New Media Art in Asia: Emerging Directions
Asia Art Archive in America
December 2, 2014
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise
Jane DeBevoise (JD): We’re delighted today to welcome Christopher Phillips. Christopher will introduce Dooeun Choi and the project that they are working on. Christopher is an old friend of Asia Art Archive, and a curator at ICP (International Center for Photography). Dooeun is a new friend and independent curator who has been working in New York for more than a year now. Together, Christopher and Dooeun are working on an exciting exhibition about which they’ll tell you more.
Christopher Phillips (CP): Thank you Jane for that kind introduction. It’s always a pleasure to be at Asia Art Archive in America. Since the last time I talked here in July, there have been some interesting changes at my museum, ICP, about which I’ll say a few words because it will help to explain what we are about to see. Some of you may know that ICP is about to vacate its exhibition space in Midtown and move to more spacious quarters on Bowery, a block from the New Museum. In addition we have a new director, Mark Lubell, who has been with us for about a year. Upon assessing the situation, he has informed the curatorial team it is his feeling that going forward a much larger part of ICP’s programming should be devoted to new media art and contemporary digital art, areas that we have only touched on glancingly in the past. This will be a major shift in our curatorial direction.
While thinking about what kinds of exhibitions might fill that mandate, it happened [that] one evening in early 2014 I took part in an augmented reality performance organized by an artist friend in Manhattan. I ended up sitting on stage next to Dooeun Choi, whom I had never met. Afterward, when we had a chance for a longer discussion, I discovered that she was a real authority on new media art. For ten years Dooeun was the creative director and curator at the Art Center Nabi in Seoul, a new media art center supported by SK Telecom. If you wonder what a curator can accomplish over a ten-year period, just look at this enormous tome that I’m holding. It contains the compiled documentation about the exhibitions that were presented at the Art Center Nabi. As you can see, it’s almost more than you can lift with two hands!
Dooeun Choi (DC): It reminds me of an old phone book, the kind you can sit on!
CP: I quickly realized that Dooeun’s expertise in working with new media artists, not only from Asia but also [from] around the world, could be interesting for an institution like ICP, which is trying to get its bearings in this area of art. Dooeun and I are now preparing an exhibition that will be one of the first shows presented at ICP when we make our transition to the Bowery.
In our presentation this evening, we’ll concentrate on Asian contributors to new media art. I would also like to mention that you will be richly rewarded for sitting through our presentation, because at the very end we will show video documentation of a spectacularly interesting installation called ‘El Fin del Mundo’ (or ‘The End of the World’) by the Korean duo Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonhoo. They will be presenting the next installment of their long-running project at the Venice Biennale next year. For those of you who are not familiar with their work, I think you will find it well worth waiting for.
The exhibition that Dooeun and I are planning at ICP has the working title ‘Life Augmented.’ It takes augmented reality technology as a starting point from which to explore the growing incorporation of technology into every aspect of human life. The show will be an international exhibition featuring works from artists, I hope, from every continent. For the purpose of this evening’s gathering, we will be focusing on works from Japan, China, and Korea.
Let’s start by plotting a few points on a ten-year historical timeline. You may be surprised to learn that back in 1993, the Guggenheim presented the exhibition ‘Virtual Reality: an Emerging Medium,’ which as I recall was organized by the curator Jon Ippolito. The year 1997 saw the opening in Tokyo of the NTT Inter-Communications Center, or ICC, which was an extraordinarily active new media hub sponsored by Nippon Telephone & Telegraph Company. In recent years the ICC has experienced some financial and organizational problems; it still exists but is noticeably less active. A few years after the founding of the ICC, SK Telekom in Korea supported the Art Center Nabi in Seoul in 2000, which you’ll hear more about in just a moment. In 2002 in Beijing, the Central Academy of Fine Arts established a digital media department, which was part of the School of Design. The following year, 2003, marks the point at which the video pioneer Zhang Peili established the new media department at the China Art Academy in Hangzhou. Keeping in mind that timeline of the establishment of the foundations of new media in Asia, perhaps Dooeun can give us a more detailed view of the program that she developed at the Art Center Nabi in Seoul.
