By Christina Rose
At a recent exhibition of Balam Soto’s art technology, an elderly woman shrieked with delight as she created shapes of light while moving her hands. “She was so excited about it, she brought so many people to see this work,” Soto said. “You could see she was changed, her life and her idea of art.”
Soto’s work, which blends existing technology with his own custom digital work and is often interactive, is garnering praise not only in his hometown of Hartford, but across the U.S. and in his homeland of Guatemala.
Soto’s work brings out the child in his viewers, but that sense of childhood curiosity has long been alive in his work. As a young boy in Guatemala, Soto often dreamed of moving to New York City. As he slept, he saw himself in New York, looking up at the sky, a zeppelin drifting slowly over the rows of apartment buildings and high-rises.
As Soto became older, he maintained an interest in painting, but his focus shifted in college to the study of archeology. Disenchanted with his life by the age of 24, Soto told his mother he was headed for the rain forest, and he wasn’t coming back. Stuffing his backpack with all he possessed in the world, he headed into the forest where two weeks later, he met his wife, an American student studying Spanish and Guatemalan history. They soon headed for New York and married. The day Soto stood in Queens and the exact zeppelin of his dreams passed by overhead, Soto knew he was exactly where he was supposed to be.
Soto’s work exudes a magical perspective of possibilities, a sense of the world of he says he inherited from his grandparents. His use of technology becomes art. In one exhibition, Soto’s daughter doesn’t dance to music; she dances, and music is made by her movement.
Soto’s says his art responds to the viewer, rather than the other way around, and his self-portrait is particularly telling. An image akin to a digitized sonogram seems trapped within the computer screen, endlessly wiping the screen from the inside out, beckoning the viewer closer. Does Soto need help getting out? Or is it the viewer who needs help getting in? Soto said, “The concept of digital reality does exist. Sometimes when I think about it, we have an understanding of two realities.”
The ability to see the past and the future is often the basis of Soto’s work. A shamanic mask, reminiscent of the mystical healers with divine powers, that belonged to his grandfather turns up in many of his images. “The concept of the shamanic perception is similar to the digital reality, though more people are brought to digital. Their way does not make them receptive to the shamanic, but reality is intricate.” Seeing the shamanic reality depends upon our acceptance of it, he added.
Soto’s heritage played a large part in forming his own realities. “I listened to my grandmother as a child. We had no TV or radio and she cooked food on a fire. She shared her Mayan mythology with me, which had a huge impact on my life.”
Being Mayan sometimes brings out the misconceptions of those who are surprised at his sophisticated methods of manipulating technology. A designer of his own hardware and software, Soto said, “When I say I am Mayan, they cannot imagine I am doing high-tech artworks. But the Mayan’s discovered science and engineering, and when we are exposed to the tools, we can succeed.”
While there are clues to his heritage throughout his work, Soto feels it is important not to highlight his identity to the point he distances his viewers. “It is about existence rather than ethnicity. This is a universal format. If the painting is about Guatemala topics and issues, people in China won’t get that message. There is no relationship unless you make it universal and all problems can be connected with the same questions.”
Being Guatemalan does play a part in his personal evolution, though. “When you come to a new place, you reinvent yourself. I think of being Mayan, and whatever I do in the U.S. is a reinvention of my own identity.”