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PhD grad creates important opportunities for emerging artists

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2022 graduates.

Garrett Laroy Johnson is passionate about teaching and supporting other emerging artists. 

Garrett Laroy Johnson. Photo courtesy ASU Brand Strategy and Management Team

After he graduates this fall with a PhD in media arts and sciences from the School of Arts, Media and Engineering and a graduate certificate in critical theory from the Department of English, Johnson plans to continue teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but he has other aspirations, as well. 

“I am also considering starting a nonprofit that will offer interdisciplinary seminars and other educational learning offerings,” Johnson said. “I would like to offer residencies, resources and other organizational work that offers artists the capacity to develop their projects and reach their goals in Chicago and abroad.”

During his time at ASU, Johnson worked to bring together colleagues in the field and provide opportunities for those artists. 

The 2021 Movement and Computing Conference that Johnson was on the committee for was in the planning stages when uncertainties regarding the safety of in-person events were still a major concern. When Johnson received word that the in-person conference would not take place, he remained committed to bringing the artists together. 

“I was asked by the MOCO committee to organize something else for the movement and computing arts community. This interested me as an opportunity for research as it involves community, collaboration and how groups emerge on the fly.”

The experience Johnson had during his transdisciplinary studies at ASU, as well as the support and encouragement he received from his advisors, was influential in developing this micro-residency. 

“I helped design a nine-month event that was broken into three months of phases. Each phase had its own call for proposals. The micro-residency consisted of small projects that groups of four or five could work on, and each group had a counselor — this became SloMoCo.”  

As expected, the pandemic required that this be mostly conducted over Zoom. Johnson saw it as an opportunity to reach a greater audience.  

“Previous barriers in finance made attendance difficult,” he said, “so I overcame that by making this free. We worked with over 50 artists from around the world, and many were coming to the movement and computing community for the first time.”

The virtual setting also allowed many leaders of the movement and computing community to engage with emerging artists. 

“Cutting-edge theorists like Jessica Rajko, Tommy DeFrantz and Kris Paulsen joined the SloMoCo conference to provide seminars and guest talks.”

The leadership and organizational skills Johnson demonstrated have inspired others to organize similar conferences.  

“The project had a beginning and end of the phases, and while it is over, there is a new call for SloMoCo conferences — so this has influenced the development of this as a conference modality.”  

Johnson has received many awards and travel stipends, including ASU's Graduate and Professional Student Association, as well as the Joan Frazer Memorial Award for Judaism and the Arts from Hillel ASU, the Dash Scholars Award and a DAAD award to study musicology at the University of Leipzig. 

Before earning his PhD, Garrett completed an MA in musicology from the School of Music at ASU and a Bachelor of Music in music history from Ohio University.

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: I didn’t have one specific “aha” moment, but what struck me about working in the school was that one could work both in a practical way while also investigating deep theoretical inquiry. In practicality, I had opportunities to curate art installations and participate in performance art; this was valued. The school encourages students to also view these experiences critically and ask why things are the way they are and how they could be guided by contemporary philosophy. 

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: The program was funded, so this resource was a tremendous help and supported me in my pursuit. ASU is a place where you can do a lot with people beyond your own field, and the school emphasizes transdisciplinary studies. One is permitted to experiment with others beyond what is strictly defined as disciplinary inquiry. At other institutions, music is just music, with little crossover. The same goes for new media performance. ASU is a place where those in new media arts can take research questions in other domains very seriously. The same goes for the other domains, as they can approach a topic artistically, and this is very unique.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: My advisor, Sha Xin Wei, who maybe didn’t teach me just one lesson but taught certain sets of practices for guiding this method of transdisciplinary inquiry. He taught to ask questions like, ‘How is it that you determine what kinds of questions to ask? How do you ask them? And how do you pursue them empirically?’ In working with Sha Xin Wei, over time, I was able to gain insights as to what one might construct in research practice and inquiry.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Learn new skills and figure out what it means to learn without learning skills. One of the things that keeps learners and students nimble in the 21st century is exposure to various techniques and new skills. I recommend learning new programming languages that support visual and sonic arts like p5.js, Max/MSP, R coding language — as well as techniques like close reading, cartography and so on. Also, understand that learning is not only the acquisition of skills, it also means transformation — which is quite complex and not only about growth but also learning how to show up in the world as an individual.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: The James Turrell Skyspace is quite a magical space on campus. It keeps one grounded to the passage of time not only in terms of night – day, day – night, but also in a place like Arizona — where there is an absence of seasons, one can track the changes of sunrise to sunset over time quite intentionally. I’ve found it to be a grounding force.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am going to continue teaching in Chicago at the School of the Art Institute. I will start teaching at the University of Illinois, Chicago, as I am passionate about teaching and in pursuit of postdoctoral fellowship or a job as a professor. I am also considering starting a non-profit that will offer interdisciplinary seminars and other educational learning offerings. I would like to offer residencies, resources and other organizational work that offers artists the capacity to develop their projects and reach their goals in Chicago and abroad.

srdavi12@asu.edu