DC: In terms of media art in East Asia, there have been very local decisions and environments that have shaped new media art in different ways. For us in Korea, 1984 was an important year, because we remember in that year being in front of the TV and watching a satellite project called Good Morning Mr. Orwell by Nam June Paik. From that moment on, artists and the art institutions in Korea have been very involved with video art. Today you cannot miss Nam June Paik if you are in Korea. His video installations are prominently placed everywhere, in public places and inside museums.
Nam June Paik, Good Morning Mr. Orwell, 2008. Image courtesy of Art Center Nabi.
Here are some views of our buildings at the Art Center Nabi. In one building we were commissioned to develop a public art piece with huge LED screens that could be seen from every entrance. They are dedicated to artworks; no commercial advertisements can be shown on them.
Zhang Ga, COMO: Peoples’ Portrait, 2006. Image courtesy of Art Center Nabi.
As a memorial to Nam June Paik, in 2008 we worked with the Streaming Museum and showed Good Morning Mr. Orwell. We also invited a Chinese American artist named Zhang Ga – who is also a very active media art curator in New York and China – to make this piece called Peoples’ Portrait.
You can take your photo in front of the kiosk and it will relay your portrait around the world, to screens in Times Square, New York; Beijing, China; Linz, Austria; and Adelaide, Australia. It was similar to Nam June Paik’s Good Morning Mr. Orwell but it was created by citizens who collaborated to make a work of contemporary art.
In 2009, we were commissioned to curate a show to celebrate the concept of the ‘smart city’ in Songdo. We found another city, Melbourne, which is in an adjacent time zone but is still quite far from Korea, and we linked two public plazas with urban screens through an open theater program called Come Join Us, Mr. Orwell!. Each city organized performances that were shared with the other through these screens, as you can see here.
Come Join Us, Mr. Orwell!, Songdo & Melbourne, 2009. Image courtesy of the artist.
In another [project], BANQUET INTERACTIF, we involved other cities and explored ways to blur the boundaries of physicality. This program was not only focused on an audiovisual performance; it also engaged [audiences in each city] with taste. In this program we had two chefs from each city cooking in front of the screen.
BANQUET INTERACTIF, Korea & France, 2010. Image courtesy of Art Center Nabi.
The reason why the image is blurred is because we used 3D glasses, so it looked like you were really eating together. During the cooking we also organized musical and modern dance performances. All of these experiences were blurred together as a holistic experience. This event was a joint event between two cities – a pre-opening of INDAF 2010 (Incheon Digital Art Festival 2010) in Korea and another media art festival Bains Numériques nearby Paris in France.
Another project that blurred the borders between physical spaces was called Tunnels Around the World. It was a linkage project between the 7th Mediacity Seoul biennial in 2012 in Seoul, Korea and Zero1 biennial in Silicon Valley, America, both of which I co-curated. The French artist, Maurice Benayoun, who is now teaching at the City University in Hong Kong, came up with the idea of Tunnels Around the World.
Maurice Benayoun, Tunnels Around the World, 2012. Image courtesy of Art Center Nabi.
The images on the screens you see here are sourced from different cities. For example, Maurice had access to the Museum archives in Paris, and in Seoul we had access to the Seoul Museum of Art archive, and Hong Kong also had its own archive. The key to this project is the more time you spend in front of one image, the more images of a similar kind will be provided to you automatically by the computer.
Audience Member: These are different artworks from different archives, right? So once the connection has been made, once the database has been accessed, then what happens? How are these images loaded?
DC: The database has a tagging system and a data-mining program. So if you stand there and look at an image longer, the system recognizes your presence and will bring you similar images, but from different countries, different archives. Let’s say you’re standing longer in front of [a work of] abstract art. In that case, the program will bring you images of abstract art from the different cities.
