Yantra 3.0: In which I become an artist

Posted on Nov 11, 2014

I got to introduce myself as an artist for the first time the other day. I was in New Road, taking images of Dhaka cloth for a visualization project I contributed to Yantra 3.0, which goes something like this:

An objective of Yantra’s art/tech festival is to unshackle artists and technologists in Nepal, to free the former from “exotic” depictions of Nepal and the latter from the need to build product. A cool opportunity for folks from the two disciplines to collaborate and create work that blend both disciplines, helping further both as practiced in Nepal. One mechanism for doing this was Karkhana and ArtTree’s माने (maa-né, means prayer wheel) project, where the religious-cultural artifact is tuned into a mechanism for electronic input.

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The माने is giant, ten feet tall, and can be spun forward and backward. It is beautiful and “monumental.” The माने is adorned with images of children playing and learning by doing: making music, watering plants, doing experiments where they measure slope, and so on. Prayer wheels are generally adorned with prayers, which are sent up to be fulfilled as they are rotated. This माने’s creators hope that more education in Nepal gravitates towards hands-on and project-based learning.

As the माने spins, two animations play. On the left is a stop-motion animation of kids doing the same activities depicted on the mane: playing music, flying kites, watering plants, cycling around. On the right is the projection I made, abstract drawings of objects depicted in the animations, drawn with Dhaka.

When I came into the project, ArtTree and Karkhana had already conceptualized the माने, with its links to childhood and project-based learning. For me, another objective resonated. The point of the माने exhibit, and Yantra’s art/tech festival in general, was also to bring technology closer to Nepali cultural artifacts. In our lives in Nepal, we experience “culture” and “technology” as being very far apart; the prayer wheel and the smartphone feel separated by centuries. So I decided to use a random tree traversal based maze filling algorithm to create objects out of ढाका (dhaa-kaa) patterns. The objects themselves reference the images on the माने and children’s activities (a dragonfly that children chase, a bicycle, and so on). ढाका is cloth woven in beautiful patterns, most popular in the form of a टोपी (toe-pee, means hat), and as Nepali as Gautama Buddha or the Himalayas.

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Of course, this is only one of eight projects on display at Yantra. I’ll mention another, an exhibit by Joy Lynn Davis and Roshan Bhatta. In this exhibit, the visitors puts his/her hands in empty niches in the wall. This action triggers a projection that showcases a stolen stone sculpture from the Kathmandu Valley. Artist (and now friend) Joy Lynn Davis has created incredible photo-realistic paintings of the locations where these sculptures were stolen from, as well as painted recreations based on old photographs of stolen sculptures. When you put your hand in one of these niches (which evokes the empty space a sculpture might once have occupied), a projection zooms into that spot in the Kathmandu Valley, and then shows the location that the image was stolen from and a painting of the stolen sculpture. You can look at the images at Joy’s website, but definitely should visit the exhibit if you are in Kathmandu. You can read about other projects here.

The art/tech exhibit is at Nepal Art Council, and is open till the 15th. Yantra 3.0 is also going to feature a speaker series and a Robotics competition.