Experimenta Mesh 17: New Media Art in Australia and Asia contact

5 entries

: : Lee Weng Choy

1. on being a cyborg

There are, already, cyborgs among us. Even if they don’t have artificial body parts, many people, because of their intimate relationships with complex information systems, are such composite creatures. I am one of these cyborgs. The reason may be banal, but I’d argue for it all the same: I’m a writer, and I write with a computer. It’s not as if I literally can’t write without one, but I can’t remember the last time when I actually composed a text, even a personal letter, by hand (apart from that one occasion where I deliberately chose to do so as an experiment). The days of handwriting and banging out drafts on typewriters seem much farther away than a decade ago, when I purchased my first computer. What strikes me is how I can hardly recall what it was like to think through the hand, holding a pencil, going at the pace of script.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein questioned our common sense notion of attributing thinking to the head [1]. We typically believe that our brains are special organs that think. But where does thinking actually take place? And what exactly is “thinking”? Wittgenstein was interested in how we used the word, often with the sense of “manipulating signs with meaning”. He argued that rather than locating thinking in our heads, it might be less misleading to say that thinking takes place with pen on paper.

Likewise, I want to say that a lot of my thinking takes place on the computer screen. It takes place “outside” of me. The process of writing entails a feedback system where I type out my thoughts, read to myself, then retype/rewrite/rethink. This feedback system includes a screen, a keyboard, a computer — things separate from my body. I am both unconscious and conscious of the interface between machine and me.

On the one hand, the keyboard does not get in the way, there is an effortless, transparent connection. I wouldn’t even use the word “translation”. I type and the ideas are there. Thinking isn’t easy, ideas don’t always come, but whether they do or don’t, it’s as if the evidence is directly on the screen. There’s nothing behind, so to speak. The thinking process is made entirely visible in pixels. On the other hand, I’ve become highly aware of how dependent I am on this technology that has made a cyborg out of me.

2. on being old-fashioned

Much has been said about how the computer has changed writing — and not always for the better. The convenience of cut and paste has contributed, some say, to sloppier writing, people too readily ramble on and on. While the ease and speed with which humans produce information and communication surely has a lot to do with the fact that much of the stuff isn’t very interesting, my purpose isn’t to discuss how writing has changed because of the internet. On the contrary, I want to suggest that the practice of art criticism hasn’t necessarily changed that much, even if a large number of writers have become cyborgs.

Much of my writing concerns an ill-defined category, “contemporary” art. What this field comprises, which is usually contrasted with “traditional” or “modern” art, is subject to unending debate. But like many art writers, I don’t find it necessary to engage directly in those debates. Most of the time, I write about the practices and contexts of living artists, and contest a variety of issues, from the function of public art to the politics of representation and multiculturalism. And when I write about art and science, I often resort to themes in natural history rather than address technology. This text is something of an exception. It is, for me, an early entry into the area of “new technologies” and art.

I tend to be sceptical in my judgements when it comes to art labelled as “new media” and the like. Maybe I am too sceptical, or even old-fashioned, preferring a performance art piece by Amanda Heng, or an installation by Zai Kuning (such as his A Tree in a Room, which was presented at Sculpture Square in Singapore in January–February 2004). It doesn’t help that I’ve found the majority of “new media” art in Singapore, such as the “cyberart” component of the Nokia Singapore Art 2001 exhibition, to be unimpressive. One exception is Ho Tzu Nyen’s brilliant installation combining film and painting, Utama — Every Name in History is I (2003). Ho had participated in Nokia 2001, by the way. Although I’m not sure if one should call Utama an example of new media — “contemporary art” seems good enough for me.

Doubtless, it is imperative to vigilantly test one’s biases. Some time ago, I took pains to check out an exhibition by an established group of local painters, so as to test my belief that this grouping has become largely irrelevant to the “contemporary” scene. Am I pleased to say that I found the show even more disappointing than I could have predicted? Honestly, I do not know whether I would have preferred to have my expectations overturned — even if, for nothing else, to have a better anecdote to cite here.

Ho Tzu Nyen
Ho Tzu Nyen, painting from Utama - Every Name is History is I (2003), Iskandar Shah. Note that in the essay this figure is mistakenly indentified as Saint Sebastian.

Ho Tzu Nyen
Ho Tzu Nyen, painting from Utama - Every Name is History is I (2003), Vasco de Gama.