Audience Member: So it’s like Amazon telling me which book I should be reading, based on what I have bought or viewed….
DC: Yes, in a way. I didn’t explain that in this work there’s a camera that looks at you and your movements, so it interprets your behavior and gestures as information. The camera sees how you react to the image and then tells the server whether or not you are interested in the image.
Audience Member: So it’s sensory activated?
DC: Yes. Actually, connecting cities through these media tunnels was not a new idea. In 1995, when there was no Skype, and the Internet was in its infancy, Maurice Benayoun organized a project called Tunnels Under the Atlantic that linked the Centre Pompidou and the SAT in Montreal. At that time they used satellite links because the Internet was not stable enough. In this earlier work, people stood in front of actual tunnels and looked at the little screens. They wore head-mounted displays, similar to today’s Oculus Rift or Google Glass and used a joystick to navigate inside the tunnel. This was one of the earlier moments of the telematic performance. But things have a lot changed since then.
Maurice Benayoun, The Tunnel Under the Atlantic, 1995. Image courtesy of the artist.
CP: I’m certain some of you know the work of Yeondoo Jung who is one of Korea’s best younger artists. He’s previously been known mostly for his photographic works, experimental films, and performances. Two years ago I did a studio visit with him in Seoul and he showed me a crazy headset that he was experimenting with. He explained that this headset was called Oculus Rift, and it offered a virtual reality experience far superior to that presented at the Guggenheim back in 1993, which had been really a kind of over-pixelated cartoon. Because of the worldwide success of the online gaming industry, companies like Oculus are betting that there’s an enormous potential audience among young gamers who will want to play 3D virtual reality video games. The technology is almost there. Before long it will be possible to use photo-realistic three dimensional moving images that will create an immersive environment largely indistinguishable from everyday reality. A few artists have been working with this technology for the last few years. Yeondoo Jung has probably taken it farther than anyone. I believe it was two years ago that he presented this installation, called Virgil’s Path, at Plateau in Seoul.
Yeondoo Jung, Virgil’s Path, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.
In this work you entered the gallery, sat as you see the young woman in the photograph is sitting, and put on the Oculus Rift headset. In front of you stood one of the actual sculptural versions of Rodin’s Gates of Hell. Yeondoo Jung created a virtual reality version of the work in a digital space identical to the physical space that you found yourself in. At that point it wasn’t technically possible for the viewer to get up and walk around and have the image move in synch with your movements. It required the viewer to sit on the bench and imagine what was happening with the virtual nude figures who were crawling over of the sculptural work.
DC: For this piece the artist studied all the gestures of the figures in Rodin’s Gates of Hell, and then he filmed them by using actual human bodies. He represented them in 3D animation, so you could see them in a virtual world by tilting your head and zooming in and out with the Oculus Rift.
CP: As the Oculus technology rapidly developed over the last year, Jung was commissioned by the Art Tower Mito, just outside Tokyo, to create an installation. He started with the idea of the chaotic aftermath of the tsunami and earthquake that struck Japan in 2011. He isolated a long corridor inside the museum and randomly piled up bits of found clothing and everyday debris from the streets. Museum visitors entered this chaotic corridor, put on an Oculus Rift headset, and made their way through the space.
Yeondoo Jung, Just Like the Road across the Earth, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.
Wearing this headset, visitors would not see the chaos as they walked through the passageway. Instead they saw a vision of an idyllic green forest space – a kind of counterweight to the disaster of 2011. When the artist showed the sketches and the diagrams to Dooeun and me when we did a studio visit in September in Seoul, we found the idea a little too sweet. But given the residual trauma of the 2011 catastrophe in Japan, the artist’s approach was perhaps understandable.
Moon Kyungwon and Jeo Joonho, News from Nowhere: El Fin Del Mundo, 2011. Image courtesy of the artists.
