Nick Irvin

Gentle Wind Project and the art of alternative healing

Installation view, “Engineering for the Human Spirit: From Gentle Wind Project to I Ching Systems, 1983–2022,” 2023, Theta, New York.

The New Age hucksters and/or healers at I Ching Systems aren’t exactly who you’d expect to find at the intersection of art and technology. Yet there’s an undeniable technical magnetism to their so-called instruments: wooden and plastic contraptions overlaid with patterns resembling organelles, circuitry, and hexagrams. Founded in 1983, I Ching Systems, formerly known as the Gentle Wind Project, is a research center that promotes an alternative wellness methodology synthesizing elements of Chinese medicine, particle physics, and color theory; the group has been indicted by the Maine Attorney General’s Office for fraud and is often referred to as a cult. Below, Nick Irvin, who organized “Engineering for the Human Spirit: From Gentle Wind Project to I Ching Systems, 1983–2022” at Theta in Manhattan (on view from January 11–February 11), discusses this eccentric community and the importance of encountering art with both ambivalence and belief.

I LEARNED ABOUT A GROUP called the Gentle Wind Project around 2017 while I was browsing the website for the gallery Feature, Inc., run until 2014 by a man named Hudson. I was like, What the hell is that? So, of course, I Google them and I find all of these exposés describing their scandals. I was intrigued that a gallery would show this material. I met some of the people involved in the Feature Hudson Foundation. They said Hudson was into the group as an alternative healing thing, but also as an aesthetic practice. I thought that was pretty remarkable. I try to not talk about this project in terms of sincerity and irony, but the idea that he was exhibiting this stuff in total good faith shows a degree of belief that is often missing in contemporary art contexts. I’m interested in believers. There’s a lot of superstition and ritual around the thing that we call the art world, including the old tropes about art and crime, the idea of pursuing something outside of the law. This is something that avant-garde artist traditions share with avant-garde spiritual traditions. Reenchantment is a word that I come back to a lot.

The devices they make have these elaborate, colorful diagrammatic designs on them that suggest circuitry or electronics, and a lot of them have circuit boards actually embedded in them, even if they’re not plugged into anything. It’s as if a circuit board is as magical as the homeopathic herbal and salt compounds embedded in the plastics. The group is pretty taciturn these days about the specifics of their beliefs, given their legal troubles. They have a theory about how the designs operate on the body, and a way of explaining color as an electromagnetic phenomenon that’s as material as the herbs. The objects are supposed to be held, to touch the body, meant as instruments rather than objects of contemplation. Even the big poster on the back wall, which might begin to read like a painting in this context, is an interface where you’re supposed to ground your right hand while the left hand explores the composition intuitively. In a way, it’s a design practice more than an art practice. The founder who designs the instruments, John Miller, has a background in industrial design and auto mechanics, as well as social work.

Gentle Wind Project, Photon Health Accelerator Ver 3.1, 2002, laminated wood, Delrin, acrylic, laminated symbols, magnets, herbal formulas, 5 1/4 x 15 1/4 x 3 3/4".

“Ambivalence” has taken on associations with cynicism and indifference. But etymologically it means dual valences. It’s about trying to maintain different levels of viewership or contemplation. There’s a lot of pressure on artists and galleries and exhibitions and curators to have a firm, legible position in relation to what they’re showing, which is usually a position of endorsement or proselytization. I tried to create a show where you can see the objects on the level of the aesthetic appeal and intricate glee of these designs, but also work through this organization’s complicated history.

The Gentle Wind Project was a nonprofit entity. When the Attorney General of Maine forced them to disincorporate and leave the state, the two founders had two parallel for-profit operations that they later consolidated. The timing is curious because it’s in 2006 that their court case concludes, and 2007 is when the Feature, Inc. show opened. In that window, they start using “artworks” in the name of the organization, I Ching Systems and Artworks. It’s interesting to think about what the category of art allows them to get away with and what wasn’t allowed when they were treating the objects as more straightforward wellness tools.

I drove out to their house in Cape Cod last summer and then again in December, to introduce myself and then to pick up the objects we got on consignment. They casually showed me this office upstairs which, to me, was quite a reveal. Each current member has this laminated card with a lock of their hair between two magnets, and they’re in these stacks in this room, spread across the desks. My reaction was itself an ambivalent one. Within their belief system this must be an extremely powerful room—all of this energy is being concentrated into, and then radiating from, this place where their entire membership is telepathically combined through the magnetized locks of hair. But there’s the visceral, darker side to that. If you think that people are being scammed, then this is the pile of current victims. It’s this weird feeling of being impressed by belief, but also terrified of its consequences.