Maya Hackers WikiLab
Maya Hackers is a bundle of projects at the interphase between art, culture and social design. The projects explore ways to Re Inject Mayan culture elements into Guatemalan culture, as part of the transformation process taking place in the country.
The name comes from the article: Maya Hackers and the Cyberspatialized Nation State, by American sociologist Diane Nelson, where she notes that the transformation of the country stirred up by indigenous organisations proceeds by Re programming the collective imagery, to change the imposed view that the indigenous culture is backward, obsolete, useless, and incompatible with science and technology.
The Maya Hackers projects propose future oriented views of Mayan culture at the interphase with other cultures, to break off with the strong stereotype that indigenous cultures are something from the past. In the same way the evolution of our body is stored in our DNA, many ancient cultural memes remain alive in contemporary culture. If those cultural memes have survived to this day, is because they play a role in the integrity and identity of social groups, and understanding them expands our capacity as human beings.
Age of Wonderland
The Maya Hackers project was presented at the 2014 Dutch Design Week as part of the Age of Wonderland event, organised by the dutch institutions HIVOS and Eindhoven based Baltan Labs. This event allowed to look inside several art and design projects and learn techniques and ideas that have been useful in the continuous process of re-design happening within Maya Hackers. This is particularly important for the Mirror of Winal card deck, the Solar Eye calendar sculpture, and the Mayan Chocolate projects described below.
Ancient Cultures and Open Source
It happens with ancient cultures that their elements can be used without restriction, they are considered heritage of humanity. In practise they are treated like a free repository of designs and ideas that anybody can take and use. The issue is more complex when those ancient cultures are living cultures, because you could be taking an element that is highly significative for somebody. In some sense, for these people those cultural elements are part of themselves, and by taking such cultural elements you are interacting with them in some way.
Living Ancient Cultures analogy to Open Source
There is a difference in taking cultural elements that nobody uses anymore, and taking elements that still are part of the identity of a group. The first cultural elements could be treated like a free repository, but the second set are more like an open source repository. Open source is not equal to free stuff. Open source is a different kind of economy where many people work on a program for "free" because the program is their working tool to do other stuff. For example everybody in a community will naturally work together to construct a road or a bridge for the community, because everyone is going to use it, and nobody is able to do it alone.
With open source, it is the use value of the software what keeps the economy going. The contributors to the Open source project will gain reputation that can be readily exchanged in the environment of the project, for example to get a better job offer, or to get more financing for a project, etc. So working in the open source project for "free" is your way to promote yourself in this "reputation economy" that happens between the users of the software.
Take for example the Mayan textile, at the heart of this industry is the fact that Mayan woman produce it and wear it in a self supporting cycle. Since the textiles are very beautiful, they can also reach other markets and produced for export. But the need to evolve the designs and introduce new variations comes from the fact that women use it and are ready to pay for the new models coming up every season. Knowing how to make very customised designs is a highly priced ability, and that keeps the art alive. Nobody owns the designs, they are more valued the more people use them and understand them like the elements of a language shared by a community. The same way a poem makes something different out of words that everyone uses, a skilful designer can make a new textile out of the common design pool.
In Open Source, a free rider is somebody who uses the software, but does not contribute reporting bugs, or in the forums. A free rider in open source software is not a problem, since the software is free anyway, and copying does not affect its value. But if you take elements of a living culture and use them out of context without making any reference to their origin and cultural meaning or value, you are devaluating the economy in two ways, one by inflating it introducing more copies of the originals made by the indigenous community, and not mentioning the origin and cultural background of the product you take away the value that could have by denomination of origin, and the value it may have as a cultural experience.
Protected Denomination of Origin
For example consider the French products, (they really invented these things), if the idea exists that France makes good products, then every time somebody buys a French wine, and it is good, all other french products will share this aura, and the overall value of the "French" brand benefits from every successful trade of a french product.
Exactly in the same way, if every time somebody eats chocolate will recall the ancient Mesoamerican civilisations who domesticated and worshiped the tree, those cultures will benefit from it, and this denomination of origin helps to keep those cultures and ecosystems alive. To round up, the Maya Hackers projects are very sensitive to this point. And the design tries to follow the open source philosophy, taking elements from the culture, but sharing the results and the sources of information with other "users" of the culture.
The Seed Projects
The Maya Hackers projects are designed in analogy with seeds, the projects should contain the means to grow and propagate. To consider this "sustainability" of a project or the viability of a vector for a culture meme, is to couple it somehow to the economy, the fine point in the design is: Where is its source of energy? Who is going to pay for it?. The projects described below are the more developed ones, but you can find many more in the Seed Projects Full List.
