Alberto Gaitan
Artist Alberto Gaitan at the location of “Loci,” a 1998 sound installation in Arlington involving rubber tubes placed in the road to provide a rhythmic experience when driving; Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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In late July, as word began spreading across the internet that well-known D.C. artist, electronic composer, and art-community superconductor, Alberto Gaitán, had suddenly died, the emotional floodgates quickly opened. Touching tributes, personal reminiscences, and praise for his diverse and impressive body of work began flowing across the data nodes of the global network that he both embraced in his work and cautioned against. Much of the outpouring came from the D.C.-area arts community where, for some 40 years, Gaitán had been a leading light, contributing solo and collaborative work to countless galleries, museums, and public arts projects. His work also appeared internationally, in France, Germany, and elsewhere.

Everyone easily shared stories of Gaitán’s unwavering friendship, his wise mentorship of fellow artists, and his seemingly inexhaustible willingness to help others with their own tech-based art and intractable computer problems. He was both a beloved art world statesman and the community’s go-to IT guy. 

“He was a generous genius,” says poet and performer Silvana Straw. “He had a poet’s heart, full of deep feeling, intuition, saudade, and the ability to convey the depths of grief and the beauty of the wound through sound.” 

Curator/producer Kim Chan tells City Paper, “Alberto was one of the artists who defined the fervent creativity that was D.C. when I moved there in the 1980s. I cannot imagine the arts in D.C. without him.”

And composer and electronic musician Atau Tanaka adds: “In 1985, he was the first real artist that I met. His group, Art Attack, had just returned from Germany. Hearing stories of their participation in an international art exhibition gave me the bug to visit, and eventually settle in Europe. His enthusiasm, energy, and hunger for life and all things creative were completely infectious.”

Gaitán was born in Quito, Ecuador, on February 7, 1955. The second of six children, he was the son of a Puerto Rican mother and a Colombian father, who was a diplomat at the Colombian embassy. His job had the family circumnavigating the globe. This literal world view would have a lasting impact on young, precocious Gaitán. He would later write, “I was taught to drink deeply from all our host cultures. I internalized a love for cultural diversity and grew to understand cultural relativity on an intuitive level.”

In the early ’70s, Gaitán was suddenly struck by a viciously aggressive case of psoriatic arthritis. This illness, what his doctor would later describe as “a miserable, recalcitrant disease,” would force him to lay down his treasured guitar and derail his ambitions of becoming a musician. He switched gears and decided to major in biology, with a focus on evolutionary ecology, at the University of Miami.

Alberto Gaitán; Credit: Chris Chen

Gaitán’s experiences with multiculturalism, music, and his newfound obsession with the cybernetics of planetary ecosystems would all come together in his art when he discovered one more critical ingredient: the computer. “Within these boxes … I could envision creating entire universes of possibility,” he would write, “universes that mirrored my increasingly interconnected world view, universes that could become as an ecosystem is to the biosphere, as a neuron is to a brain … that could become almost anything.”

It would also be the computer that allowed him to return to music, slowly composing pieces using his increasingly pained and crippled hands. 

A polymath and self-professed “cyberneticist and cross-media artist,” Gaitán was many things, and he was impressive in all of them: composer, musician, computer programmer, sound installation artist, hardware hacker, lifelong student of science and technology, and thoughtful sci-tech critic. But beyond any of these accomplishments, he is fondly remembered as a deeply caring and thoughtful person. Anyone who knew him experienced his generosity, kindness, and class. And his razor-sharp wit. He befriended nearly everyone he met. 

“Alberto’s acts of consequence are embedded in his ability to always show up,” recalls Civilian Arts Projects Director Jayme McLellan. “He showed up when it was physically and mentally tough for him. He showed up to help when the project was tech-heavy and the task, onerous. He showed up when it was pro bono and unfun. He showed up.”

Gaitán’s body of art is as multidisciplinary as was his voracious intellect. In the ’80s and ’90s, he was part of Art Attack International, a collaborative group that created site-specific installations, principally turning buildings about to be razed into haunting and beautiful sculptural objects. 

