'This is the place I was meant to be': ASU grad combines creative practice with technology


Olivia Hernandez performing in her MFA thesis project "Hello, World!" at the i.d.e.a. Museum in Mesa. Photography by Ri Lindegren.

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

When Olivia Hernandez discovered the MFA in theatre with a concentration in interdisciplinary digital media and performance at the Herberger Institute for Design and Arts, she knew Arizona State University was the next step in expanding her creative practice. 

She came to ASU from Lawrence, Kansas, where she was working as an administrator at an arts center. At the time, she met graduates from the MFA program and said she was struck by the informed, radical nature of the artists from ASU. 

“I was just amazed at leaning into the principle and idea that children have a right to arts and culture and play,” Hernandez said. 

Hernandez was also interested in the program because it allowed her to combine creative practice with technology. 

“Technology is an ubiquitous part of my life,” she said. “I really needed to find the right homebase for that. I realized this is the place I was meant to be.”

As a student in the interdisciplinary digital media and performance program, Hernandez took coursework in both the School of Music, Dance and Theatre and the School of Arts, Media and Engineering. She said she has made the most of her three years in the MFA program, learning every aspect of the creative practices that interested her — culminating in her thesis project at the i.d.e.a. Museum in downtown Mesa. 

Hernandez’s thesis project — “Hello, World!” — is an immersive performance for very young children. Audience members entered a soundscape dome and experienced the movement of three live performers along with spatialized sound and 360-degree 3D animation that Hernandez created in virtual reality painting software. The performance tells the story of three adventuring friends exploring realms on land, underwater and in outer space. The result is an immersive experience that speaks directly to children.

“‘Hello, World!’ took me out of my every day and re-inspired me to think playfully about my own work and my own kids,” said Kimberlee Swisher, one of Hernandez’s committee members and clinical assistant professor in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering. “It stretches the boundaries of theater and live performance for children, recentering the creative work directly around the autonomy and imaginations of children, and this approach shines through in the final product with incredible playfulness and aliveness.” 

Hernandez said she wanted to do theater-in-the-round as it invites inclusiveness and she could immerse the audience in the spectacle itself. Swisher told Hernandez she needed a dome for the project and that one already existed at the i.d.e.a. Museum — with all the sound equipment she needed. 

"The i.d.e.a. Museum was the ideal venue for this project, and we were so excited to be able to produce ‘Hello, World!’ in partnership with them,” said Jacob Pinholster, associate dean for enterprise design and operations and head of graduate programs in interdisciplinary digital media and performance design. “They are an amazing resource for the children and families of Mesa, and this joint production was brilliant."

The movement for the performance was based on play lab sessions that Hernandez hosted in December 2021, where she built three custom art installations designed for young children. She recorded the children’s interactions with the installations and used that research to inform the movement for the final piece.

“I was trying to sort of tease out and study how very young children relate to advanced media. Does it change the way that they play? What sort of impact does it have?” Hernandez said. “The final production is this amazing, immersive, highly-mediated performance piece. But it's actually the byproduct of months and months of research.”

In addition to collaborating with the i.d.e.a. Museum, Hernandez worked with her fellow students and researchers on the project. She performed alongside two other ASU MFA students, Alejandro Bastien and Julio-Cesar Sauceda, and the sound design and original score was created by Shomit Barua, a doctoral researcher in arts, media and engineering and an English instructor. Ri Lindegren, recent MFA in dance and interdisciplinary digital media and performance graduate from ASU, was the technical operator.

Hernandez said she couldn’t have done the project without her team, generous funding through the Creative Constellation grant from the Herberger Institute and the support of the i.d.e.a. Museum. 

“They have really supported me in a way that's made me feel elevated and super professional," she said. “It's just been a wonderful, phenomenal relationship. I can't imagine doing it with anybody else.”

Hernandez said she hopes to bring the performance to other spaces eventually. 

Now that she is graduating this spring, it’s time for Hernandez to again take another step in her career — one that will see her continuing her journey at ASU. 

Hernandez will be staying in Tempe as the creative manager for ASU’s Learning Futures Emporium.

“I’m very lucky,” she said. “We imagine what learning could look like three to five years in the future, and then we work with artists, developers and educators to make that imagined future real. It’s just this exponential creativity that I get to be a part of.”

And Hernandez’s teachers think ASU is lucky to have her. 

“Ms. Hernandez has been one of the most consistently creative, inquisitive and collaborative students whom I have ever had the privilege to advise,” said Max Bernstein, assistant clinical professor in The Sidney Poitier New American Film School and the School of Music, Dance and Theatre. “She is constantly exploring growth in her practice in a multitude of ways and in doing so, she enriches the world around her.”

Here she talks a little more about her time at ASU.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: A lot surprised me. When I came to ASU, I was surprised at how well-funded it was and how access to funding provided advanced tools and materials. I had underestimated the partnerships and the breadth of the ASU community and its reach. No other university has a MIX Center immersive location while also launching a flagship location in Los Angeles. It took me a while to adjust. I felt like I had imposter syndrome. You have to be ready to feel the pulse of an opportunity that speaks to you, and you have to chase it — and if you can chase it, then the door will open for you.

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

A: Max Bernstein. They have reminded me that vulnerability is my greatest asset, more than my technical proficiency, more than my ability to speak about my art, more than my ability to even communicate myself through my craft. It's the vulnerability that underlies everything — the vulnerability to ask for help, the vulnerability to sit with the under-recognized or underutilized populations as creative practitioners, the vulnerability to talk about my fear as an artist. That is the thing that draws people near to me and creates community.

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

A: The (interdisciplinary digital media and performance) program is whatever you want to make of it. The beauty of this program is that we are all incredibly different, unique and diverse. We come to this field of performance and technology, and the way that we get to apply it is completely through our own lens. So don’t be discouraged if you’re doing something different; take ownership of the thing that makes you distinct and unique, and recognize that it's not a competition. It's not a zero-sum game at all. I've learned that when I can celebrate the achievements and the accomplishments of my friends that are completely unrelated to me, it enriches my capacity to be empathetic, to be curious and to understand.

Also, get ready to work as hard and as big as you want. Whatever it is, make sure that it is exactly what you want it to be, because the three years goes so fast. There's nothing like the long, exhausting incubator that is graduate school, and it will be over so quickly. Just make sure that you know what you want to get out of it, and then get the damn thing out of it.

Q: What did it mean for you to receive grants and scholarships during school?  

A: Scholarships and grants pulled me into a financial space where I could live very frugally and also invest in hardware. I’ve been able to acquire a reasonable baseline studio. Now I’m mobilized to work far more independently than before. It’s also enabled me to save and put away money as I move onto the next phase of my life and thinking progressively about my family. There’s more to life than just being able to pay for your books. I’ve been able to be set up in a small way to be able to think about the next step. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Well, $40 million is not gonna fix public education in the state of Arizona — I wish! But my answer has to be education, and it has to be radically inclusive. I want to see radically accessible education that centers creative practice that hinges on collaborative design — that forces us to ask questions, to investigate our output and find ways to do better. I think with $40 million, I would start my own center to realize that dream, to foster a generation of old and young minds who will think creatively about the world around them and yearn to become creative problem solvers that work to build and produce a better, healthier, more inclusive world.

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