The Mirror of Winal
The Oracle of the 20 Day Signs. This pack of cards and instruction booklet based on the Chol Q´ij Mayan Calendar can be used to explore different variations of an idea, triggered by the influences attributed to each day of a 20 day cycle called winal, which means "person". The Chol Q´ij calendar is one of the most important cultural legacies of the Mesoamerican civilisations and it has been in use for more than 3000 years up to now.
The 2012 beta and only version consists of 260 packs. You can order one from Amazon Here The main feature of this version is the inclusion of the Tziber Nawal characters, somehow the "pokemon" version of each one of the 20 nawales of the Chol Q´ij calendar. The inspiration for this design is the Japanese manga, where ancient cultural elements are introduced naturally in the most futuristic scenarios.
Trough the collaboration with Baltan Labs it was possible to interview with Marco van Haaften, creative services manager from Cartamundi, the biggest card making company in the world. He has experience with cards and thought the idea was fresh and interesting, however Cartamundi produces thousands of different card decks, and they cannot engage in the production of new card sets, unless it goes trough some procedure. We were addressed to a german company specialised in Tarot card decks, but the thing didn´t go further. However, we got important insights into the card making business. We also learnt that the biggest market for cards is South Corea, and that the big companies are saturated with thousands of decks. It was also interesting to receive a full catalogue of tarot cards from Cartamundi in order to know everything there is to know in the field of Tarot card design.
As a result, the new version of the Mirror of Winal will use this information to adapt to the South Corean market, and to look for a small company that is able to sense the niche markets that may exist where there is demand of new card sets. To this end we requested the collaboration of Eindhoven based South Corean designer Mingsung Wang from Studio Mashed to discuss the re-design of the cards.
Age of Wonder 100 years of NatLab
Another major contribution of this experience was to meet the british psychiatrist Iain McGillchrist author of the book The Master and His Emisary, on the divided brain and the making of the western world, at the Age of Wonder conference: The beauty and Terror of progress, celebrating 100 years of the Philips research laboratory NatLab, where several important authors lectured about their views on the future of technology and humanity. This book has many implications for the theme of oracles, randomness and the origin of consciousness, and the new instruction booklet for the cards will be designed with this book in mind. It is very encouraging that McGillchrist very generously replied to a letter I sent asking for permission to cite his work on the Mirror of Winal instruction book, and expressed his interest in the development of this project.
Before this book I thought that the Maya Hackers projects are about the interphase between the indigenous cultures and the so called western culture, between mysticism and logic, the ancient versus the new. But now I see that these common binary oppositions arise from the interaction of the two hemispheres of the divided brain. And so this "Hacking" is happening at a deep level indeed.
New Version and the Divided Brain
The first prototype of the cards in 2012 took more than 5 years to develop going trough several stages. After the 2012 version, many card decks have been introduced to a wide variety of persons to observe their reactions. Considerable experience was developed in reading and interpreting the cards combined with the insights into the divided nature of the brain, in such a way that the instruction booklet will grow into a little book to gather those experiences.
Astronomy is a very important topic for the Re Programming of the collective imagery in Guatemala, as both mathematical and astronomical achievements are seen as the landmarks of the ancient Maya civilisation. It is not by chance that such knowledge was suppressed and destroyed. The great demand from the Mayan population to know more about these topics is more that simple curiosity for the sky, it is a strong political statement of re claiming a cultural heritage that was destroyed. Today it is quite remarkable the lack of information available to the population on these themes, even the wikipedia lacks substantial information.
The Solar Eye is a solar calendar sculpture, the plays of light and shadows on the surface mark the solstices and equinoxes. The design is part of a broader project of studying naked eye astronomy to understand the surviving Mayan codices. This is a long term goal of the Mayan School of Political Action, who financed the Solar Eye in the Tzunen mountain in San Marcos, Guatemala.
Following the idea of finding suitable vectors for the diffusion of the projects, the solar eye was presented at the San Carlos State University of Guatemala. Placing the sculpture on the largest university campus in the country certainly will place it in the public imagery, and it will allow several opportunities to repeat the teachings encoded on its shape.
Solar Eye and the Age of Wonderland
The new model of the solar eye is designed to mark four pairs of important dates marking solstices, equinoxes, ascio and nadir. The last events occur only inside the tropics and correspond to the days when the sun is exactly above the head at midday, and exactly below our feet at midnight respectively. Since most countries in the Age of Wonderland project are inside the tropics, the solar eye sculpture and related project of learning naked eye astronomy connected with the local ancient culture can be naturally transplanted to other countries.
Every different country where the solar eye project is implemented will modify and change the shape and iconography, thus collecting different mythologies, stories, calendars and local customs around the tropics. In fact, for the peoples living in the tropics, the days of zenith and nadir passage of the sun were more important than solstices or equinoxes for ritual purposes.
