Virtual Sama

“Embodied Interactions with a Sufi Dhikr Ritual: Negotiating Privacy and Transmission of Intangible Cultural Heritage in “Virtual Sama”  was foundational in the development of the current project, and won the “Best Paper Award” at EVA 2017.

“Virtual Sama” is an interactive multimedia installation that connects computationally abstracted ethnographic documentation of a Sufi Dhikr ritual with viewers through an artistic artificial intelligence (AI) abstraction process and interactive rhythmic full body movement. In this paper, we describe how the installation is designed to elicit reflection on the implications of transforming intangible heritage into digital heritage through digital documentation and storage, and to encourage exploration of questions around privacy and safeguarding of sensitive cultural practices. Against the context of detailed fieldwork with Uyghur Sufi practitioners in Xinjiang, China, we explore how AI processes and embodied interaction might be mobilized to present alternative representations of anonymity, while drawing attention to the complexities of representation, access and transmission of intangible cultural practices in the digital age.

“Virtual Sama” is situated to reflect tensions between privacy and transmission of intangible cultural heritage. New knowledge based technologies such as our AI computational abstraction system and motion sensor system offer possibilities for both drawing attention to these tensions and creating embodied experiences necessary for the transmission of intangible cultural practices. This project anonymizes this particular ethnographic recording of a Sama ritual while exploring the potential for computational abstraction and embodied interaction to communicate the spirit of the original event. How, we ask, might artful AI techniques and full body interaction raise awareness of the need for the safeguarding intangible cultural heritage? How do artful AI techniques in this instance draw attention to the implication of intangible cultural heritage in the digital heritage complex and the protection of individual privacy?

Further work is required to advance the participatory aspect of the project –– working with the cultural practitioners to collaboratively develop artful AI techniques to anonymize and computationally abstract their own representations. We aim to develop this aspect of the work in the future, building on our initial consultations with practitioners included in the documentation in the installation.

Categories: Art, Installation, Presentation