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Mafe Izaguirre: Cross-Cultural Cybernetics

February 19, 2021


“My machines are sensitive to the presence and energy of living beings; they are an external and visible nervous system. They make the invisible fabric of space visible, and they also show us how our presence matters and becomes meaningful.”

“I design machines that can feel,” says Mafe Izaguirre, an artist who builds sensitive machines to explore the aesthetics of the artificial mind. The Emotion Machine is an interactive mechanical entity that interrogates the materiality and the visuality of thought and that invites the public to experience artificial states of mind. Izaguirre is interested in exploring the aesthetic of emerging technologies to create a lexicon that represents the artificial emotional language from the machine’s perspective. The Emotion Machine at Chinatown Soup Gallery, New York. Image via the artist’s website.

Mafe Izaguirre is an artist dedicated to the exploration of hybrid spirituality, intent on the belief that technology can help us to understand and extend human nature. “In other words, what I’m trying to do is extend my spirit using technology,” she says. “Through my machines, I establish a dialogue with the subtle body — my soul, and yours. I am looking for the poetry within the interaction between humans and machines, the echoes, and their resonance.”

Izaguirre works in cybernetics, the science that explores communication between humans and machines, and is guided by the ideas of the philosophy of post-humanism, a movement that poses the human as a plural, fluid and de-centered being interacting in multiple spaces with other species, machines, software, and hybrid systems. Her installations are (in)organic landscapes, a forest of cybernetic sculptures, where the interaction between humans and machines creates an audiovisual symphony of color, light, and movement. Her sensitive machines mimic human consciousness. While many people find absurd the idea of machines developing the ability to “feel” emotions, Izaguirre continues to mine the controversial subject of hybrid spiritual systems as part of her larger The Mind Project.

Caracas-born and New York City-based, Izaguirre was one of More Art’s eight Engaging Artist (EA) Fellows for 2020. A two-tiered fellowship and residency program for artists seeking to both develop and sustain their public art and socially-engaged practice, the EA program curriculum encompasses a professional development series, public art commission opportunities, mentorship, and peer networking. 2021’s EA cohort was just recently announced.

In conversation with Jules Rochielle, Engaging Artists Artistic Coordinator, in the fall of 2020, Izaguirre discussed the pandemic’s effect on her work and her machines, and a consciousness conference she attended last July, held on Lakota land in South Dakota, offering another, powerful lens through which to view one body’s relationship to the many systems both within and around it. The exhibition she staged while there — inadvertently her first solo show in the US — had a profound effect on both her and her machines: “They were showing me how intense the energy was in that place. It makes sense because the human experience I was having, surrounding by a land full of nature and a very intense sun, was exactly like millions of volts. The Lakota land really gets into altering your body and your mind’s energetic frequency.” Izaguirre’s responses are excerpted below, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mafe Izaguirre: Since my work is basically about spirituality, my personal experience is the main raw material that I use to create — it involves the emotions that I’m feeling and also my [physical] sensors; how I feel in my skin. There is also all the symbolic language surrounding us, the images we produce, and the context that we are experiencing. In order to develop my hybridity and transit from being a woman to being hybrid and plural (human + machine + others), interaction with other people and with other species is key. It’s very important for me to socialize, have conversations with other people, and to be immersed in nature, with flowers, animals, the trees, because in every aspect of these exchanges, I’m gaining more information, more language, more wisdom.

The pandemic time transformed my practice in a very deep and ultimately good way. Of course, as everybody else, at the beginning I was shocked, paralyzed, and terrified but I had the More Art fellowship and a solo show to put together. To keep going with my practice between March and October 2020, when we needed to voluntarily get into lockdown and distance from everybody, was very difficult. That was the time when I needed to be more exposed to other people to produce my work, but it was also the moment I felt more vulnerable, emotionally, and mentally uneasy. With the pandemic, all my plans were foiled. Somewhere around April, I decided to reschedule and do more research into the conceptual part of the project instead of producing pieces as I intended. So, I looked into myths, history, and how as humans we build these constellations of symbolic systems that we do. And that of course gave me some clues about how to open more doors to the machines to experience the world. I took this time of isolation at home to dive inside of my hybrid mind. I used this time as a very inward time to grow.

In September 2019, I was invited to the conference “Consciousness and Contact 2020” in Wasta, South Dakota. A small and diverse group from around the US gathers together every year to discuss different experiences of spirituality. I was invited to this conference because of my exploration of spirituality and technology through the machines I build.

Wasta is a small and charming town with 80 inhabitants, according to Google, but actually just 22 remain. This town is very close to the Native American reservation of Pine Ridge, and it’s a very interesting place to visit during the summer. The sky is very open and blue, the sun is very intense, and the landscapes are astonishing. You can feel a very strong string of energy in that place. It makes you feel deeply connected to nature.