Astronomy in the Mayan Codices
The long term goal of this project is to provide access to the Guatemalan population in general, and the Maya in particular to the results of academic research on the surviving Mayan codices. There is a real demand from the people for this educational material, and no institution is working on it, or even interested in the topic. Another interesting fact is that there are no pages in wikipedia on the subject, other than very elementary descriptions of the codices.
The goals of this project are to contribute to the wikipedia with this material and to create a series of videos about the surviving Mayan codices, to re inject that knowledge in art, culture, crafts and textiles. Because those are the traditional vectors for the ancient Mayan culture.
The political implications of the simple study of this topic in Guatemala are far beyond simple scientific curiosity. The suppression of Mayan culture is a very important part of the colonisation strategies. The continuity of the Mayan culture is something strongly denied by the white oligarchy, and this may explain a bit the lack of this information in the national education system. As was mentioned before, the Solar Eye in the Tzunen mountain was produced by a school of political action.
The main objective of these projects is to design economically viable solutions to the problems affecting the very few remaining forest patches in the country. Common sense, supported by several studies show that there is an urgent need to connect those forest patches with so called "biological corridors" to preserve the animals living on every patch. So the design task is to come up with ways to make those biological corridors a profitable business to engage the local communities, farmers and land owners surrounding the forests to re use some land as parts of the biological corridors.
Traditional reforestation is made with mono cultives of trees used for wood, a biological corridor instead is made of a variety of trees that resemble the original forests. The goal of the design is to create the notion of the value of those corridors, in such a way that people will support the preservation of the corridor by buying the products of the forest, at whatever price it takes to make them sustainable.
There are many species with cultural value that are of no value in the foreign markets, for that reason they are not cultivated, but only extracted from forests, like the elements to make Mayan incense, or the Hormiguero wood to make traditional musical instruments. The survival of those traditions is tied to the survival of these species, and vise-versa, and for this reason it is natural to consider the whole complex of ecology and culture in the design of these projects. Here let´s have a look at the chocolate example, but there are many other species that can be useful to make interesting products, like the perfume made with Mayan incense, or an alcoholic drink following an ancient recipe found by the archaeologists, containing several species of tree products, and so on.
Cacao is one of the most sacred plants for the Mesoamerican civilisations. It was a symbol of social status, in fact so important that it was used as money. However for most people around the world the word chocolate brings memories of places where cacao is processed, like Switzerland for example. We mentioned before in the section Open Source and living cultures that by taking away the cultural value of the chocolate, in a way you are devaluating the cultural environment where the product comes from. This cultural value that is taken out of the Swiss chocolate, is something that could be used to support the growth of biological corridors in endangered areas of the rain forest, and used to keep alive the culture around the traditional use of cacao.
Extending this notion of fair trade with this cultural aspect will benefit both parts in trade, it will help the sustainability of the cultures and ecosystems where cacao traditionally grows, and on the other hand, besides the usual experience of the hearth shaped chocolate, you could have a chocolate bit that transports your mind to ancient times, speaking of different gods and mythologies connecting you with a particular eco system and the people who coexist with it from thousands of years.
The biological corridors with cacao and other culturally important plants is so far the best solution available to the conservation of protected areas in Guatemala, the main problem is to establish the economical apparatus that will make it profitable for the people living there, and the design of products extracted from the organically grown protected biological corridors and their marketing should be the main concern of these efforts.
There are already some companies promoting this type of fair trade, like the Swiss Original Beans focused in the ecological aspect, or the British Green and Black´s Maya Gold chocolate bars, that explicitly mentions the Maya tag.
Sketch of a Project
Suppose a well known chocolate company like Ritter Sport acknowledges the cultural link of chocolate with the Maya culture, even if they are not buying directly the cacao from Mayan farmers, the sole recognition of the origin of chocolate benefits the overall aura of the "Maya" brand.
Ritter Sport has some denomination of origin chocolate bars, here we show an example of how will look a chocolate bar that helps the formation of biological corridors in the protected areas of the Guatemalan rainforest. It may contain a filling with exotic rainforest ingredients for example.
We have identified already the potential areas for the first biological corridors according to technical studies carried in the protected areas, and already made contacts with the national institutions in charge of promoting the cacao plantations giving technical assistance, quality controls and financial support for the local production. The next step is to find partners in these projects.
Reprogramming the collective Imagery in Guatemala
The people who should be more concerned with the preservation of bio diversity are Guatemalans themselves, however, it is true that quite often it is easier to influence Guatemalan society if USA or Europe say something. It is important for the implementation of the biological corridor program to teach people in Guatemala that you can support this important task directly by buying the products of the corridor. Knowing that this is what makes the place safe for animals and plants. Therefore, the Mayan Chocolate project involve many different products and business strategies.