How Do You Understand Beyond the Human?

Part of Morphogenic Angels by Keiken

Francesca Gavin sits down with Keiken to unpack the big questions around Morphogenic Angels

Morphogenic is a biological term relating to the movements of cells during growth. This take on shifting and transformation is at the heart of the characters in Keiken Collective’s digital animation commission created exclusively for Somerset House’s platform Channel.

‘Morphogenic Angels’ is a walkthrough of a new role-playing game, set 1,000 years in a future. It is a transhuman love story. A futuristic love story that blends ideas around connection, evolution and organic communication. The work is a dramatic take on futurism, with iridescent, genderless trans-human beings moving through volcanic landscapes, encircled by fire-fly like orbiting lights. The overarching aim of its narrative is to challenge and change our perceptions of reality and defy all that we know.

Tanya Cruz, Hana Omori and Isabel Ramos formed Keiken Collective in 2015, and increasingly gaining serious international attention – winning the Chanel Next Prize, alongside inclusions in the Thailand Biennale, Venice Architecture Biennale and spaces with a strong understanding on digital art innovation such as HEK in Basel, FACT in Liverpool and London’s ICA.

The collective’s name comes from the Japanese word for ‘experience’, something that is fundamental for their narrative-led games, installations, animations and sculptural works. The trio met studying Fine Art at Falmouth and collaboration has been fundamental from their start – moving from performance and installation into an increasingly multi-sensory digital space. Creating a film in the Metaverse was a key moment in their practice. “Since 2019, we’ve worked in gaming engines. Before that, we used to create these massive performances that were RPGs - very immersive, with set design and soundscapes.”

Keiken are completely self-taught and also work with a growing group of collaborators. They work in a hybrid, complex way – a fusion of visual artists, architects, directors, researchers, animators, designers, sculptors and programmers. The result is work using a variety of tools from motion capture to digital avatar building, 3D printing to haptic wearable technology.

Their latest film shares the overarching structure of catharsis in computer games. A beginning and end – even if the gaming journey is unique. Keiken’s project is a game but not with the aggressive, violent, so-called ‘masculine’ energy that feeds traditional games. Here the aim is to emotionally connect to and communicate with other beings. Much of their work draws from Butoh philosophy and Japanese spiritualism;ideas around compassion, energy release and shifting understanding. As Hana describes, “we're trying to make people imagine a future and engage with what a radical future could be like. Post capitalism, post work, post depression.”

Morphogenic Angels is an online work – though increasingly Keiken’s work is also manifesting as multi-sensory sculpture and installation. When the tech isn’t there to realise their ideas, Keiken are happy to invent it. As Hana puts it, “We have been innovating a lot of technologies, because the technology doesn't serve us.” They have developed bone-conduction headphones, enabling the wearer to hear two channels of sound. The player literally steps into the thoughts of the avatar they are playing as. “We have the internal dialogue with the character whilst also being able to play the game. You have the outside cinematic experience, but you also feel like you are having the internal dialogue of the character. It's quite emotional,” Hana explains.

They are also pioneering developments in gameplay experience. “We have created our own dynamic camera system where you just seamlessly flow between gameplay and cutscenes. But you don't get any motion sickness. So a huge audience could watch it as if it's a film, whilst also playing it as a game,” Hana explains.

Sound and music are central to everything Keiken do. Their work includes spoken vocals, filmic soundscapes and samples. They layer all these elements in different ways. “Tanny is part Huastec which is an indigenous Mexican tribe. It's not a written language. We've been using it more and more.” Their diasporic personal histories are one of the fundamental influences and elements – drawing from their Mexican, Japanese, Spanish and Jewish heritage.

The trio is looking at people like cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman. “He wrote the book called ‘The Case Against Reality’. He scientifically proved that the probability of seeing reality is zero. He found calculations for invisible entities that interact with us that we don't know about. There is an algorithm for infinity. There might be an algorithm for God,” Hana explains. Keiken fuse serious thinking with spiritual practice and Asian philosophies. “We really want to think expansively. It's very fantastical. You've got to think beyond your own consciousness.”

The aim is always emotional, empathetic and experiential. This is work that draws you in and raises big questions. “How do you answer these morphogenic angels?” Hana asks. “How do you understand beyond the human?”

Written by

    Francesca Gavin

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