Helicon Haus' "Into the Abyss" explores the bottomless chasm of multidisciplinary art


Helicon Haus's Into the Abyss

Helicon Haus is a student-run organization associated with the History of Art Undergraduate Society at the University of Michigan. The group hosts annual pop-up art exhibits, publishes writings, and creates arts-related world travel opportunities for its members. But for Helicon Haus' annual art exhibition, anyone may enter.

This year’s call took place in April 2021 and resulted in the online exhibition Into the Abyss, which is the second year in which the submissions were presented a virtual format.

For photosensitive viewers, there is a warning: “This website features flashing images.”

The title Into the Abyss is derived from the French term “mise-en-abîme,” which means “placing into the abyss.” Though each finished work suggests its own interpretation of the abyss, the Helicon Haus collective outlines their definition of the abyss in their “Thoughts on the Abyss.” The Abyss refers to nesting heraldic imagery or the “image within the image.” Artists “dove into the abyss of digital space to create their synergistic works. Displayed virtually, these works are placed into the abyss themselves.” The internet and virtual spaces are defined as an abyss within the parameters of the project. Visually, the concept of the abyss is reinforced with the inclusion of the “black hole” portals on the exhibit homepage. 

A strong consideration for the project was James Paul Gee’s “concept of the affinity of space, a sort of educational atmosphere in which ‘people are brought together by a shared affinity for a common goal.’” To accomplish this common goal, Helicon collaborated with the Michigan Electronic Music Collective, another student-based collective centered on removing barriers to “access to electronic music production and engagement while simultaneously promoting its history and culture in our local community.”

Into the Abyss paired both visual artists and MEMCO musicians together to create concurrent and interrelated works. These pieces were created alongside one another and curated to conform to the collaborators’ curatorial preferences of their own abyss. 

As you scroll through the exhibition homepage, you will encounter seven black holes. You are instructed to click on the holes and each takes you to a virtual piece of art.

Bad Trip
The Abyss is seemingly unwelcoming, as the first black hole you will encounter is named Bad Trip. This portal leads to a choose-your-own-adventure through a series of visuals created by Alyssa Gosselin and Grace Harbaugh, with sound by Mark KachkaevBad Trip unfolds similarly to how it might be imagined. Buttons prompt the viewer to choose to continue, turn left, turn right, or go back, each move revealing an unsettling imaginary landscape. Fiery mixed media works are accentuated by a riff suggesting impending doom.

Dark Space Humming to Give Itself Comfort 
This portal is comprised of a series of pages. What will be inside? Click the hand to receive one open finger and a segment of a larger body of text, until the palm is open. I wondered, where is the hum? Then, once the palm is open, the viewer finally reaches the collaborative video with visuals by Leena Ghannam and sound by Jack Withers. The hum is loud, droning, variant, overlaid with imagery that references the form of the hand from the previous interactive portion of the exhibit. In this abyss, an ambient hum is an ultimate comfort, while the animations suggest, “You are full of light.” This abyss is more inviting than the last. What is next?

M2S, a collaborative piece featuring visuals by Madison Ari and Sarah Chung, with sound by Miguel Cisne, displays an amalgam of disjointed photographs, joined together to form a single portrait. Hovering over the subject is a series of gifs, which we are instructed to view. Floating butterflies lead to another portrait, a triptych with a bustling soundtrack filled with amplified everyday sounds. Animations display over the photographic images, covering the surface with butterflies, then ruby slippers. Another gif reveals a photographic collage in which the subject’s eyes are cloned and adorned with colorful animations.

Long Hours
Long Hours launches with a bold sound mix by Makarand Parigi, the words “parental guidance is recommended” repeating over ambient waves and gentle music. Voice samples such as “He will be conducting long hours of research in a chemistry lab” cycle through the ambiance. The student will not lounge at the beach, he will be working. At the top of the webpage, a video of a surfer plays on a loop. Scroll down and multimedia digital works by visual artists Nami Kaneko and Ariel Lowenstern become visible, followed by a digital animation and text written by Parigi. Long Hours posits a new form of the abyss: the isolation that comes with extreme dedication to work. 

Facing the Abyss
In Facing the AbyssSabrina Kliza provides visuals to Samuel Uribe’s soundtrack. Kliza’s drawing is the first piece visible upon entering the virtual gallery and, she writes, “This is a person who has seen the abyss. It has begun to break them apart, to wear them out, to tear them down.” The gallery continues with portraits done in a simple palette: gray and purple/red. Each image zooms in and pans around the original piece to allow examination of detail, while the soundtrack offers a series of soothing sounds described by Uribe as a “sonic landscape” that “creates dissonant escapism, reminiscent of the incapability to abandon the abyss.” Birds sing in the background, electronics beep, a computer starts up. Uribe and Kliza’s piece suggests the abyss is the everyday, particularly in the recent isolation of COVID.

Ethereal Ecstasy
Ethereal Ecstasy includes a video with both visuals by Benjamin Green and sound by Felix Lee/THNDER. Below the video, Green’s abstracted, high-contrast photographic works can be seen individually. The music was created in response to Green’s artwork, with Lee stating, “My initial inspiration for the music of Ethereal Ecstasy came from Ben’s art—dark and chaotic with a haunting beauty to it. The song represents the electric highs and bittersweet lows of getting lost in your memories.”

Fragmented Dream Bridges
Fragmented Dream Bridges features visuals by Sophia Layton and Kilala Ichie-Vincent with sound by Akshay Chacko. The project is described as an “Architecture Collage with Ambient Sound,” followed by “They say that our dreams are quilts of fragments of our lives. They say that in dreams exists the bridge between this realm and the multiplicity of realms. In dreams here becomes there.” Chacko’s “Dream Sequence 01” chimes in, fulfilling its promise of ambiance. Scroll down, click “Go There,” and find a prompt to retell one of your own dreams. The prompt hovers above the same moving background on the portal page, a close-up video of objects in liquid, while fragmented digital collages accentuate the dreamlike quality of the piece.

Once you make it back through all seven black holes, you will find a link to the Ad Infinitum gallery. Featuring four additional works, the gallery offers viewers two short films and photography. Visible online indefinitely, Into the Abyss offers a range of experiences and responses to the definition of “the abyss,” while maintaining a strict focus on collaborative and educational cooperation.

Works within the exhibit ask What is the abyss? Is it dreamlike, a bad trip, a condition of existence?

It turns out, it is likely all of these things, depending on who you ask.

Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.