Red Burns, 1925-2013


We were deeply saddened to learn this weekend of the passing of Red Burns. On Saturday, NYU's ITP department announced her passing with a statement. "After living several full lives, one of which we were a part of at ITP, she died peacefully at home surrounded by her children. Red lives on strongly in the thousands of lives that she redirected at ITP." 

We offer our deepest condolences to those in our community who were close to Burns. ITP has set up a site for messages of remembrance and donations to their Red Burns Fund. For those who didn't know her, it is difficult to explain just how far-reaching Burns' influence has been, how many lives she has changed, and how much of an impact she has had on the field of creative technology. In a word: immeasurable. ITP was no small part of her legacy; past alums of the department include Nick Hasty, now of Giphy, who wrote most of the software that runs this website as Rhizome's developer, Dennis Crowley, founder of Foursquare, and Igal Nassima, founder of the alternative artspace 319 Scholes. 

Part of Burns' tremendous impact can be attributed to her philosophy. She thought of technology not as a black box that is inflicted on defenseless users, but as something that should be accessible and socially useful. For a 2011 article for Rhizome, Jason Huff wrote about an early articulation of this philosophy:

After my interview with Burns, she gave me an archive of her reports and articles spanning from 1977 to 1998. Reading through them, I uncovered a presentation she gave at the American Council on Education in Washington D.C., on October 16, 1981, titled “Technology is Not Enough”. For a presentation in 1981, the title still holds certain relevance. I discovered what might have been the guiding principles of the earliest days of the ITP program. She laid out two points in working with technology: 1) "consider the technology as a tool which, in itself, could do nothing," and 2) "treat the technology as something that everyone on the team could learn, understand, and explore freely." This was a similar formula she had developed in her research projects with the AMC and she has iterated and relied on it ever since.

In addition to her ideas, an equally important part of Burns' impact was her no-bullshit personality. I met Burns prior to teaching a class at ITP several years ago. Despite her petite stature, she had incredible force of personality and, I seem to recall, laser beams for eyes. Perspiration gathered on my upper lip as she fired off questions about what role capital-A art should play in the ITP curriculum. I survived, barely, but I was impressed by her desire to confront, rather than gloss over, such important and thorny questions.

This willingness to get right to the heart of the matter also came across in Huff's aforementioned article. When, during an in-person interview, he asked her if she thought ITP would last, she said with the utmost directness, "If it has any value it will, if it doesn't, it won't." For the near future, at least, the answer to that question seems clear.