Digital Mudra (1986-89)
Sonya Rapoport

Digital Mudra (1986–1989), is an exhibition presenting original photographs, 35mm slides, and an artist-published edition by Sonya Rapoport (1923–2015).

Exhibition Digital Mudra (1986-89)
Artists Sonya Rapoport
Date March 28 - May 4, 2024
Venue Bibeau Krueger, New York

Sonya Rapoport (American, b. 1923, Brookline, MA; d. 2015, Berkeley, CA) is considered a pioneer in new media. Rapoport used the personal computer in interactive gallery exhibitions as early as 1982 to explore what she called “soft material:” data about domestic spaces, sentimental objects, her shoe collection, and emotional states, subjects that she characterized as explicitly feminist. Rapoport’s tenacity in developing material methodologies for creating artwork in relation to the accelerated information age in which she lived included multivariate participant-based installations with an emphasis on pattern-finding and organizational similarities shared between humans and their data sets.

By cataloging human behavior, Rapoport analyzed the personal and the political through data, performance, and photographic media. Digital Mudra grew from Rapoport’s fascination with the way meaning can be expressed through gesture. She began with a set of photographs of participant’s hands derived from her computer-mediated performance Biorhythm (Works Gallery, San José, California, 1983), in which she gathered data about viewers’ personalities and emotional states. Searching for preexisting systems to categorize and decode these ambiguous gestures, she identified the mudra gesture language used in South Indian kathakali dance tradition, in which the positions of the hands and fingers translate to specific words or concepts that can be used to tell a story.

Anchoring the exhibition are thirty-five wall-mounted plexiglass frames arranged in an irregular grid pattern that relate to a poem, providing a visual sequence for photographs from Biorhythm. Each photograph is mounted in an acrylic shadow box and superimposed with a mudra that visually matches the gesture in the photograph. These are labeled with phrases that participants used to express how they were feeling, as well as translations of the mudras. This work was first exhibited in the computer-mediated “audience participation performance” Digital Mudra, at KALA Art Institute, Berkeley, in 1987, in which Rapoport worked with esteemed kathakali dancer K.P. Kunhiraman (1931-2014).

The current exhibition also includes a projected 35mm slide show featuring hand gestures clipped from newspapers in the mid-1980s. These images include world leaders and public figures, as well as comic strip characters, each matched with a mudra gesture. The juxtaposition of reportage of political violence and international conflict with bizarre or childish humor is both jarring and typical of Rapoport’s practice, which is both a serious attempt to create new systems of understanding of the human condition, and a lighthearted parody which pokes fun at itself. Rapoport offers the paranoid suggestion that there exists a secret gesture language which, analyzed by computer, can be used to decode subconscious patterns in human relationships.

The final element of the exhibition is an artist book and software publishing project Digital Mudra (diskette), (1988), which contains documentation of the interactive exhibition, an instructional booklet, thirty-five digital mudra cards, and a floppy disk with an interactive program that prompts viewers to select mudras and compose a poem. This reflects Rapoport’s active participation in early computer-networked creative communities, including Fine Art Forum and Art Com, which distributed Rapoport’s software. A related version of Digital Mudra was also published online in 1989, predating the World Wide Web.

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