Cinema and Media Studies
Media Arts and Sciences
B.S., California Institute of Technology; S.M., Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Ph.D., Cornell University
Nicholas A. KnoufAssistant Professor of Cinema and Media Studies
Media scholar and artist researching noise, interferences, boundaries, and limits in media technologies and communication.
On research leave academic year 2016–2017.
I am a media scholar and artist who researches the boundaries of communication: that is, how we demarcate signal from noise, how we determine whether a given form of communication is appropriate or not, and what all of this might tell us about both developing new media technologies and where we draw the line between the human and the non-human.
My recent book, How Noise Matters to Finance (University of Minnesota Pres, 2016), traced how the concept of "noise" in the sonic and informatic domains of finance mutated throughout the late 20th century into the 21st. I showed how financial economists were forced to contend with the "irrational" behavior of humans, incorporating a form of "noise" into their otherwise ideal mathematical equations. This informatic noise becomes sonic once we consider the shouting on the floors of open-outcry pits or the whiring of air conditioners in modern financial data centers. These data centers now hold the digital noise of millions of algorithmic decisions that enable some to make profit on seemingly random flucations of the financial markets. In sum, noise in finance is an eminently material thing, providing a modulating force that prevents the market from ever swinging too far from its steady state.
My next project, tentatively entitled At the Limits of Understanding, examines current projects that listen for signs of extraterrestrial life, and past projects that attempted to record the voices of spirits. I take these two strands, separated by nearly 150 years of history, as case studies of how people determine whether or not certain forms of communication are "appropriate" to study or not. I believe that this tells us much about how we determine the boundaries of communication in light of changes in culture and technology. It also enables us to think about how our own present forms of communication might be configured differently.
As I media artist, I ask how contemporary technologies could be constructed to enable new forms of subjectivity. I am presently exploring the intersections of craft and electronic art, especially as it pertains to the materiality of paper, intestines, and books. In the past I have created an augmented reality book that explores questions of contemporary surveillance; constructed robotic creatures that encourage the expression of non-speech vocal sounds; wrote programs for mobile phones to enable people to communicate independent of centralized networks; and designed web-based artworks that question various power structures. I endeavor to make the technological aspects of these projects as open as possible, as I believe in the pedagogical potentials of studying the processes of making media art.
I see myself as a guide or facilitor in the classroom, and not a lecturer. I ask my students to do close analyses of texts and media artifacts in order to trace the interrelationship of theory and practice. This extends to the assignments of my courses, which often have a combination of written and practice-based work. I often teach our introductory course, CAMS 101, Introduction to Cinema and Media Studies, as well as the course in media theory, CAMS 218, Theories of Media from Photography to the Internet. I also teach a number of topics-based, core courses, including the history and theory of the internet (CAMS 270), games and play (CAMS 272), and civic media (CAMS 276). I've also taught, with Professor Jenny Johnson in Music, a hybrid theory-practice seminar on deconstructive audio (CAMS/MUSIC 378). Many of my courses count for MAS credit. Future courses will likely involve speculative media and sound studies.
I am a member of a number of scholarly societies in media studies and media arts, including the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA), College Art Association (CAA), Association for Computing Machinery, (ACM), College Book Art Association (CBAA), Surface Design Association (SDA), and Hand Papermaking. I also regularly attend and present at international media arts festivals such as ISEA, transmediale, and Piksel.