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​‘The Technology of the Soul’: In Conversation with Tattfoo Tan

Interview by Lara Saguisag, associate professor, English Department, CUNY-The College of Staten Island.

Lara Saguisag is one of the co-organizers of the 2022 UN-PIT Annual Convening. She is an associate professor of English at the College of Staten Island-City University of New York. In fall 2022, she will be joining New York University as Georgiou Chair in Children’s Literature and Literacy.

Tattfoo Tan. Photo courtesy of Tattfoo Tan.

For some, technology and the arts may seem antithetical to one another. But technology can enable the creation, distribution, circulation, and preservation of works of art. For its part, the arts allows us to interrogate and reimagine technology; it enables us to envision technologies as tools for connecting rather than dividing, for healing rather than destroying, for serving the common good rather than private interests.

For the 2022 Public Interest Technology University Network (PIT-UN) Annual Convening, taking place Oct. 28-29, artist Tattfoo Tan will facilitate a workshop on the intersection of public interest technology, spirituality, and the arts. Tan’s practice focuses on issues relating to ecology, sustainability, and healthy living. His work is project-based, ephemeral, and educational in nature. Tan has exhibited at multiple venues, including the Queens Museum; Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School; and the Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati. He is the recipient of grants from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Art Matters, Joan Mitchell Foundation, the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, and Staten Island Arts. 

Tan has been widely recognized for his artistic contributions and service to the community and was honored in a proclamation from the city of New York. In 2010, he received the annual Award for Excellence in Design by NYC’s Public Design Commission for his design and branding of the super-graphic on the Bronx River Art Center. For more about Tan, visit his website and follow him on Instagram @tattfoo.

Q. On the second day of convening (Oct. 29), you’ll be hosting a workshop that will enable participants to explore the connections between public interest technology and the arts. You are envisioning the workshop as a “satsang” — a Sanskrit word that can be translated to “a gathering of true people.” How can the concept and experience of a satsang enable us to think more deeply about technology’s role in our lives and its relationship to the arts?

Modern technology enhances only our outer life. Only spiritual technology will improve our inner life. Arts is the medium for this technology. We experience it as music in hymns and chants; dance in offerings and esthetic body movements; visual arts in altars and temples.

I use the term “satsang” to evoke the format: We’ll have a short lecture, do exercises, and have a discussion. I find that at the core of our fears is the fear of death, so we’ll dive in and explore that particular fear, in conjunction with the season of fall and all the festivals happening around that time. We will learn to program our minds using a sigil. We will travel in time and write our own obituaries and perhaps take a secret hike to visit the graves of the sailors that took residence on the campus. 

Remember: Apocalypse happens to us every day, every second. We have about 4,000 weeks in our life. On your next birthday, remember how many days you have left, not how many years you lived. It is not morbid but a look at reality as it is. We’ll explore who we truly are. Perhaps we’ll discover cases of mistaken identity. This exploration is equivalent to a reset button on a device. It refreshes the system and optimizes it.

Q. We were moved by your installation New Earth Apocalypse Knowledge Advancement that is on display at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center and Botanical Garden on Staten Island. NEAKA serves to remind us that we should prepare for and directly address social and environmental crises. Now a common narrative is that technologies create and exacerbate such crises. In what ways do you think technologies can be reoriented so that they can enable us to address and avoid conflicts and catastrophes?

What is modern technology? It is an enhanced tool, either in physical or digital form. If one is not skilled in using basic hand tools, acquiring a power – tools surely will be a disaster. As we often hear, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

As we distance ourselves from nature in our daily life, our souls yearn to go back to using our hands, working with the earth, and relearning old ways. Stepping backwards is important for us to leap forward. It helps us regain our sense of purpose in life. We don’t progress with advancement of technology; it is through spirituality that we truly understand who we are. We advance through the technology of the soul.

I don’t think technology is the cause of any social ills, but rather a catalyst that can bring such ills into the forefront of our social psyche. In this way, technology can act as a mirror that forces us to see our shadow selves. We can think about technology through Henry David Thoreau’s words in Walden: “They are but improved means to an unimproved end.” At the same time, technology is not the solution to our problems, either. But it does have the potential to become a great tool in aiding and facilitating our evolution.

New Earth Apocalypse Knowledge Advancement, the sculpture you saw on the ground of the Snug Harbor campus, is a vessel. A vessel is a symbol of the spiritual journey: It is shaped to work with nature and harvest its energy, not work against it. It cuts through the sea, it captures the wind, it displaces the water in order to achieve buoyancy. In some cultures, a vessel is the carrier of the soul. Voyages are often portrayed as allegories of a crossing from the realm of the living to that of the dead, or a journey through life from which one returns to bring back light and wisdom for all. To embark on an expedition is to engage with the unknown: one moment is perfect stillness and the next a perfect storm. As seafarers, all we can do is to stay afloat, to survive and surrender to the forces at work — a perfect metaphor for how to navigate life. 

Tattfoo Tan’s recommended media list in preparation of day two, the UNConvening

Healing Humankind in Order to Heal the Land: A workbook that was published in conjunction with an exhibition Tan did in 2019 on the Snug Harbor campus. It is about non-duality, exercises, and divination.
Two Sides of the Same Coin: Life and Death from an Artistic Perspective: A talk Tan gave in the historic Unitarian Church of Staten Island located next door to Snug Harbor Cultural Center. 

Related Reading

Convening Summer Reading List: On Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurism

PIT-UN Convening Preview:
What to Expect