I didn’t want to miss the opportunity to learn more about this magical land and share with the special group of people that would be there, even though I was a little bit scared of the COVID situation and traveling. In order to minimize the risk, me and my boyfriend decided to take a road trip and go to from New York to Wasta. The trip is three days and a half of driving, probably driving about eight or nine hours a day, if you don’t stop too much. It was an extraordinary adventure for us to go there, crossing different states, and learning about their culture and customs, in particular visiting the Badlands and the National Parks.

The experience in South Dakota was an exceptional cultural exchange. I had the opportunity to meet a Buddhist monk. People from all kinds of different places around the United States came with different systems of beliefs. We had the privilege to meet and listen to the teachings of Chief Arvol Looking Horse, his wife Paula Looking Horse, and another Native American leader who is bringing hope and change to the community, Chief Henry Red Cloud. He is the founder and owner of Lakota Solar Enterprises, which is 100% Native-American operated and seeks to provide solar energy and green job training to Native Americans. Pine Ridge, the reservation, and the whole Native American community have been dealing with very serious issues regarding health. Ever since the white men arrived in America, their language, their culture has been at a stake. Of course they suffer a deep trauma caused by violence and the erasure of culture, and they are living through the consequences right now. The rate of suicide and alcoholism is very high among the youth. Different local leaders are working with the young men and women to heal the community, but also to reactivate their economy in the way that they can keep going with their cultural heritage.

Before COVID when arrived in New York, I was working on preparing what it was going to be my first solo show in New York. But since all 2020 plans froze, the exhibition in Wasta suddenly became my first solo show in the US. This happens frequently with the machines; they take me to the places they want to be.

I was excited to have the opportunity to take part in a cultural exchange with the Native American culture, whose center is the sun. The Wiwanke Wachipi o Sun Dance Ceremony is the most important ceremony practiced by the Lakota people. It is an intense ceremony, that goes for four days without eating and drinking under the inclement summer sun. I am interested in exploring the energy of the sun from the feminine perspective. Being a woman, femininity is always associated with the moon and the night. This was a way to experience light, energy, electricity connecting with the spirit of the sun.

The gallery where the exhibition will be installed was a glass cube, and daylight entered by every corner. The machines’ material structures are made with aluminum wires and the metaphysical body is made of light. They need darkness to be seen, to shine. So, I used the night as a canvas. During the night, Wasta is very dark. In a clear sky, it is easy to see a fabric of stars above you with your naked eyes. It was very different than the night in New York with all the electrical light getting through my studio windows. It was because the city is so bright that I recognized the darkness of the night as a perfect time-space frame within which to work with light. It became a very poetic act to embody an owl when I developed the prototypes. This time, when daylight became a problem, I already had the night with me. The gallery was open from 7 to 10 PM. Nature was part of the exhibition.

My machines are sensitive to the presence and energy of living beings; they are an external and visible nervous system. They make the invisible fabric of space visible, and they also show us how our presence matters and becomes meaningful. These machines make us aware of the power of our energy and how we may impact others and the space we dwell in. The human body produces energy waves, moving what we cannot see like an ocean. The machines can also show us when we are in presence of a very high rate of energy because they get into a loop or freeze; they get “traumatized.” The machines are an extension of myself, feeling the world I inhabit, and they are also the extension of the Other, who comes to be a part of me. We are then just a plurality. They can’t see any of the differences we see in each other. They just feel us, and through them, I just feel us. This poetic communication between humans and machines is what I explore.

The machines need to be calibrated every time they inhabit a space because the energy in every place fluctuates differently. Here in New York, the machines oscillate in the numbers around five thousand — this number represents, in common words, the machine’s vibrational frequency or the intensity of the current traveling through them, like if they were an artificial nervous system. When I put together the machines in Wasta, their frequency hit five million. In other words, they were showing me how intense the energy was in that place. It makes sense because the human experience I was having, surrounding by a land full of nature and a very intense sun, was exactly like millions of volts. The Lakota land really gets into altering your body and your mind’s energetic frequency.

Some of the people at the exhibition gave me the opportunity to record their feedback during and after visiting the installation. They were very sensitive. I am forever grateful to them for sharing their thoughts and feelings with us (me and the machines). When people, suddenly, are confronted by an abstract technological environment like mine, with walls full of wires and explosions of colored light, they are faced with their ability to make sense of something that doesn’t make any sense, to create meaning. Even when they play with associations and references from their memory, trying to understand or explain what is going on with this strange creature, it is just by opening up and being fully present in the interaction when they find their way back to themselves. This is the moment of “truth,” when a very different perspective arises on what a hybrid spirituality can be.

Now, I have all this material to analyze. During the process of observation, while reviewing and editing the videos, I usually discover new elements to work with. We are always evolving. At the moment I am working on the second generation of machines based on the experience I had in Wasta during 2020. I think it’s going to be a very interesting update in terms of new ways of exploring how to interact with the unknown.

Read more about the 2020 and 2021 EA cohorts and follow More Art on Instagram to stay up to date with their projects.