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Shanghai at the Speed of Light

Professor Anna Greenspan

How does a scholar trained in philosophy, raised in Canada, and educated in the United Kingdom end up teaching interactive media arts (IMA) in Shanghai, China? “I’m interested in thinking about the future,” says NYU Shanghai IMA professor Anna Greenspan. “And because of that I became interested in urban Asia and new technologies,” she says.

Professor Greenspan in the Interactive Media Arts Lab in NYU Shanghai

In NYU Shanghai’s IMA program, students explore the intersection of technology, art, and society. Professor Greenspan works with students from around the world to examine the impact and ramifications of technology and new media, which are in a constant state of change in the city. “This moment in this place is incredibly intellectually fascinating,” she says. “The story keeps changing, and it’s a gripping place to be. Shanghai is currently going through one of the fastest, most intense periods of urbanization that has ever taken place.”

With a background in philosophy, Professor Greenspan is acutely prepared to help students explore how our rapidly changing relationships with emerging media affects our lives and our communities. “We live surrounded by invisible waves that are growing more intense, and all these mobile machines that are trafficking in these vibrations that are not perceptible to the human eye,” she says.

In one of her courses, Street Food and Urban Farming, students equipped with video cameras went out into the streets to conduct interviews with street food vendors, exploring how the rapidly modernizing architecture and economy of the city—and its culture and consumption habits—affect their livelihoods as the street vendor population dwindles. In another course, The Cultivated City, students researched how Chinese philosophy regards nature in terms of the urban ecology of Shanghai. That course is part of Zaanheh: A Natural History of Shanghai, a larger project at the University that builds on Eric Sanderson’s Mannahatta Project, a decades-long initiative that explored the ecological history of the island of Manhattan, from Henry Hudson’s initial landing there in 1609 to today. In the Zaanheh project, IMA students collaborate with faculty as they use modern digital tools to look back at the development of the land through environmental studies and historical records and imagine the urban nature of the future.

For Professor Greenspan, NYU Shanghai is the perfect place to study the city and country as it evolves. “I think one of the things that’s really exciting about NYU Shanghai is that it’s a culturally diverse environment that is very China-centered, but we have the opportunity to think about these things from different intellectual heritages,” she says. “China has a real sense that it is engaged with the future. It has an optimism to embrace the future that is hard to see elsewhere.”