ASU grad creates new system for interactive media design

May 14, 2015

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Matthew Ragan is the only ASU student graduating from his particular degree program this year. He is earning an master's degree in theater with a concentration in interdisciplinary digital media and performance. portrait of ASU graduate Matthew Ragan Download Full Image

The degree is one of the newer cross-institute degree concentrations in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, which is split between the School of Film, Dance and Theatre and the School of Arts, Media + Engineering.

“The reality that I had the most trouble with coming in as a student, but now I really appreciate on the other end of this experience, is how new this particular thing is,” Ragan said. “I came in wanting someone to sit me down and show me the way. Instead, the experiences I have had with a lot of my faculty mentors is that they would just push me. They’d say, ‘Stop looking to me for answers and go do that thing and come back and report to me about what you learned, and then I’ll push you in a different direction.’ ”

For Ragan, this open landscape of possibility allowed him to explore uncharted territory at the intersection of live performance and interactive design.

But he didn’t discover this path immediately.

After earning his undergraduate degree in theater and dance at Cal State Fresno, he spent several years working at Keene State College in New Hampshire, first in educational outreach and later in educational media creation and distribution. In the meantime, he was also training at the New England Center for Circus Arts and performing circus acrobatics.

“I had this schizophrenic life where I felt like I had this one part of me that was all technology and media and this other part of me that was all performance,” he said. “I finally ended up landing in the Interdisciplinary Digital Media and Performance program here at ASU because it felt like it was a chance to finally steer both parts of my life together in a way that felt less divided.”

During his time at ASU, Ragan estimates that he worked on close to 26 productions in total. He can’t pick a favorite, but he does identify several important benchmarks along the way.

The first of these benchmarks was the thesis project of then-MFA-student Boyd Branch, called “Neuro,” which was a devised piece that had audiences interacting closely with actors and a slew of different pieces of responsive technology.

“Working on ‘Neuro’ was interesting because at that time I didn’t know hardly anything,” Ragan said. “So that was really an opportunity to start thinking about installation artwork and how sensors work and how you build something that’s interactive, not just for an operator, but for some person to interact with in a live environment.

As a more recent benchmark, Ragan points to a summer project in a live quarry in Branford, Conneticut (the same quarry that provided the stone for the base of the Statue of Liberty and portions of the Brooklyn Bridge). The performance, “TERRA TRACTUS: The Earth Moves,” was the largest project Ragan had ever tackled; it was also important because it involved live media mixing in what Ragan describes as a sort of DJ-style improvisation.

This ability to improvise through digital media became the foundation of Ragan’s MFA thesis.

“One of the things I kept coming back to in the process of designing shows in the first two years [in the program] is that we were constantly reinventing the wheel every time we wanted to do any kind of interactivity in a show,” says Ragan. “I just always felt like it was crazy that we were building a program and designing the media every time. So I started to ask, what happens if we think of the interactive environment as something that we can come back to?”

Part of Ragan’s thesis was to design the media for ASU School of Film, Dance and Theatre MainStage production “romeo&juliet/VOID.” But he went a few steps further, programming the actual media system for the show and teaching a concurrent class in the School of Arts, Media + Engineering about how to program for live performance.

“For my thesis, I developed a yearlong piece of curriculum that’s really about how you use media with live performance, as well as developed a tool to use in theatres,” he said. “So it was both about building an application and then building all the documentation and curriculum around it.”

In a way, Ragan’s story has come full circle, incorporating performance, design, media and teaching all together.

Completing that circle, he’s moving back home to California. Ragan has a job lined up post-graduation as an interactive engineer at San Francisco-based Obscura Digital, one of the leading creative technology companies in the United States.

“They do large-scale immersive interactive environments, projection, video systems – they run the gamut in terms of artistic work and corporate work, in terms of the kinds of things that they produce,” Ragan said. “And it’s on the scale that we always talk about but never have the time or budget to actualize.”

Communications Program Coordinator, ASU Art Museum


ASU cohort ready to bring community into classrooms

May 14, 2015

ASU 2015 commencement banner

Eleven Native American educators, already working in early-education classrooms in the Gila River Indian Community, received their bachelor’s degrees after completing an innovative two-year program offered by Arizona State University. Melodee Lewis: Gila River Early Educators Attaining Teaching Excellence graduate Download Full Image

The students, who met onsite on the Gila River Reservation and had some previous college credit, received their bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, with a concentration in early-childhood education from the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences.

While completing the course work, the students continued to teach in Head Start classrooms – a program that promotes school readiness for children from birth to age 5, from low-income families – or other early education programs.

“I’m so proud ASU could be a part of this program,” said Marlene Tromp, vice provost of ASU’s West campus and dean of the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. “When we reach children early in life with care, justice and love, we can transform our communities.”

The program, Gila River Early Educators Attaining Teaching Excellence (GRE2ATE), is a collaborative partnership between ASU’s Center for Indian Education and the Gila River Indian Community’s Tribal Education.

Professors in ASU’s School of Social Transformation, Teachers College and the New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Science taught the classes, which focused on curriculum planning, child development, and integrating culture and Native language into early-childhood classrooms.

The focus on culture was a part of the program that graduate Jennifer Parker, a paraprofessional educator at Casa Blanca Community School, found especially important.

“Education is changing, and I’m happy that I get to bring community into the classroom and develop curriculum toward that,” Parker said.

Following their graduation, participants in the program will receive a year of mentoring from GRE2ATE program manager Deborah Chadwick to help them find permanent Head Start and early-education teaching positions.

Chadwick will meet monthly with the graduates to provide individualized support and help the teachers navigate the complex reality of being a classroom teacher.

“Often novice teachers leave the classroom within the first few years of teaching,” Chadwick said. “We want our students to be successful beyond receiving their BA degree so we will continue to provide an additional year of support.”

Addressing the graduates at a recent celebration, Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen R. Lewis was excited for the legacy from this project.

“We want successful, healthy generations coming up, and you’ll be teaching our future,” he said to the cohort of 11 graduates.

It’s a sentiment that graduate Kimberly Beeson, a teacher assistant in infant/toddler classroom in a District 5 Gila River Head Start program, echoed.

“I really look forward to the coming years and working with the babies. It really is my passion,” she said.

The GRE2ATE program was funded by a 2012 professional development grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Indian Education.

Anna Consie,
School of Social Transformation

Lisa Robbins

editor/publisher, Media Relations and Strategic Communications