Now let’s turn to a work by the Korean artists Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho. Those of you who visited the last dOCUMENTA may recall seeing an extraordinary installation and two-channel film work by these artists. They had both worked independently as artists for many years, but recently they have been collaborating on a remarkable series of works under the generic title ‘News from Nowhere.’ That title, as many of you probably recall, is the title of a novel by William Morris from 1890. In it Morris looked a hundred years into the future and imagined an agrarian socialist utopia that had sprung up on the ruins of an industrialized urban society. Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho present a slightly darker vision of what we might expect a hundred years from now. So far they have made several short film fragments that introduce parts of a very complex story. They imagine that an environmental catastrophe takes place a hundred years from now and wipes out most of the earth’s population. The only surviving entities are rather ominous multi-national corporations that try to organize and discipline the remaining human survivors to carry out projects that will lead to the reestablishment of a planetary civilization. The work that we will see later this evening, called El Fin del Mundo, or The End of the World, [involves] two central characters from ‘News from Nowhere.’ One is a young woman, a scientific researcher who is examining different kinds of plants looking for signs of pollution or mutation. And in a parallel narrative, there is the story of a man, an artist from the years before the catastrophe, who is working away in his studio on the projects that mean the most to him. Thanks to the appearance of a kind of time-space hole that has become familiar from sci-fi films, these two people suddenly find themselves in unexpected communication. That’s the endpoint of the film work that we’ll see tonight.
More than just a two-channel video though, this work is an installation that includes different kinds of objects in cases. ‘News from Nowhere’ has incorporated into its production a long series of conversations between the artists and assorted scientists, engineers, philosophers, poets . . .
DC: also Filmmakers, designers, architects…
CP: All of conversations started from the question, ‘What would be the top priority for someone in your profession if somehow, a hundred years from now, you had to start re-creating civilization?’. The various responses fed into ‘News from Nowhere,’ and the conversations, which were documented in project publications, have attracted the attention of many people.
DC: Next, I would like to talk about Toshio Iwai. He is one of the many pioneering media artists in Japan. His work, the Tenori-on, was a collaboration with the Yamaha Company. Instead of making a musical keyboard, he made a new device that lets you draw as a way to play music.
Toshio Iwai, TRN-I, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist and Yamaha.
This is another piece by Toshio Iwai, [called] Electroplankton. It was commissioned by Nintendo, which asked him to make an art game.
Japanese media art began with support from high tech companies, such as NTT. In 1997 the NTT ICC moved to a permanent home in the Tokyo Opera City tower, and hosted festivals, conferences, etc. This was one of the many pioneering media art organizations that brought together European, American, and Asian media artists.
Here is another example of collaboration between an artist and a commercial company, to create toys. In this one, the artist Ryota Kuwakubo dreamed of having a basketball that would play music. And here is another interactive device that pre-dated the iPhone.
Ryota Kuwakubo, The Tenth Sentiment, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.
Ryota Kuwakubo also experiments with old media, as you see with this small toy train installation that uses light to create a kind of shadow-play effect. He [also uses] crayons and other mundane items such as baskets and building blocks made of sugar cubes, in other words things you could find in your living room. He then brought in the idea of the lighting to infuse this work with a performative sense, and even sentimentality.
Ryoji Ikeda, Superposition, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.
Here is a piece by Ryoji Ikea. I’m not sure how many of you went to his performance called Superposition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The visuals were inspired by mathematical notions with very massive but minimal sound.
This is a work by another Japanese artist, Daito Manabe. He used electro-stimulators to initiate facial expressions which are accompanied by music.
Daito Manabe, electric stimulus to face – test, 2009. Image courtesy of the artist.
Audience Member: Do you mean these people are being shocked into wincing?
Audience Member: So who’s controlling the impulses that are stimulating these faces?
DC: The machine.
Audience Member: What machine? Who is the inventor?
