—are deeply embedded in the sphere of digital communication, advanced technologies are just a few among many ways that Muscat and Stoelting ask participants to fabricate narratives of their own.

“It's exciting to take part in the class discourse and learn from the myriad approaches that students bring to the studio.”
Evan Daniel 05 PT/MFA DM 17

“Students [in the studio] are developing everything from political interventions and businesses to personas and scientific institutes,” says Muscat. “Through researching systems in depth, they’re challenging methods of data collection and identity.” The interdisciplinary curriculum interweaves issues of neuroscience and perception with cultural phenomena like conspiracy theories as well as science fiction and other narrative genres to foster a holistic understanding of the history, theory and practice of deception.

Daniel points out that the opportunity to construct a curriculum from the ground up has impacted how he conceptualizes his own research. “It’s also exciting to take part in the class discourse and [learn from] the myriad approaches that other students bring to the studio.”

The expansion of both technical and conceptual research approaches is an invaluable component of the D+M program, says Ogasian. “These three classes are exciting because they each offer a new vision of the contemporary technological landscape [and] are just a small sampling of our students’ diverse interests and approaches. Whether their approach is highly technological or completely analog, they all operate in deeply intellectual spaces that are startlingly unique.”

—Robert Albanese

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