Your Source For The Arts In Atlanta

Aaron Shackelford, the new director of Georgia Tech’s Arts@Tech program, wants to reinvigorate the way arts and technology collide. 

A literature and performance nerd with a somewhat childlike wonder for the arts, Shackelford comes to Atlanta from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he was director of programming for the Fine Arts Center. He earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of North Carolina, where he was recognized for his studies on poet Emily Dickinson.

This season’s artist programming kicked off with a powerful work by the Italian digital design house fuse called “Dökk” (Icelandic for dark), which combines dance with software that reflects the dancer’s heartbeat and the response of social media. More recently, Kinetic Light, the first professional artistic collective in the United States comprising only disabled artists, mesmerized audiences with the beauty of their movement in “Descent”.

Riding the high of the institution’s recently renovated Ferst Center for the Arts, Shackelford spoke with ArtsATL about making the arts more inclusive and accessible, academic integration of the arts, and making Georgia Tech’s campus a “wonderland of experience.”

ArtsATL: When did you become interested in the arts?

Aaron Shackelford: I came to this field by accident. I happened to arrive at the University of North Carolina in 2005, the same year as Carolina Performing Arts —  their version of Arts@Tech — was founded. I found myself spending more time working with the Carolina arts program as I did working on my actual dissertation — building collaboration for the arts with students who are going to go on to study in a myriad of fields. I took a leap of faith and dove into the performing arts field instead of doing the traditional tenure track poetry professor route. Needless to say, I was hooked and immediately fell passionately in love.

Georgia Tech's Aaron Shackelford.

Shackelford says the arts and science share a commonality: the need for creativity.

ArtsATL: Arts@Tech is continuing the trend that began last year, focusing on the intersection of the arts and technology. Can you tell me about the importance of this?

Shackelford: Technology allows artists to push and explore in ways that were not previously imaginable and allows artists to create an interaction with the audience — we are creating multimodal ways of exploring these artistic concepts. At the same time, the arts have always been incredibly powerful for the way they open conversations that are otherwise difficult to have in your everyday classroom — the conversations have to evolve into those topics. At its core, these are two fields that are built on collaboration, creativity, ideation, and are creating new ways for us to experience the world.

ArtsATL: Are you being provided the resources needed to reach this?

Shackelford: Yes. I was fortunate to arrive on campus that is hungry to see the arts play a much larger role across the institute. Since I arrived, there has been a strong belief across the advisory board, administration and faculty in the importance of this work. 

ArtsATL: How can integrating the arts into other academic fields across campus — like math, science, and engineering — be beneficial? 

Shackelford: One is the idea that the arts are not really that far away from math, engineering and all the other fields because art requires a collaborative mindset and creativity. All disciplines must recognize the state their field is in at the moment and look for an opportunity, niche, or an unspoken assumption that they can push on. Oftentimes, especially in today’s world, you are doing that in more collaborative settings, which defines so much of the arts as well. Early in your career, even if you’re studying mathematics, engineering or manufacturing, the arts can create opportunities for you to reflect on the biases or the cultural perspectives that you’re going to be bringing to your work.  

ArtsATL: Arts@Tech offers a variety of artistic programs. How do you keep up with all the different mediums, styles, etc., of the arts and what do you look for in programming?

Shackelford: I joke that I love when people do my job for me, but people truly bring me incredible recommendations and references. Over the years, I’ve built a network of people that I know and trust, and the world of the arts is really a small circle. At the end of the day, we are presenting artists — not just art. It’s really about identifying the artists who are thinking in ways that impact the way the arts can be. 

Two disabled dancers from Kinetic Light perform on stage.

In November, the Ferst Center hosted Kinetic Light, the first professional artistic collective in the United States comprising only disabled artists. (Photo by BRITT/Jay Newman)

ArtsATL: What are your biggest goals for the arts program in terms of immediate and long-range plans?

