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How this Creative Technologist is creating space for other creatives of color

"At the intersection of art, tech, culture, activism, and experimentation"

That is where Afrotectopia lives. A conference that began as a a new media arts, culture and technology festival designed to recognize the contributions of Black artists, designers, technologists and activists; as well as build community amongst creatives. They launched on a zero dollar budget and amassed 300 attendees their very first year.The conference recently celebrated it's one year anniversary and we caught up with the founder Ari Melenciano - a Brooklyn-based Dominican-American interdisciplinary audio/visual artist, designer, creative technologist, researcher, futurist, humanist and educator & graduate of NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) - to learn about her journey into this space and her thoughts on community for creatives of color.

How would you tell your story

I grew up as an artist with a deep appreciation for technology, but also felt no sense of comfort or belonging within computer science and engineering spaces. That quickly changed when I found NYU’s ITP graduate program, an incredibly vibrant space that merges art and technology. Since then I’ve been creating non stop at the intersections of art, tech, culture, activism, and experimentation. And in seeing too few Black and Brown classmates and mentors and people within the field, it’s been important to keep a door open for those behind me, and shine a light on the incredible Black people doing this work currently - that we don’t get to see, but need to.

How did you get into telecommunications? What inspired you to go to school for it and was it a decision you felt was supported by family, friends and the larger black community

I was looking for a program that would allow me to finally merge art and technology. I came across NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Graduate program, and a few others around the country that were seamlessly merging the two fields. One day I walked into ITP and I immediately felt like it was the place for me. It was the only program I ended up applying to. I’ve received nothing but support from family and friends. If anything, it’s exposed them to a world that they also didn’t know existed but also have a great appreciation for its power and impact. It’s hard to understand or explain what goes on at a place like ITP, but the work that comes out of it really speaks for itself.

Artists have a unique opportunity to put up a mirror to society in ways that evoke feeling, and pose questions

What do you feel it means to be a creative of color in America

I wouldn’t want to be anything else. There’s so much creativity, beauty and abundance within Black and Latin culture and to be able to use it as a resource to inspire my work is always exciting. Artists have a unique opportunity to put up a mirror to society in ways that evoke feeling, and pose questions. The United States is certainly a complex place, but I’m thankful to be able to be an artist, activist, and Black/AfroLatina in a country like this one.

The dichotomy between who I was seeing on the street as I walked into NYU, and who I was seeing in my classes always felt so uncomfortable for me

Why does Afrotectopia exist

Afrotectopia was created based off of personal experiences. I was one of maybe 10 Black students out of a program of 240 students in the middle of New York City. The dichotomy between who I was seeing on the street as I walked into NYU, and who I was seeing in my classes always felt so uncomfortable for me. It didn’t make sense that in 2019, I still had to be the “face of the race” and the voice for my entire community because no one else in my class was Black or of Afro-descent. I was getting the opportunity to learn about incredible possibilities and techniques at the nexus of art and technology and felt amazed at all of these new ways I could creatively express myself. I often thought of the incredible things my friends from back home (Prince George’s County, MD - a predominantly black area just outside of D.C.) could do if they were given access to these tools.

And in building my work, I had no one to look to that was Black or Afro-Latinx and doing this work, as well.

It was way too difficult to come across a mentor that also shared and lived experiences I had, culturally. And I didn’t have a community of Black/Afrolatinx technologists to support and be supported by. Afrotectopia was designed to do all of that. Expose the world of art and technology to Black people, build a community of innovators working at the intersections of art, design, tech and racial justice, and highlight the incredible work already being done by today’s Black innovators. It was also designed to bring people of many different fields and backgrounds together to think holistically about how we can use all of our various expertise, and leverage technology to empower the Black community.

What from your experience is the biggest challenge that people of color experience while trying to enter and succeed in the creative world  

I think all of the challenges come down to a lack of community to be inspired by, build with, be supported by and to support that are also culturally in tune. When you have a strong community, you can build each other up, financially support each other’s dreams and initiatives, share resources and opportunities, collaborate and build your own works, and beyond. We really need strong communities.

I’m always excited about how technology has the potential to empower the masses, as well as enhance the potentials of art and design to realize truly transformative and awe-filled life moments. A career that can allow me and others to empower the Black community to the point where our activist work is no longer needed, and we’re living in racial equity, is always a goal. As well as continuing to be able to create, design and build beautiful experiences and tools for artistic expression and creativity. 

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