Sculpting Consciousness: Art as a Materialization of Research — and Vice Versa

Ari Melenciano
16 min readOct 18

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Phase One findings from the Meta-Interiority Ensemble, a research lab I’ve founded to synthesize obscure forms of ontologies and epistemologies. This first phase takes the form of the Otzkö Kazo Research Atelier in designing a metacognitive art practice through pluralistic intelligences:

One year ago, I created the Otzkö Kazo Research Atelier (OKRA), a yearlong self-designed art residency to bring together years of research and a lifelong artistic practice. This was developed within the Meta-Interiority Ensemble, a research lab I’ve founded to synthesize obscure forms of ontology and epistemology for new branches of thought. I’ve created the term “Meta-Interiority” to reflect the practice of studying how one studies their conscious and unconscious. The initial objective of OKRA was to explore metacognition, mythopoesis, and other psychoanalytic techniques as tools to build a foundational layer for a creative process. In this written reflection, I aim to document some of the findings. The slides shared have been used throughout the past month in lectures at NYC’s MFA programs of Hunter College, School of Visual Arts, and The New School, New Jersey’s Montclair State University, University of Maryland, TUMO Center in Armenia, and other international conferences.

A thesis to this practice is presented above. I use the slide above of annotated text to break down the objectives of OKRA’s explorations. What happens when one simultaneously considers and seeks to explore the possibilities at the nexus of the collective conscious and unconscious? What if the tools used were mythopoesis (the making of myths), AI, and cultural metacognition? Similar to the opportunities that exist because of neuroplasticity to create new neural pathways, how might this practice design new pathways for artistic synthesis? And finally, when engaging with such mythopoetic (thus inherently, psychoanalytic) tactics, what might be revealed about the self (and thus, society)?

What is shared is Phase One of explorations. I’m still learning so much, many of these findings have the potential to be altered as I advance within my research practice. So I’d like to preface my current findings with such.

A catalyst for this work was through the development of another area of my research that I labeled as, “Computational Anthropology.”

CA001: Synthesized Identities by Ari Melenciano

Computational Anthropology began as a practice to study how the “machine” (which I use synonymously for AI, online societies, large data corpora, etc.) is able to reflect ourselves based off the behavioral data we have fed it. In the image above, which is currently on view at Montclair State Gallery’s “The Backend” exhibition, I explore how the metadata surrounding words in Large Language Models (LLMs), is materialized visually as represented in its manipulation of my original headshot.

I also use Computational Anthropology to reimagine the archive with AI and analyze it’s success and failures. I’ve written more extensively about this practice in this essay.

A significant objective of this work was to visually represent the power of language through generative AI technologies, of which’s foundation is language, itself, via LLMs. When I say “the power of language,” I’m referring to all the ways that language designs our way of understanding the world, creating containers for our ways of being and thinking, and all else in the list below.

The Computational Anthropology works seek to encourage the public to think about how significant language is in constructing our psyches. And, how the languages we use represent the society’s values in which they were birthed from. Language is a cultural materialization of social constructs subjectively designed by a smaller group of people, but eventually become the psyche architects of the masses. English is the most commonly spoken human language, and also the dominant language of LLMs. Yet we don’t often think about the values embedded within English and how by speaking, thinking, reading it we are replicating such values unconsciously.

For example, the English language declares a linear time structure of past, present, and future. Most of us don’t question such way of understanding time. Yet there are many other languages, scripts, and cultures around the world that have a cyclical way of understanding time. Especially ones rooted in spiritual cosmologies and a strong allegiance to the natural world order. Those include Egyptian hieroglyphics, the Mayan civilization of Mesoamerica, Yoruba of Western Africa, Buddhism’s Samsara, and so forth.

As I’ve used these technologies, it’s been critical for me to understand the epistemologies in which these technologies originate from. This has aided my practice to better understand AI’s possibilities and limitations, and to not place it on a pedestal of truth-making when it’s simply a replication of a specific cultural understanding of intelligence. One muse to this work has been the scholarship of Dr. Marimba Ani.

