My lifework took off in 1972, when I saw David Bowie’s music video, Space Oddity, made with photographer Mick Rock. This encounter led to a nonstop preoccupation with how video, music, sound, performance, and technology collide in what is labeled experimental art. Cross-pollination between disciplines still challenges me as a curator, and bolsters my understanding of how electronic art operates in a state of perpetual transition, in tandem with tools’ evolution. Every technological upgrade creates fresh prospects. Artists, exhibitors and collectors progress with nimble steps. Navigating each change means that practitioners slowly revise definitions that remain intact until the next major technological shift. Deciphering and determining what to do with the new can be laborious, yet is what inspires most of us.
Last May, I traveled to Italy for the opening of the 2019 Venice Biennial, ready to catch up with colleagues and experience the latest artwork from around the world. Eager to check the pulse of art and technology, I knew to anticipate works in the evolving fields of virtual reality and artificial intelligence. These as yet uncodified areas are up for grabs, and in their newness refute convention and turn traditional mediums and disciplines into a bit of a farrago.
Shortly after reaching Venice, I headed over to May You Live in Interesting Times, the 2019 Biennial’s thematic survey organized by the respected, London-based curator, Ralph Rugoff. I found myself wedged into a multitudinous throng of overzealous viewers, and had to push my way through the crammed galleries of the Central Pavilion in the Giardini. I moved with thousands of others on to the second venue, what is the rough-hewn Arsenale. Rudolf featured two works by each of his selected artists, their work split between the two locations. This meant he featured fewer artists than usual. I was delighted to discover that Beijing-based artist Yin Xiuzhen’s work was a success in both spaces. In the Central Pavilion, her elegiac little library, crammed into the corner of a filled-to-the-gills gallery, was easily missed. Nonetheless, her poignant sculpture stood out. Each book on her shelves was wrapped in a softly worn, fleshy-colored fabric. Seemingly the work posed questions about knowledge (physical and mental) and control. Meanwhile over in the Arsenale, her towering, he-man size combine-machine swept me away with its confident exuberant expression of female prowess.
In a vast dark space around the corner from Yin’s large sculpture, I discovered Ryoji Ikeda’s mathematically elegant, sound and light installation. I promptly lay down on the carpeted floor and blissed out on the mesmerizing composition in solitude, ignoring the crowd that milled about around me. I was exhausted by and less interested in the predominance of marketable objects on view.
With only a few days in rainy Venice, I knew I would be able to experience a small percentage of the official national pavilions (there were ninety in all) and a smattering of the collateral events (a total of twenty-one). The overabundance of options in such a spread-out, overcrowded historic city offers a few rewards. Two strikingly distinct pavilions stood out.
Shu Lea Cheang (b. 1954, Taiwan)
Wherever I went, I seemed to pass a computer-generated face peering out from a poster placed on the walls of Venice’s crowded passageways and of the city’s main vaporetto stations. The portrait announced the new work of Taipei-born Shu Lea Cheang, which was featured in Taiwan’s pavilion at the edge of St. Mark’s Square. The enigmatic poster rendered the artist in pink shirt and bald head, dilated eyes that stared blankly off somewhere in the distance, and a cage-like facial recognition grid placed over her face. I was curious to discover what this savvy, techno artist was up to.
Cheang and I met shortly after she completed an MA in Cinema Studies at NYU, in 1979. I followed her film and videos throughout the 1980s, when she worked with Paper Tiger TV, an activist artist group that produced a live weekly TV program that ran on Manhattan Cable’s free public access channel. I kept track of her subsequent installation and film work. I remember Color Schemes (1990), a work consisting of three, seemingly in-action self-service washing machines, each with its small round window displaying the faces in video of a black, yellow, and white person swooshing around the cleansing water. With Color Schemes and her work since, Cheang has challenged gender and racial issues, power structures, and just about everything coupled with new technology and its systems of control. Now based in Paris and often on the road, she is open, affable, and hard working.
Cheang’s Venice project was complex. Years in the making and developed specifically for the Taiwanese Pavilion, 3×3x6 occupied a floor of the Palazzo delle Prigioni, the prison built in 1614 and situated next door to the Doge’s Palace on the Grand Canal. The fortified stone building’s history inspired Cheang, especially one of the famous prisoners, Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798), who became one of her characters.
I entered the Palazzo delle Prigioni’s fortress-like front door and headed up an ominous flight of worn, stone stairs. Emerging at the exhibition floor, I discovered that a photo had been taken of my face and scanned, so my modified image was now in the work, and I was implicated within the surveillance system. I had become part of Cheang’s gender and racial morphing, her queer digital strategies intended to disrupt the tradition of colonial and anthropometric identification techniques.
