Office Hours with Nicole Koltick
March 13, 2017
Nicole Koltick is an Assistant Professor in Architecture, Design & Urbanism and Director of the Design Futures Lab, where she leads graduate research groups in critical design practices and speculative proposals meant to stimulate debate on the potential implications of emerging technological and scientific developments within society. Her practice spans the disciplines of art, science, technology, design and philosophy. Koltick is quite accomplished, most recently participating as a featured speaker at the VergeNYC 2017 conference put on by Parsons School of Design/The New School as one of ten invited speakers. Her talk, Artifacts of Invisibility, explored the design of physical objects which probe a series of immaterial operations, translations and phenomena. She was invited to contribute to the Technosphere project, a multiyear cultural project exploring the amorphous fabric of technologies, environments, and humans shaping Earth's critical future curated and presented by the HKW (Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin). The HKW in Berlin is a premiere cultural institution of contemporary art in Europe, a forum for current developments and discourse with a special focus on non-European cultures and societies. Her film, NESL, recently won 1st place in the 1st International Robotic Online Short Film Festival, one of eight selected films competing in the Real Robots category and one of 50 films from 16 countries participating. Her work was accepted into the highly selective International Design Conference, Alive. Active. Adaptive., taking place in Rotterdam, The Netherlands this June. The conference is organized by the Design Research Society's Special Interest Group on Experiential Knowledge (EKSIG) and focuses on the experiential knowledge of working with emerging materials that are alive, active and adaptive, whether by means of biological or computational processes or an integration of the two.
We sat down with Nicole to learn more about her work, process and perspectives.
Q: Tell me about your early years in this field – what attracted you to teaching?
A: I was attracted to the potentials in capturing and inspiring students in their emerging intellectual and creative development. The ability to interact with a student at an early phase of their educational and professional journey holds responsibility and enormous potential. There is an inherent optimism in the endeavor of teaching that correlates strongly to my worldview, that each interaction we have with one another can be transformative in very singular yet powerful ways.
What interests did you have in your childhood and/or high school years that are still with you today?
Throughout my childhood I was endlessly reading. Every visit to the library I would check out the maximum number of books per visit, struggling home with very heavy bags of books, incredibly excited about the potentials of each. I continue to read very heavily each day across any number of subjects.
What question are you still working on answering?
My work is interested in provoking questions rather than providing answers. By developing near future speculations I am interested in putting forth scenarios that are not driven by pragmatic necessities, or which abide conventional rationales. My work is interested in asserting the power and potential of arational phenomena. The arational exists outside of the rational/irrational binary. Within this framework could be things deemed to be aesthetic, beautiful, emotional or poetic. How can these phenomena which are impossible to quantify be accounted for? I am always interested in advocating for the arational in both philosophy, processes and methods. The questions I wish to provoke are along the lines of, why can’t this be? Why isn’t it like this? I want to expand the potentials for how people began to conceive the future and raise expectations. The philosophical, the beautiful, these are not extraneous concerns…
What are you involved in that is outside of your field?
While I inhabit many fields, each is incredibly structured. I engage in multidisciplinary work in part as a means to disrupt some of these conventional modes of thought and operation. Therefore, apart from my academic work I seek out the unstructured, the wild and the unmediated. I live on an improbable patch of wilderness not too far from the city, my front yard is the woods and my backyard is a field. I spend a lot of time in nature in all seasons. I am an active participant in the landscape and this engagement with the natural finds its way into my work both aesthetically and conceptually.
Has your role as a professor been different from what you expected?
The role is surprisingly similar to my early impressions. In many careers, I think a young person entering the field may hold a particular sort of idealism which would then be replaced by an increasingly weary cynicism, but the idea I held of what a professor does, what the job may entail and the impact one might have on students has held relatively steady. The role of a professor is to share and nudge and support and critique. It is a highly nuanced job and to do it well requires not only mastery of a wide range of subjects but also a sensitivity to the unique characteristics, history and motivations of a number of incredibly unique students you interact with in any given quarter or year. I feel incredibly grateful to have this job and it seems incredibly well suited to my temperament, interests and goals for a well pursued life.
