Starting as a PhD Candidate at the University of Buffalo after the Master's

Artificial intelligence as a tool for artists: Christopher Michael Hansen has been fascinated by this topic for a long time. During his master's studies in M.A. Visual and Media Anthropology, he was able to put this great enthusiasm for the subject into practice in numerous AI projects. After graduation, a PhD position at the University of Buffalo is now waiting for him.

Christopher Michael Hansen will start as a PhD Candidate at the University of Buffalo soon.

Christopher Michael Hansen will start as a PhD Candidate at the University of Buffalo soon.

During your studies in the program M.A. Visual and Media Anthropology you focused on Artificial Intelligence and VR. Now you were offered a PhD position at a university in the U.S. one semester before graduation, where you will be doing research on AI.

Congratulations, that sounds amazing! Please tell us more about your new position and your research projects dealing with AI.

I will be starting as a PhD Candidate at the University of Buffalo in upstate New York (near Canada!) in their Media Study department. I will be starting in a few months, and am excited to move and to continue my studies. PhD’s in the US work a bit different than those in Europe, where I will begin as more of a graduate student while I begin my research project. The program at Buffalo is unique for the US where it incorporates media practice with research, so I will continue making media art during my studies. For my specific research, I am looking at how things like Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality can create ‘spiritual’ experiences in the space of video games and virtual worlds. I am particularly interested in how the ‘New Age’ movement in America has affected much of the technology we engage with now, and how ‘New Age’ ideals are being implemented in contemporary work with AI and VR.


Could you tell us a bit about how you became a PhD student/fellow? How was the application process?

The application process for PhD’s in the US is quite long, and I have had my sights set on enrolling in a PhD for a few years now. I ended up applying to 4 different programs across the US, and I actually got accepted at all of them which is quite rare! The important thing when applying is your statement of purpose which outlines the research you want to do and who specifically you want to work with at the program. They also want to see a portfolio of your work, or some idea of your past experience, so being able to show that I had done work in this field was important.

If you are interested in a PhD I would recommend trying to get published or give talks at a conference, as I had done, as that really helped show I was dedicated to my field of study. The application process was pretty grueling, but I am happy I took my time with it - it ended up taking something like 4 months to get everything together!

Why did you decide to study M.A. Visual and Media Anthropology? What particularly attracted you to the topic of artificial intelligence?

In my undergrad I studied a little bit with the National Irish Folklore Commission, which just so happened to be housed in my college. Even though I did not major in Folklore studies, those classes got me really interested in the ethnographic process and new ways I could take my research with media studies. I knew I wanted to learn more about ethnography and the anthropological processes, but I didn’t necessarily want to go into a traditional anthropology degree. This MA seemed like a combination of many things I really loved, and it has paid off!

I got into AI by accident, to be honest. A few years ago, I was at an art residency in Ecuador and started to use AI voices to build a sound piece, simply because it was somewhat easier than finding voice actors. I began to realize how much of my practice was rooted in contemporary technologies like AI, and how easy they were as tools for artists and creatives. That inspired me to do research into who was developing these, and how they were being developed, which opened up a whole rabbit hole of new interests. I am specifically interested in how modern ideas of ‘spirituality’, magic, and folklore manifest within AI spaces, which has a history that can be traced back as far as the 1800’s. It’s an interesting space to be working in right now, and I think there is room and interest for much unconventional research in this field.



In your opinion, from which experiences/courses/projects during your studies did you benefit the most in your professional life?

In my first semester I did a project with the Truck Simulator video game series, looking at how players would have ‘transcendental moments’ in that game. I did it across two courses, and made both a video and research paper on this work. I ended up submitting that film to a number of galleries and festivals, and it has been shown several times since then. I also got the chance to present the research paper at a virtual conference hosted by the Royal Anthropological Institute last summer. People were super interested in the research paper and video, and it felt like the first time my work had gained such a wide audience. Having the time, space, and mentorship to create something out of my research was necessary to its success, and I would not have had the same outcome had it not been for this course.

What’s your advice for (prospective) students who are thinking about studying the program Visual and Media Anthropology?

This is a fantastic course for self-motivated people. I remember when I was a kid a family friend would always tell me ‘it doesn’t matter where you go for school, but what you make of it’ and that always stuck with me.

For me, this course has given me the resources and mentorship to develop my artwork and research in new and exciting ways, but it also gives me room for a life outside of my coursework.

I find this balance very important as someone who is doing a lot of projects and writing outside an academic context. I think if you are someone who is ambitious and wants to get their work out there, but is looking for some direction and colleagues who will help you out, this is a perfect program.

Thank you very much for the insights. Further all the best for the finishing of your studies and for your start as a PhD student!