Shufflehead: A Good Reason to Look at Your Phone
I’ve never been as well-informed as I have been this viral year, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing. The confluence of protests following the murder of George Floyd, the coronavirus pandemic, and the Trump pestilence have had the perverse effect of making me even more of a news junkie than I was in less turbulent times. So much information makes my head hurt so, there are days the roof of my brain collapses. And we’re not even probing the malaise—okay, make that depression—the news creates. I’ve been looking for relief, for ways to be free of the news and the anxiety it generates. At the same time, I wish I was in the thick of it as a reporter. God knows there’s no shortage of material.
To ease my American pain, I’ve played around with the news, posting mash-ups of Trump’s pronouncements to my Facebook page, improvising on his language to strip it to its invariably mean but consequential essence. These mash-ups have been a way for me to keep the day’s horrors at bay, but since Trump has abandoned his pandemic updates, tracking down material for them has become a chore. I like to play; I do enough work.
Although I’m not a gamer, I like distraction, especially when it’s thought through. Welcome to ShuffleHead, a smartphone app I’ve come to enjoy for its amusement, its imagination, the way it spells (and sounds and looks like) relief. Kasumi, the protean Cleveland Heights artist, unveiled this nutty app this spring, smack dab in the middle of the pandemic. Its three-tiered juxtapositions are just wild enough to pique my imagination and see where they lead, and they’re anything but bad news. ShuffleHead is fun and safe haven.
Kasumi has said she doesn’t know what her brain knows, suggesting a mysterious and limitless ore to mine. Her willingness to plunder that mine, her curiosity and fearlessness, inform her art, whether cinema, installation, or app. While Kasumi productions are abstract and demanding no matter how kinetic, they are based on her feelings, her deep connections. Even as her multimedia, high-tech work blows our minds wide open, it seems to give Kasumi a form of closure. With ShuffleHead, she opens our minds in a new and entertaining way.
“I make art to make sense of chaos,” says Kasumi. “My process of cutting things up and making something new out of the parts is a way to begin to see how identities and even truth are constructed. The world is filled with meaning that humans project into it, and I take those pieces of meaning and try to make sense of them in relation to one another. So my works involve the connections between inner experience, sensation, emotion, and intention with their outer manifestations as signs and gestures.”
Whether it involves film, as in the aptly titled Shockwaves, or Kasumi’s first computer app, the onscreen flip book ShuffleHead, she will see the project to term, carving out a new market out along the way. That’s all part of the improvisation, the steps in her necessary, creative dance.
Kasumi’s 2014 film, Shockwaves, slammed animation into B-roll, leavening the mix with a musical score as remarkable as the imagery—weirdly familiar, though you can’t quite place where you saw it—from horror flicks, rom-coms, sci-fi. Her lexicon is broad, her apprehension of technology commanding, and the way she pokes the membranes of our minds—poking her own for a trial run—is unique. Not dominantly pleasant, but unique.
Where Shockwaves is immersive, menacing, and purposefully cerebral, her new, $3.99 ShuffleHead app—on Apple for now, with an Android version imminent—is softer, and more fun. It also is a form of mourning.
“About six years ago,” Kasumi says, “my older sister underwent devastating cancer surgery that left her, a black belt in karate, incredibly weak. I wanted to make something for her like the things-to-do books she’d made for me when we were little kids. I decided to make a mix-and-match book with absurd and funny characters—only requiring she turn page segments. After she died, I wanted to honor her by developing this project into something bigger. So I think the impetus for ShuffleHead was addressing that feeling of helplessness that occurs in coping with the sickness of a loved one; creating order out of chaos is therapeutic, probably a reason that people like jigsaw puzzles.”
Conceived by Kasumi, brought to life by Tony Calabro, Ian Ziegler and Matt Beckwith of the Cleveland “visualization services agency” Photonic Studio, ShuffleHead is a character creator, coloring book, story generator, and beat maker. It has a top, a middle, and a bottom. Rotate sections any way you like to generate different stories.
Kasumi designed all the thousands of images, including vamps on familiar icons like Jimi Hendrix and James Joyce; the Photonic trio, whom she knows from the Cleveland Institute of Art, where she taught from 2002 to 2015, helped shepherd ShuffleHead to market. It took more than five years of dealing with intellectual property, trademark and copyright issues, figuring out how to synch ShuffleHead’s different sections and how to deploy ShufflePacks, auxiliary collections that one can acquire to plump up the app.
Think mashup: You can put Elvis Presley’s head atop Franz Kafka’s, who’s sitting on an ice cream cone. Mix Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein, or plop the short-fingered vulgarian (Kasumi’s moniker) running our country on a grilling hamburger. Think of Kasumi as a hypertechnological turntablist jamming together unexpected connections, as she does in her other media. And imagine how daunting it is to craft something so complete and so consuming.
“Not everything worked initially, and we had to experiment and re-work lots of things many times…and then re-do them again and again,” she says. “One of the biggest challenges was to get everything to synch together perfectly—visually, musically, and grammatically.”
Imagine releasing such an absorbing app into the covid-19 atmosphere, a sullen suspension in which too many of us have too much time to burn.
One can view ShuffleHead, which Apple presents to a market 12 years and older, as a contemporary board game, a brain-teaser like Scrabble. But in the app age, games aren’t competitive the way they used to be. How you “play” them can be shared, but apps can’t be joined. Picture a kid playing ShuffleHead (ShufflePacks have characters that appeal to the young), marveling at what he or she puts together, the stories they tell. The kid can share with the next kid, but the transaction is between app and player. At the same time, ShuffleHead is weirdly organic; as long as Kasumi keeps feeding into those ShufflePacks, the app should grow like a weed. Or spread like a virus.
Speaking of virus, Kasumi has included the “short-fingered vulgarian” Trump as “one of the more nefarious members of the ShuffleBoard stable.” To round out the app’s “team of nasties,” she also has included Kim Jong-un, Vladimir Putin, Sean Hannity, Kellyanne Conway, and Mitch McConnell. Hopefully, the updates will thin this particular cast. For balance, she included such civil rights icons as Rosa Parks, Frederick Douglass, and Elijah Cummings.
“You play with it, you use it, you create with it,” Kasumi says of her latest brainchild. “I feel that when you make these characters out of other characters, it triggers new ideas and new sensibilities. For me, the idea that we’re mixing these things that you thought were completely incompatible is satisfying and funny. In a way, ShuffleHead is like a perpetual comic book. I think everything matches up, that we’re all part of the same system. It creates a kind of community in your head, and we’re learning how much of the same organism we actually are. One little thing on one side of the world has such implications across the planet.”