Artist Karthika Sakthivel’s ‘Mayajaal’ fosters mindfulness through technology

Karthika Sakthivel’s project at the Royal College of Art in London fostered mindfulness through a breathing exercise couched within the Hindu creation myth.

by Manu Sharma Published on : Sep 23, 2020

So, take a deep breath into the bubble of mindfulness, myth and magic. In a world of multiple tabs, screens within screens and short attention spans- surrender and suspend yourself, if only for a second.

So reads the artist note for Mayajaal, a multimedia installation piece by Karthika Sakthivel, an artist who graduated from the Royal College of Art in London. Mayajaal or phantasmagoria is conceptualised around the Vedic principle of Maya, which posits the world as an illusion, or product of leela (play). As the documentation book explains, the interactive installation explores choice, control and agency within a cyclical experience, through the Hindu creation myth.

03 mins watch A visit to Mayajaal | Karthika Sakthivel | Mayajaal | STIRworld
A visit to Mayajaal Video: Karthika Sakthivel

The installation itself comprises multiple components: A round Eero Aarnio ball chair fitted with four speakers allows the audience to sit in front of a screen that forms the front façade of a black box. This box contains the workings of Mayajaal, consisting of LED lights and a television at the very end, with a two-way mirror running down the middle, and several layers of acetate sheets in between. Each of these sheets is studded with reflective dome screw caps, and the video playing on loop in the television is fragmented by the bubble-like domes suspended between it and the viewer, thereby creating an illusion of depth. The LEDs and the audio lap back and forth in response to the audience member’s breathing, which is measured through a Rev.C Wind Sensor that is positioned within a conch shell, placed at the front of the setup. A humidifier loaded with a blend of essential oils completes the installation, creating a pleasant sea breeze aroma.

Surrender and suspend yourselves | Karthika Sakthivel | Mayajaal | STIRworld
Surrender and suspend yourselves Image: Karthika Sakthivel

The entire setup comes together in order to activate the visual, aural and olfactory senses, and through that engages the audience in the pursuit of mindfulness. This is an interesting departure from exercises that traditionally try and isolate the senses in order to achieve the same result. When I asked the artist if this tripartite approach was the result of a conscious set of steps she took, or if it arose organically during the course of the project, she said, “In the creation of story that lies at the heart of this project, the senses come into play one after the other in a sequence, but it all starts with the breath”. She continues, “…watching your breath and observing its rhythm has been scientifically proven to bring about focus and attention. It is said that how you breathe affects how you perceive. What I have tried to do in this piece is emulate this by stimulating the other senses in response to the breathing. The LED lights and the soundscape both lap back and forth in tune with your breathing, and naturally, the aroma as well. So, everything you experience serves to expand your awareness of your breath. The piece doesn’t ask you to focus on any sense in particular; it only expects you to breathe”.

Breathe in, breathe out | Karthika Sakthivel | STIRworld
Breathe in, breathe out Image: Karthika Sakthivel

The project was conceived after Sakthivel attended the Virtual Reality and Alterities symposium at the Royal College of Art, wherein she had trouble relating to the topics being discussed. She mentions that her detachment arose from a cultural and spiritual standpoint. In her own words, “the ‘real’ and the ‘virtual’ came up often and there was a lot of discussion surrounding it. It made me wonder what the fuss was all about. Some of my Asian counterparts felt the same. To that end, I believe our responses didn’t come from a place of indifference but from a different place of understanding. During a brief discussion amongst ourselves after the event, we shared eastern philosophies on what we believed to be the real and the virtual. The word Maya and the ideas of the world as virtual reality came up”.

She feels that the symposium gave her a glimpse of a Eurocentric discourse, grounded purely within logic and reason, dominating questions of alternate and virtual realities. I would imagine that this seemed like an opportunity that was destined to be missed, as the ability to project alternative visions of the ‘real’ should, in theory, invite fresh perspectives on the self-same topic. Sakthivel also mentions picking up on a pervasive fear of a technological takeover at the symposium. She didn’t share this view, and attributes her difference in opinion to growing up celebrating Ayudha Puja at home, which is a part of the Hindu festival Navratri, and involves attaching divinity to household appliances, electronics and vehicles. Through this, she believes, she came to view technology as something that inherently works with us and not against us.

Mayajaal, then, is at once a project that is built upon questions of alternate realities, but also an endeavour that eschews both, the mechanical and discursive trappings that have come to define the same. The installation creates a mindful psychic space, informed by the Hindu creation myth, and its functioning revolves around one key element: real human breathing.

This is but the latest installation piece from Sakthivel, who has worked on several fascinating projects in the past. These include Samsara, a narrative installation that attempts to decolonise a linear, Eurocentric interpretation of time, and Memory Foam, an interactive sonic quilt sewn in order to revive Crown Court clerk Irene Elliot’s memories of her mother.

  • Samasara | Karthika Sakthivel, Vivek Menon | STIRworld
    Samasara Image: Karthika Sakthivel, Vivek Menon
  • Memory Foam | Karthika Sakthivel | STIRworld
    Memory Foam Image: Karthika Sakthivel

With respect to the site-bound, interactive nature of Mayajaal, and indeed, much of Sakthivel’s other work, I was curious as to what she feels the present situation may mean for her practice. Despite acknowledging the monumental challenges that the age of lockdown poses to her work; she chose to remain positive. Sakthivel pointed me to her MA dissertation, “Staying in Touch: Haptics in the Age of Touchscreens”, wherein she talks about Ultrahaptics (now Ultraleap), a company known as the creator of ‘virtual touch’, which is a technology that projects ultrasound onto the hands of users in order to mimic sensation. She argues that current conditions provide a real call for such technologies, to serve not merely as placeholders or substitutes, but rather, as new hybrid ways of experiencing.

She ended our interview by saying, “The situation is far from ideal; however, I would like to remain optimistic and say art will find its way”.

(Click here to know about the artist.)

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