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Asthir Gehrayee: The Process Behind the Art

An installation inviting audiences to plunge into the depths with us to make an embodied wish to heal the ocean

A blog entry by BeFantastic Within Fellows and creators of Asthir Gehrayee, one of several winning commissions due to premier at FutureFantastic Festival in Bangalore March 2023, as part of the British Council’s India/UK Together Season of Culture.



Artists: David McFarlane, Irini Kalaitzidi, Jaime Jackson, Monica Hirano and Sayli Kulkarni

Our team itself is spread across the oceans – David McFarlane, a sound and digital artist, and Jaime Jackson, a visual and relational socially engaged artist, are both based in the UK; Irini Kalaitzidi, a choreographer and computational artist from Greece, is also based in the UK; Monica Hirano, a performance artist and curator, is from Brazil and currently based in France; and Sayli Kulkarni is a dancer and movement artist from, and based in, India, where the project will be hosted as part of the 2023 FutureFantastic Festival in Bangalore.

The first phase of our development has been to deepen our understanding of the things that inspire the project.

The sea’s fauna and flora, that inform the visuals of the piece and looking into rituals that have been performed by different groups across history to heal and worship the magnificence of the sea

In our installation, the audience takes an active part in allowing our visual interpretation of the sea to thrive and unfold. We aim to ask audience members to engage with the piece through movement, which they will see reflected gradually in the developing scene of the ocean before them. This requires careful thought from us – How do we make the work meaningful while doing justice to the beauty of the ocean and the urgency of the problems at hand? How do we ensure the piece is accessible enough to connect with audiences and ensure their time and effort are brought to life through the interactive nature of the work?

To find inspiration for the latter, we have been researching rituals throughout human history – asking audiences to perform a ritual that borrows from cultural practices from cultures across time and the globe. For instance, in Japanese culture, fishermen pray to Ebisu, the God of the seas and prosperity, before they talk to the seas. Another example can be found in the traditional Yoruba religion of Nigeria, where the Goddess Yemanja, protector of women and patron saint of rivers, is also believed to be the guardian of the sea. In examples like these, we aim to identify the types of bodily movements done by worshipers in order to gain insight into how we may develop our own rituals.

We are also researching ritualistic movements used for self-healing, with the hope that if we are able to elicit change from within for an audience member, it also echoes outside. For that, we are using Tai Chi and Qi Gong as a reference, as their movements are very expressive and therefore easy to track with a motion capture system. The last and most important of our inspirations are the gesture patterns that phytoplankton perform: being passive with the waves of the sea yet possessing fast, active movement of their ‘pili’, the little hair/paws around their bodies. 

A major part of the next phase of the project will be to test and choreograph these sets of movements to create our own ritual for the audience to engage with.

While taking inspiration from culture, our work is also informed by climate and ecological ocean science, in order to ensure that we, as artists, and our audiences are better informed by research. Man-made risks impact the oceans on a local and global level, and it is vital that humanity learns how these risks can be mitigated, by understanding the crucial role healthy oceans (plankton populations, in particular) play in shaping the earth’s climate. Our research has led us to speak with a range of scientists, including UK-based oceanographers and ocean change modellers at the University of Liverpool and the Plymouth Marine Lab, such as Dr Claire Widdecomb, a plankton ecologist, Dr Lee de Mora, Marine ecosystem modeller, and Jonathan Sharples, Professor of Ocean Sciences. Our goal is not just to find out about their scientific research, but also to better understand the emotions and feelings they have about their work, so as to reflect and communicate their passion in our own work.

In relation to this, we are exploring possible ways of incorporating scientific data in the visuals of the ocean. So far, we have singled out two types of possible data that might be fruitful to use: The first includes numeric data that showcases the decreasing population of phytoplankton in the oceans and their contribution to the carbon cycle throughout the years. This data can be visualised through diagrams of some sort (see experiments in Figures 1, 2 and 3) but we are still unsure as to whether this is an effective way to engage and sensitise audiences beyond citing facts.

The second type of data that we are interested in, includes images or videos of plankton under a microscope (see Figures 4, 5 and 6). The images are awe-inspiring and open up a gateway to better understanding the anatomy and movement mechanics of these brilliant more-than-human creatures. We believe that visualising phytoplankton under the microscope will build us a step closer towards thinking about them in a more caring and empathetic manner; this has been our personal experience so far by looking deeper into the ocean and its inhabitants.

Speaking of deep dives, over the past couple of months, we shot various underwater videos (see Figure 7, Figure 8 and Figure 9) which could work as a liquid blue background canvas for our projections. Of course, while exploring all these possibilities, we are aware that at some point, we should bind all the elements together into something more aesthetically cohesive.

Another crucial element in the next stage of our development is the technology used to facilitate the interactive part of the project. We want our visuals to slowly blossom and develop over time, but only through the active participation of our audiences in the project. Although we have been looking into rituals with rich movement phrases as the audience’s interactive wish for healing the ocean, of late, we considered responding only to the speed with which they move, rather than tracking specific movements; if they move too quickly, or too little, the visuals will begin to regress and decay. They will have to work collectively to find the balance of speed for the visuals to flourish. We speculated this would create a simpler and more straightforward interactive relationship between the audience and the visuals. It would require the audience to agree in unison to coordinate their speed to form the perfect visual wish to heal the oceans. We believe that this approach would make the piece more accessible to the expected big and varied crowds of the festival.

However, we are still facing a technological and user experience challenge – how do we communicate effectively with the audience, while creatively carrying out the requests of our ritual? We could have anywhere up to a hundred people take part in this experience at any given point in time.

How do we ensure this experience works at such a scale, without compromising on the meaningful and effective experience it aims to show, even if a single audience member interacts with it?

Developing our technology to be responsive as well as flexible will be crucial for the effectiveness of the project. We are working on prototypes using Max and Processing to bring our ideas to life, and prepare to scale our project. The challenge now is to integrate both technology and movement rituals, in the hope that together it will encourage audiences to come with us, and explore the hidden depths of Asthir Gehrayee.


Asthir Gehrayee is the product of an artistic collaboration formed during the BeFantastic Within Fellowship, an online programme fostering international connections between creatives in the UK and India, exploring AI technologies and creating provocative performance pieces amplified with creative AI.

As one of the BeFantastic winning commissions, Asthir Gehrayee will premier March 2023 at the FutureFantastic Festival, an exciting and ambitious new AI+Art festival as part of the British Council’s India Together UK Season of Culture, celebrating the remarkable bond between two countries and exploring our cultures, our shared planet and our relationship with digital technologies that will shape our future together. Conceptualized by Jaaga’s BeFantastic (India), in association with FutureEverything.

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