DC: The machine was invented to help people whose nervous systems were impaired and who for this reason couldn’t show facial expressions. The artist wanted to use that same technology to comment on the relationship between humans and the machine, and he also made a music video to go with it. How Daito Manabe explored the idea of collaboration between humans and machines is quite interesting to me.
Lu Yang, Reanimation! Underwater Zombie frog ballet!, 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.
This is another related work by another artist, Lu Yang, who is here with us this evening. There are some people who have a hard time looking at her video in which frogs are made to ‘dance’ via electroshock, but she has stated that none of these creatures were killed for this work.
CP: Lu Yang studied with Zhang Peili, among others, in Hangzhou in the new media department. She has for the last four or five years been turning out a series of extraordinarily interesting, provocative, and, I must say, sometimes a little stomach-turning works. What really makes her a leading figure among her generation of Chinese artists is her generosity in terms of collaborating with a whole range of talented people: musicians, manga artists, anime artists, and others, in order to create large-scale projects such as Uterus Man.
Lu Yang, Uterus Man, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.
Uterus Man is an invented anime-style character, a kind of superhero, whose costume and whose powers derive directly from very specific parts of the female anatomy. The back-story is all explained in a manga-like comic book. If any of you had the chance to visit Lu Yang’s exhibition at Wallplay Gallery last month, you saw quite a lot of Uterus Man, for example as part of a real video arcade game. Playing the video game, you could help him move toward his goals and avoid his enemies. The experience was so engaging that regular high school kids from the neighborhood were lining up to play. They knew nothing about the art background of the piece, but found it a really terrific video game.
DC: What I like about Lu Yang’s work is that you cannot tell where she is coming from. Her sources are not just Japanese, Chinese, or Asian pop culture; they are global. I also like the research she does in terms of psychology, medicine, and religion. [On one hand], the work is very serious; on the other hand it’s very pop. That’s why these high school kids are lining up for it.
Lu Yang has also made a new piece using an augmented reality app.
Lu Yang, Wrathful King Kong Core Augmented Reality Version, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.
CP: It’s a piece that features one of the wrathful deities of Tibetan Buddhism and is one part of a much bigger project in which Lu Yang tries to answer the question, ‘If you’re a god, why are you so angry?’
DC: Let’s share some of the video, so you get a sense of how it works.
CP: This work was also shown at Wallplay Gallery. If you pick up the iPad, which is loaded with an augmented reality app, you can move it around the podium. The image tracks perfectly, so it’s as if you are looking through the iPad screen at an angry Tibetan god that’s really on that podiu. Needless to say, a work like this takes a lot of technical preparation. It is only very recently that augmented reality has started to be used by artists, and I was impressed that this device worked perfectly every time I gave it a try.
DC: I would like to end with [a younger] Chinese artist, Wang Yuyang, who exhibited at Art Basel Miami last year with Tang Contemporary. This is his ‘Breathing Series.’ The installation included a desk, chairs, and bureaus, and you will see that they all seem to be ‘breathing.’
Wang Yuyang, Breathing Series: Finance Department, 2013. Image courtesy of the artist.
CP: What is the technology that he’s using to give this illusion? Or are the objects actually moving?
DC: The furniture is made of molded silicon, inside each piece there’s a small motor that serves as a pump. The molded silicon acts like a skin which is lifted by this motorized movement.
Moon Kyungwon and Jeo Joonho, News from Nowhere: El Fin Del Mundo, 2012. Image courtesy of the artists.
CP: Now we will take a look at the installation documentation of the film El Fin del Mundo by Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho. It’s about 13 minutes long and is pretty mesmerizing. The premise is that it starts with one character per screen, the female researcher on the right and the male artist on the left. Then at a certain point they establish communication with each other.
CP: What she just put in her mouth is a combination of water and a nutrient pill. This is what’s provided by the multinational corporations that rule this future, post-catastrophe world to everyone who has attained the status of citizen. That’s how you survive in a world where water and nutrients are in very short supply.
