Originally published in Ravelin Magazine
Interview by Jillian Billard
Hi, Jillian ~
I always like to start with talking about an artist’s background. Can you talk a bit about your early life and how you came to visual art?
I grew up in an immigrant family in Canada, my parents are originally from Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a place that I fantasize about -- feel this deeply unearned nostalgia and longing for; I wonder if that’s typical for children born into the east asian diaspora.
My father was a classically trained opera singer and my mother a computer programmer, so those influences were always in the background. I always considered my upbringing to be quite normal, growing up with rigorous musical training and access to technology before everyone else, but I recognize it now as a very distinct privilege.
I grew up playing several instruments. I didn’t know it at the time, but learning to communicate through music, through the apparatus of an instrument, probably shaped my outlook on everything. Playing the violin was what resonated me the most.
I look back and think of my time as a violinist as one of my first experiences of artistic escapism -- learning a feedback loop of internalization and externalization through gesture that was at once improvisational and abstract. At the same time, it wasn’t really subjective. You either had the skill and intent to communicate the emotion or you were asleep at the wheel. Or in my case, the bridge.
In tandem, we were among the first to have computers and access to the internet. As a child I was very active in the building of online culture and digital identity, which as a result still fascinates me. Nostalgia is overrated, but I indulge in it a bit when I think about those early internet days. I like what Andre Nusselder says about digital space as a projection of one's desire and fantasy -- especially back then before online spaces were so regulated and before communication became so reliant on platforms. The fantasy before the deep fake. When talking to someone from another continent still felt like magic -- it probably still is, we just forget that it is.
My early life was mostly about learning how to communicating through instruments, musical and technological. Growing with that practice, sharing through performance. In that sense, nothing much has changed.
What’s different is that now these instruments, these tools, are part of much more complex systems. So there’s a feedback loop, a cycle of learning and adaptation through the promise of AI and an evolution of the digital object. In that sense, everything has changed.
How long have you been interested in exploring the relationship between robots and humans? What led you to explore this relationship through visual art?
I’ve been exploring this space for almost 5 years now... Maybe more? It seems like a long time and also a split second in the scheme of things.
I’ve always considered the relationship between robots and humans as a proxy for exploring the broader scope of technology’s influence on our lives. One specific influence is that of AI systems in the world today. My robots bring AI generated behaviours into physical space -- out of the digital simulation. You could say that it’s about bodies, as well as bytes.
I work alongside the AI system to make drawings, creating a feedback loop on a single canvas in real time. I was surprised that by translating these behaviours physically and working alongside them it changed what drawing meant for me. Working with prototypes and behavioral experiments; it’s a reminder of the vitality and fallibility of the process at the same time -- I guess that’s what I’m drawn to. The uncertainty, the unlearning, the unknowing of it all.
When I think of robot production, I think of functionality, and not so much artistic expression and collaboration between robots and humans. What do you believe about the future of human and robot communication? How do technological advancement and artistry intersect?
That’s such a big question. It could go so many different ways, really. I will say that working with robots has contributed to my own thinking and fluency with deep learning systems, rapid prototyping, physical computing. It’s intimidating at first, but rife with aesthetic and conceptual inspiration.
Its further affirmed that technology in general isn’t inherently good or bad, but it isn’t exactly neutral either. However, the stories we tell about technology, especially in pop culture and tech media tends to be pretty reductive and sensationalized. It’s not all Terminator, Tesla, or Twitter.
We probably think of functionality when we think about robots as they were a prominent icon of the industrial revolution -- we associate them with assembly lines and factories. It lends itself to a didactic perception of the role between human and machine, with humans in control.
What if it wasn’t about control? What if it could that be another way? I wonder what would that look like. I think control is interesting only when its incomplete -- and most of the time it is.
On the same vein, the future of human and robotic communication is pretty porous. It’s not so linear or one-way. It’s not really clear who’s at the wheel, sometimes literally. It raises some interesting questions about agency.
At the risk of sounding like a foghorning media theorist, I’ve been thinking of the parallels between technological and artistic processes, in that they both foreground human bias. One process translates the bias of the dataset and the human engineer into the AI system and the other the visual bias of the artist and her visual style onto a canvas.
By intersecting artistic and technological processes, I’ve been working towards discovering particularities about both. They’re just ways of seeing and shaping the world at the end of the day, after all.
In Omnia per Omnia, you reframe the idea of a landscape as a documentation of movement throughout a space––particularly the ebb and flow of bodies throughout a city. This data is gathered through the interplay of technology or surveillance with the organic and improvisational movement of life. How are these robots taught to move––i.e. Is their movement improvisational? What does it mean to reverse the documentation––by having the human hand follow the robot, as opposed to the other way around?
The movements of the robots are linked to urban flow as captured through public cameras. They move according to motion vectors extracted from pre-existing surveillance feeds in New York City. The movements are improvisational in the way that how we move through cities is improvisational… sometimes chaos, sometimes flow. The mechanical units, which I call D.O.U.G._L.A.S. (Drawing Operations Unit Generation 4, Live Autonomous System) start on predictable paths which, by translating the data through physical space, eventually veer off course, creating space for emergent, random behaviours as the composition unfolds on the canvas. When performing with these units, they resemble to me, a swathe, a broad stroke of the brush on by a multi-agent robotic body.
