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.

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Further Developments… The Monomyth & Generative Design

generative design, Processing, Thesis

The Monomyth or Hero Story

In the development of an interactive environment with any authenticity, it becomes necessary to have a particular point of view. It is imperative for it to express my own life experience, which is not so different from the experience of all people.

One of the benefits of growing older (I will soon celebrate my 42nd year of life on planet Earth) is that you can finally have some perspective on yourself and your past — both the positive and not–so–positive. You begin to see that the tale that we were told of being unique snowflakes is only partly true. At some point, you realize that we are all not so unique and unusual at all. You begin to understand that while the cast of characters, scenery and dialogue may change from person to person, we each play out strangely familiar plot lines in our individual lives.

“The usual hero adventure begins with someone from whom something has been taken, or who feels there is something lacking in the normal experience available or permitted to the members of society. The person then takes off on a series of adventures beyond the ordinary, either to recover what has been lost or to discover some life-giving elixir. It’s usually a cycle, a coming and a returning.”

– Joseph Campbell, The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Aiding me in peeling back that layer of the onion, has been an understanding of the Monomyth (or Hero Story) by Joseph Campbell. Campbell wrote a great deal about the power of myth, and how the Hero Story is written into the most famous of fables, religions and literature. In dissecting these, Cambell explored how these timeless themes have shaped the lives of humans from the beginning of time. Campbell divided the Hero Story into 17 distinct stages which can be grouped into the phases of Departure, Initiation, and Return.

Generative Design

Generative Design is a completely new design system that utilizes modern computer languages such as Processing, vvvv, JavaScript and others to provide a framework for development of unique design systems with opportunities for multiple types of output.

In a 2012 lecture, Cedric Kiefer of onformative gave a brief overview of Generative Design — the captions are my own notes on his presentation:

Create a system to process inputs (data, sound, images, vectors, motion, video, etc) into outputs ( other data, sound, images, vectors, motion, video, etc.)

Create a system to process inputs (data, sound, images, vectors, motion, video, etc) into outputs ( other data, sound, images, vectors, motion, video, etc.)

There is no limit to the type of input you can use with a generative design system.

There is no limit to the type of input you can use with a generative design system.

Likewise, there is also no limit to the type of output produced in generative design.

Likewise, there is also no limit to the type of output produced in generative design.

It is even possible to use the output of a generative design system as an input through the system again!

It is even possible to use the output of a generative design system as an input through the system again!

In one example cited by Kiefer, using properties of physics, and data they were able to create a visualization of concept linkages.

In one example cited by Kiefer, using properties of physics, and data they were able to create a visualization of concept linkages.

They first started with programming the physics and physical properties so that the groups of concepts would "unfold" and not be blocked from view.

They first started with programming the physics and physical properties so that the groups of concepts would “unfold” and not be blocked from view.

This would create a concept tree.

This would create a concept tree.

They then were able to develop to same concept in 3D space.

They then were able to develop to same concept in 3D space.

They could then export the data for 3D rendering for other purposes such as motion graphics or film.

They could then export the data for 3D rendering for other purposes such as motion graphics or film.

The basic idea is that you can create infinite variations of designs by simply changing the inputs or the parameters of the software that will get tremendously different results from very small and simple changes. Those outputs can then be used in many different ways to examine or infer relationships, analyze and develop possibilities, draw conclusions, etc.

It is therefore at the discretion of the designer to create the design system and the manner in which information is processed and how the output is expressed.

 Incorporation Into The Thesis Project

In delving into the concept of the Monomyth, it could potentially serve as a backdrop for my thesis presentation. In creating an environment, I could potentially work to develop a “learning tool” through creation of a generative design environment. This would take a participant on a “Hero’s Journey” with accompanying stages. Through gamification, each person could work towards achieving the quest, and along the way learning small lessons, that can be put into practice at various stages of the environment.

With each phase of the game, the graphics would change and provide feedback to the participants of their progress and development. In addition, the challenges would become greater and more difficult as the game progresses.

As with all Monomyths, each individual could be on an individual quest. The lessons of which could be different from others. Ideally, I would like for all participants to understand the value of working together towards a common goal, and experiencing a sense of coming together to achieve a common goal.