Maker Spotlight: W. Michelle Harris

Maker News
Maker Spotlight: W. Michelle Harris


W. Michelle Harris

Where are you located?

Rochester, NY

What is your day job?

Associate Professor of Interactive Games and Media at Rochester Institute of Technology, focused on teaching New Media Interactive Development students; affiliated with the RIT MAGIC Center.

Do you attend a makerspace/fablab/hackerspace?

In non-pandemic years, I take students in my Physical Computing class on a tour of the RIT Construct makerspace, and that crew has even run soldering workshops for that class in the past. I don’t attend a makerspace myself (yet), but I follow and cheer from the sidelines for my friends involved in the Rochester Makerspace .

What kinds of stuff do you make?

When not teaching – lots of tiny demo project making for that – I am a media artist who “paints” with code. I create interactive video (and occasionally audio) installations as well as live-mixed projected visuals for dance and music performances. My work usually incorporates video imagery – often multiple layers of it. I’ll almost always choose manipulating existing imagery over code-generated imagery. I’m not professionally trained in proper video or photography setups, but I persist. My tools of choice are Processing for installations and TroikaTronix Isadora for performances, although some shows involve both communicating with each other. The OpenCV library for Processing is what powers much of my motion-responsive work in both realms.

How did you get started making stuff?

If you want to go way back, my mother supplied us with craft projects (velvet paint by numbers, macrame, needle arts, etc.). Not quite so far back as a young adult, I was frustrated by the distance between my tech work and my need to create art, so I sought out the Interactive Telecommunications Program program at NYU specifically to learn how to mix art and code. That choice led to my current job and current ways of making.

What is something that you’ve made that you’re really proud of?

In the aftermath of Eric Garner’s death, I created the “Can’t/Breathe Mirror“, an interactive video installation where the world of the breathing (via webcam video) is mirrored in a brightness-matched mosaic of faces of some of the many Black people killed by police in the US.

What is next on your project list?

“For my next performance, I’m psyched to collaborate with the BIODANCE dance company and jazz composer Dave Rivello for the Rochester Fringe Festival in September 2022. My first Rochester Fringe with BIODANCE was in 2013 projecting on the planetarium dome of the local science museum. I was fortunate to get started on this path by interning for Troika Ranch back in the aughts.

For commissions and collaborative performances, I can approach it as a specific problem to solve or story to tell, and meet the appropriate deadlines. For a conceptual art installation, however, it often takes a year or three to for inspiration and direction to come to me.”

"In Their Wake" (2019)

BIODANCE, Kearstin Piper Brown, 5x5 ensemble in "Aria" (2018 Rochester Fringe)

I just collaborated on a commissioned interactive audio installation with bluesy tones and instruments matched to crosswalk lines for a local neighborhood group as part of the Rochester International Jazz Festival. It’s incredibly satisfying to see little kids and elders alike having fun with running/walking/riding across the crosswalk. Read more about it from local news stations WXXI and WHAM. The Washington Post did a nice write up on the development of the original community keyboard crosswalk project by designer/artist Shawn Dunwoody.

What is something you’d like to work with but you haven’t yet?

“Topic to work with: something more directly dealing with my ancestral roots in Virginia. Tech to work with: one of my New Media Interactive Development students, Noah Manoucheri, did some proof-of-concept work for me with a LIDAR camera. I want to dig into their documentation of their discoveries and see what new modes of “”painting”” I can develop for installations and performances.”

Any advice for people reading this?

Tech is my weapon of choice for driving conversations (e.g. police killings) and enhancing the storytelling of performances. Those goals take precedence, and any tech needs to serve them. If figuring out some “better” tech is keeping me from thoughtfully meeting my goals, I redirect and find a workaround.

Are you going to show off at a maker faire in the near future? If so, which one?

Truthfully, I prefer to *visit* Maker Faire Rochester (depending on the pandemic situation) and see all the cool things others have created – especially former students and friends – rather than stay in one place showing something of my own. I have collaborated on a project we showed at the NYC Maker Faire in the past. The three of us split shifts so we could have time to see the other exhibits.

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Jennifer Blakeslee keeps the Global Maker Faire program running smoothly and has been a maker at Maker Faire since 2011. Among other things, she really likes to travel, write, cook, hike, make big art, and swim in the ocean.

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