Shackelford: This first year is really about storytelling. I think the shift from the Ferst Center’s programming toward work that’s focused exclusively on the intersection of technology and design is a message that the Atlanta community is still hearing. Five years from now, my goal is twofold. One, to have built an ecosystem of artists who come through Georgia Tech and have developed artistic projects so that five years from now every performance, installation or exhibition that comes through Georgia Tech was in some way influenced by our students and faculty. Goal two is to have an ecosystem of students and faculty to integrate the arts into their curriculum across the institution and to widely recognized the impact. Ten years from now, I want our campus to be a wonderland of experience. The sort of work that is happening here is mind blowing. So much of that excitement is locked away inside buildings, labs and computer science journals. So we’re thinking of what ways we can share this work with anyone who steps foot on our campus.

ArtsATL: How do you plan to stimulate community engagement between the university and Atlanta at large?

Shackelford: I am a firm believer that direct engagement with the community needs to be intentional and well-thought-out. Step one is that we build up our arts integration and the sorts of conversations around technology, design and computer science, and that have as much of that conversation open to the public as possible. As we build up this ecosystem, the reason why it’s important for me to transform our campus into a wonderland of experiences is so that we can be more open and welcoming to the community, which historically hasn’t had a reason or desire to walk on our campus. 

ArtsATL: The renovated Ferst Center provides wheelchair accessibility, now allowing those in wheelchairs to sit in the front of the orchestra section. What other initiatives are you taking to create an inclusive and accessible environment for both performers and audiences?

Shackelford: For performers, we are committed to making sure that we bring in a wider array of identities on our stage. The real impact comes from seeing those voices, identities and bodies on stage that are not historically represented and recognizing how important that is for people of those identities to see representation on stage. 

For our audiences, we have reduced our ticket prices so that all tickets are $15-$25 in an effort to make the experience of coming to the Ferst Center more affordable. We recently had Kinetic Light, the first professional artistic collective in the United States comprising only disabled artists, perform at the Ferst Center. This was valuable because it pushed us to do a full inventory of accessibility for our theater. That’s the larger impact of bringing artists from a wider array of experiences, it forces us as a staff to pause, assess and question the assumptions that we’ve made, as we are a large state institution and those are historically very slow to react and to reflect. 

DJ Kid Koala holds a record.

DJ Kid Koala, who performs at the Ferst Center next month, reflects the new directions Shackelford wants to take Arts@Tech.

ArtsATL: What are some of your favorite artistic things to do in Atlanta?

Shackelford: I fell in love with the lantern parade on the BeltLine, it was an incredibly joyful experience. I am also enjoying the smaller venues and events — the Atlanta Fringe Festival’s performance of Josephine Baker and performances at the Bakery that are filled with passion and creativity. Then of course the High Museum’s exhibitions and talks, the Atlanta Opera’s Frida, the Alliance Theatre, and more. There’s just so much to encounter in this city. 

ArtsATL: Are any upcoming shows that you are particularly looking forward to?

Shackelford: DJ Kid Koala will be here on February 15. He is such a powerful embodiment of different artists thinking in these multidisciplinary creative ways. Also, contemporary dance group VIVA MOMIX will be in town on March 1. Contemporary dance is one of my passions. The choreographers naturally have the collaborative interdisciplinary mindset that can embody the sort of work we are embracing. 

ArtsATL: How have you seen arts in general change over time? 

Shackelford: I think the awareness of the institutional biases is growing within our field. Many institutional mechanisms and decisions that we have used in the past are exclusionary, if not downright harmful to many artists, voices and community members. I think there is a growing recognition that the business as usual of highly educated white curators and administrators both does a disservice to the art because of who they do not look at when finding ideas and work, as well as a recognition that doing so excludes the voices and experiences and needs of such a wide range of people. 

Also, technology is shifting how we talk about our work, share our work, and how we understand our work. There is a wealth gap in terms of who has access to that technology and even those who have access to the resources don’t necessarily have the skills or strategy to best employ that technology. We’re in a moment of transition between trying to figure out how can we most effectively employ this technology to create new work and share this work with the widest range of people possible. We don’t have all the answers, but we have the awareness of what the questions are — we want to play a role in facilitating the conversations that need to happen in order to address some of these issues and positively impact our field.

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