Member Spotlight: KT Duffy


KT Duffy (b. 1987) is a new media artist and educator from Chicago, IL. They received their MFA in Interdisciplinary Art from the Maryland Institute College of Art. Duffy is currently an Assistant Professor of Art and Technology at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, IL. Duffy’s interest in emerging technologies and their relationship to the evolution of the human animal is what drives their practice.Their work culminates in carnal and colorful transmedia mashups that protrude outside of easy definition and circle cheekily around deep issues of humanity. I had the opportunity recently to chat with Duffy via Skype, and learn a bit more about their artistic evolution, and their rigorous but playful approach to a very diverse practice.

1. Tell us a little about your background and your trajectory as an artist/ scholar.

Even as a kid I was always really into heavily technical aspects of art, including detailed figurative painting. I loved the tight detail stuff, which looking back now I think translates well into working with code and tech. Art was always this thing that I gravitated towards but never knew how it was going to fit in; I knew it would be a part of my life but never knew how, or what the job would be.

For my undergrad I did a double major in digital design and social work at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. I got lucky in that during my Junior year they hired a new art professor who was like a new media conceptual dude, Seth Myers, and he introduced me to experimental video which was my gateway drug into new media. With my other major in college, Social Work, what interested me there was definitely the social theory and social justice. Just having the opportunity to develop that empathy and also take stock of your place and privilege within all the issues and situations that continually came up has heavily influenced my career choices as well as my creative practice. After I graduated in 2010, I stayed in Dubuque to work with Americorps doing a lot of community based creative programming. I was also working as a designer and web developer, doing mostly work for other non-profits and some DIY arts stuff.

From there I decided grad school was a good idea. I was looking for a multidisciplinary program because I think I was trying to find a way to bring all these disparate parts of my practice together. It was at MICA that I really fell in love with teaching technical stuff. I had this amazing mentor Jena Frye who I got the chance to work with in a few capacities as a grad student and then as an adjunct. Jena really modeled for me the type of educator I wanted to be and gave me a ton of opportunities to find my way as a baby professor.

My years after grad school I had opportunities to teach at MICA and Towson (University) that threw me into higher ed, learning most things on the fly. For example, It wasn’t until I started teaching JavaScript, Arduino or Processing that I really started to understand it beyond the basics and actually make things I wanted to make with it. I was also working at a tech company called Wham City Lights during that time, which was kinda the same deal, where I was thrown into a thing and had to just kinda figure it out. I also did a number of DIY arts projects and was showing a lot around the area. I adore Baltimore and miss it terribly, but living there post-grad school I was really personally struggling. However from where I’m at now I can see that it’s where I learned the most about my practice as an educator and artist, and where I really figured out what kind of creative life I wanted to live.

Which brings me to where I’m at now. I have a tenure line job at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago where I’m in charge of heading up the new Art + Tech area. I teach a 2/2 and run the Art Dept Fab Lab. It feels kinda crazy to be in charge of crafting a new thing there, but I have an incredible cohort of students who I adore working with. They have really inspired the courses and minor I have developed in the last two years.

I guess I would say overall, I’ve had two kinds of practices for awhile now: one that’s more informal and involves coding education and community practice and another that is more visual arts based.

With the community side of things I do a lot of workshops that aim to be the conduit to get people started, to demystify code and technology for other creative people, with a focus on fems. I just did an experimental computer vision workshop for GirlCon at Northwestern and I’m still working on getting this coding education project/community called Hack The Patriarchy off the ground. I got a Grit Fund grant for this project just as I was leaving Baltimore. I’m trying to make the visual output stuff encompass more of the community-based projects. I’m beginning to see the visual gallery stuff as perhaps more a sight of dialogue. I want to create situations where I can share knowledge in an informal and supportive environment like, here’s some stuff that I didn’t even know you could do and I’m still on way way to figuring it all out. I always try to do some kind of workshop or panel around the gallery event, to try different ways of reaching folks and again just demystifying the kinda processes that make up a new media practice.

My workshop at Girlcon 2018.