It’s interesting that you describe it as a reversal, I’m not sure if I see it that way. I think culturally we’re moving beyond the linearity of human following machine or vice versa, to something more cyclical.
As the initial movements of the robots in Omnia follow human movement, and I in turn am creating alongside these translated positions, the marks made between human and machine function as a feedback loop. It’s been described as it’s a rhythmic duet, evoking a sense of push and pull; of coexistence. Alternatively it could be seen as meditative, and sometimes disturbing and chaotic. For me, the performance demands a vital focus on the movements of my robotic collaborators. It requires a kind of ego dissociation. Like being part of a collective.
You ask “are we on the onset of a new, collaborative imagination––of radical new intersubjectivities?” What does this mean? What do you foresee this world, in which humans and technology collaborate, looking like?
The promise of some of these new technologies, like computer vision and deep learning, offers an alternative way of seeing. In my work I explore the particularities of that vision by turning it on my drawings, my environment, myself, to see from another perspective.
Seeing can be an act of self reflection, but self-reflection is a closed loop. Learning to see as a machine sees is a vantage point that requires mediation between symbolism and data. In deep there is the concept of ground truth, that which is objective and not derived from inference.
There is a lot of conversation about biases evident in AI systems and that is absolutely true within AI systems trained on art. In that vein, you could describe visual language as a kind of visual bias, a foregrounding of the subjective view of the artist, like I said before. Bias is another form of subjective view. For my part, by translating visual style as bias as subjectivity into machine behavior, and collaborating with machines as an aspiration, I am attempting ask certain questions. What might the ground truth of an artistic practice be? Is that something we want? What might a shared intersubjectivity between human and machine look like?
For my project, Omnia per Omnia, I elaborated on this “intersubjectivity” and expanded it to the idea of a collective. In the work, I painted alongside a system of painting robots whose movements were linked to the flow of New York City. The movement was extracted using an optical flow algorithm trained on surveillance cameras around New York City. The performance is a trio of sorts between myself as a performer, the 20 multi-robotic units and the collective movement of the city, improvising a hybrid choreography. It’s a performance of human and machine and city, an emergent creative process.
With Omnia, the act of improvisational painting takes place through a heightened sense of awareness of the machines. It’s flow is site-specific. The movements are linked to the movements of a crowd, who aren’t aware of their position as catalysts of the robotic swarm.
But what if the crowd were aware of being all watched over by these machines? That’s what I mean by being at the onset of this collective imagination and intersubjectivity. It’s inspired the idea of a collaborative space between multiple bodies that is physical, digital, telepresent, and most importantly, shared. It’s a representation that isn’t about control, but something else.
The project really stemmed from a curiosity -- a willingness to de-privilege the western conception of the individual towards an entangled, intersubjective, radical ecosystem. I’ve been inspired by this reconfiguration of the “I”, through theorists like Yuk Hui’s who explore a new cosmotechnics, and the philosophies of media centred around eastern concepts of relation.
The act of painting in Omnia per Omnia appears as a meditative practice, in which the lines between the maker and the final product are blurred––that is to say, the act of making seems to be more important than the actual outcome. It reminds me of Allan Kaprow’s “Happenings” in that way. Would you say that the making is more about the act than the product?
Yes, I think I would. Perhaps it’s my upbringing in music. The performance vs the recording of the performance, for instance. My approach to making is grounded in my background as a musical performer, as an instrumentalist. Making through collaboration as folie a deux; a shared hallucination between collaborators. Sometimes harmonious, and sometimes discordant, but always intertwined, and relational. Counterpoint.
You speak about the Japanese Gutai art movement, in which “matter never compromises itself with the spirit; (and) the spirit never dominates matter.” Can you talk a bit about this movement’s influence on your work, and how your work builds upon these theories of making?
I love that particular excerpt of the Gutai manifesto. “matter never compromises itself with the spirit; (and) the spirit never dominates matter.” Its deceptively complex and.. Beautiful and provocative.
In my view, Gutai’s theories of making reframed the human’s relationship with the matter of the day. It sought to recentre the human body (as a channel to spirit) as their artists engaged with painting and sculpture (matter) towards freedom of expression. It stemmed from Jiro Yoshihara’s rejection of contemporary propagandistic trends of art, which were supportive of the political contexts that supported the Japanese involvement in WW2.
For me, their group shows represented a collective action in a time of uncertainty. Gutai artists engaged in radical artistic gestures, through a range of media, performances, and sculptures. Their approach to making was focused on a liberation from the past -- an uncoupling from the cognitive patterns derived from a post-war social order. They worked towards creating new meaning and pathways through these artistic gestures, towards “engaging with the uncompromising spirit of matter itself”.
I’m quite inspired by this approach, though the Matter I’m working with today, you could say, differs from the Matter used by Gutai artists in the 60s.
Technology as matter is interactive; it can be linked, sensate, responsive, interactive, intelligent, interconnected in a way which has never existed in human history. The technology of media art like cameras, sensors, computers, for instance. Technology can serve a propagandistic function all the same and work against our best interests all the same, and our relationship to it must be reframed.
While Gutai emerged from the political and psychic disillusionment of war, it’s important to note that it wasn’t a movement that ended on a sense of nihilism. In the face of uncertainty, the movement demonstrated artistic strategies for uncoupling and unlearning, in service of cultural extension, collective action, and hope in the dark. My work builds on, and is inspired by, these Gutai traditions.