DC: The woman in this film is practicing to be a citizen. If you become a citizen, you can have a stable life.
In this imaginary future world there are no records or documents, only random pieces of junk. The survivors are examining and archiving each piece of junk that they have found, every single little thing. This is what the woman is doing in the film now.
CP: On the other screen, we see an empty studio which was occupied by an artist in the years before the catastrophe.
CP: If you want to see the next installment, start booking your travel to Venice for the biennale! I believe there’s time for questions, comments, or observations. Who would like to start?
Audience Member: In my mind, the final work we watched felt like an experimental film. It looked into the future. But some of the earlier works, like the Oculus pieces, or the ones by Nintendo, were more gimmicky, more like toys. If ICP is focusing on this kind of new media work, is it because you are trying to redefine the notion of art? Does all that we have seen today qualify as art?
CP: I’ll start by saying that for the last twenty years we’ve been witnessing a reconfiguration of the relations between all kinds of visual media. As we move into an era of ubiquitous digitalization, it is producing some very unusual effects in regard to the way we think about different kinds of visual media. For example, photography is 200 years old—hardly a new medium. But because it has been almost fully digitalized in the past two decades, photography has suddenly become a kind of emerging medium again. It has been rejuvenated, and in its new digital incarnation it can be plugged into the very latest electronic media.
One thing that occurred to me as Dooeun was talking and as we were looking at works that bring together music and gaming technology is the way the world is being reconfigured. I teach a seminar every year at New York University at what was the photography department at Tisch School of the Arts. But now this department is being combined into a new program called Emerging Media with digital intercommunications, gaming design, and electronic music. Previously I would never have thought of putting those things together, but when you see some of the works we have just been looking at, there is a perspective from which it makes total sense that those things should be taught as an ensemble to the rising generations of artists. I think that’s what ICP’s Director Mark Lubell sees happening, and I know he feels it’s important to position ICP at the forefront of the digital transformation of image-making.
I also think it’s very significant that there’s an enormous and new wave of interest in Nam June Paik -perhaps not so much because of the individual artworks that we currently see at Asia Society, but because Paik was such a pioneer of the idea of interactive collaborations between artists, non-artists, and scientists of all kinds. We have a Paik expert among us tonight—Sohl Lee. Sohl, how do you account for this dramatically changing understanding of what’s significant about Nam June Paik’s work?
Sohl Lee: My next project is on Nam June Paik’s collaborations with different types of people in different disciplines, from sculptors and his wife Shigeko Kubota, to Abe Shuya the engineer, to Charlotte Moorman, and to other kinds of collaborators later in his life. I think Paik devoured books about technology, starting in 1961 and 1962, when he decided he wanted to use TV monitors for the first time in art making. What I see today is that artists don’t necessarily have this same pressure to become experts. Even when artists today collaborate with other people, it seems the collaboration starts with the assumption that they’re not experts in any single thing. I think that’s maybe a bit different from what was happening with Paik. Nam June Paik was also very involved in the experimental music scene. I don’t know if anyone was at the performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Originale at The Kitchen just last month, where the role that Nam June Paik originally played was played by Joan Jonas. But Paik was at the center of every single thing. I think today the concept of collaboration is more flexible.
DC: Paik trained as a classical pianist when he was young, so originally he was more involved with music. Then because of the Korean War he went to Hong Kong and later landed in Japan. He then moved to Germany. His involvement with music started at an early age and it was only later that he found this Sony Portapak, the first portable video camera, and began to use it. My favorite performance was when he was dragging the camera behind him as he was walking around New York City. Instead of filming with it, he was walking with it, like one would walk a dog. He has been called a shaman, a kind of mediator between many different things. Shamanistic performances always have music and a visual aspect, as well as a physical performance. Paik put himself forward as being a new type of artist, as being a mediator between all sorts of things – technology, performance, and artwork.
