Once upon a time there was a woman named Red Burns. She’s sometimes called the Godmother of Silicon Alley. For someone so influential in the arts and tech, it’s hard to find good information about her. She didn’t have a Twitter account. There was no personal Facebook account. She didn’t tend a digital space for the burping out of meaningless platitudes on start-ups or the saving graces of technology. She didn’t write a memoir. The most prevalent sources of information on Red seem to be obituaries and memorials.
How can there be so little easily attainable information on someone so influential?
Stories of Red’s impact come from graduates of NYU’s ITP program, which Burns co-founded. Memories of Red’s influence come from artists and technologists. Usually there is a common thread in the stories and memories: it’s not about the technology. Do everything for people.
The Red Burns legend goes something like this: It’s the late 60s. Red Burns, a filmmaker, is handed a Sony Portapak camera. With this mobile video camera in hand, she realizes the impact the technology will have on an individual’s ability to tell stories through documentary. In Big Bird & Beyond: The New Media and the Markle Foundation Red says, “It was one of those epiphanous moments… I said to myself, this is going to have some impact. It was just incredible that nonprofessionals could make their own documentaries… Now, I wondered, how can they do it?”
Just a few years later, Red co-founded the Alternative Media Center at New York University. The Alternative Media Center provided training and access to equipment. McCandlish Phillips writes in “TV of the People Operating on Cable,” his 1971 New York Times article, the media center was “... devoted exclusively to cultivating cable television as an outlet and resource for local, nonprofessional communicators.” In McCandish’s article Red explained that the media center did not offer college classes or accept students into a program. Instead, the staff and faculty of the Alternative Media Center offered weekly training sessions and eventually equipment “for groups interested in ‘going on the cable.’” The Alternative Media Center provided a space, staff, and resources to carry out Red’s vision: media created by the community.
Communities and organizations in towns and cities like Reading, PA, Charleston, WV, Tullahoma, TN, and Cape May, NJ received training and support from the Alternative Media Center and produced documentaries on black lung and extensive on-air programming planned, produced, and filmed by senior citizens in Reading.
The authors of Big Bird & Beyond explain that Red saw public access cable as a platform “which gave ordinary citizens the ability, for the first time, to take to the airwaves as writers, editors, producers, actors, and social and political commentators.”
Citizens were makers of their own media. And as you know, agency goes a long way.
Red believed that public access cable provided “immediate and unrestricted space” for community programming and public service.
By the end of the 70s, the Alternative Media Center morphed into NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) in the Tisch School of the Arts. Red co-chaired the department, which accepted students with backgrounds in dance, math, non-profit work, engineering, computer science, animation, fashion, industrial design, and more. She once said in an address to ITP students, “... we don’t live in a monolithic world. Our signature is collaboration--not competition.
ITP’s alums work for Google, Apple, Disney, Microsoft, and a host of start-ups. Graduates designed exhibits for the 9/11 Memorial Museum and the metro card vending machines for the New York subway.
Many of Red’s philosophies and practices are echoed in the maker movement and maker/hackerspaces. Everyone is welcomed regardless of background, degrees, or training. Tools are offered, but most importantly so is training and access to expertise or at least there’s company when fumbling through Youtube tutorials and mistakes.