Portfolio > Shaman in the Loop

Documentation: Shaman in the Loop
sound sculpture with generative video

Shaman in the Loop
Chalet Comellas
in collaboration with Clint Sleeper
Space 204 Gallery
August 24 - September 21, 2023

Shaman in the Loop is a collaborative installation that features multiple interdisciplinary works connecting esoteric systems of divination and healing with algorithmic computations. Each piece expresses and simultaneously critiques our newly forming relationship with artificial intelligence by abstractly referencing machine learning in both formal and conceptual frameworks. This collection of works facilitates a discussion surrounding artmaking, auto-generation, and other forms of non-human intelligence, allowing the viewer to reflect on extensions of technology and how they intersect through a range of contemporary spiritual practices.

Similar in method to John Cage's use of the I Ching, or Book of Changes, to abstract and randomize his musical compositions and scores, all the works in this exhibition - paintings, drawings, video, and sound - are mediated through elements of chance, randomness, and indeterminate marks that operate in collaboration with code-based systems. The tension inhabiting these works lies within an absence of human intervention and interaction, suggesting an absence of community, an absence of the body, and an absence of a sentient knowledge holder. The installation is set in place to elicit questions from the viewer… and asks, if you "virtually" commune with your ancestors, who is the medium? If a sound bath is automated, where is the healer? Who is the Shaman-in-the-Loop?

Within an auto-generated soundscape, transducers and audio files stand in for a healing practitioner. This sculpture, installed with electronics, six bronze singing bowls, and an analog record player with speakers, guide the viewer around the space. The record player is modified with an Arduino board and an electronic switch programmed to assist the continuous play of a phonographic disc. The disc is a lathe-cut audio recording of a wave cycle that mirrors the moon’s frequency, G-sharp in the Western scale, layered with a digital .wav file that corresponds to the sacral chakra.

Using MAX MSP, a software-based image generator a large-scale video projection is created and paired with the sound sculpture. The program runs randomly, in real time, and continuously selects .jpeg and .mov files from two separate folders, one containing scanned images of old family photos spanning from the 1890s to the present, documenting my family's path from Europe to Cuba and the U.S. and in the other, a small collection of iPhone videos featuring natural elements like water, wind, fire, and earth taken over the years in my hometown of Tampa, Florida. These files are mapped onto a set of platonic solids that rotate, stretch, and fracture within the frame. These ever-changing images are computational abstractions of material bodies that exist in the natural or “ordinary” world and through this obfuscating algorithm are never completely rendered, suggesting a ghostly “non-ordinary” reality, as well as a consistent loss of information and knowledge over time.

All the paintings in the installation are created using algorithmic sets of directions that dictate the material application methods and marks, which can be described as an “automatic” painting algorithm. Using an aqueous painting technique on raw stretched canvas, the surface of the painting starts with a wash of evenly spread watercolor that is then disrupted by drips of coffee applied to the surface. This begins a series of alchemical reactions between the acids in the coffee and the pigments in the paint. After the first layer has dried it gets re-wet with a spray bottle and more color is applied along with dry organic pigments, like turmeric, saffron, and ash from burnt incense. The last layer includes another wash of color and coffee mixed in equal parts, along with and a handful of sea salt that is tossed onto the surface of the wet painting and let to dry undisturbed for 24 hours. The coffee and salt react with the paint and randomly create marks on the canvas that form abstract lines and shapes.

In relation to the cyclical elements within the sound sculpture there is a grid of risograph printed flipbooks on the rear wall. The books, designed by Clint Sleeper, reference the Macintosh computer’s “spinning beachball of death,” and playfully ask the viewer to consider the language of everyday computing, its connection to natural cycles, and the potential impact this has on our fundamental experiences.

“The mediator between the head and the hands must be the heart!” has been listed as the most popular quote from the 1927 film Metropolis, according to a recent Google search. The story, created by Thea von Harbou and Fritz Lang, depicts a futuristic city sharply divided between social classes, where a working-class prophet predicts the coming of a savior to mediate differences, heal divisions, and create balance in their daily lives. The way by which the film invokes this concept of societal balance, brough forth through a symbolic mediator, seems analogous to the shamanic concept of The Sacred Marriage, which begins with a Shamanic healer attempting to bring balance to a seeker’s Earthly experience by communicating effectively with beings in both the ordinary world and the non-ordinary reality on the seeker’s behalf. The Shaman employs diverse intelligences found in the natural world to enrich that human’s experience, similar to our exchanges with Siri. Within their communities, Shaman act as mediators, they function as go-betweens for people seeking to gain access to new or lost knowledge. In performing this role, they communicate with both elemental spirits and the spirits of the deceased. In one of the most basic practices of Shamanism, the Sacred Marriage, the Shaman identifies diverse non-human intelligences to enrich the human experience, visioning and communicating effectively with beings in both the ordinary world and the non-ordinary reality.

A virtual reality? A digital Shaman? “Hello, Siri... what are the top-rated VR headsets on the market right now?

To visualize this concept of identification and mediation and apply it to creative processes, I created a painted tryptic that presents a conversation between me and ChatGPT. To start, I developed a data set by compiling the ten most popular quotes from Metropolis and used these quotes to initiate a “collaborative” writing session with the chatbot. In several frustrating interactions, I attempted to teach the chatbot how to write a long-form poem about the film in the surrealist “cut-up” style. The resulting text scrolls on the left and right paintings, appearing to respond to a set of seven questions looping in the middle. At times this text seems to accurately align and conceptually pair up with the questions - suggesting prophetic meaning, the type of divined wisdom one may seek from a Shaman - and at other points the message seems disjointed and irrational, pure babel.