Organized chaos seems like the best way to describe the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at New York University. Upon entering ITP, visitors must weave their way through wires, metal configurations, television screens and art that dangles from the ceilings — the works in progress of students huddled around laptops or laser cutters or long tables. Beyond the classrooms where the idea-sharing is as transparent as the glass walls, back in the furthest possible corner, lost behind stacks of papers, sits a frail yet feisty woman with fading red hair.
She is the mind behind this madness — its founder and now chief collaborations officer — and her name, like her hair, is Red. Red Burns.
Since ITP’s inception in 1979, Burns has been the program’s backbone. Under her guidance, the program has emphasized collaboration and innovation in new approaches to communication and technology.
“This place almost feels equated with her,” said Dan O’Sullivan, a longtime friend and NYU professor of communications, who was recently appointed to succeed Burns as ITP’s chair after she spent 30 years at its helm.
At barely 5 feet tall, she’s likely well into her 70s (but she’d never tell.) Passing the torch to O’Sullivan was a sort of “retirement,” although she still teaches an introductory course and comes to ITP every day.
“She is like a force of nature; as the sun rises so will Red come to work,” said O’Sullivan. “This [program] has grown to be her life.”
What began as an experiment in new media with only a handful of students, Burns transformed into an opportunity to explore, imagine and risk failure at the chance of discovering something, says O’Sullivan.
Burns’ unique ability to use and create technology embedded in an understanding of the human experience earned her countless awards, including the New York City Mayor’s Award for Excellence in Science and Technology, and, most recently, a Webby Special Achievement Award.
“Her philosophy is think about it, make it up, try it, fail and do it again,” said O’Sullivan. “Don’t talk it to death ahead of time and kill all the passion.”
Some of her earliest projects included a two-way television system for senior citizens in Reading, Pennsylvania which observed how people reacted to an interactive viewing process — viewers participated with those on-screen, as well as other people that were viewing the program. She also led a field trial in Vermont that looked at ways to design assistive technologies for the developmentally disabled — information systems that would reduce their dependence on others.
In April of 1988, Burns testified before Congress in favor of public access television, a decision that would allow the public to create and choose what to put on TV instead of sole corporate media control.
“She liked to give a voice to people who were disadvantaged, that’s what interested her,” said O’Sullivan.
Born in Ottawa, Canada to two European immigrants, Burns was the youngest of three children. After graduating from high school at the age of 16, she took an internship at the National Film Board of Canada because her parents said she was too young to go to college.
“I was an apprentice, I did everything and nothing,” said Burns of her internship, unfazed by the fact that she was only 16 and everyone else was in their 30s. “I was just too infected with this idea of film.”
Film would continue to be an important part of Burns’ story. She moved to New York City in the early 1960s with her late husband, a TV executive, and their four children for his job, but her passion for film never left. A few years later she found herself at a demonstration in the city for the new Sony portapak camera, the first portable, handheld video camera.
“I was completely bedazzled because it was not film — the pictures were physically moving,” said Burns of the portapak. “And it struck me that this new tool, put in the hands of communities, might lead to some interesting possibilities.”
At a time when the media was controlled by only a few major corporations, Burns recognized that this new technology might be able to change the way people received information. Her head brimming with ideas, she went to meet with the late David Oppenheim, the former dean of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “At the time, I didn’t need to be paid,” said Burns. “So I was hard to resist.”
Oppenheim directed her to NYU’s film school, where she met with George Stoney, the former chair of the film school. Burns was eager to explore how the portapak could bring about more community-based involvement, so together with Stoney she co-taught her first class at NYU, a video production course.
Their first project was about a community in Manhattan’s Washington Heights district that wanted a new traffic light, but couldn’t get city hall to listen to them. She had a group of students teach the community members how to shoot video so that they could film the intersection where they wanted the traffic light.
“What struck me was that this was a new way of organizing, with all kinds of opportunity,” said Burns. “And I had lots of questions.”
From this and other projects, Burns and Stoney created the NYU Alternate Media Center (AMC), the predecessor to ITP, in 1971. “In the back of my mind, what I really wanted to do was to help people,” said Burns, seeing how she could use technology to alleviate something.
Some 30 years later, ITP boasts over 200 students from 30 countries — and Burns knows all of their idiosyncrasies, says Abigail Simon, an adjunct professor at ITP.
“She’s not afraid to be brutally honest,” says Justin Lang, a first year ITP student. “She makes you feel inadequate, but in a good way.”
“She encourages people to be idealistic beyond what is prudent,” says O’Sullivan, adding that although Burns knows its impossible to change the world to a certain scale, she still encourages her students to believe they can change something.
O’Sullivan also credits ITP’s success with Burns’ ability to fly under the radar for all these years. “We get away with more stuff,” he says half-jokingly. She’s quite good at flying under the radar, keeping some things to herself for all these years — including the fact that her real name isn’t Red.