Spirituality and AI Intersect in Shaman in the Loop - Young Art Writers Project

This piece was originally published in Soft Time, a zine anthology of art reviews collected by Mauro Baretto for his Art Since 1940 course at Lipscomb University

Published February 21st 2024
By Audrey Gaither

Installation view of Shaman in the Loop, Courtesy of the writer printed through risograph for the Soft Time anthology

The title of Chalet Comellas exhibition of painting, kinetic sound installation, and video projection at Vanderbilt University’s Space 204, Shaman in the Loop, refers to human-in-the-loop, a form of artificial intelligence (AI) that depends on human interaction. Amidst what she describes as a “newly forming relationship” with AI, Comellas considers what kind of meaning, spiritual or otherwise, can be created in the dialogue between the human and algorithmic.

The work Rehearsing apologies to machines we taught to learn takes center stage in the gallery. Projected directly onto a gallery wall, the piece is a constantly-morphing video combining platonic solids, family photos, and astronomical images. Comellas employs AI not only in the creation of the piece, but in its presentation. In this work, the audience’s view is constantly obstructed by motion and distortion. Images of humans are recognizable but warped. Comellas forces her viewer to engage in familiar subject matter, but through the obstruction by technology, she asks what is lost in communication when humanity is removed.

Hello, Shaman contrasts humanity’s ability to complete tasks with our tendency towards introspection. The work illustrates two realities. In one, the AI simply completes a given task, such as recalling movie quotes or writing a poem. In the other, the AI mimics human introspection, asking questions such as: Will I know? Will I speak? Will I love? As humans, we know the difference between pure intellect and emotional contemplation. Comellas points out that artificial intelligence does not; the two realities are represented through identical design. Hello, Shaman highlights the human touch lost when creation relies on automation.

Installation view of Shaman in the Loop, Courtesy of the writer

Artificial intelligence takes on several roles in the show: tool, co-creator, and performer. As the art world considers the role of AI, Comellas allows it to play a role in every facet of her show. Though the viewer engages with artificial intelligence both directly and indirectly, there is a sense that Comellas is keeping it at arm's length, and rightfully so. It is a subject matter that has the risk of becoming the artist itself. In Shaman in the Loop, Comellas invites viewers to experience a world in which meaning is made by the computers we train; but enough of Comellas’ hand is present to remind us of her role in the show, despite her use of artificial intelligence. It is hard to imagine such a successful exhibition without her guiding influence.

Audrey Gaither was born in Nashville, TN. She will graduate with her BFA in Studio Art from Lipscomb University in 2025. Audrey is currently the Director of Open Gallery, a student-run gallery in Nashville's Wedgewood-Houston Arts District. You can find her at audreygaither.com and on Instagram (@audreygaitherart).