Artifact of the Astral Valley

Currents Festival 2023 and Mesa Festival 2023
Physical Installation, Storytelling
Summer 2023

Dreamed up by Zeve Cohen and Hayden Carey, The Artifact of the Astral Valley is an ancient civilization’s gizmo that’s been left to rot until you, an unwitting wanderer, awakens the mystical machine and discovers it’s miraculously still alive and churning.

Skills Used: 
  • World-building
  • Production, Planning & Scheduling
  • TouchDesigner
  • Physical Computing
  • Arduino
  • Python
  • Microsoft Kinect Development
  • Tech Fabrication
  • Sculpting

The Currents 2023 Festival project page can be found here.

Big Idea

The Artifact of the Astral Valley is a fictional piece inspired by time spent in the New Mexican landscape, where the land feels alive, conscious, and touched by others that came before. The piece, an ancient and overgrown contraption, is found by the participant. Driven by their natural curiosity, they are encouraged to learn more about the technological relic, unveiling a glimpse of a narrative of the civilization that may have developed it. Through image, sound, and the juxtaposition between the natural, the mechanical, and the digital, the work reminds audiences of the symbiotic relationship between their current lives, nature, and the past. In doing so it hints at a larger storyline that distorts our beliefs of the present, past, and natural world.

As the audience turns the dial on the mysterious machine, a cycle of images embedded in the opposing rock face reveal nature, technology, and life. It is as though all time and history of the place is collapsed into this one sequence.  


I met Zeve soon after starting at Meow Wolf. Both new to Santa Fe and psyched to be working at Meow Wolf, we wanted to make an interactive piece ourselve. We teamed up and began ideating. Our new home of beautiful Santa Fe served as our anchor for the ideation process. We decided to merge the natural grandeur of New Mexico with my background and interest in interactive media arts with Zeve’s background in mechanical design.

Once we landed on the the theme for the project, it was time to begin production. The piece went through three iterations: Gen 1: Prototype, Gen 2: Proof of Concept, and the current version, Gen 3: First Article.

For Gen 1: Prototype:
We started with our minimal viable product. Our “cave wall” was a small plank of wood. We 3D printed a 6 inch diamter iris and hooked it up to a motor. We used a solderless breadboard and a prototype board. I wrote some basic code to manually control the motor and sensors. I maded the generative visuals TouchDesigne. And we had our prototype. We submitted the prototype to Santa Fe’s Currents Art & Technology Festival and were conditionally accepted to the 2023 festival!

For Gen 2: Proof of Concept:
Once accepted, we were asked to showcase the piece to the festival organizers. Zeve and I iterated to our Proof Concept: 

Fictional Backstory

Millions of years ago, a roboticist from the future descended onto the Astral Valley. He did not know where he was, only that he was in the very distant past. The locals at first were bewildered and suspicious of the man, but allowed him to live on the margins of their society. Slowly, he learned to conform to the Ancient Astral Valley civilization, and the civilization grew to accept him. While the man shared his vast knowledge of technology, the Astral Valley people shared their deep religious beliefs and vast resources. Totally convinced of the beauty of their religious beliefs, the time traveler and the people of Astral Valley together developed astounding gizmos, widgets, and elaborate contraptions. One of these machines was engineered to send the scientist back to the present. The installation is this machine, lost for hundreds of years, overgrown, and now discovered by the participant.

Technical Description

The Artifact of the Astral Valley, an interactive installation, consists of projected digital art, responsive electro-mechanical assemblies, an interactive interface, and natural (foliage and rockwork) theming.

Bidirectional communication between a Kinect Sensor, an Arduino and TouchDesigner controls all of the interactions: A Kinect sensor identifies the presence and proximity of the participant, sends data to Touchdesigner, triggering the machine’s awakened state. Touchdesigner then sends data to an Arduino activating the awakened elements, including LED lights brightening and a stepper motor actuating a large mechanical iris, revealing the projected art (developed in TouchDesigner). A mounted pico projector is behind the piece.

The participant is then able to trigger and observe the machine’s different states by turning a dial. The majority of the installation is to be designed in computer-aided design software and digitally fabricated using laser cutting, CNC milling, and 3D printing.

Experience Context

On a night hike through the New Mexican high desert, you see a subtle flickering orb and follow its light to a deep pocket of an arroyo. You hear a distant hum, thinking it is just the crickets of the valley, but the closer you get to the light, the hum grows distinct from the crickets or anything else in nature, more like old machinery. Eventually you come to the spot where the blue light originates. It is cast on what appears to be a man-made interface, overgrown with desert shrubs. Examining it closer, half-buried in root, dirt, and sandstone, you discover a dial and the desk’s inner guts full of electronic components, gears and blue shimmering light. Suddenly, a hole in the rock face opens. You are surrounded by sound and light. The panel now comes alive, clicking, flashing, and singing. Directly ahead, the wondrous cliff wall activates with stunnings projections, shimmering lights, and moving parts. You decide that now is the time to act. You turn the dial on the panel, and a new visual appears. With each turn, the graphic evolves, each with a different complexity and significance.