Altared Spaces: New Orleans Revisited


Anna M. Chupa

Director, Design Arts Program and
Associate Professor, Department of Art and Architecture
Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA


Michael A. Chupa

Senior Computing Consultant, Environmental Initiative
and Library and Technology Services
Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA





The imagery in Altared Spaces is based upon transformations of two traditions: African Vodun in New Orleans, specifically Priestess Miriam’s New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple, and the Italian-American celebration of St. Joseph’s feast day. The latter, which centers on providing food to the poor, is especially poignant given New Orleans’ devastation following Hurricane Katrina.

The audio portion of the installation is a continuously evolving real-time performance derived from traditional drumming sequences, both as a celebration of the spiritual and artistic expression of those brought to New Orleans against their will during the African diaspora, and as a prayer for the current diaspora of New Orleanians who do not have the means to come home. The computer-moderated image sequences are coupled to the audio generation in a feedback loop that provides serendipitous opportunities for each display modality to influence the temporal evolution of the other. The agglomeration of imagery on the computer display echoes the process of assembling an altar.

1. Background

Our video imagery is drawn from still photography and video sources gathered from collaborations beginning in 1996 for an ACM SIGGRAPH exhibit [1], through several research trips in the intervening decade, and culminating in a research trip in March 2006 for the first St. Joseph’s feast day observance following hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

1.1 Saint Joseph’s Day Altars

St. Joseph is the patron saint of workers, of families, and the poor. The tradition of building an altar to St. Joseph began in gratitude for St. Joseph’s intercession during a famine in Sicily. In New Orleans and several other American cities, the tradition grew into more public events celebrated in churches, parish halls and cultural centers. Local newspapers published home altar locations open to the public.

During March, 2006, we visited the Lower 9th Ward, Violet, and Arabi. There, dark streets with no electricity demonstrated that recovery efforts were still stalled. Several church parishioners were gathered in a dome tent with a “new kind of disaster relief organization,” Emergency Communities. This group of volunteers, “frustrated with the slow mobilization that plagued many traditional relief organizations,” had poured into the Gulf Coast region, “slept in tents, ate what they could, and slowly energized broken towns and desperate people. In the first few months after the disaster, such independent relief efforts were often relied upon when action, not bureaucracy, was needed.” [2]

1.2 Vodun Altars

Christian generosity and the concept of Yoruba Ashe that underlies the voodoo practice of feeding the spirits share many essential elements. Ashe is the sacred power to make things happen. As Robert Farris Thompson writes, Ashe can be diminished by selfish living: “This means that one must cultivate the art of recognizing significant communications, knowing what is truth and what is falsehood, or else the lessons of the crossroads—the point where doors open or close, where persons have to make decisions that may forever after affect their lives–will be lost.” [3] Beneath the sacred canopy of a rich religious tradition, individuals emerge from crisis “aware of the new possibilities of existence.” [4]

“The goal of all Vodou, [Santería and Candomblé] ritualizing is to…heat things up so that people and situations shift and move, and healing transformations can occur. Heating things up brings down the barriers, clears the impediments in the path, and allows life to move as it should.” [5]

Voodoo in Priestess Miriam’s practice combines aspects of Santeria (Cuba, Miami, New York), Vodou (Haiti), Spiritualism (Chicago, New Orleans) and Catholicism. As Ishmael Reed characterized New Orleans Voodoo, it is a spiritual and artistic gumbo that “Jes Grew.” [6] In honor of that spirit, what grows generatively from the collected experiences of ten years—private altars and public ceremony, grassroots relief efforts, the ever-present Mardi Gras beads and the voodoo shops—is the authentic germ that “jes grew.” This is our attempt to give something back, and at the same time it is a cry for action.

2. Installation Details

The installation integrates audio and video presentations within an altar framework drawn from the Vodun and St. Joseph’s altar traditions. This syncretic portrayal of New Orleans’ cultural traditions is intended both as an homage to each distinct tradition, and as a plea for the preservation of the city’s identity, which has allowed these traditions to develop in close proximity.

2.1 Hardware Architecture

The hardware architecture for the Altared Spaces installation is shown in Figure 1. External inputs include a Firewire video camera, analog sensors which are passed to an A/D digitizer, Infusion Systems’ i-CubeX, producing MIDI output; these signals are passed to the CPU via a MIDI interface (MOTU micro lite). At the CPU, the various inputs are processed by a series of Max/MSP and Jitter ( patches to produce a visualization stream and an audio output stream via the Reason ( software synthesis module. The input video signal can be used in two modalities: as a viewer proximity detector or as an image source.

2.2 Software and Dataflow Architecture

Two databases are added to the software architecture in Figure 2: a tagged imagery database developed from photographic source material, and a rhythm database containing a structured grammar description of several drumming themes associated with Vodun loa. This grammatical description is used by an L-system [7, 8] patch to provide a recursive audio stream of indefinite length. The processing pipeline terminates with the scene content database mapped to the computer display, and the software synthesis module routed to the CPU audio output.

The central Max/MSP+Jitter processing patches provide database access and external stimuli, and produce realtime outputs to populate the scene database and a MIDI output stream controlling a software synthesis module. In building this installation, we have eschewed direct perceptual audio mappings (e.g., pitch), but have rather provided cognitive mappings more commonly associated with the experience of music. [9, 10] Stochastic sampling of the external stimuli provides an aleatory character, and two feedback mechanisms (from the scene content database and the output MIDI stream) are likewise fed back into the Max system to provide additional inputs that are associated by the viewer/listener with the current display contents. Tags associated with currently displayed images are ingested in this feedback stage. Synaesthetic feedback is also supported so that visual scene content changes can trigger audio events, and vice versa.


Figure 1: Altared Spaces hardware architecture


Figure 2: Altared Spaces software architecture


[1] Chupa, Anna. “Altar” in The Bridge: SIGGRAPH 96 Art Show. Contemporary Art Center and Contemporary Arts Center and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, LA. 23rd International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques. August 4-9, 1996.

[2] Mulroy, James. 2006. “Emergency Communities: About Us” online:

[3] Thompson, Robert Farris. Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Vintage Books. 1984. p. 19.

[4] Thompson, Robert Farris. Face of the Gods: Art and Altars of Africa and the African Americas. New York: The Museum of African Art. 1993. p. 305.

[5] Brown, Karen. Mama Lola.: A Vodou Priestess in Brooklyn. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1991. pp. 134-135.

[6] Reed, Ishmael. Mumbo Jumbo. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972.

[7] Prusinkiewicz, P and Lindenmayer, A. The Algorithmic Beauty of Plants. Springer, 1991.

[8] Song, H. J. and Beilharz, K. "Time-based Sonification for Information Representation", in World Multi-Conference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics, Orlando, USA, July 10-13, 2005.

 [9] P. Vickers, ''Ars Informatica - Ars Electronica: Improving Sonification Aesthetics,'' in Understanding and Designing for Aesthetic Experience Workshop at HCI 2005. The 19th British HCI Group Annual Conference  (L. Ciolfi, M. Cooke, O. Bertelsen, and L. Bannon, eds.), Edinburgh, Scotland, 2005.

[10] P. Vickers and B. Hogg, ''Sonification Abstraite/Sonification Concrète: An `Æsthetic Perspective Space' for Classifying Auditory Displays in the Ars Musica Domain,'' in ICAD 2006 - The 12th Meeting of the International Conference on Auditory Display (A. D. N. Edwards and T. Stockman, eds.), London, UK, June 20-23, 2006.