Friday, April 8, 2011

Alberto Gaitán and Cross-pollinators

Alberto Gaitán is a multi-media artist living and working in the DC area since 1980. He has worked collaboratively in cross-media projects with musicians, poets, choreographers, visual artists, software programmers and engineers, and has built solo pieces that mashup different disciplines. He will be talking about the quest for common ground during collaborative creation, the qualitative difference between work he's done as a solo practitioner versus that done collectively, and his efforts to build community around interdisciplinary exploration by heading Dorkbot DC and helping spawn HacDC.

Alberto Gaitán, panelist for the March 2011 DASER, talked about his work and community.  The following is the transcript from the vidoe of Alberto's talk presented on March 16, 2011 at the Keck Center, Washington DC.

When I think of why I have such a keen interest in interdisciplinary approaches to most things, all I have to do is remember that there was a time when I could play the guitar and thought I’d be a guitarist all my life.

Unchecked arthritis is like a slow-motion car wreck: slowly robbing you of things you once took for granted. Alas, about 10 years into my life as a guitarist, it became obvious that I would not be able to play for much longer. As painful as it was to leave my instrument behind, I continued to study art history and took up piano, playing it unconventionally, but nonetheless. This wasn't enough for my faculty advisor, though and I was urged to find a more fitting course of study.

I decided to study wildlife biology. There, I learned about the natural world and became especially interested in evolutionary ecology and its systems. I was fascinated how the core requirements for a bachelor's degree in biology interrelated. For example, how I was using a formula from information theory that modeled noise in a transmission channel to predict the species variability
within a habitat, and how the same concepts that were used to describe the economy of nature were used to model markets in economics, how coral reefs were like markets—with pulsing cycles of production and consumption—producers and consumers whose daily and evolutionary strategies were shaped by their environment, how events at the cosmological scale came to affect even the smallest community of organisms.

In the end, what I really wanted to do in biology turned out to be just as impossible for me as playing the guitar. There was no way I'd survive for long in the wilds of the Amazon, collecting data for a thesis on speciation. But, I had been taught to adapt, and I left my formal study of biology with a new understanding of evolutionary processes and an exciting taste of the then-newly-minted analogy between organic and cultural evolution called memetics.

Adapt Or Perish became my motto. It was a familiar strategy.

After all, my nearly-blind father helped raise and put 6 children through college.  His job as a diplomat took us to may countries and the point was always made never to live in ex-pat enclaves. I was taught to drink deeply from all our host cultures. I internalized a love for cultural diversity and grew to understand cultural relativity on an intuitive level. Every few years we were challenged to learn new things and re-learn some things that we had previously taken for
settled knowledge. We were rewarded with new insights on the commonality between human societies even while they appeared so different on their surfaces.  I returned to music via the then-newly available personal computer. I embarked on learning this new topic with some weariness but determined in my knowledge that this would be the answer to my body's decreasing capacity to help me attain any kind of virtuosity with conventional musical instruments. I came to understand how much of what I had previously learned also applied to this new field. Edsger W. Dijkstra once famously stated that computer science is as much about computers as astronomy is about telescopes. Within these boxes of—to me—inscrutable components, I could envision creating entire universes of possibility, universes that mirrored my increasingly interconnected world view, universes that could become as an ecosystem is to the biosphere, as a neuron is to a brain...that could become almost anything.

With the slimmest of actual research into the topic, I’m convinced that our life, with its mainstreams, tributaries, dead-ends, and engineering projects, shares a great deal with how our brains develop and adapt. In the late 1940s a neuroscientist named Hibb best illustrated how our brains can turn habitual behaviors—so-called associative learning—into bureaucracies of neural tissue called engrams. With enough practice we turn parts of our neuroanatomy into component-like circuits that can fire off without a second thought. And, when we lose one physical ability we can re-learn with great plasticity. We deal with change and adversity by adapting...learning.

The romantic notion of the artist, laboring in solitude, an island of genius awaiting discovery, never sounded right to me. Too much of my creativity fed on other ideas. I also observed how, periodically, great weather-like patterns of notion enveloped the scientific and art communities, self-organizing until there sometimes emerged, a disruptive consensus-notion.

I decided I needed to surround myself with artists and technologists, a pool of cross-pollinators from which new aesthetic forms could evolve. I volunteered with, curated arts programming, and eventually joined the board of DC's preeminent alternative art spaces. I did what I could to build community and present work to new audiences.

My public life as an artist began with collaboration. I was interested in the intersection of different artistic disciplines and aesthetic positions. After a few years I joined a collective. Art Attack International, a core group of four artists, created temporary, site-specific installations, always in situ, mostly in public space, always as a result of intensive brain-storming, promiscuous and completely unqualified interdisciplinary meddling, vigorous intra-group defense of ideas, and majority rule; always presenting work under the factory name. It was a utopian by committee but with deliberative techniques rigorously developed into procedural components at the service of The Work. Although tacitly political, we never wore it on our sleeves nor articulated it unless called to. We operated outside the gallery system and sometimes outside the law.

A good deal of time later I began my solo practice. Although continuing to reinforce my connection with the communities and networks I had become part of, I turned my attention to my own concerns. I helped found and currently run the DC branch of Dorkbot (, a special interest group of artist-technologists. I also helped spawn and have an on-going relationship with DC's first hacker space, HacDC ( It took me awhile to get technologists into the mix but I now see—thanks in part to a growing pile of obsolete tech and the descending price-point of many hi tech tools—a great crucible has formed for interdisciplinary communities who have re-invented the collage/remix culture presaged by 20th Century artists, and the syntheses manifest in the sciences over the past 120 years; to repurpose, reuse, mutate material culture at the grass-roots level creating a massive economy and new forms of aesthetic expression in the process.

I leave you with two images, one is a piece called Remembrancer, which worked over 4 weeks to create three canvases using key-word data collected from online sources, each with a different frame of reference. The red panel looked at local/regional keywords, the blue panel at national keywords, and the green panel at global keywords. Over time, the sum of those keywords mentioned with the greatest frequency caused more paint to deposit at a given point. The second is a piece called “Still” that was shown on November & December of 2010 at American University Museum's Katzen Arts Center as part of Washington Project for the Arts' 35th Anniversary. My long association with the venerable WPA prompted me to create a piece about connection and how I believe it affect artists' successful pursuit of their passion. Over 5 weeks, it used my daily movements around the region, as recorded on my phone's GPS logger, to map my distance from the piece by squirting water onto a pile of powdered plaster. The further I was from it the longer the squirt.

Both these pieces address the difficulty inherent in recording experience and while leveraging inter-connectedness, create documents that are unreadable to any level of certainty.

So, why do I work in an interdisciplinary manner? Because everything is connected.

DASER is a monthly discussion forum on art and science projects in the national capital region. DASER strives to provide the public with a snapshot of the cultural environment of the region and to foster community and discussion around the intersection of disciplines.  The thoughts and opinions expressed in the DASER events are those of the panelists and speakers and do not necessarily reflect the positions neither of the National Academy of Sciences nor of Leonardo.
For more information on upcoming DASER events please visit  To learn more about the work of the National Academy of Sciences visit

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