When multimedia and technology artist Alberto Gaitán passed away last summer, the DC area lost one of its most brilliant, creative and mischievous minds. A modestly sized, but important exhibit of a few of his projects, as well a video documentation of his ideas in a recording of the short talk he gave at a DASER meeting in 2011, is now on view in the Otis Street Arts Projects gallery space. The show, titled Albertopalooza: The Self-Organizing Systems of Alberto Gaitán was curated by Gaitán’s collaborator and friend, James Huckenpahler, whose useful wall texts help to contextualize and illumine the work. In a sense then, this exhibit is primarily a retrospective of Gaitán’s conceptual stance as it was expressed in his sometimes quirky, often fascinating and surprisingly elegant work.
Gaitán was born in Quito, Ecuador on February 7, 1955, and was a quintessential Aquarius. His father, a Colombian, was a foreign service diplomat of Colombia, taking his wife and six children to various posts including Quito, Japan and Puerto Rico. The foreign service experience, and its effect on young children, with which I am personally familiar, had a lasting impact on him, including the typical restlessness and searching for new ideas after the moving around and the confrontation with adapting to different cultures has ceased. This would certainly mark the artist’s career, and his eventual combining of his love of music, his philosophical stance, and his understanding of science and technology in his art production reflect that.
Still from video of Gaitán’s talk at DASER in 2011. Photo credit David Mordini (OSAP).
I attended the DASER event on March 16, 2011, and recall being struck by the ravages of severe rheumatoid arthritis that struck Gaitán as a young man in the early 70s. Unchecked, it crippled his hands to the extent that he had to give up playing the guitar and his career goal of a career as a musician. At that point he decided to study biology, focusing on evolutionary ecology at the University of Miami. His DASER talk recounts how he eventually had to give up studying biology, again due to his physical limitations, but he “came away with a new understanding of evolutionary processes and an exciting taste for the then newly minted analogy between organic and cultural evolution called Mimetics”. “Adapt or perish” became his motto, but this was not new for him because of his childhood experiences.
After leaving biology he returned to music using the newly available personal computer, “hoping it would be an answer to his body’s decreasing capacity to help [him] attain any virtuosity with conventional musical instruments.” The computer’s potential led him to start thinking in creative terms, relating it to the plasticity of the human brain. Again, from his talk:
“Within these boxes of, to me, inscrutable components [i.e. computers] I could envision creating entire universes of possibility, universes that mirrored my increasingly connected world view, universes that would become as an ecosystem is to a biosphere, as a neuron is to a brain, that could become almost anything.”
The idea of the interconnectedness of all things and processes, including the technological, was at the core of his thinking. This, in addition to his open and generous personality, was also a motive for turning his need for collaboration into a love for it. The last sentences of his talk reflect the two guiding principles of his production: interconnectedness and difficulties of the recording of experience (ordinary, extraordinary and biological) because of the unreliability and entropic nature of memory. Speaking of two of his works (Remembrancer and Still) he closed with:
“Both these pieces address the difficulty inherent in recording experience. The stuff that remains mysterious to us as we communicate these things. And while leveraging interconnectedness, they both create documents that are unreadable to any level of certainty. So, I work in an interdisciplinary manner because everything is connected.”
Alberto Gaitán, Remembrancer, installation as exhibited at Curator’s Office, Washington, DC, 2007. Photo credit Andrea Pollan.
Alberto Gaitán, Remembrancer, installation as exhibited at Otis Street Arts Projects, 2023. Photo courtesy of David Mordini (OSAP).
Although much of Gaitan’s work was performative, ephemeral or interventional, this exhibition assembles representative artifacts and documents that demonstrate the innovative aspects of his work. Perhaps the most important of these is Remembrancer (2007-2009), a work that combined robotics and remote sensing working in real-time to record data received from internet media as paint released onto canvas panels. The artist explains:
[I] worked over four weeks to create three panels using key-word data collected from online sources, each with a different frame of reference. The red panel looked at local and regional key words. The blue panel looked at national keywords. And the green panel at global keywords. Over time, the sum of those keywords mentioned with the greatest frequency caused more paint to deposit at a given point.”
Of course, the creation and exhibition of this work at Curator’s Office coincided with the horrific mass shooting at Virginia Tech that spring—it occurred two days after the opening. Perhaps coincidental, but the red panel, picking up on the use of the word “death” (the only word he revealed he had programmed into the machines) and others connected with that tragedy has the greatest amount of paint. It was impossible to reconstruct the complete project because only Gaitán knew how he built the robots that made the paintings—his technology was not all that straightforward. As Huckenpahler wrote in the wall text “…even with the schematics for the original work, much of the ‘finessing’ was known only to Gaitán”. The panels in the OSAP show are those that were later exhibited in the second version of Remembrancer at the Art Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke (now the Taubman Museum of Art).
The element of chance involved in the project is reminiscent of what happens when a literary work is translated. The resulting work is not the same. It is another work that emerged from the first. The philosophical dimensions of Gaitán’s production are beyond this essay, but they are provocative and compelling.
Alberto Gaitán, Negentrope, Channel 10 Performance video, 17m30s, July 16, 1991. Photo courtesy of David Mordini (OSAP)
The OSAP show features a few video works, including Negentrope, a 17m30s “channel 10 performance” combining Gaitán’s musical and technological talents. The title signifies the notion of “negative entropy”. In this performance it refers to the improvisational playing that were “expressions of dynamic order emerging from the apparent chaos” of the group of musicians who would play at untimed intervals, and at will.
Alberto Gaitán, Untitled (Shared System), Make Noise Shared System modular synthesizer, with headphones, 2022. Photo credit: Claudia Rousseau for East City Art.
The first installation that confronts the visitor on entry is a sound/music piece that Gaitán was still working on last summer. The artist’s nephew and fellow musician Andrès Miller joined Huckenpahler in bringing it to the gallery and installing it in “exactly the state it was in when he passed”. Early in 2022, Gaitán acquired a Make Noise Shared System modular synthesizer into which, over the ensuing months, he would program bits of new music he was composing in collaboration with a small group of friends. Donning the earphones, the visitor hears the unfinished work; a soft, abstract succession of musical sounds in a wavelike pattern that induces a meditative state. While we don’t know where Gaitán was going with this, it remains testimony to the fact that he was working on new things right up to the time of his death. Even in its unfinished state, the piece further reflects Gaitán’s concept of “self-organizing systems” that can emerge from apparent chaos—a concept that can be imagined as operating on a cosmological scale as well as in this modest work.
Albertopalooza: The Self-Organizing Systems of Alberto Gaitán, Otis Street Arts Project, 3706 Otis St., Mt. Rainier, MD 20712, through June 3, 2022 (note extension from original closing date). Hours: Saturday, 12-4 PM; M-F by appointment, email@example.com.
 DASER (DC Art & Science Evening Rendezvous) are a part of the Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Science. The video is now also available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9l0ZxS8Oss
 The artist’s sister, Helena, has said that the family came to the Washington area from Puerto Rico in December of 1968. They had been in Puerto Rico “for approximately 4 years. Prior to that we lived in Japan for almost 5 yrs. We arrived here after my father had retired from the Colombian diplomatic corps. He took a job at the Inter-American Bank and that’s how we ended up in the USA.”
 From the DASER video. All further quotations were all taken from a transcription of Gaitán’s talk made by my ECA colleague Adrian Hernandez.
 From Huckenpahler’s wall text.
 From Huckenpahler’s wall text.