2. What are some of your main influences?

I think I take a lot of influence from not-art. I had very little exposure to art as a younger person, but one thing that stands out art wise from being a kid was when I won an award for my art I think in 8th grade or somewhere near there and my dad was like “oh you like art?” So he took me to the MCA (The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago), which was a really big deal – driving from the South Side, paying for parking… There was a Tony Oursler piece there, the one with the mattress on the head and the projection mapped face. I was like, that’s it. I don’t know what that is and I won’t for a number of years, but I know I love that and I need to make things like it. Until that point I didn’t realize that people were artists now, that art was a thing you could do in the world, maybe get paid for and have people come and look at it. That really stuck with me.

With my current art practice I’m really interested in biomimicry. I’m mystified at the idea that little squiggly life forms that make up my body have their own life and ecosystem going on, and that you can find the same or similar micro-friends in other types of life forms. Or that the folds in my body look just like the terrain of some place I’ve never been. The more I investigate this kind of stuff the more I find myself getting into these existential logic loops. Like, am I just a ghost in a meat suit?! I guess what I am trying to get across is that as an artist I am taking all of this in at the same time and attempting to distill it down into this mashup of a thing that can perhaps articulate this multi referential loop I’m always in.

Latest screenshot of a form that I got really excited by – lil baby pod of octopi?!?! Omg <3.

I’m also just a nerd. If I see something cool on the internet I’m like: I have to know how to make that. It’s about material investigations, both IRL and in code or software, and I just wanna figure it out. My need to figure things out also comes from people saying, “eh you probably shouldn’t learn that, or make that, or you wouldn’t like that” Which is code for your not smart/strong/whatever enough to do that. So spite is perhaps a influence of mine? I find the idea of being in the studio like “I’ll show you! (with fist shake)” to be hilarious.

I also just want to model what fem-queer-arty-nerdhood looks like for baby creatives. This is definitely an inspiration / motivator for me because I think there are so many people that did not have that person they could really identify with when they were younger, so I want to do what little I can to influence those younger than me to find their thing on their own terms. I often find that the younger folks I get to work with end up influencing me back in unexpected and profound ways.

Last thing, I recently listened to an episode of Death, Sex & Money with author Tayari Jones who spoke about how she feels feminisms is about your day to day interactions, or how you deal with the people in your life in a personal way. This really resonated and I had this aha moment like, oooh, feminism = technical collaborative problem solving!

Robot drawing machines made in last semester’s Art + Tech I – it took so long to get this bot to draw this form. It was really a class-wide effort and we all were jump high-fiving after we figured it out!

3. New Media is …….

This is something I’m constantly trying to parse out… One thing I’ve realized lately is that sometimes I want to make a thing and I could make it easily with this hand done process, but that stops me because its not “new media” enough, which I think is very silly of me. New media is an experimental practice, whether it’s code, fabrication or finding new modalities for traditional art materials.

Maybe it’s bringing down the access barriers too. Maybe it’s just access. If you wanna make work like that, you should be able to find your way to it. But I dunno. it’s fluid. Maybe it shouldn’t be defined? I think about this sometimes in relation me identifying as gender nonconforming type of human. Like If something is supposed to be fluid, why give it a term at all? I mean, the answer to this (another logic loop of mine) is that giving something a name gives it power, so it’s actually really important, but again how do you define something than can be anything?!

Maybe defining it keeps people out, and what we need as a new kind of media of inclusivity, all kinds of people with all levels of skills telling their story through all kinds of newish mediums. To sum up this rant, new media is constantly learning and opening yourself up to new processes and perspectives.