Audience Member: Yes, Paik was a pioneer in terms of new media; he crossed all sorts of boundaries in terms of art and technology, visual images, and performance, but one of the things that makes him so timeless is that he also humanized machines. He made them act in funny ways. There was warmth and humor to a lot of his work, so the coldness, even the distance that one sometimes associates with a machine disappears. Sometimes I find overly technical work loses that connection, and while I can admire it for its complexity, I can’t relate to it in the same way. I think that’s a challenge that a lot of art, not just new media art, faces. Making a work technically and fascinatingly complex doesn’t always mean it moves you to feel or think in new ways.
Audience Member: I would like to say that I saw the Nam June Paik exhibition at the Museum of American Art in Washington about two years ago. For those of you who didn’t see it, there were TV sets assembled in a garden, like they had been planted there.
Audience Member: That piece is called TV Garden.
Audience Member: And it was just hilarious. You just wanted to say, ‘How great!’ He had so much humor in his work. I must say that the Asia Society… just missed it!
DC: I totally agree. I think that the work at the Asia Society represents more the gallery era of Nam June Paik.
Audience Member: Regarding the film we just saw, with the split screen, it made me wonder how one can distinguish between fine arts and feature film, between art and an entertaining Hollywood movie.
CP: One of the things that’s interesting about Moon Kyungwon and Jeon Joonho is that they are working with the top professionals in the Korean movie industry. The actors in the film are not people they found at random on the street.
DC: The people in their films are top actors and actresses in Korea, who work in commercial films. They are in big demand, yet they were willing to devote their time to be in this art film. So for these artists and actors, there are no boundaries. Even some commercial moviemakers in the 1980s made art films. The whole point of media art is that there are no boundaries. Chang-dong Lee, who is a very well known filmmaker, is part of the advisory board for this project. But the concerns in this film relate more to the context of art. It is set in a time after a disaster when nobody remembers that there was ever anything called art. But then the female character happens to discover this artist’s studio. By discovering art, she becomes a whole new person, more free.
Audience Member: You’ve chosen some excellent examples of new media, but would you talk about some of the casualties of this new media field? Some of the problems artists face, like how to avoid gimmicks, or how to ensure the tech doesn’t overshadow the message?
CP: I have to say that I’m not someone who has really been part of the new media scene, and I’ve sometimes dismissed new media art as not much more than inspired gadgeteering. But I think it’s like every new art form. How long did it take after the invention of cinema for something really artistically successful to emerge? 20 years? 25 years?
Audience Member: Do think you think that programs like the one that you described at NYU are going to help us all, including artists, climb up the learning curve?
CP: It’s really too early to say. In many ways the students who are twenty years old now are much more advanced than the people who are teaching, like myself.
DC: I would say that all new types of art receive this kind of criticism at the beginning. New media art is still very young.
CP: This brings up an interesting question. It seems that in order for artists to explore new media art to its fullest extent, they’ve got to have a telecommunications company or Google or Apple bankrolling them. As we’ve just seen, most of the early important media art centers were founded by corporate electronics companies. What kinds of opportunities and what kinds of limitations does that create for artists and for curators?
Audience Member: Speaking of technology, you say that most of the technology that these artists use could be obsolete in less than ten years, or even less than five years. Do you think that archiving, preservation, or conservation could be part of the curatorial process?
DC: That’s a good question. NTT ICC was about to close in 2009 or 2010. The problem was they had to spend so much money just to keep the art works in their collection alive. In the digital age you have such a variety of media, and a lot of computer-generated artwork is based on specific operating systems that can become obsolete. In my experience, you can’t always archive the actual art object. But media art is not the object, so what you have to archive is the experience. To deal with this issue, we are making moving image documentaries, to document a person’s experience of the work. Then we interview the person who experienced the work, the artist who made it, and the curator. This is the only thing that we can do. One artist told me that he is also archiving all the press releases and writings about his work in the media, so in the future if the piece is no longer extant, this will be what survives. Indirect archiving is the only possibility.
