Aaron Shackelford named new director of Georgia Tech’s Arts@Tech program

Aaron Shackelford

Georgia Tech’s new art series, dubbed Arts@Tech, has a new director –  Dr. Aaron Shackelford.

Shackelford has come to Atlanta from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where he was director programming for the Fine Arts Center. He had been at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill prior to that as director of engagement. He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature UNC and was a Mellon postdoctoral fellow at the Carolina Performing Arts.

Arts@Tech at the Ferst Center explores the intersection between performing arts and technology. The new season begins with a work by the Italian digital design house fuse* called “Dokk” (Icelandic for dark), which combines dance with software that reflects the dancer’s heartbeat and the response of social media. The performance is Friday, Oct. 4, 8 p.m. at the Ferst Center on campus. Tickets area available at this link.

Shackelford is enthusiastic in his endorsement of this melding of the arts and technology and sees Georgia Tech as the perfect place for this to happen. Atlanta INtown spoke with Shackelford about his interests, his new role and his vision for Arts@Tech.

As a graduate student you were recognized for your studies of Emily Dickinson. What drew you to her?
I’ve been a self-confessed poetry nerd for my entire life, so I’ve always had a natural affinity for Emily Dickinson. While a grad student, I was thinking deeply about how literature represents animals, and Dickinson’s poems are filled with meditations and questions about animal minds and experiences.

You wrote your doctoral dissertation on the literature of trauma in the Civil War? What were some of your conclusions and how did you find your sources?
Literature saturated how Americans experienced the Civil War. Newspapers – which, thanks to the telegraph, could provide almost instant updates on the progress of battles – would intersperse news reports with poems. Herman Melville gave up writing novels to become a poet of the war, and we have poetry from Whitman, Dickinson, and so many other writers on both sides of the war whose names slid into obscurity. My central question is why this work is obscure, why do we say that there was no “great literature” written during the Civil War? One place I looked for answers was how important sentimental literature was to Americans at the time. We tend to think of great war literature as “realist” in some fashion, but 1860s America had strong traditions that processed and shared emotions in very different ways. So I look at many examples to try to understand why and how these artists depicted the Civil War in a way that today seems somehow insufficient.

In your career you have worked in arts programs at two universities before coming to Georgia Tech. What were some of the highlights?
I’ve been fortunate to have many highlights in my career in the arts. I loved hearing a UMass student ask actors and neuroscientists “I’ve always wondered, are we more than our memories?” following a performance. This feedback embodies the sorts of highlights in which I revel. Seeing hundreds of audience members wait for a backstage tour of an Indonesian shadow puppetry performance, or listening to Hispanic students talk about their challenges with a Colombian hip-hop singer, or watching the sheer energy of a crowd cheering the arrival of Senegalese superstar Youssou N’dour – these are all moments that impact people’s lives and have always been the highlight of my work.

The new season at the Ferst Center continues a trend that began last year of bringing performers who interface art with technology. Could you talk about why that is important?
We are the arts presenter for the Georgia Institute of Technology, and it is important that the work we bring intersect with the research and innovation that is happening across our campus. I firmly believe that the arts bring vital insights and skills to our students as they create the next generation of technological breakthroughs. Arts provide opportunities for creativity, ideation, new global and cultural perspectives. At the same time, artists can benefit from learning from our students and faculty, gaining insights into the latest research and newest thinking. We have the opportunity to build an ecosystem of mutually-supporting arts and technology, further establishing Georgia Tech as the leader of creating the next generation of well-rounded leaders.

One of your objectives with the performers coming to Tech is to create seminars and workshops for students and faculty that explore the interface of the arts and technology. Why is this exciting and how will it be open to the larger community?
In my experience, anytime you have artists in a room with students and faculty, you get a dynamic conversation that does not happen in the everyday classroom. Artists ask questions and shape ideas in ways that are different from the weekly discussion in a course, and students can pose insights and perspectives that are entirely new to the artists. What is truly exciting for me is the ideas and creative discoveries these conversations may spur, whether immediately or years down the line. Whenever possible, these discussions will be open to the public, because it is important that we hear from the people in our community as we discuss how to create the next generation of technology, design, computer science, and more. And because we are tech, in the coming years we will experiment with ways to create digital channels for the larger community to participate, so that someone does need to be able to take time off in the middle of the week and come to our campus in order for their voice to be heard.

You have an excellent line-up for your performance series. Could you talk about one or two of the shows that you are looking forward to especially?
The first show of the season from the company fuse* nicely embodies the intersections of art and technology that define Arts@Tech. fuse* incorporates cutting-edge technology into an artistic practice, using tech not only to create the dance piece, but also to use algorithms and projection to weave the two together. One factor in the algorithm that creates the video projection is the current emotional tone of social media, and this raises another fascinating question of what does it mean for our social media algorithms to even have an emotional tone, and how do we understand that? How does that shape future programming or user interface designs? All of these elements point to how a performance raises valuable questions and ideas for our students, and also invites the public to join us to consider these questions and learn how Georgia Tech is exploring these issues.

You are new to Atlanta. How are you taking in your new city? What are some of the places you have yet to visit but look forward to?
I adore this city. The people, the energy, the beauty, all of it has resonated with me deeply. I am sure there are more restaurants to visit than I can count, as I love food from around the globe. I am looking forward to visiting the Alliance Theater in September, as well as the High Museum of Art. And I admit I still have not been to a Braves game, and even though I’m a born Cubs fan, I would love to experience a game in my new hometown.

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