When you began college, did you have an idea of what you wanted to do for a career?
No, (laughing). I still to this day will recount to people that I am eternally grateful and yet still very surprised that my father supported me in pursuing a BFA in art. In childhood up until high school it was assumed I would study a technical science or engineering degree. My dad and older brother are engineering graduates of Carnegie Mellon and my dad was supportive of my pursuit of an art degree as long as it was at Carnegie Mellon. He was very supportive though and would collaborate with me on my school projects providing engineering and fabrication support for my wild ideas. One of the projects I remember most vividly is a large installation in which I wanted to have a bathtub full of melted chocolate with video projected onto the surface of this chocolate. My dad and I hunted down an old cast iron tub (which was so heavy!) and he and I designed a heating mechanism to sit within the tub and melt hundreds of pounds of chocolate. It worked great and the installation was very well received. The smell of that much melted chocolate within a gallery setting was very impactful. To this day my dad still collaborates with me on engineering ideas as well as edits my written work. My work is quite out there conceptually in comparison with the type of projects and work my dad does. But he has always engaged with my work in an extremely generous fashion and he is the single biggest influence on my understanding of how very disparate skillsets and working methodologies can find common ground and build things that are greater than the sum of their parts.
Entering art school I had no idea what I would do for a career. My undergraduate education at Carnegie Mellon, an institution not dissimilar to Drexel, had a very strong interdisciplinary component. I was exposed to a very creative group of individuals working at the intersection of art technology and philosophy. I endeavored to do interesting things, to provoke questions and to avoid a conventional job at all costs. I went on to pursue a professional degree in architecture to broaden my engagement with objects and environments and to pursue deeper research into digital design and fabrication methodologies.
What advice would you give to graduating seniors? Incoming Freshmen?
For seniors I would encourage them to not worry too much. The education they have received will continue to reveal its benefits over many years and in many facets of their personal and career development. I would encourage them to remain idealistic and resist cynicism.
For freshmen I would encourage them to trust the process. Do your best, be honest and open and reach out when needed. This is an incredibly nurturing and supportive environment and you should engage this structure fully to push yourself further.
Tell us about your work – what is hidden? What is in plain sight?
My most recent body of work falls under a broader examination of synthetic ecologies, most simply described as Machines. Materials. And Narratives. You can probably see the materials, perhaps the machines although these are usually in some never before seen form. It is the narratives which are hiding. They are meant to be pieced together and conjured up through questions the work provokes. Embedded with the objects and environments I create are deeper metaphysical questions. These most recently involve thoughts on newly emergent technological species and an argument for the inclusion of the beautiful, the poetic, the emotional, the aesthetic in engineering, technology and computation. These deserve to be argued for and foregrounded in design research.
What does your work mean to you? Do you think this differs from what it means to others?
I think the work is quite layered and it holds different meanings for different audiences as most creative work does. I make a concerted effort to produce work that is able to communicate to diverse audiences (children, adults, academics, the general public. Within the work there is a lot of embedded research involving materials, processes and concepts. We use the objects we make to interrogate some of the very methods used in their construction and the larger constructs and networks through which these tools and techniques are situated.
Underlying the work is a fairly dense philosophical inquiry which uses artifacts, their interactions and processes used to create them to speculate and interrogate the blurring of the digital and the analog, the synthetic and the natural.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
The Design Futures Lab is always looking for new collaborators across a broad range of disciplines. Students have the opportunity to collaborate on ongoing research projects or pursue individual thesis projects at the Undergraduate and Graduate level within the lab. Interested students should contact Nicole at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit their website at www.designfutureslab.com for more information.
Image Credit: Cropped still from the award winning NESL, learn more here.