Audience Member: I have a comment. I think it’s time we move beyond the dichotomy of technology and human. I believe that dichotomy is false. I think any artist who cannot mine an interesting human story from new technology doesn’t understand that technology in the first place. There’s good gimmicky and bad gimmicky and good gadgetry and bad gadgetry, and it’s time that we actually try to learn more about the digital realms. Take Lu Yang as an example, and the piece with the augmented reality and wrathful deity. It’s incredible gimmicky and the altar is set up to be tacky. But I think it is actually a very tongue-in-cheek comment on the notion of enlightenment. Whether you see the deity or not speaks powerfully to the phenomenon, especially in China, where a lot of Tibetan monks are celebrities and hang out with celebrities, where those monks can give you instant morality and instant salvation, which is why of course so many celebrities are befriending them. Lu Yang’s work immediately reminded me of this, and it’s so playful. It’s about how religion or spirituality can be something easily and instantly consumed.
The image of the wrathful king, the Tibetan deity, also juxtaposes divinity and humanity. It shows you the neurological system that explains why the King can be so wrathful, although normally one would never associate a neurological system with a divine being. I find this incredibly inspiring and refreshing to see. In Lu Yang’s work Uterus Man, the uterus is the female reproductive organ but superheroes are usually men, or when they’re women, they’re highly sexualized. But when we look at the Uterus Man, it is asexual or, you might say, problematically sexualized. Right now the whole video game scene is the frontier of a feminist battle over the sexualization of females and overt characterizations of female players. There’s a really interesting feminist artist who is also a player of World of Warcraft, which is a really important video game. You have to be really good in order to get to the level where you can converse with other players. Those who play World of Warcraft constitute a big community with presumably a diverse representation of demographics and political views. So this woman player has begun to engage the other players in conversations about feminism, and of course a lot of the other players may not be the kind of people you meet in the liberal, cynical, hip art world that we live in. I think this engagement is very interesting. That is a meaningful and interesting fight for me.
DC: Right, you have a lot of power in that world. Even though we have a very short history of media art, we also have a whole new generation. Lu Yang, I believe, is a digital native. She was born after the internet came out. As for me, I am in-between. There are also people who retired before the digital became known. These different generations have totally different ideas about media. But for the generation that was born with iPhones in their hand, it’s an everyday thing, like the air we breathe. We cannot define what media art is within one hour – we just touched on some points. I cannot say that something is new media art and something is not. You need to look at it for yourself.
JD: Unfortunately we have to close this down, although I’m sure everyone’s heads are spinning with more comments and questions. That’s a good thing, of course. So let’s just think of this is as an appetizer. Christopher, we look forward to your show. When is going to be?
CP: To be announced!
JD: Will it be within our lifetimes? How many iPhone iterations forward are we going to have to wait?
CP: The curators are seeing the new Bowery space for the first time tomorrow. Then we have to decide how to renovate it.
JD: Okay. Well, I hope we will be able to see your exhibition soon, but until then, thank you both very much for the preview.
Dooeun Choi is presently an independent curator and visiting scholar at Parsons/The New School for Design. She was until 2011 creative director at the Art Center Nabi, one of the premier media art centers in South Korea since its founding in 2000.
As a curator, she treats the space as a laboratory for experimenting with the types of experience and aesthetics that can emerge from combining and recombining scientific knowledge, artistic practices, and historical narratives. Her recent projects include Mediacity Seoul 2012 Biennale (Seoul Museum of Art in Seoul, Korea), ZERO1 Biennial 2012 (Zero1 Garage in Silicon Valley, USA), ‘Anima’ (Borusan Contemporary in Istanbul, Turkey), and ‘Boundless Fantasy: Media Art from East Asia’ (Charles B. Wang Center at Stony Brook University).