September 16, 2022

Faculty Spotlight: DAUS Clinical Professor Mechthild Schmidt Feist

Building on fine arts and history studies in Berlin, Mechthild Schmidt Feist, a clinical professor at the NYU SPS Division of Applied Undergraduate Studies (DAUS), has worked in digital media since a DAAD graduate grant and Whitney-ISP Fellowship brought her to New York. She worked as an artist and award-winning designer for major studios and artists (including Editel, HBO, ARRI-Munich, Alexander Kluge, Ornette Coleman, and Nam June Paik) and is the designer of the German Film Award award statue.

She has exhibited and lectured widely (including at Siggraph, the New Media Consortium at Princeton, and Bauhaus-Dessau). Her recent lectures, “Engaged Media” at NYU and universities in Asia (Singapore, HCMC, Fudan U Shanghai, and ISEA Korea), explored themes of motion and time in digital spaces––connecting her interest in the environmental and ethical use of media in her art practice as well as her teaching.

In spring 2020, she was named a Fulbright-Nehru fellow at the Srishti Institute for Art, Design + Technology in Bangalore, India, continuing her practice of environmental media art advocacy.

What are the trends in digital media we should be aware of?|
While misuse of digital media follows us in the news, many nonprofits use these platforms successfully to build ecological awareness and support a circular economy and the rights of indigenous populations. In the last 10 years, media literacy has grown to avoid some early excesses of online bullying, scams, and other abuses. But there is much more work (regulation) left to do. On the technology side, we see an increase in VR and AR (virtual and augmented reality) in simple consumer applications (such as trying on glasses online) to highly complex games. Reproducible digital artwork can now be minted as a single or low-edition NFT (nonfungible token). Beyond the hype are questions about how this unsustainable practice can be developed without the huge energy burden. I may not agree with all practices but find it important to participate as a critical creator.

How is NYU SPS educating our students to keep pace with these trends?
NYU SPS offers a number of “digital humanities” classes bridging the divide between liberal arts and “applied” professional classes. Our students require both, and aside from professional competencies, critical and ethical thinking is paramount for anyone receiving or designing media campaigns. For me, the separation into two sectors is an anachronism in today’s reality.

“Learning by doing” embraces both aspects in a holistic sense. All BS in Digital Communications and Media classes include learning concepts and ethics as much as design principles and hardware/software practice––along with regularly invited professionals or client projects adding valuable voices. I can name many of my colleagues at DAUS who work at the same intersection, such as Chyng-Feng Sun, clinical professor of media studies, and Antonios Saravanos, clinical associate professor, who coordinates the Information Systems Management degree. Outside of my division, Professor David Hollander’s “Real World” series of interdisciplinary classes bridge the classroom and real client campaigns. These are only three examples – and many of my colleagues have important additions to this topic.

What is the connection between what you teach our students and the metaverse?
I have been involved with virtual worlds since 2006 when I conducted my first class in Second Life (with the extensive support of then-Director Bill Coury). I especially valued the creative freedom of an empty stage we could fill with our designs, however simple they were at the start. My hope is to maintain that creative freedom and teach students how to navigate and create in a metaverse. My focus is on understanding the underlying principles of a metaverse, not (yet) perfection. I want to support students in building critical awareness of options and pitfalls.

Tell us about the initiatives you are working on at NYU SPS.
My long-term artistic and academic focus is on my “Engaged Media” series. I teach a class of the same name that also is focused on local sustainability efforts as an awareness and empowerment-building base from which to increase sustainability efforts. My artwork ranges from ecological to social topics such as refugees.

Tell us about your work in environmental media art advocacy.
My Fulbright stay in Bangalore, India, resulted in “Lalbagh TreeStory” (2020), an interactive journey responding to the environmental conflict between public transportation and over 1,000 felled trees. An imaginary replanting and a talk between trees is really directed at us humans to appreciate how living trees support us from CO2 absorption to medicinal and cultural uses. Much of my work combines online elements with physical installations or prints, such as in “Involuntary Journeys,” which chronicles the paths of a Rohingya and a Syrian refugee I met in a Lesbos refugee community center. The increasing climate migration is one of the links connecting ecology and refugees, as is my concern about compassion and empathy, given that our consumer behavior has global consequences.

What about other upcoming projects??
Combining my Spring 2023 Special Leave with an NYU SPS research grant allows me to continue a second “Involuntary Journeys - Mapping Shanghai Jewish Refugee Quarter” project, again trying to visually evoke empathy and historical understanding. Triggered by comparing compassion for today’s refugees with Jewish refugees in a war-torn Shanghai in the 1930s, I embarked on preliminary research in Shanghai in 2019. I will combine information, family history, and imagery from some of the remaining streets of the old Hongkew quarter to be used as a city walk or online interactive history lesson. I hope to find additional materials in selected archives of Berlin and Tel Aviv to create a pilot for an interactive map. As a next step, I will return to my initial museum or institutional contacts to either build out a full app or raise the money so I can hire a team to build it with me.

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