In the first room of the exhibition, I stepped into a circle formed by ten tall, vertically positioned flat screens. Each screen displayed a full-length portrait of one of Cheang’s characters, who stood and confidently stared at me. In the next room, I found another set of ten screens. I watched each of the now familiar characters reenact their purported crime, which they carried out with the assistance of an associate. Each case involved imprisonment, and I discovered that the accused were guilty of some form of gender, sexual, or racial nonconformity, in the present as well as in the past. Cheang’s trans punk fiction films were explicit.
Cheang herself gave me a guided tour of the show. She called my attention to her surveillance tower. She also pointed out the control room, a carefully constructed, intricately arranged, and precariously balanced brain of the entire system—a Plexiglas cube chock-a-block with computers, video playback software, a 3-D camera surveillance system, and dials dynamically blinking with life. The setup was impressive. The artist’s press release noted that by revealing the mechanisms behind the work, Cheang asks us to examine the distance between surveillance and desire—when an individual experiences pleasure and voluntarily participates in observing another, are they not, too, being exposed to surveillance?
Shu Lea Cheang stated: “With this exhibition we explore the possible strategies for resistance against highly controlled societies, the self-affirming dignity against repression, and the variable versions of self-granted pursuits for (un)happiness.”
The work’s title, 3×3x6, is a reference to the standardized architecture of today’s industrial imprisonment: a nine-square-meter prison cell that is monitored nonstop by six live cameras. 3×3x6 questions the legal and visual regimes that have formed sexual and gender norms over time. Her exhibition looks to the conditions of nonphysical yet increasingly omnipresent imprisonment in this new digital age.
Connected to the Internet, 3×3x6 allows its visitors to send selfies and images to the exhibition system. The exhibition visitors were therefore inside the surveillance apparatus.
Tamás Waliczky (b. 1959, Hungary)
On a rainy morning, I made my way through the muddy back section of the Giardini, and into the Hungarian Pavilion. I wanted to see Tamás Waliczky’s Imaginary Cameras (2019), having met him in 1995, while he was on the research staff of the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany. Soon after that, for a MoMA project I selected his image-processed video The Way, with a runner on a strangely telescoped road. The artist now lives in Hong Kong, where he is a professor at the School of Creative Media at the City University of Hong Kong.
Waliczky gave me a tour of his new work, a series of 23 imaginary cameras that he designed and developed. The sleek devices had the look of a 1930s, (perhaps communist era), black-and-white sales brochure for actual cameras, perhaps intended for surveillance use, either by police or hobbyists. Waliczky’s elegant “camera metaphors” were presented at the Pavilion as large lightboxes, each accompanied by an animation of that device in action. I smiled because each of the retro-looking, sophisticated mechanisms sported multiple lenses, each oddly aimed in different directions. The curious mutant cameras maintained a staid, scientific veracity, yet were clearly incongruous. Their zaniness made me smile. Each device suggested different possibilities, which had to do with visual perception, and how fantastical potentialities can appear believable, as if the cameras on display really could portray idealized renditions of the world changing around us.
Viewers were invited to explore one of Waliczky’s phantasy cameras, the one mechanism installed in the pavilion’s inner atrium. I approached and looked straight into the periscope-like device, its lens directing my gaze towards the sky, where I had a bucolic view of tree tops and birds in flight, right in front of me.
Waliczky’s analog-looking work was a brilliant put-on. The twenty-three light boxes displayed the image of apparatuses that seemed solidly real, yet were make-believe, constructed with digital software. With the skill, patience, and fastidiousness of an industrial engineer, Waliczky perfected the smooth veracity of his fanciful cameras. I appreciate the questions Waliczky raises about how we operate in today’s world of apps and gadgets, and about how we don’t seem to question or make a distinction between what is real and what isn’t. He questions why.
At the Venice Biennial, it is the combination of formally official and plucky collateral events—including the Rail’s “Social Environment”—that offers insight into where art is. As members of the 2019 Venice audience, we might ruminate on how selections are made and how the recent activity of carefully chosen artists is categorized and why. In an age of environmental, gender, and racial concerns, questions and answers tend to be loaded.
To understand the cultural flux, as old boundaries blur and new forms of exhibition take hold, I still turn to artists, harbingers of what lies ahead. Perhaps it’s naïve, but for whatever reason, I remain optimistic that the collision of media, music, sound, performance, and digital technology will still inspire.