In Memory of Red Burns

“Look for the question, not the solution.”

by Nancy Hechinger

rb2The following article is adapted from a speech delivered at the opening class for 2013’s incoming ITP students. Red Burns, who passed away on August 23, 2013, was an Arts Professor and Chair at the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) in the NYU Tisch School of the Arts since its founding, in which she played a key role. To learn more about Red and the ITP community, including the engaging student exhibition at the end of each semester, see and the additional press at the end of this article. In her honor, ITP has established the Red Burns Scholarship Fund:

Red Burns, who led ITP from its founding in 1979, was one of the most innovative educators of our time. For the alumni, faculty, and students who knew her, she was a mentor, a colleague, a leader, and a friend. She was ageless in so many ways… In fact, despite our age difference, she was one of my closest and surely wisest friends.

Red was a person of seeming contradictions—fierce and loving. No one could be a harsher critic or stronger supporter. Red was a great intellect and a great thinker, though she would hate to be called an intellectual. She was a person who prized “doing” above all; hard-nosed and warm-hearted; no-nonsense with a great sense of play; exacting and rigorous; and willing to make exceptions. She was also a public figure and very private person. Red was not someone of many word—her long speeches would typically last two minutes—but every one of those words counted.

She was one of the co-founders of ITP, a program which has continuously pushed the boundaries of interactive, often technology-driven, art and design. Nevertheless, Red was adamant that it was not about the technology. Technology, she believed, was never an end, but always a means. Despite being a cynic, realist, and skeptic all wrapped in one, Red believed that we should strive in all that we do to make the world a better place. She fervently believed in collaboration, but was the most independent person you could ever meet, usually having her own ideas on how things were done.

Some might say “she didn’t play well with others.” But “others” weren’t just anybody; they were people who stood in the way. The faculty and students at ITP were not “others.” Her apparent contradictions add up to a mensch: a fully authentic human being, possessed of integrity and honor, but not a saint. Saints are boring. Underlying everything was an unshakable conviction (belief is not a strong enough word) in the power of creativity and imagination.

If you didn’t know Red, everything I’ve said so far will sound abstract. So let me tell you some stories.

She was born on April 9, 1925 and raised in Toronto. When she was 18, she snuck away from a party with a boy and a bottle of wine. The boy, who worked at the Canadian Broadcasting company, took her into the company’s archive room where there were shelves and stacks of film. They sat on the floor, drank wine, and she fell in love…with the smell of film. She decided then and there, despite living in Canada during the middle of the Second World War, and being a woman decades before women’s liberation, that she would be part of that world—the world of stories, of art, and of the flow of life.

Godmother of Silicon Alley

rboldFast forward to the year of 1971. Red’s friend gave her a Sony PortaPak, the first handheld video camera for non-commercial use. Back then, people thought the PortaPak might displace home movie cameras. But Red saw beyond that; she realized that with this device—utterly primitive by today’s standards––people could tell their own stories. This medium would enable people to speak directly to and not through “the media.”

Now we’ve come to expect game-changing devices and services to emerge on a fairly regular basis. Today, the idea of user-generated content is almost second nature, and as many would say, so 2010. Let’s be clear about those days 40 years ago—a millennia in Internet time: There was no interactive media, no personal computers, obviously no World Wide Web, and no social media. A hand-held was generally another hand. But Red recognized that something new was on the scene and, whatever it was and however this field might emerge, it was going to be about permanent and continual change.

After talking to some people at NYU and writing a grant, Red founded the Alternate Media Center, a landmark technology lab at NYU’s Tisch School, in 1971. This Center, which provided an early home for experimental telecommunications-related research, paved the way for the creation of ITP in 1979, which became the first graduate education program in alternate media.

Though ITP was centered around new technologies, it was housed in an art school. Red envisioned creating a place where innovation and experimentation could flourish, as well as building a learning environment that fosters those qualities. Not a traditional academic vision!

The principles driving ITP today, and its continuing role as a center of innovation, are rooted in the convictions and tenets Red laid out in 1979. ITP is a hands-on place, structured like a continuous workshop, where learning comes from collaboration rather than competition, and creativity is stressed over technological capabilities. Students are encouraged to work on their own projects rather than faculty research, and use their imagination to develop ideas, no matter how experimental.

ITP also explores the intersections between technology, interactivity and art. Although the specific technologies students learn today will likely be outdated soon after they graduate, the skills taught at ITP—how to learn, analyze, collaborate, critique, and develop ideas from concept through to design and production—will last a lifetime.

Red was also fiercely protective of the students’ time. She believed that if you could spend two years of your life in a place where your creativity and imagination were truly cherished and nourished, then you should be encouraged to stretch; to take risks; and to fail in a safe and supportive environment where you didn’t have to be concerned with practicality. She believed that students should pursue delight as well as purpose. And if they seriously learned to play, then they would form the basis for a meaningful, productive, and innovative career. Those students, Red reasoned, would progress to becoming what she was: A mensch—that is, a fully-realized, virtuous, contradictory, and unconventional individual—for the rest of their long lives.

 Additional Press