Presented within these pages of her book titled, “Yurugu,” are diagrams Ani has created to study Eurocentrism through an Afrocentric lens. Her observations reveal how our global way of understanding the world (rooted in Eurocentric ideologies), equates logic being void of spirituality, meaningfulness, interconnected context, and detachment (which I would also consider as the practice of disregarding emotions). Considering how the cyclical timescale languages/cultures I listed are more aligned with spirituality, these diagrams continue to reveal these same value dichotomies, existing unspoken and often overlooked within languages. Awareness of such has been a liberating practice in navigating a more mindful approach to engaging with today’s pioneering technologies. While many of us rely on the “validity” of these technologies’ outputs, I find it crucial to recognize that their artificial “intelligence” is simply an automation of cultural, subjective values.

These understandings also better ground my Computational Anthropology practice as I explored using AI as a tool to reveal the structures of the Western world.

I wrote more extensively about these ideas (from questioning our notions of truth to breaking down the design of contemporary Western intelligence) in an essay commissioned by The New School’s Vera List Center for Art and Politics titled, Paradoxical Intelligence.

Taking a step back from this practice, I could observe what I was doing through the practice of Computational Anthropology as a form of “Technopoesis” (another word/term I’ve made up to encapsulate a practice — love creating new language!). I define Technopoesis as using technology (techno) as a creative medium (poesis). And I wanted to use this practice to study how we as humans have used technology to automate operations of our psyche. And in how doing so, then reveals patterns within our collective consciousness, a Jungian concept meant to identify the shared intellectual consensus of a society.

My critique of society also encouraged me to point a finger to myself, being reflective of how I operate, perceive, and exist — as such directly influences how I’m able to observe the world (and this “I” isn’t unique to me, but metaphorical to all of us). To study how has the societies in which I’ve/we’ve grown up within influenced my/our behavior and understanding of the world. If I’m using technology to study society, what can I use to understand myself (which inherently becomes another and much more intimate way of understanding society, even further).

And so I engaged in the practice of mythopoesis. This practice was especially catalyzed from my epiphanies in understanding the role of notions of “truth” within the art practice, but also human, and generally sentient experience. And, in how my studies on AI revealed the cultural subjectivity of “truth,” it felt even more crucial to understand, critique, and utilize my own truths.

What I mean by “truth” within the sentient experience, is that what we believe guides our behavior, naturally. Ants operate in colonies, worker bees are subjected to the queen bee, and birds sing all because they believe they should. The validity of the truth, as in whether what we believe is “right” or “wrong”, isn’t essential to the idea I’m exploring. I’m simply studying how once sentience believes something to be true, it then proceeds to operate in that fashion with little questioning, becoming a way of life. In some cases, one could even say it is an operation of spirit, not intellectual cognition.

I personally find this analogous to the artistic practice. As an artist/creative entering the studio or any place of creation, a source of frustration is not knowing what to create, how to create it, if it’s “good” or not, etc. This is a product of overthinking, which inhibits entrance into flow-state. When one has their truths; as one does when they walk, not thinking about the mechanics of lifting one leg before the other but simply in flow with the human technique of transporting oneself via foot; one does not question it and is simply being. As an artist, that is the ideal place for me — flow-state, understanding the artistic process as a materialization of the spirit, a portal to the unconscious. And, by recognizing that an inhibitor of flow is overthinking, I became invested in understanding personal truths as an alleviation to overthinking.

A byproduct of understanding ones own truth is a revealing of one’s own psyche, and also the Jungian idea of the collective unconscious — more on that later.

And that’s what led me to create an art residency, to study the self — the self as a psyche, and thus an amalgamation of pysches it has observed/crossed paths with intimately, from a distance, and generally been influenced by. Especially in considering how just as AI is an amalgamation of data points encoded digitally, the psyche is an amalgamation of data points encoded in… I’d say something “unknown” (could be cognitively, neurologically, energetically, spiritually, all, none, who’s really to say).

Similar to how an athlete trains everyday for optimal muscle memory, an academic devoting days to the library in filling their intellects with as much aligning research as possible, a chess player studying the techniques of an AI opponent for new moves, an artist also requires such diligence. An artist isn’t simply a creator, but a thinker, a factory of conceptuality. As an artist, if I am having difficulty entering my flow, it means my roots aren’t strong enough. I don’t know my current self well enough. I am not confident enough in my own ontology.

