The Hero Journey & Paleolithic Cave Painting

Cave Art, Experiential Design, Interaction Design, Planning, Thesis

A Search For Our Common Humanity

At the core of this project is a search for shared humanity through interaction design. My intent and interest is in creating interactive experiences that are genuine and authentic.

Adding social buttons to share something does not make a meaningful connection. Scrolling through a feed only skims the surface of our friend’s likes, interests and daily activities. So my wish list for a successful Thesis show would look something like this:

  1. Causes participants to interact with each other — not just the installation or software.
  2. Forces participants to be in the present moment and have a shared experience of our innate natures.
  3. To allow participants to play and learn from one another.
  4. To awaken participants to the experience of being present, reflecting on their own lives, and witness the power of the hero journey in their own lives.

Of course, it goes without saying that I want everything to be perfect — no computer or network glitches, etc. etc. etc. But that’s another list for another blog post.

As I began to delve deeper into Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth theories and explore his writings, I have come to understand that his ideas transcend time, and are universally found in all human cultures. The ideas, concepts, and even some of the stories are typically universal in their basis. They are often found with subtle variations in local color, cultural ideas / importances, or language, however the general themes, plotlines, and stories of the hero myth are almost always universal.

This is the central point that intrigued Campbell. It is clear that he studied Eastern and Western cultures in great detail  — drawing comparisons and contrasts of various universal human stories of creation, parenting, loss, death, success, work, transition and transcendence.  One area that Cambell returned to over and over is Paleolithic art.

Paleolithic Cave Painting

The earliest known caves are found in modern day France, Spain, Italy and Germany. Paleolithic humans lived in semi-nomadic groups, and practiced Shamanic religions. To them, their understanding of the world was one of interconnectedness and where anything was possible. The stories of the famous caves of Altamira (Spain), Lascaux (France), Niaux (France) from the late 19th and early 20th Century have gained a history of their own. Established archaeologists scoffed at the idea of these Prehistoric paintings and for many years ridiculed those who supported the idea and refused to even view them. Established academia believed the paintings and artifacts to be forgeries or badly scrawled graffiti done by charlatans looking to make money and sell admission to the caves.

Eventually, when the preeminent French archeologist Émile Cartailhac reluctantly viewed the caves at Altamira, Spain and saw the calcifications and concretions (which can only take many thousands of years) covered some of the artwork, he recanting and understood the impact of these great discoveries. (Curtis, Gregory. The Cave Painters: Probing the Mysteries of the World’s First Artists. 1st ed., New York: Anchor Books, 2007.)

As I read and study more about Paleolithic cave art, I understand that there are many different theories regarding their importance. During the 20th Century, the common consensus has been that the caves were used for magico-religious practices, and for certain, there are remnants of this. However, in his book, The Nature of Paleolithic Art, R. Dale Guthrie argues that to only view the artwork in this light has not only, “resulted in a derailment of rock art research, but at its worst has presented early peoples in a distorted light as superstitious dolts totally preoccupied with mystical concerns.”

Guthrie goes on to point out that Paleolithic art goes beyond this and had a much deeper meaning to Paleolithic humans. Theirs was the art of the everyday. It shows a direct connection to their physical world, and provides an invaluable record of Paleolithic natural history. It is only when one begins to draw these same animals (unsuccessfully, as I have done) that you realize the level of skill, practice and training that the most exceptional of these artists must have had. When studied in detail, we can see that many of the artists often understood concepts like scale, proportion, volume, lighting and shading. There is a sophisticated understanding of animal anatomy that goes beyond mere observation. It clear that as a result of their hunting culture, the Eurasian Paleolithic artists understood anatomy to a great degree. To draw cows, bulls, lions, and horses with this skill required getting up close to these dangerous wild animals — only possible after a successful hunt.

Thesis Ideas

So, with this in mind, I now have a much clearer basis for my Thesis project. This will be to create a built interactive environment using Paleolithic cave art to take the participants on a a hero journey.

Using projection mapping, the images will be projected onto constructed wall surfaces. This will provide them with a similar experience as visiting a cave. Part of the interactive experience will be to have the images move at various points, triggered by events like sounds or movement from the participants. Participants will be able to leave their handprints for others to see.

As I delve deeper into this project, I realize that there is always more that I need to know and understand in order to make this a success.