In conversation with Kadallah Burrowes

Anna Mitchell
Jan 8 · 7 min read
Photo credit: Jack B. Du

Taipei, Taiwan. Kadallah Burrowes is an artist who creates using code and new media techniques. Right now, they focus on narrative experiences in virtual reality. Kadallah has presented about design across the US and China at museums, conferences, and even nightclubs. Anna Mitchell, Interact’s Fellowship Communications Lead, caught up with Kadallah in December.

Where are you from and what have you been doing for the last few years?

I moved around a lot as a kid, but always lived in the DC area. I was part of NYU’s second graduating class from its campus in Shanghai; it was very cool to help shape the culture of the school. After I graduated, I came back to the US for a bit. Now I’m in Taiwan.

That seems like a really interesting and risky move — to be part of only the second cohort of students at NYU-Shanghai. What made you decide to take that leap?

From childhood, I knew I wanted to study abroad for as long as possible. When I was in middle school, I tried to convince my parents to send me to boarding school in England, but they were like — no. (Laughs). So when I got this opportunity to study in Shanghai, I knew I had to do it. I didn’t know much about China, so this was the perfect opportunity for me to explore the world. My campus was pretty diverse — around 25% of the class from Shanghai, 25% from the rest of China, 25% from the US, and 25% from other countries.

What surprised you about China?

On the news in the US, you’re constantly hearing terrible things about the country. But you get there, and people are just people. Your classmates are 18-year-olds who are entering college and nervous about the same things you are. People out on the street are just people like you. It’s very humanizing.

It sounds like it. So you were participating in the Interactive Media Arts Program, right? How did that impact your life?

It was life-changing, for sure. When I applied to college, I thought I would do photojournalism. But at NYU Shanghai, there were very few majors. A class with Clay Shirky, a well-known sociologist in the field of social media, changed my entire worldview and spurred me to start taking classes under interactive media arts. This was like a tech liberal arts program, since classes ranged from philosophy of technology, to more applied classes — where you’re learning to code, use the media technologies, or even build physical objects with hardware. So I was exposed to many different technologies.

Were you always artistic?

Yes; both of my parents are artistic. My mom is a practicing artist and teaches art. My dad is a professor who has always written; growing up, he read me poetry. So it feels very natural to me.

What kind of art did you create in the Interactive Media Arts program?

I started with photography and video work. As I got closer to graduation, though, I explored more and started creating art involving coding. My sophomore year, I started working with game engines and creating virtual reality environments. One of my favorite projects was an immersive installation where we created video channels that were part of an alternate reality. You could sit in a living room with artifacts from this alternate reality and watch these channels. Now I’m experimenting with video art mixed with with coding.

That’s really cool. What excites you about digital art, compared to other media like photography?

What draws me to it is that it’s fresh and new. Since this is the bleeding edge, you get to work on creating a vocabulary for it. And when you show it to someone, they often don’t understand how you made it — adding another layer of magic that you don’t get to enjoy with many other kinds of art. People normally think “he used watercolor brushes,” or they can see the exact aperture and shutter speed a photographer used. But with this kind of art, there’s magic — because people don’t understand how it’s made.

That makes sense. Do you think that makes it difficult for people to relate to the art, or no?

I think for some people, yes. But it’s also an exercise in being okay with mystery.

What projects are you really excited about right now?

I am working on recreating a video collage I’d previously made in Unity as a web project visible through the browser. I also keep working on VR screenplays that I’ll pick up and put down, but each feeds into the next. I am constantly perfecting my work.

Are you mostly creating for yourself, or an audience, or a mixture?

It’s a mixture. The video collage was strictly for myself. But part of the reason I struggle with the screenplays is that I want to prove that VR can create really cool art. People focus on practical applications or games in VR. Whenever I’m working on VR experiences, though, I’m always thinking about how far I can push them so people can see just how crazy they can be.

Techie people also like to argue that virtual reality will be killed by augmented reality. I don’t agree. Augmented reality is much more practical than virtual reality — would you want your doctor in VR? — but VR has much more potential for artistic experiences because you get transported to a whole new world, which is 90% of what art is trying to do. I think we just need a few big virtual reality experiences that become household names. And then people will realize virtual reality and augmented reality are like fiction and nonfiction.

That’s such an interesting point. Do you feel like the main obstacles to big VR experiences are technological, or lack of vision, or something else entirely?

It comes from the same problem of focusing on practical applications. It’s possible to make virtual reality experiences with small teams, but it’s hard to cross the uncanny valley to make things super-realistic. To feel like you are completely in another world requires a lot of time and effort. It’s not easy to form big teams and win a lot of money and support.

The barrier to entry is also higher than for other forms of art — anyone can go out and buy a canvas and paints, or use the camera in their phone. For virtual reality, though, you have to learn how to code, and have access to equipment. That’s been a barrier for me since graduating, since I don’t have access to the same equipment — it has changed the way I work.

Another barrier is that the audience feels much smaller. AR/VR experiences are often seen by a small body of people, but I want to bring them to as many people as possible, regardless of their status or social standing.

So you’re in Taipei now?

Yes, I came to Taipei doing Workaway on a few farms, a monastery, and a meditation center. Part of why I came to Taiwan was to connect with myself on a spiritual level. This sounds cliche, but I’d been interested in Buddhism since I was a kid; it felt like the religion that made the most Now I’m in Taipei working to create a service to help expats find housing.

You have a wide range of interests and experiences. What do you want to do over the next few years?

My number one goal is to create art. I’m trying to structure my life in a way that I can create as much art as possible and immerse myself in the digital media art scene around the world. I don’t know exactly where that will take me, though.

Did you feel like people in China or Taiwan or Asia more broadly have a different view towards digital media arts than people in the U.S., since they are perhaps more digitally native?

Yes, I think people are definitely more open to digital art. When I was in Shanghai, my favorite club was a place called All. It was intellectual, but still a nightclub. On some nights, professors would give speeches and talks, or filmmakers would show their films, or artists would show their work. Much of the work focused on the technological transition we’re going through as a species. I’ve never seen anything like that in the U.S.

Could it only exist in China?

I think it could exist in the West. But Western nightlife feels very tied to drug culture. In Shanghai, fear of repercussion looms over you since there are strong consequences for doing drugs. So most of the DJs I know in Shanghai are completely sober; many don’t even drink. This encourages a more intellectual scene where art and nightlife are intertwined.

That’s interesting, because you would think that government crackdowns would lead to general repression, not a flowering of creativity.

Totally.

I also saw that you were a bartender in China. What was that like?

It was wild, because it was on the street. Every few weeks, the police would come and take our chairs because it wasn’t a fully legal bar. But all the locals loved me because I worked Saturdays and Sundays, when we gave our free beer.

That’s an easy way to make friends. Speaking of making friends — how did you join Interact, and how has it been impactful for you?

I found out about Interact through the mailing list for the Interactive Telecommunications Program, the graduate program that Interactive Media Arts is based on. It was extremely powerful for me. After you graduate college, you lose a community. It was depressing to leave the IMA community at NYU, since I’d spent so much time on one floor with those people. When I came to Interact, I felt like these people understand the way my brain works. I felt like I found a new home very quickly.

I also felt very seen in that space. Many times, I went to tech events, and the population just didn’t look like me. At Interact, meeting other people of color as well as other queer, non-binary people was a very powerful experience. So I clicked with people not just because of tech, but individually.

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Interact is a community of mission-driven technologists. Applications for the Class of 2020 are now open at joininteract.com.

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