“Turning cultural objects into digital installations intrigues me”

Alexander Rusnak is a second-year student in the Master of Science in Digital Humanities program, offered by the Digital Humanities Institute in EPFL’s College of Humanities. As part of the Digital Humanities Institute’s ‘Student stories’ series, Alexander describes his experience in the program, and what inspired him to enter this emerging interdisciplinary field.

Originally from Baltimore, Maryland in the United States, Alexander studied at the University of South Carolina before coming to EPFL. He is currently finishing his third semester of classes, and preparing for his internship in the DH Master program.

Alexander is focusing his studies on his two main interests: generative adversarial networks (GANs)/generative art, and data science for financial engineering. He has worked on his first interest with the Multimedia Signal Processing Group in EPFL’s School of Engineering to analyze different deepfake detection approaches, and is currently improving style transfer networks for the Venice Time Machine project with the DHI’s Digital Humanities Lab (DHLab), led by Frédéric Kaplan. He is also creating a work of digital art using GANs for a 2021 EPFL Pavilions exhibition.

In the field of financial engineering, Alexander worked as a data scientist intern at Pictet Asset Management in Geneva during the summer of 2020, to create equity trading signals based on social media data and news articles. He will continue this work for his internship, and hopes to find a second internship with an art museum for the summer of 2021.

CDH DHI: Why did you choose the DH Master program at EPFL?

Alexander Rusnak: I was already interested in digital humanities as a field before picking graduate schools, but this particular program appealed to me because it seemed rigorous (with a strong focus on data science and machine learning); the surrounding mountains and lake are wonderful; and because the EPFL Pavilions exhibit I saw when visiting was very aligned with my own artistic interests.

CDH DHI: What first inspired you to study digital humanities?

AR: I have always had an acute interest in both the humanities and computer science. Particularly, I have been an avid reader and incessant painter with a very strong imagination since I was child. My father studied mathematics/computer science, so he exposed me early to programming. These two disparate interests led me to study graphic design and computer science in my undergraduate years, during which I was commissioned for several public arts projects, found work as a software engineer, and was picked to create a learning community for the digital humanities at my university.

CDH DHI: What has your favorite course in the DH Master program been so far, and why?

 Definitely the Cultural Data Sculpting class [taught by DHI professor and Experimental Museology Lab head Sarah Kenderdine]. That sort of data art and visualization was a strong inspiration for me to come to graduate school, and it helped to expand my burgeoning skills in 3D modeling. The concept of transforming cultural objects into more easily digestible digital installations really intrigues me. I enjoyed the focus on exhibiting work as well.

CDH DHI: What have you found most interesting about the DH master program so far, and what have you found most challenging? 

AR: I love the broad range of classes and data that we are exposed to – the variation in topics keeps things interesting. The focus on projects is also very suited to my learning style. The hardest thing for me is the adjustment to EPFL classes, where your entire grade is determined by the final exam – I am not used to this style, which is quite different from the American model. 

CDH DHI: How do you describe what DH is to your friends and family?

AR: I usually start by saying it is essentially data science with a focus on humanistic datasets like literature, history, art, music, or social media data. Then I try to give concrete examples such as the Venice Time Machine, how Twitter data analysis works, and my own research.

Since digital humanities is such an emerging discipline, [describing it] is slightly frustrating, but can also lead to fruitful and unexpected conversations. 

CDH DHI: What are your future career plans at the moment?

AR: I will likely continue working in the quantitative finance field for the immediate future. At the same time, I will continue to pursue my art practice vigorously, with a focus on digital installations and murals, and also hopefully an exhibition of a series of paintings I have been working on about artificial intelligence. Eventually, I would like to own my own exhibition space for digital art as well.