Myth and Tech Merge for the SXSW Art Program

Technology becomes the new enchantment in Mixanthropy

Mixanthropy - Art by Meichun Cai & Yiou Wang

There’s art at this year’s South by Southwest Festival, friend. Deep within the maelstrom of what the annual multimedia Festival has become, bright within its corporately commercial tracks and chockablock schedule of “Advertise HARDER!” how-tos, working in concert with the music and films and comedy and the other meaningful expressions of human creation that are still, we dare to suggest, what ultimately drives the whole sprawling thing – there’s art.

Art that’s an exploration of who and what we are. Art that looks at where we’ve been and, after catching its breath for a moment, looks to what might lie ahead.

“We live mythology. We live in technoculture and it makes us live mythically.” – Yiou Wang

This year’s program showcases a quartet of new-media works. Ancestral Archives (Convention Center, Room 2) manifests historically significant Black leaders – the poets and authors Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, and Octavia Butler – in chatbot form, as conjured by artist Josie Williams in collaboration with EY Metaverse Lab and NEW INC. Quantum Jungle (Hilton Downtown, Room 410) is interactive, an installation by game designer Robin Baumgarten that physically renders the concepts of quantum physics on a large wall filled with touch-sensitive metal springs and thousands of LEDs, calculating the Schrödinger equation to model the movement of a quantum particle and demonstrating – so you can see it – superposition, interference, wave-particle duality, and quantum waveform collapse. Stone Speaks (Auditorium Shores) is a work of augmented reality, inspired by conversations between artist Nancy Baker Cahill and Sophia the Robot, the world’s first robot citizen and Innovation Champion for the United Nations Development Programme. They conversed about Earth’s accelerating climate crisis and the potential of human-machine collaboration, and you’ll get to witness what they – the human artist and the digital one – built together.

Mixanthropy by Meichun Cai and Yiou Wang (JW Marriott, Room 404) uses 16 suspended holographic displays to visualize the potential for fluidity and change, the transition between animal and human states, via body transformations based on anatomical isomorphism – with mimetic skin textures echoing different environments through AI-generated datasets. The idea of such transitions resonated, so we dug a little deeper into Mixanthropy and sparked an interview. What, we wondered, is the movement of this work based on?

“I’ve experimented with simple mocap [motion capture] systems for some projects,” Cai said, “and was involved in a virtual production project to produce a digital human-based documentary in collaboration with multiple technical teams. However, the creation of Mixanthropy was the first time we personally used an advanced mocap system equipped with 25 cameras and full-body mocap suits to combine choreography and visual art. Although Yiou and I never trained as dancers, our goal was to develop versatility in capturing human and non-human characteristics beyond aesthetics.”

“The way we improvised movement,” said Wang, “was to imagine our bodies transforming into the figures in our art, and move in ways we thought such figures would move. There is a notion called metempsychosis, which means the migration of the spirit from body to body, especially from a human to another species or vice versa, which frequently appears in mythology. What our mocap method did was to transfer movement from our own bodies to the metamorphosing bodies in our work, completing metempsychosis. We live mythology. We live in technoculture and it makes us live mythically.”

And these mythic metamorphoses, this carefully calibrated spectacle of divine shape-shifting, will be presented ... how, exactly? What’s the vehicle to reveal these cutting-edge explorations to the Festgoing public?

“Our project is an effort to explore fluid identities and investigate the possibilities of new life forms going beyond the anthropocentric view,” said Cai.

“To work with technology,” Wang added, “not only makes it intuitive to realize the surreal ideas in our minds, but is itself also a metaphor for how technology becomes the new enchantment, in possession of a divine power that we see as a parallel to, instead of a resistance to, ancient myths.”

SXSW Art Program Installation

“Mixanthropy” by Meichun Cai & Yiou Wang

Fri 10-Mon 14, 10am-5pm, JW Marriott, Room 404

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SXSW 2023, Meichun Cai, Yiou Wang, SXSW Art Program, Mixanthropy

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