“We approach it much like jazz musicians might approach a jam session—we just jam with the materials at hand,” he would explain. Throughout his career, under the name selforganizingsystems, Gaitán composed and performed electronic music with an ever-changing roster of collaborators. He created works for the Goethe-Institut, experimental music compilations, and live performance. 

In 2005, Gaitán contributed work to the Found Sound project which stationed five audio-listening “sound cabins” throughout the city inside of Porta-Potties. His piece, “dump,” allowed himself and anyone to upload files to an internet repository to be randomly, automatically collaged and fed into the “cabin.” His 1998 Arlington public arts piece, “loci,” consisted of rubber hoses laid across Lorcom Lane at precise intervals to create music inside the cars that passed over them. “I would go out of my way to use Lorcom Lane and experiment with different speeds to see how I could interact with this installation,” says DC Arts Center Director B. Stanley.

“Remembrancer,” robotic art installation, Curator’s Office, 2007; Credit: Andrea Pollan.

Perhaps Gaitán’s most well-known and prescient piece was 2007’s “Remembrancer” at Andrea Pollan’s Curator’s Office on 14th Street NW, part of the citywide ColorField.remix festival. The small gallery was filled with robotic painters engineered to deposit paint onto three canvases in response to keywords pulled from internet data sources. A soundscape was also created based on internet data. One canvas painted local events (red), one national (blue), one green (international). 

The show opened on April 14, 2007. The Virginia Tech mass shooting, which left 32 dead, happened two days later. “The piece was designed to track the media ‘health’ of the planet. The red feed ended up ‘broadcasting’ the Virginia Tech student murders,” Pollan says.

Gaitán chose to keep the keywords that triggered the canvases to himself. The piece was inspired by the idea that, in our interconnected, data-driven age, the global brain’s echo chamber can create distortions as memories of an event are transcribed across multiple media, making “Remembrancer” surprising prophetic of today’s casuistic and “truthy” techno-sphere. Throughout his career, Alberto’s work was frequently concerned with the dialectic of the democratizing and community-building potential of network technology versus its dehumanizing and dumbing-down effects.

For several years, Gaitán’s Facebook page has listed him as a retired artist. He came out of that retirement in 2021, to be part of the Union collaborative art show at Otis Street Arts Project in Mount Rainier. He teamed up with longtime friend and collaborator James Huckenpahler to create “Appliance.” This interactive piece invited people to dial two overlapping line images housed in a 3D printed, retro radio-like box on the wall to create moiré patterns. The resulting image was then translated into moiré patterns in sound, output into headphones. Two participants interacting with the device could further alter the mix by placing their fingers on a sensor strip. Brilliantly, the theme of the show, Union (When Two Makes One), was reiterated three times in the piece. The two images joined to create visual moiré patterns, and that union created moiré-like sounds, which could be further refined through interactions of the two human participants. 

“Appliance,” Alberto Gaitán and James Huckenpahler. Interactive, wall-mounted sound and vision sculpture, part of Union collaboration show, Otis Street Arts Project, 2021.

Gaitán’s obsession with cybernetic systems and cross-media collaboration would end up being a consistent throughline for his entire career. In a piece to accompany a DASER (DC Art Science Evening Rendezvous) talk in 2011, he wrote

“We deal with change and adversity by adapting … learning. The romantic notion of the artist, laboring in solitude, an island of genius awaiting discovery, never sounded right to me. Too much of my creativity fed on other ideas. I also observed how, periodically, great weather-like patterns of notion enveloped the scientific and art communities, self-organizing until there sometimes emerged, a disruptive consensus-notion.”

Upon his passing last week, a “consensus notion” emerged among his many friends and collaborators: Gaitán was a “generous genius” who inspired, nurtured, and aided countless others while creating a body of work that spoke to the opportunities and anxieties of our digital age.

Alberto Gaitán died of natural causes in his Arlington condo. Date and time of passing are so far unknown.