Ho Tzu Nyen
Ho Tzu Nyen, painting from Utama - Every Name is History is I (2003), Captain Cook

Ho Tzu Nyen
Ho Tzu Nyen, film still from Utama - Every Name is History is I (2003), Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, on a voyage of discovery.

Ho Tzu Nyen
Ho Tzu Nyen, film still from Utama - Every Name is History is I (2003), The naming of Singapore.

Ho Tzu Nyen
Ho Tzu Nyen, film still from Utama -Every Name is History is I (2003), The Jester trying to convince his master that it was a lion.


To return to the topic. I do not prefer any one form of art over another. I don’t think of contemporary art in categories of techniques, even as I acknowledge how technology has radically transformed almost all human practices (but what is the difference that thinking on screen rather than on paper makes in the content and character of one’s writing?). That late capitalism has as one of its main effects the increasing virtualisation of life is something that contemporary artists engage with in all kinds of ways, and information technology doesn’t seem to me a more privileged arena of contestation than body or space. That is to say, I don’t yet know how to recognise the break between “new media” and “older” art forms such as installation and performance. At least not in the way I see differences between art practiced in the mid-20th century and art practiced in our age of the full-blown society of the spectacle.

3. on weight redistributions

The desire to recognise this “break”, however, seems founded on a misunderstanding. Lev Manovich, author of the book, The Language of New Media, believes that: “The history of culture does not contain such sudden breaks.... New media does not radically break with the past; rather, it distributes weight differently between the categories that hold culture together, foregrounding what was in the background, and vice versa.” [2]

In his essay, “The Database”, Manovich argues that narrative has been the central form of cultural expression of the modern age. What the computer age introduces is the database as cultural form. “Many new media objects do not tell stories ... in fact, they do not have any development, thematically, formally, or otherwise that would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as any other.” Yet it is important to note that these database collections are not without some structure.

For Manovich what characterizes the computer age is the redistribution of weight between narrative and database. With the novel or cinema, what is in the foreground is narrative. “Particular words, sentences, shots, and scenes that make up a narrative have a material existence; other elements that form the imaginary world ... that could appear instead, exist only virtually.” A movie character is meaningful not because everything we need to know about her is explicitly presented on screen, but precisely because there are other characteristics, comparisons and contexts that we infer as viewers versed in the language and conventions of cinema. “Put differently, the database of choices from which narrative is constructed ... is implicit, while the actual narrative ... is explicit.” In new media this relationship is reversed. Consider a website, with its buttons, images, and various content. “The narrative is constructed ... by designing a trajectory leading from one element to another. On the material level, a narrative is just a set of links; the elements themselves remain stored in the database. Thus the narrative is virtual while the database exists materially.”

How is an art writer to respond to these weight redistributions? As I interpret Manovich, the theorist’s responsibility is not to simply celebrate the creative exploitation of these redistributions, and the incessant proliferation of new media products. Towards the end of his essay, Manovich implicitly argues for the making of judgements, ones that recognise the criticality of artistic interventions.

“The endless new possibilities provided by computer software hold the promise of new cinematic language [or new computer-based visual culture], but at the same time they prevent such languages from coming into being.... [In] a culture ruled by the logic of fashion ... artists tend to adopt newly available options while simultaneously dropping already familiar ones. Every year, every month, new effects find their way into media works, displacing previously prominent ones ... And this is why [Dziga Vertov’s classic film Man with a Movie Camera (1929)] has particular relevance to new media.” Arguably “the most important example of a database imagination in modern media art ... [Man with a Movie Camera] proves it is possible to turn ‘effects’ into a meaningful artistic language.” Because his film is motivated, even though not by a straightforward story, but by an argument, “Vertov is able to achieve something that new media designers and artists still have to learn — how to merge database and narrative into a new form.”

