Art Coded with a Conscience

What can technology tell us about human nature? At a recent Faculty Lunch Speaker Series talk, Assistant Arts Professor Roopa Vasudevan presented “Technology as Anthropology” and talked about how the digital footprint of various demographics, communities, and cultures reveal ingrained behaviors, belief systems, and views of others. Her tech-blended art projects (whether algorithmically picking apart popular hip-hop lyrics or dissecting the amount of hatred found on mainstream social media) allow for an experiential entrance into other perspectives. Get to know more about Roopa’s art practice in this interview:

- Are you now where you thought you would be back when you were studying at Columbia?

Definitely not! In college, I always thought that I would end up as a filmmaker or a journalist. I went down that path for a while before realizing that traditional forms of media are not getting the same attention and provoking the same thought as they had in the past. I was drawn to working with MTV because of their pro-social, conscious programming in the 1990s and early 2000s focusing on things like safe sex, voter awareness, and diversity, but as the years went on it became apparent that those shows were not drawing the same ratings as things like "Jersey Shore" or "My Super Sweet 16." I realized that I needed an avenue where it was still possible to comment on and draw attention to systemic or cultural issues in American society, and that led me to ITP at Tisch, and eventually to my practice.

- You talked about some of your work transforms some pretty unpleasant material into striking yet subtle creations. From grillz to “hands up” to fashion,  your pieces speak to power imbalance, the chasm between extremes and cultural identity. Is that right?

Yes, I think that’s accurate. I think I have always been interested in the way we perceive people and ideas that deviate far from what we expect or what we are used to. There’s a tendency to see these things as totally different or “abnormal,” but in reality, all it takes is a perspective shift to make us understand and appreciate these things in a much more nuanced way. My goal is to make work that helps bring about that perspective shift.

- Are you getting through to your audience?

Obviously, as many people as you have coming to see your work, you always wish there were more. That said, I feel like I have been able to get through to people simply by virtue of where I show work. I have chosen to shy away from showing in mainstream, "typical" gallery settings, instead opting for DIY or underground spaces, festivals and conferences, self-mounted exhibitions, and the Internet. These tend to draw in people who wouldn't ordinarily see themselves or be seen as part of the "art world,” and as a result they get access to my work when they probably wouldn't have in a more traditional setting.

- You harness code and art for conscience-raising. What came first? the controversy? the art? the code?

I don't necessarily go out looking for controversial things to make work about — I make work about things that I think are important topics and issues in society, all of which fundamentally explore the question of why we view people who aren't like us in the ways we do. That thought has been pervasive throughout everything I have done in my life, even when I was working in television. Now, as an artist, for me it's always about what I'm saying with the work first, before it is about any technology. That said, I do think technology, in particular the massive amounts of data we are leaving behind us all the time, has a unique ability to tell us things about our behavior that we can't see just by human observation of our day-to-day activity. It also has the ability to simulate or generate experiences so that we can put ourselves in other people's shoes in a way that may not have been as easy before we had access to it. I think it's really more of a symbiotic relationship than anything else.

- Is being a provocateur about creating teaching moments?

I've always said that if my work can make people think twice about the way they see or behave around other people, then I will have been successful. So, yes — my goal is always to broaden my audience's perspective and make them consider points of view that may not have occurred to them beforehand.

- How do you find time for your other accomplishments, curating shows, making videos and, of course, teaching college students?

It's not really a matter of "finding time," because I love to do all these things, and they actually closely  fit with what I do as an artist. I was curating some exhibitions at a small DIY space called Flux Factory in NYC right before I left, and it was such a breath of fresh air; it gave me the opportunity to step away from my practice for a second at a time when I was getting really overwhelmed by what I thought I needed to accomplish. It also let me appreciate other artists making really amazing work that didn’t necessarily align with my own. Teaching is also super rewarding for me because I get to pass on a love of new media and programming and technology to the students here, which essentially is the foundation of why I'm doing what I'm doing in the first place.

- You are a serial learner of new skills on the fly as the need arises. What do you want people - and in particular your students - to take away from your approach?

Probably the most important advice I can give to students is to not be afraid to try new things if the situation calls for it. I don't believe that you should ever let the phrase "I don't know how to do that" stop you from making something you really feel passionate about. Often, the greatest motivator outside of a classroom setting to learn a new skill or technique is the desire to create a project with it, because then you're not just learning because you think you should — you're learning because you actually want to.

- In your latest project, you are heading into the heart of today’s phenomenal reality show, the American presidential campaign, to tap into Ohio voter attitudes. What do you expect to reveal?

I'm hoping to draw attention to the fact that as much as mainstream news and media outlets place Ohio on a pedestal in this election process, they often don't care about individual voters at all. Meanwhile, on the internet, it's possible to be overwhelmed by millions of different individual voices on social media, and they are often saying the same or similar things. My project is exploring the idea of whether it's possible to tap into that sea of opinions in order to reveal decisive or more nuanced views about the election cycle, and what Ohioans think about the people running for president.

- What is next in and beyond Shanghai?

After heading back to Cleveland for the summer for the artist residency associated with the election project — which falls concurrently with the Republican National Convention, I'm looking forward to returning to NYU Shanghai next year and potentially using China as inspiration for my next work. There is so much interesting stuff happening here socially and I'd love to be able to explore it more.