Exit Archive

Spring 2006 | v.02 n.02 |

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Virtual Puppetry and the Process of Ritual
Semi Ryu

Assistant Professor, School of Art
Virginia Commonwealth University


Yong-Shin-Gud (“Calling-Dragon-Spirit”) is an interactive 3D-animation installation that has a virtual puppet mimicking the interactor’s voice and gestures. “Yong-Shin-Gud” is a Korean word for a special shamanism ritual that evokes the dragon spirit, hence combining spirituality and ritual with technology through interactive media performance.

Yong-Shin-Gud integrates the VR space, real space of the installation, and the sound activated puppet, "Virtual Shaman," who symbolize the mediation and in-between states of the virtual and the real spaces, similar to the way in which Korean shamans are mediators between the spiritual heavenly and earthly worlds. The piece creates an intimate connection between the human-computer interaction (HCI), traditional puppetry, and shamanism ritual.

Sound that is captured into the microphone, such as musical instrument or storytelling motivates the mouth, body, and facial expression of 3D virtual puppet in real time to mirror the expressions and gestures of the interactor, who is metaphorically the puppeteer. This piece confuses the identities between the real puppeteer (interactor) and the virtual puppet (VR shaman) -- where the virtual puppet acts as if it is the real puppeteer and vice versa -- in this ongoing and cyclical real-time lip-syncing and refracted mirroring process of interactivity.


Figure 1. Virtual Shaman, sound activated VR puppet.


Figure 2. Puppet and puppeteer telling a story together.

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There is something magical about the puppeteer and puppet merging as a single entity. The person who is interacting collaborates with the VR puppet in order to create the movement and sounds which occurs simultaneously on and off the screen. This performance is neither a solo or duet performance, rather it reflects the idea of the shaman (spirit) becoming one with its instrument (object).


Interactive Technology and Ritual

Interactivity is seen everywhere in contemporary life, in the arts, media culture, and society. Every individual influences the dynamic of continuous interactivity1 so there is significance in looking at what happens “in between” communications between disciplines, cultures, and societies. Especially today, computer technology brings attention to the world of interactivity due to the various interactive technologies that have been developed.

Looking back on human history however, the desire for interactivity existed in ritual and shamanism spaces as well. Thus there is an inherent connection between interaction and ritual communications, because the ritual act is driven by human instinct that transcends cultural and historical period. Ritual explains this fundamental human process of interaction and becoming, and it is interesting to bring the ritualistic sentiment and concerns back into the interaction of technology and man. My work Yong-Shin-Gud allows me to see the potential of working with interactive media as a new vehicle to carry out rituals, in the most basic level of communication.

In Eastern cultures, the form of ritual is understood through layers of complicated structure. Western and Eastern systems exhibit different relationships of control in interactivity. These differences have long reflected each culture’s identity and way of thought, also in understanding of interactive media. 

Cartesian duality of the mind-body split has explicit hierarchy (mind over the body) and exists in the Western cyberspace paradigms. Yin/Yang duality also seems separate, but this binary is actually not a real binary nor hierarchical process, rather a composition of all things and events.2  Mind and body, female and male, night and day, moon and sun––they require each other, inspire each other, and exchange their positions in cycles. They act on strong inertia to join and become one.  The symbol of Yin / Yang is divided into left and right, which suggests a mutual relationship and balance between two polar opposites without hierarchy.

“Moo,” a character in Chinese (character Moo comes from MooKyo, which means Shamanism), demonstrates the structure of Yin/Yang ritual. In this character, the human figure is represented as a mediator who dances between sky and earth.3 This mediator is the Shaman, the one who performs the ritual of interaction based on these two polar opposite components. Paradoxically, this ritual only exists in the separation even though its goal is to overcome the separation and become one. It is then the role of the shaman to blur the line between the binary pairs. Leaving and returning, fusion and separation, this continuous movement of two-way actions shapes our form of ritual, which is highly interactive and breaks down binary structures. This significant interactive process occurs all the time, from daily routines to sacred ceremonies. Hence, the ritual process has neither a beginning nor an end.


Figure 3. Left: Yin/Yang symbol, Right: Chinese character “Moo”.


From the Physical to the Spiritual

Interactive technology has primarily been utilized as a physical device of control. It hasn’t sufficiently explored its potential as a true interactive medium. The tendency to focus on the physical aspect of interactive technology has lessened the conceptual space of interactivity to branch out, exploring possible spiritual connections that encompass both the physical and the mental components.4 Without our perceptions, our interactive experience can’t take place. The physical motive initiates this action but it is also our mental process that is experiencing the interactivity simultaneously. Hence, the interactive experience should not allow a mind/body split but rather imply how the Cartesian dualism is a complete metaphysical construct.

Although the audience’s interaction with my VR puppet may seem to start with simple physical interactions, the interactivity intensifies when the mirroring of the puppet and puppeteer’s break down the physical and mental barrier.


The Spiral of Interactivity

All forms and symbols of transformation spirals. It is the passage from one mode of being into another that represents cosmic rhythms of interaction and eternal becoming.5 The following steps indicate the procedure of the interactive spiraling.

1. Inter-coexistence  2. Inter-action  3. Inter-dependence  4. Inter-penetration6

In these phases, interactive process goes from the inter-coexistence phase to the inter-penetration phase. Each binary opposition penetrates through a membrane into the other side and is transformed into its opponent.  This is the ultimate stage of shamanic ritual and yin/yang, which evokes our primitive vital function of transformation.

The role of the Shaman is opening the communication of these phases. In Yong-Shin-Gud, the virtual puppet is the metaphor of the shaman that allows a spiraling interaction between the puppet/puppeteer, artwork/audience, virtuality/reality, and mind/body causing a break in the binary systems for a new perspective about interactive experience.


1 Deleuze, Gilles. Negotiations (Columbia University Press, New York, 1995) p.121

2 Kim, Sang-il. Hanism as Korean Mind: Interpretation of Han Philosophy -John

B. Cobb, Jr., “Process view on Yin and Yang” (Eastern Academy of Human Sciences, California, 1984) p.45-7

3 Choi, Chang-Jo. The Mechanism of Earth and Human (Min-Um Sa, Seoul,

Korea, 1992) p.14-15

4 Kim, Sang-il. Hanism as Korean Mind: Interpretation of Han Philosophy -John

B. Cobb, Jr., “Process view on Yin and Yang” (Eastern Academy of Human Sciences, California, 1984) p.45-7

5 Eliade, Mircea. Symbolism, the Sacred and the Arts (The Crossroad Publishing

Company, New York, 1988) p.4

Bak, Jae–Joo. The Theory and Process of I Ching (Chong-Gae Sa, Seong-Nam, Korea, 1999) p.300-301

7 Cho, Hung-Yun. The History and Phenomena of Korean Shamanism (Min-Jok

Sa, Seoul, Korea, 1997) p.18-20



Semi Ryu
is an assistant professor of Kinetic Imaging at Virginia Commonwealth University and a member of the Cultural Diversity Committee of International Society of Electronic Arts. Her works and texts have been published in Roy Ascott’s Journal “Technoetic Arts” Vol 3.2. Currently, she is collaborating with multimedia lab, University of Rome, Italy for her new VR projects

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