4. on some abuses of theory

Every citation — of a theory, thinker, artist or artwork — is a weighty choice for the writer. Or, at least, it should be for every citation. Yet if there is always, at the fundamental level, an ethical gravity in acts of selection, then perhaps what is exemplary of the production and consumption of art and culture today is the systemic deferral of this responsibility. We live in times of endless sighting, citing and re-siting, and what could be easier, or more “natural” in the practice of contemporary art, than to play effortlessly, with varying degrees of cleverness or glibness, the game of quotation and appropriation. [3]

But the culture of casual citation can be highly problematic. A case in point: “Hypersurface”, which was shown at Sculpture Square from 8 September to 17 October 2004. The website advertised the event as “a multimedia installation piece by Vince Ong Choon Hoe and Brian Gothong Tan”. The clincher is this: “The exhibition is based on post structuralist writings and it’s also a reflection of the artists’ personal experience growing up in Singapore.” Now, every art space, including the place where I work, has been guilty of putting out asinine publicity statements every once in a while. Although I haven’t noticed anything lately that can top that sentence; it is vacant on so many levels. Does anyone have any doubt that the artists are drawing on their own personal experiences? And what could the statement “the exhibition is based on post structuralist writings” be other than an awkward boast, one which pronounces Theory with a capital “T” and for the sole purpose of trying to impress the audience? There is, however, more at stake in the hype of “Hypersurface” than badly written PR.

To be fair, the artists, in their own message, don’t sound as idiotic as the website blurb makes them out to be. In their words: “Being children of the postmodern age, we have deliberately avoided presenting a definitive viewpoint in this piece, we have kept our work pluralistic and open to many levels of interpretation as possible. Just like channel-surfing programs on TV, Hypersurface is meant to be fragmented at times, yet there is still an underlying sense of coherency about the experience. Hypersurface is a piece where we question the concepts of space, time and place and in turn challenge you, our viewers, to come up with your own answers. Ultimately, we hope that you can take something from the experience of Hypersurface ...”

To use Lev Manovich’s terms, one could say that “Hypersurface” claims to present a database from which you can generate your own narrative — but so what? The typical experience of so much of contemporary media, from the snazziest website to the dullest late-night bout of TV channel-surfing, already provides that opportunity. The question is, does “Hypersurface” say anything interesting or intelligent about its structure as a new media database? In their message above, the artists allude to postmodern theory to explicitly celebrate, and implicitly legitimate, fragmentation as the condition of our times. Yet how is pluralism at odds with having a definitive viewpoint? Are we to imagine the fate of “postmodern” pluralistic society to be devoid of individuals with distinctive voices, but populated instead by persons with only slippery opinions and positions? Let’s suppose that among the post structuralist writings the artists have read is Michel Foucault on the “death of the author”. [4] Is that why they deliberately try to avoid a viewpoint, because for them the “artist” is always already dead? I’m quite sure Foucault’s point was not to endorse the answers that couch potatoes arrive at after hours of flicking through infomercials, sitcoms and MTV. More seriously, it is an abuse of his thought to derive an alibi from it — an alibi for artists to disavow ownership and responsibility for the mass media images they recycle.

My criticisms of “Hypersurface” address both the framing ideology the artists employ, and the experience of the work itself. I don’t mean to suggest that a criticism at one level necessarily entails criticism at the other, but in this case there is a fit between the problematic use of theory and the problematic artwork. “Hypersurface” ostensibly broaches the themes of space, time and place; sexuality is certainly as dominant a preoccupation. The exhibition consists of a series of orchestrated walls and walkways; some walls are perpendicular to the floor, others slanted. Videos are projected on these walls: some of which is “original” content, such as animation created by Tan; while other content is recycled and edited, including a relatively long segment that offers a tour of scenes from gay Asian cinema. The overall mood of “Hypersurface” seems befitting a lounge or club. With one irredeemable exception. I was struck, and angered, by imagery that seemed so casually used, as if it was just added in for extra flavour. It was an interlude comprised of bits of archival Nazi footage, bits of the TV news footage of the space shuttle blowing up, bits of the planes crashing into the World Trade Centre, and the footage of Lieutenant General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong captain in the streets of Saigon in 1968 — an image more famously captured in a black and white photo by the late Eddie Adams (Adams has said he regretted taking this picture because it was so decontextualised).