As an academic, I became my own subject of mythopoetic inquiry in the same way external society was my subject of technopoetic inquiry. This practice can be seen similarly to how Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud did so as psychoanalysts, Frantz Fanon as a psychiatrist and philosopher, Zora Neale Hurston as an anthropologist, and Anaïs Nin and Maya Angelou as writers. Art starts from the self. Here are guiding questions I used within this introspective practice — paired with images of the process:

Products of the process

Now for some fruits of this intellectual gardening: For one, the process felt and feels like an art piece within itself — so I would say this essay, the photographic documentation, etc. are all products. And this process could take a lifetime, lifetimes even, to unravel. But to share some more tangible and immediate ways I put some of this technique to action, I’ll start with the mythopoetic foundation, Otzkö Kazo.

The first goal was to translate aspects of psyche, behaviors, etc. that I’ve observed within myself and those that I’m close to into archetypes (another Jungian term), which you can see labeled above in the diagram. By translating such into archetypes, I’m able to achieve two things specifically: 1. modularized metacognition and 2. lens creations through synthesis. I’ll break that down in a bit.

To bring this mythopoetic foundation immediately into the studio art practice, I created figurative portraits designed to represent 5 of the archetypes.

The flow was pure — a success, as I had also created visual frameworks to create the paintings based off of, minimizing decision-making as much as possible. And creating each portrait also felt like an opportunity to meditate on the stories of each character. Creating these felt similar to what I could imagine the experience being as a monk creating Sacred Mandalas with sand, another intentionally meditational artistic practice that creates opportunities for traveling through one’s psyche.

Back to the two things achieved in this mythopoetic mapping: When I say “modularized metacognition,” I mean that I’m using my awareness of behaviors/inclinations as tropes that I can then build with in archetypal form, almost as if they’re Lego blocks. For example, in the story of Otzkö Kazo, Soloro takes on the form of the sun and represents vitality. Soloro and Seira (mother earth, representing fertility and sensuality) have a love affair, and produce two children: Htzioro (representing the practice of an artist when creating for external understanding), and Htziara (representing the practice of an artist when creating to experience in one’s internal world). You could imagine Htzioro being the type to dance in forms that are beautiful to the eye, or creating music pleasant to the ears, and Htziara being the type to dance in a way where she embodies the beat but isn’t focused on the aesthetic of her body’s forms, or creating sounds that simply represent her inner-world, with no attention paid to rhythm or scales. (You may also notice how I’ve labeled each of the main characters with astrology signs, as I’ve found it to be fruitful to also use zodiac archetypes to help flush out the tendencies of my characters and ground them in contemporary culture). But then I go further to modularize this metacognition by blending the archetypes to create new ways of seeing and being within the world (2. lens creations through synthesis), and new ways to perform as an artist. How does this then exist as an art piece?

Part of my artistic practice has been to create bio-sonification soundscapes of plants. I’m fascinated by this for a few reasons:

  • Plants, to me, are sacred. And while their marginalization has been so deeply embedded within the Western psyche because of their “inanimacy” to the naked human eye, indigenous communities have been well aware of their profound energetic emittance for centuries. To give an audible voice to their activity, abstracted by sound tools like the modular synthesizer, is a portal into limitless possibility.
  • Plants are seen by many biological theorists as the original quantum computers. The photosynthetic process is a quantum conversion of energy. The idea of quantum behavior is also essential to the narrative of Otzkö Kazo (a story for another time), so using plants is directly symbolic and metaphorical.
  • The photosynthetic process is an Earthly paradigm for the Otzkö Kazoin love affair between Soloro and Seira, and performing their union becomes a practice of Htzioro and Htziara. While also being influenced by the tendencies of Azueli, Erajzo, and Gjzitiua.

