Juyeko Humboldt : a Mixed Reality Experience

The journeys, writings, and drawings of Alexander von Humboldt have been powerful engines for the western imagination. He, and his network of pen pals, artists, and scientists around the world, mobilized not only the romantic aesthetic movement in the letters and arts, but also an ecological notion of the natural sciences. However, despite proposing a more holistic and interconnected vision of the world, his ideas and sensibilities paved the way for several process of industrialization, western “development” and colonization of nature. His journeys in the Americas, were crucial for developing modern philosophy and sensibility, and inspired aesthetic and political movements in both sides of the Atlantic. Today, as the world celebrates the 250 years of Humboldt birth, it is crucial to reconsider his journeys and “discoveries” in the Americas with critical and creative lenses.

Last June, I joined an interdisciplinary team of artists, filmmakers, musicians, and scientists, for creating a mixed reality experience about Humboldt and the Americas. Our team participated in a hackaton organized by the Goethe-Institut and Cinemateca de Bogota, in where we had to design an augmented/virtual reality experience addressing a range of themes related to Humboldt expedition and work. After three days of tinkering and hacking, we presented the prototype of Juyeko Humboldt, an installation that approaches Humboldt journeys in northern of South America (today’s Colombia and Venezuela) from the perspective, thought, and dances of native indigenous people.

Juyeko Humboldt is an effort for hacking Humboldt thought and journeys through the knowledge and technologies of some of the native indigenous people that inhabited and continue to live in some of the territories explored by Europeans in the 19th century.

It is well known that Humboldt put South America on the map of the world by documenting the nature of these territories through writings, drawings, and maps. Such tremendous effort gave raise to a whole ecological scientific and humanistic thought that later was used by political and economic powers to conquer vast territories, and incorporate them into nation-states and international systems of commerce. However, Humboldt western knowledge barely recognized the indigenous cultures, languages, bodies, technologies and realities that existed in the Americas. Native American indigenous peoples had inhabited for several centuries these lands. They lived together with the mountains, rivers, valleys, and forests that fascinated Humboldt and other European explorers, and developed sustainable and interconnected ways of living with nature. One of the aims of Juyeko Humboldt is precisely to re-locate and re-think Humboldt’s journeys and maps from the perspective of Colombian indigenous people.

The design of Jujeko Humboldt combines elements of augmented reality such as image recognition and augmented sound; of virtual reality such as 360 degree videos; and of a mixed installation. We adapted a room with drawings, props, and lighting for allowing the audience to experience Humboldt journeys from the setting of a maloca. The maloca is an indigenous house used by several communities in Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil, and remains as one of the ancestral technologies that endured the process of western colonization and modern development. As a place of dancing, thinking, and several rituals, the maloca is the center of indigenous communal life.

Jujeko Humboldt allows the audience to enter a maloca space and explore it both with AR/VR and analogue technologies. Using cellphones and headphones, for instance, they can connect with indigenous drawings that trigger sounds and videos of the territories that Humboldt explored and documented. With an Occulus Go helmet the participants can also immerse themselves in 360 degree video of Aimema, one of our team members, that introduces indigenous dances. Moreover, moving around the room, the audience can also join a communal dance, and experiment with several cuyas (totumas) that contain earth elements (e.g. water, mambe, dirt, ambil).

After three days of working at the Cinemateca de Bogota new media laboratories, we demoed Jujeko Humboldt the last evening of the hackaton in one of the workshop-studio rooms. Despite some technical glitches we experienced with the AR application we designed using Unity and Vuforia, we were able to offer a complete mixed reality experience. At some moments we were even able to experience the collective dance of the maloca in the small room. The participants explored the different elements of the layout and interacted with their senses and with the mediated digital technologies we had. At the end of the night, and as the Humboldt and the Americas hackaton was closing, we received the first price and were selected to present the experience in Berlin next September. In the middle of the euphoria for winning the hackaton competition, Aimema gave a speech and guided a collective dance with all of the participants. We look forward for the next iterations of Jujeko Humboldt and to presenting at Berlin Humboldt Forum.

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