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A Luminous Jaguar: The New Media Art of Balam Soto

(Photographs by Jade Soto)

Projecting vertically from a table, an arrangement of transparent, vertical prisms lay mute in the penumbra of an art studio. A pair of hands advances silently towards it. As the finger tips touch the upper base of the cylinders, a torrent of exotic sounds emanates, at times evoking the ancient chirimía, the wind instrument used by the Maya of Guatemala, and at times sounding cosmic and futuristic. At the same time, bright spots dance on the back of the hands, as if transformed into jaguar's paws.

As an instrument capable of simultaneously generating and choreographing lights, sounds and movements, this is only one of the many creations by Guatemalan-American New Media Artist, Balam Soto.

His creations allow the experimenter to not only visualize, but also interact with the setup, as he or she enters a digital world of images and sounds, connected to the real world through physical interactions. Each experimental instrument, or exp. inst., as Balam calls them, may have various types of sensors and actuators, which, controlled by a microprocessor, convert the physical signals of touch, voice or movement, into sounds and images. In another of his creations, a young ballerina performs a dance routine, generating with her body's movements intriguing percussive sounds.

Through his work, Balam has accumulated numerous awards and recognitions, both in the United States, where he currently lives, and abroad. This includes his native Guatemala, where he often travels to present samples of his work and transmit his knowledge to budding artists.

Balam Soto is the story of an outstanding immigrant to the United States, the kind that often leaves a lasting mark at the forefront of his or her endeavor. Recognized as a leading light in his field, he has presented his work at such establishments as the Georgia Institute of Technology; the World Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science Museum; the Centre Cultural in Brussels, Belgium; the National Library of Cameroon, West Africa; the Electronic Language International Festival in Sao Paulo, Brazil, among many other locations. Among his recognitions: winner of Best in Class and Editor’s Choice Ribbon at the World Maker Faire, New York Hall of Science Museum, Queens, NY; the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, GA; recipient of the Hartford Arts & Heritage Jobs Grant in Hartford, Connecticut; guest speaker at TEDX Talk, Bushnell Park, Hartford, CT, as well as acknowledgements in his native country.

He is also the founder of Balam Soto Studio and co-owner of Open Wire Lab, a laboratory to stimulate the learning of STEM / STEAM in young students, both in Hartford, Connecticut.

When asked about the beginnings of his artistic trajectory, Balam evokes his childhood, growing up in Guatemala. "I did not have many toys, because my family was very poor," he says. "That made me build my own toys, using clay, wood and whatever materials were available for free. The main ingredient for building my toys was my imagination. I remember one time, when my grandmother had some blankets drying in the sun, hanging from a rope. I took the bamboo pole that she used to lift the rope, and made with it and some of the blankets, an airplane. I actually tried to fly it in the street, and was able to make it glide for a few meters. That was, I think, the beginning of my love for constructing things."

Later on, Balam taught himself to build electronic systems for interfacing human actions with sounds, lights and images, using such building blocks as Arduino microcontrollers. He also learned to develop his own computer code.

When asked about the influence that his homeland and his culture have had on his creative process, he responds with conviction: "I think that the heritage we have as Guatemalans is the resourcefulness, creativity and inventiveness of our Maya ancestors. Remember that the Maya lived in a very hostile environment. They had to apply their creativity to make maximum use of the limited resources in their surroundings, and create with them the amazing civilization we admire today."

Incidentally, before he immersed himself in New Media Art, Balam started studies in archaeology at the National University of Guatemala. Eventually, his strong calling for the creative process won, and the world gained an artist with novel perspectives toward art.

His new project? "Imagine a weaving loom —he says—, the type Maya women have used for centuries to weave their colorful textiles. What if it could be transformed into a musical instrument, from which the sounds of harps or marimbas emanate?"

I can hardly wait to experience such a wonderful combination, the convergence of technologies from the past and the present. But I will have to wait, as this is only one of so many ideas arising from the mind of this remarkable artist..

© Efraín Figueroa, 2017

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