4. What is your typical day like?

Right now its feels like I’m unemployed but paid, this is my second summer on that full time academia game. This summer off thing is very new to me so of course I definitely over-scheduled my summer. I would say there’s not many typical days. I guess at this point in my career I’m really trying to plan stuff out a year in advance but I’m not there yet. If I get an opportunity to show something, I have to hustle. I guess I’ll describe an ideal day: wake up; have some coffee; read a little sci-fi, like Ursula le Guin or Octavia Butler (my fav self care activity is ready lady sci-fi) . Eat breakfast; head to office; meet with students; teach class – on a non teaching day I’m meeting with students/doing research/ doing admin paperwork stuff; fix angry 3D printers and other art making robots; come home; eat dinner with spouse; go to bed. Sometimes I go for a jog, and do yoga every now and then. But, of course that’s the ideal; the reality is really about trying to get enough sleep and eat food that’s not terrible for me. I’ve realized that the looser I keep my time, the easier it is for me because I have a studio in one neighborhood, I live in another and teach in another. I kinda use these spaces fluidly as different types of studios or meeting places so I’m usually running around between them with a lot of materials and tools in my car. So I guess a typical day is trying to corral the chaos into something productive whether it’s school, studio or life stuff 🙂

5. What are you working on now?

I just put up a new project that we’re currently still working on. It’s a collaboration with my spouse, Ali Seradge, called Pixelface. So rn we’re the resident artists at a brewery in Pilsen Called LoRez. In the show, which is titled PIXELFACE, we have a projection mapped mural, a multimedia wall piece that has video modules in it, a few smaller lasercut prints and some “wearables” which we are really excited about. We made these all over print shirts and custom designed and fabricated PIXELFACE 3d printed rings that change color in UV light! One of the things the brewery does is they team you up with nonprofit. So all of our profits from this show go to RAICES (the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services) in Texas, which is doing work with family reunification.

I’m doing a show in Baltimore at Terrault Gallery that opens August 11. I’m gonna try something different with that, it’s going to be small sculptures and things you just hang on the wall! It’s funny that’s out of my comfort zone. The show will include some text based pieces that came out of a collaboration with poet Chekwube Danladi, whom I met this summer at the Vermont Studio Center. I really enjoyed hearing about the writers’ process at the residency, and I felt like it was really akin to new media processes. So we’re making a 3D printed zine! And a could of other digitally fabricated objects that deal with articulations of poetry via glitch algorithms and art making machines.

Hard C, 2017. 3D printed PLA, custom code, power strip, USB Cables, LED’s. Dimensions variable.

5a. What’s next for you?

I’ll finally be launching this coding education project, which is near and dear to my heart. I’m also working on two new classes: a Digital Foundations class, and a class in experimental code called Web 2, which will be part of the minor in Interaction Design that I designed this year.

Maybe the most exciting thing is the [upgraded] maker space in my department. It has up till now basically been in a closet, but we’re finally getting an actual lab, which I pretty much get to design from scratch. We have a lot of support from the University, and I’m looking forward to getting student support. I want students to be able to work in the lab as part of work study or scholarships, but I also really want to fund students as fellows so they could do their own research and help other students. Many of our students are working-class first-generation college students, and the choice of art degree is something they feel like they need to justify to their families and themselves. Job skills are really important, and I want to give them that line on a resume that could translate to grad school, teaching, design jobs, etc. I also want to foster a community of makers for the students, where they can share ideas and make meaningful connections. I don’t want it to just be a room full of robots.

6. Do you have a collaborative idea that you want to get off the ground?

I have an idea that came out of the Break Internet workshop I did as part of the NMC’s Media Lounge programming at CAA this past. I feel like we need a support group for new media practitioners who are learning their way through the medium. I think this is the nature of New Media, but I feel like there is a lack of vulnerability and also inclusivity in the content from which I’m learning. There is no reason in hell I should buy a book about digital fabrication in 2018 and there be no fems and one human of color in that book… so I want to make this website/community for folks to share their knowledge in ways that make sense for those of us learning on the fly, and/or those of us who don’t see ourselves reflected in the identities of tech practitioners. There are so many people doing cool stuff, and we need to give them a greater voice in this larger conversation and give them a way to share. So this would be a place that could highlight educators individual teaching-learning-artists. They could share a project or piece and help other folks parse out how they made it by explaining their workarounds, hacks or other weird “unprofessional” ways of wrapping their head around something that they had to learn on the fly.

7. Are there any other questions you think would be good for this format?

What’s the newest thing you’ve learned?
Daniel Shiffman, The Nature of Code. How to include phenomena like physics and gravity into your generative code to mimic natural movements.