In September 2023, I brought this world to the University of Maryland for their NextNow Fest. This became a collaboration between myself as the vessel for Otzkö Kazo, and UMD’s dance department (thank you again, Brandon, Kate, MK, EM, Van, and Tori). The collaboration consisted of me sharing with the dancers the story of Otzkö Kazo. I created a 30 minute film that visually indicated moments of the story, projected on the large screen behind the dancers. They proceeded to use their bodies, in an Htzioro and Htziara fashion, to choreographically tell the story of each of the characters. And, I live composed the instrumentation, in an Htzioro and Htziara fashion, to sonically tell the story of each of the characters.

Photo by David Andrews
Photo by David Andrews
Photo by David Andrews

The dancers and I, as the composer, followed each other’s activity, in real time, to guide our expressions going forward, throughout the entire 30 min. Their movement to my sound, my sound to their movements. It was the most magical artistic experience I’ve ever had. All of us were tapping into our subconscious, letting spirit guide our actions, in a world where artists have more often been trained to lead with technique.

Reflections of the process

I still have a long way to go.

One major significance to this work is the development of “lenses,” which was another catalyst for me creating this world. And I imagined a potential effect of this work being to encourage people to not let the gatekeeping of intellectualism discourage their agency to be curious about whatever field they may take an interest in. For example, I theorize people trained to be a physicist would feel a lot less intimated about playing a game of pick-up basketball, than a pro-basketball player would likely feel to engage in theoretical physics. But a basketball player has direct lived experience in so many forms of physics outside of a trained physicist’s understanding. Yet due to the gatekeeping nature of academia, those outside of the ivory towers are intentionally not invited to engage in it’s theories, when their (i.e. non-academic pro basketball players) thinking could actually lead to incredible advances in the subjects because they are able to think outside of the trained and normalized scope. One of my favorite examples of this sort of possibility is Octavia Butler’s fascinating approach to the sciences.

In this essay titled, “Plasmodial Improprieties,” Aimee Bahng describes Butler’s Femi-Queer approach to the understanding of slime mold. While traditional scientists imposed their heteronormative and hierarchal lenses to the behaviors of slime mold, Octavia did not. By bending grammar to better represent their actual activities, not blinded by trained normalities, she pioneered significant opportunities in understanding the sciences.

And, so a goal of Otzkö Kazo is to emphasize the importance of one’s awareness of their cognizance. Metacognition. By engaging in metacognition, we are able to exist outside of the feedback loop of existence and see our own distorted contribution to the perception of reality (including being influenced by the aforementioned values embedded in language, and the normalized behaviors of our surrounding societies). Metacognition also creates distance between emotion, it’s rationalization, and thus resulting behavior. Being meta-cognitively aware allows us to be intentional and mindful about technologies we’re using, like AI, and how truth is personal — to be compassionate to the truths of others. But most significantly, metacognition allows us to understand ourselves, who we truly are, why we exist the way we do. We’re currently unaware of many aspects of our own psyches yet are automating it’s design through technologies. The better we know ourselves, the better we’re able to design systems, technologies, lenses that intentionally empower our lights vs. blindly perpetuate our shadows.

I aim for Otzkö Kazo to be an indicator that how humans have made sense of the world since fruition through myths, and how we’ve shifted to believe in objectivity through contemporary forms of empirical science (which in many ways is mythopoesis, by another name), is essentially a cultural shift in the lenses we decide to use to understand the world. Just as by breaking down the epistemologies of contemporary AI then reveals the dominant lenses of society. And, we can create new lenses that give power to wonder and boundless curiosity.

So what lies at the nexus of the collective conscious and unconscious? The possibilities seem limitless — this is all just the surface. Just as language of LLMs have metadata that alters the outputs of AI tools and reveals the structure of our societal psyches, emotions have psychological metadata tucked away into our personal psyches. Myths, the stories we tell ourselves, are known (by the work of Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung, and many others) to have the capacity to reveal the inner workings of our own psyches. And I’d say even more significantly, myths have been found to represent the collective psyche of humanity, as both Campbell and Jung discovered remarkable consistency revealed in the myths humans have created while being great geographic distances and time periods apart. Clearly there’s something very momentous about following your intuition, the roles of emotions and feeling, engagement with the spirit, and about many of the sensual sense-making techniques we’ve learned are invalid. And so, I hope this work encourages you to jump in to the portal of learning and unlearning as best aligns to your core, thinking through making, and following your own curiosity. ✨

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