Technology is Not Enough: The Story of NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program

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4th Floor of ITP at 721 Broadway, photo by Jason Huff

NYU’s ITP (Interactive Telecommunications Program) celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2009, but much of the program dates back to forty years ago. The graduate program is “dedicated to pushing the boundaries of interactivity in the real and digital worlds.” This year is also a landmark year as founder Red Burns is starting to archive the program's history. The archive is beginning just as New York City, with its thriving startup scene, is starting to feel geeky enough to be a natural home for the innovative program.1 Beyond its original intentions, the program is pioneering in "physical computing," as coined by a faculty member. It has even managed intellectual property policies that let students keep full ownership of their ideas.

As I sat down for an interview with Burns in her office at 721 Broadway, she searched for a copy of the first grant proposal she wrote to set up the Alternate Media Center (AMC) in 1970-71, which later—in 1979— would become ITP. “If I could find that—I would die to find it. It must be the worst proposal, but it was original and it was fresh,” she declared. That lost proposal is what started everything; it helped secure grant money from the Markle Foundation, workshop space in the two floors above Bleecker Street Cinema in Greenwich Village and essential equipment.

Bleecker Street Cinema circa 1970, photo by Robert Otter via Soho Memory Project

The year the AMC started was the same year Sony introduced the first portable video recorder—the Portapak. The units cost around $1500 to buy, but according to a New York Times article from that year, they could be rented for $75 a day. Burns and her collaborator, George Stoney, with

 

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A Visit to the Survival Research Laboratories Workshop

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Over the summer, I met with Mark Pauline, director and founder of the legendary Survival Research Laboratories, who gave me a tour of his studio workshop in Petaluma, CA. Since its inception in 1978, SRL has quite literally blazed new territory in the field of performance, robotic engineering and sculpture, producing dangerous, overpowering live shows with custom robots built by Mark and his team. The performances provoke both a fear of and fascination with the power of technology, as well as the potential loss of human control over machines. Extremely affable and intelligent, with a no bullshit air about him, Mark’s technical knowledge was astounding. I’ve been following SRL’s work for years, so actually meeting Mark and seeing the robots up close was a real treat.

 

Survival Research Laboratories is currently operated out of three large garages in Petaluma, an idyllic, historic town about an hour north of San Francisco. Mark moved to the new location in 2007, lugging 180 tons of equipment with him, when the landlord of his old warehouse in San Francisco decided to hike up the rent after decades of affordability. The Petaluma spot seems perfectly suited to SRL’s activities, it even has a parking lot large enough to accommodate test runs of gigantic, menacing robots, and laidback neighbors who never complain about the noise. 

The first garage I got a peek at is the laboratory, where the robots are made. 

 

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