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The sight and sound of Ari Melenciano

The creative technologist talks about how she mixes between art, music and cultural activism

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July 23, 2020

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In recent years, design and art have been slowly deviating from their previously established differentiations, opening the door for new tools and practices to be developed. In this context, the field of creative technology is particularly fascinating, since it gives an entirely new perspective on creative processes and cultural contexts. One great example is Ari Melenciano, whose work often appear as a designed product that reveals a subjective approach. “My practice is usually a big synthesis of a lot of different branches of knowledge that I’m thinking about all the time: culture, psychology, sound, graphics, design, architecture, etc,” she shares. “Sometimes my work is about speculating and designing the future, other times it's about new forms of experiencing sound, but essentially it’s always about exploring how various forms of design impact the human experience.”


Ari grew up in “a few different places - born in Miami, toddler years in Albany and New York City, but most of my years in the Maryland/D.C. area.” Her family emigrated from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico to live in New York City, and so for her, “the city has always been a second home.” Her passion for art and creating things has followed her since childhood, which she also attributes to growing up with a mother who would “always encourage and inspire” her. She also had a deep appreciation for gadgets, saying how she “loved how digital media could realize such interesting artistic potential.” Early on she started working with software like GarageBand and iMovie to produce music and make short films, feeling “most comfortable using technology creatively” but still remained unaware of “a world that considered the artistic creations of computer science of engineering.” Eventually, she found her way to NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), and in her words, “it felt like a dream getting to study there.”



Designing for culture

During her second year at ITP, Ari founded Afrotectopia, an interdisciplinary new media, art and technology cultural festival. Having a uniquely fresh perspective, Afrotectopia’s 2018 festival sold out fast and was followed by the establishment of an ITP scholarship and investment in BIPOCBlack/POC creatives and businesses. It’s the current version, a social institution that supports Black culture and catalyzes new forms of activism through innovation, art, design, and technology sets a new standard for making a social impact through art. Some of the most interesting new voices in the creative technology landscape emerged and participated in Afrotectopia’s school and festival.


Describing how her activist approach intersects with that of technology, she explains that “In being a Black, Afro-Latina in the tech field, it’s easy to come across a lot of red flags. For one, the tech field is incredibly racially homogenous. These cultural biases and values become law when [they come from] Big Tech companies that are expanding globally and controlling how people can operate. I’m often thinking of ways to combat these increasingly oppressive digital forces. Whether it’s through interactive data visualizations that highlight racial disparities within the practices of police, to creating spaces for Black and Pan-African people to gather and discover empowering ways to use technology.”


Still, Afrotectopia is just one of Ari’s projects through which her less-than-linear path reveals itself. Discussing her school years, she tells how she first wanted to study architecture or industrial design but ended up going to a school that didn’t have the kind of programs she was interested in, causing her to “remain undecided for a couple of years”. She spent her sophomore year in Barcelona, studying architecture, urban design and art, and that’s where she realized what she wanted to do. “I saw this incredible public art piece by Moment Factory, where they did projection mapping on La Sagrada Familia - and I knew I wanted to do that kind of work.” When returning to the States, she wasn’t looking for a general arts degree but a place that would be a perfect blend between art and technology, which was ITP.


Since graduating, Ari’s oeuvre has been quickly expanding. She founded the creative house bgoti, built a line of experimental “neo-retro” digital-analog cameras called Ojo Oro, and started the online creative coding tutorial channel AricianoTV. Discussing what “interdisciplinary” means for her, she mentions that she has been reading more Buckminster Fuller, who makes her feel “really seen in his way of thinking. He’s put a word and theory to my form of practice (omni-specialization). I grew up often being told to pick one thing and not do or study multiple things at once and warned to not become a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. It’s not the way I operate, though. I love bouncing around from different subjects from architecture to sound design to physical computation. And I’ve found the intelligence gained in each of them, independently, greatly inspires new possibilities across these subjects.”



The meaning of multidisciplinary

Ari’s approach towards disciplines is a natural continuation of her approach to culture, and both translate into her creative practice and work with technology. “The more time you spend with creative technology and learn about the people that have come before you, you learn about how long these blended worlds have actually existed. It’s just taken a while for them to exist beyond the margins. I’ve been so enamored by the boundary-pushing possibilities technology allows for art. So many things I had never dreamed of are easily realizable. But it can also be very frustrating. Many of the technologies that we are using for creative purposes were built and designed by people of not the most artistic inclinations. In these situations, you often have to think in ways that aren’t exactly intuitive - which can slow things down. There’s always a trade-off.”


Growing up, she reflects, her only intention in creating art was to make something beautiful; as she grew older and learned more about critical race theory, policy and anthropology, she began to think art should only serve for the advancement of people and culture. “It began to feel like any art that wasn’t about uplifting people’s lives and being engaged in social justice was pure luxury and not purposeful. So I’ve been on both sides, drastically. When always looking for ways to blend my social justice concerns with my art practices, it at times became exhausting and not fulfilling.” Currently, she holds the belief that the work creatives do should be up to them, saying that “it can be purely about self-expression, about saving the world, or creating moments for connection — whatever it is, it’s up to the artist”.


Tips for the new creative technologist

As the field of creative technology is becoming increasingly popular, it might seem too overwhelming. Speaking to those interested in pursuing this path, she says that “understanding how to get into the door is definitely intimidating. There are so many different technologies to learn and when you’re new to the field, it’s hard to even imagine the possibilities or know what questions to ask to learn more. I’d say good gateway tools would be p5.js for creative coding and Arduino for physical computing. Building projects with them show you a lot of possibilities."

The barriers might seem big — learning these skills independently, the cost of classes or university, and even finding opportunities to work in these areas professionally. Those barriers, she tells, inspired her to teach these different technologies online and for free through youtube, and also led her to establish The School of Afrotectopia, where hundreds of people were introduced to newer possibilities at the intersections of art, design, technology, culture, and activism through ten free courses held within two weeks. Still, she believes that “there needs to be more racially, culturally, financially, and ability-inclusive services for people to be able to learn about and engage with these technologies while in community.” To find emerging talent, she suggests looking at the NYU ITP community of faculty, students, and residents as well as other institutions including Pioneer Works, New Inc, and Eyebeam.


Recently, Ari has been experimenting with online and web, exploring how the web can be used as an artistic medium and also experimenting with designing virtual worlds through 3D rendering. She’s currently working on a few projects that consider multi-sensorial design on the web through virtual environments. As she describes these new territories, her “fairly different” philosophy for technology and when it’s used for creativity comes to mind. “For technology as a system within itself, it’s important to emphasize that it only reflects the society from which it was birthed. Often, people assume that technology takes an objective form but it really only replicates the thinking of the person who’s developed it, which is filled with subjectivity and biases.


When it comes to technological creativity, there’s such an abundance of tools and possibilities. Oftentimes that becomes distracting and leads to things being created for the sake of using all of these seemingly complicated tools. My perspective is that different technologies are just tools, just as other artistic mediums are. And that it’s about the message, not the medium. It’s about finding the appropriate technology that gets the job done.” Still, she most enjoys how creative technology opens new potentials for the relationships between the artist and the audience, where “it breaks that dichotomy when it's interactive and allows for the movement and choices of others to control what they’re experiencing.” And we can’t wait to see what she does next.


Here's a link to Ari's Sound Sculpture Masterclass



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