10 Questions with Ari Melenciano

Designer & Creative Technologist

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Ari Melenciano is a designer, multidisciplinary artist, creative technologist, digital fabricator, and educator. She is passionate about merging art, design and technology to create revolutionary experiences. She is currently a Master’s candidate of New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program.

Outside of school, she runs her own creative house, bgoti, a lifestyle movement called “Be Gold On the Inside.” She is also developing a line of experimental and experiential cameras called Ojo Oro, makes creative technology video tutorials on her AricianoTV channel on Youtube, occupies a DJ residency at Brooklyn’s StarrBar, and is director and founder of an annual new media arts, culture and technology festival called Afrotectopia.

1. When did you decide you wanted to be in tech?

I always grew up with a deep fascination with technology. In elementary school I was collecting calculators and spending all my free time surrounded by my gadgets. My mom actually nicknamed me “Gadget Girl” because I’d take a backpack full of my electronics everywhere. It’s funny how so little has changed — I still have a backpack with me filled with at least 5 different devices all the time.

But I never actually understood what technology was, or rather what it was “capable of,” until I went to college, and I didn’t actually recognize those capabilities until grad school. I thought technology was pretty much Computer Science, and Computer Science always sounded super boring to me. But I had this feeling that art and technology would be an incredible union, and I somehow knew I wanted to make a career out of it before I even knew how to code. I imagined building interactive spaces with technology. I loved the idea of designing experiences, and technology felt like the perfect medium to do it. When I got to grad school and actually learned how to build all these things myself, I was like, “Yes, this is it.” I feel like I’m exactly where I need to be.

“I had this feeling that art and technology would be an incredible union, and I somehow knew I wanted to make a career out of it before I even knew how to code.”

2. Tell me about someone you looked up to when you were younger.

I would usually list my mom here. But, as for people outside of my family that have opened my eyes to the possibilities of art and design, I would say Steve Jobs, American architect Paul Revere Williams, and director Melina Matsoukas.

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In middle school, I read an article about Steve Jobs and decided at that moment I wanted to be an industrial designer. Up until then, I’d only wanted to be an architect. I knew that I wanted to take my art off paper and into physical spaces and for people to be able to use and/or experience the things I built. I just loved how visionary and focused Steve Jobs was. I also admired and related to his “control-freak”-ness. I absolutely consider myself a control-freak, although I try my best to suppress it when working in groups so my teammates don’t hate me. But when I have a vision in my head, I have every little detail planned out and designed. I fully believe that it will work, and will awe people once they experience it. I can imagine how Steve Jobs felt — already having a deep intuition of how things should be. I can see how challenging it must have been to execute that vision within the constraints of a company.

I was only recently introduced to Paul Revere Williams and his work. If I’d seen his work earlier, I might have pushed harder to become an architect. I deeply admire his ability to perform perfectly in so many different styles. As someone who creates in such a broad range of styles, it’s comforting to see another artist who allows themselves to do so as well. It’s easy to feel the need to contain your style within a box that’s easily identifiable, to create a sort of signature. I don’t feel like I’ve been able to do that because I love continuously exploring new ways of creating. Williams is also inspiring because he was able to achieve so much in his career as a Black man practicing architecture in the 1930’s, 40’s, and 50’s. He had to be his own professional role model — which is very similar to where I find myself now, not being able to find many Black women merging art and technology the way I envision. I also adore that although he was able to design for the most wealthy, he also prioritized giving back. He designed affordable housing, some of which were the very few that allowed African-American ownership. His ability to navigate different clients inspires me. I want to be free to design beautiful things, which may unfortunately only be acquired by the elite, but I also want to create art that’s just as accessible as it is beautiful.

And, Melina Matsoukas has such a distinct style with film. Watching her work is like having a conversation with someone who just gets you without you having to say much. Watching her films makes you feel like you were there, like you’re experiencing it all in real-time. And she usually shoots on film, which adds a really beautiful aesthetic to it all.

3. Where’s your hometown?

Prince George’s (PG) County, Maryland.

4. Tell me a story about a time you faced a struggle.

In my second year of college, I studied abroad for an entire year in Barcelona, Spain. It was one of my favorite parts of my life. But it could also be incredibly difficult. I moved away because I went to a university that’s 5 minutes from my elementary school and a 20-minute drive from my parents’ home. I always imagined college being a chance to explore new territories, both scenic and people-wise, so to be so close to everything I already knew felt incredibly mundane. Then I moved to Spain and felt the most homesick I’ve ever felt. My sister had recently had her first baby, so anytime I’d see a baby I’d want to cry because I missed my nephew. Anytime I saw a girl with her mom I’d cry because I missed my own mom. It was really hard. I’m very introverted and independent, and I’d moved to a place where I didn’t know anyone, let alone the language. I really missed the social comfort and ease I had back home.

So, my time abroad was spent very much on my own. Although I got to make some really cool friends, I invested so much of that time in myself. I explored every corner of Barcelona on foot, and I loved it. I missed having a strong sense of community around me, but I built an incredibly strong relationship with myself and really nurtured myself. That was a special time of life because it’s such a luxury to be able to invest time in your own ideas and dreams. To really just focus on yourself — what you want out of life and how you want to enjoy your day, taking no considerations of anyone else. That may all sound very self-absorbed, but I believe in being selfish with yourself every now and then. You have to take care of yourself, know who you are and what you want, and spend time investing in that.

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5. Tell me a story about a time you did something you were immensely proud of.

I grew up loving photography. So much so, that I eventually decided I wanted to build my own camera. But I had no idea how. I was going to teach myself, but I was advised to seek out someone who already knew how to do the hard engineering stuff and just focus myself on the design since that’s what I’m already good at. I wasn’t a fan of that approach. When I create things, I like to learn every little part of it. But I had a friend studying electrical engineering who offered to help, so I couldn’t say no. We ended up hitting a lot of road bumps and never got to finishing the camera.

Fast forward two years, in my first semester of grad school studying Physical Computing, we had to make a project for our final. I decided I would return to the camera. I was using tools I hadn’t learned to use in any class, things not even my professor was very knowledgeable of. This project was really on me to figure out from the beginning. Luckily, my program did an excellent job of teaching me the critical skill of knowing what question to ask. Google became my best friend in the process, and Google would never have even been helpful if I didn’t know the right questions to ask. Building the camera was about a week or two of wanting to cry and pull my hair out. But eventually, persistence helped me achieve a dream I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to accomplish. I designed, fabricated, engineered, and coded my very own digital camera that merges the experience of analog/film and digital photography with filters that immediately and randomly apply, then sends the photo straight to Twitter once taken. I didn’t have to find people to do the “hard stuff” for me. I learned how to do every part of it myself. That made me really proud.

I didn’t have to find people to do the “hard stuff” for me. I learned how to do every part of it myself. That made me really proud.

6. What’s something that’s been on your mind a lot lately?

What am I willing to say “no” to now, so that I can say “yes” later? Or do I really have to say no? Can I do a little bit of all that I dream of right now?

7. Favorite food?

Something that’s healthy and tasty makes me really happy.

8. Mac or PC?

Mac, without question.

9. If you could try another job for a day, what would it be?

I’d love to be the person who takes all the photos for Apple’s iPhoto example library. I actually go into the store and just to look at their photo library because I love their photos that much.

10. If you could give your 18-year-old self a piece of advice, what would it be?

Have fun, breathe, and enjoy.

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