I can’t imagine what the artists’ intentions were in showing these images. Indeed, what angers me about “Hypersurface” is precisely the apparent lack of intention. There is shock art (which is often one-dimensional); profoundly disturbing art (which is often not overtly shocking); and then there are the breezy appropriations of something like “Hypersurface”. Were those images disturbing to me? They were terribly disturbing when I saw them first live on TV, or saw them for the first time. I’ve heard people say that watching the hijacked planes slam into the World Trade Centre and watching the Twin Towers collapse was like watching a Hollywood disaster movie. For me, no comparison with the movies came to mind, as I was glued to the television, like so many others, transfixed by the live footage of what Susan Sontag has called a “monstrous dose of reality”. The footage has become even harder to watch as it has become a staple of the “news”: processed, edited and looped, scored with music and framed by network graphics and logos, played over and over, next to advertisements and coverage of hypocritical posturing by politicians (George W Bush epitomises the total failure of political leadership after 9/11; he’s a ventriloquist’s dummy of the powers-that-be, the first robotic American president — Ronald Reagan without the bona fide bad acting career).

And so, now, am I supposed to stand around listening to some anodyne pop song and glibly watch these images, as if it’s okay to appropriate scenes of a street execution and flatten them out, as if it was just like watching a clip from Wong Kar Wai’s Happy Together? This context-less use of imagery shows such profound contempt for the real. It conflates fragmentation with open-ness, the absence of ethical judgement with plurality. Don’t tell me that outrage is just another choice, that the artists have deliberately provoked me to choose to respond in any way I like, that art is subjective, that there are other possible responses, and all choices are as good as any other. Such hyper-flattening of choice amounts to the total vacating of the ethical.

5. epilogue: on aura and charisma

I am uncomfortable bringing attention to a work only to be one-sidedly critical. But if not for its flattening of violent trauma, my experience of “Hypersurface” would most likely have receded into the morass of media I consume, either attentively or passively, every week. Sure, that moment was an exception within the piece, but, again, it was an exception I could not gloss over. And my point in singling out Ong and Tan’s work is because I believe it is symptomatic of larger tendencies in contemporary art; tendencies I would criticise strongly.

However, given the brief scope of these textual entries, I do not have the space to argue more thoroughly how “Hypersurface” epitomises the problems of a culture of casual citation. Moreover, there is also expressed in Ong and Tan’s artists’ message a desire to resist closure, and I am in agreement here. So of course it’s wrong to assume to definitively dismiss the work, but that doesn’t mean one can’t risk expressing a judgement and a conviction.

It would also be wrong to conclude an essay with a rant against art, and against pleasure — and I do not discount the fact there are those who find pleasure in “Hypersurface”, not least of whom the artists themselves. So let me end with a brief discussion of a work that I have wholly enjoyed, Ho Tzu Nyen’s Utama — Every Name in History is I (2003), which I mentioned earlier. I have been wanting to write about it for some time, but haven’t. One of the problems is that Utama was co-presented by The Substation, where I work, so I’m not in a position to write anything like a “review” of it. But let me say this, at least:

Ho’s installation of Utama split the gallery space into two sections: a screening room, where a twenty-minute DV film was shown which told the story of Sang Nila Utama. The mythical founder of Singapore, Utama allegedly gave the island its name, “lion city”. In the rest of the space, paintings were hung on the walls, and lit from below with flood lights. The paintings looked “old”, as if Ho had emulated the styles of 18th and 19th century European painting. The subjects of the paintings were historical figures, modelled by the actors of his film. There was, of course, Utama himself, but there was also Alexander the Great, Stamford Raffles, Vasco de Gama, among others. Their relationships to each other would be (re)framed by the narrative of Ho’s film; indeed, the paintings were “film stills”-cum-paintings, and the film, a painting-cum-“moving picture”.

The look of the paintings — their aura of European old masters — was achieved through digital technology. Ho appropriated images from canonical European artworks, printed them out, and then painted over them, with the final effect that the whole picture appears as if it was, thoroughly, entirely, painted. However, I don’t think Ho means to simply fool his audiences, because, as I understand his intentions, the point is precisely to generate ambiguity — to perfectly pass as the real thing is not as interesting.

Therefore to experience Utama is to entertain doubt about the authenticity of Ho’s paintings. The question is not whether they are forgeries of other known paintings — even though there is the issue of his borrowing from the backgrounds of old masters — rather, the question is, what is their status as paintings? Which is perhaps the right question to ask, since the very existence of his subject, Utama, is itself in question. Let me quote Ho at length, as he situates the work quite nicely:

“In official accounts of its history, Singapore was founded in 1819 by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, as part of the British colonial empire. However, little is known about the other, pre-colonial founder of Singapore, who is believed to have founded Singapore sometime between the 13th and 14th century. Commonly referred to as Sang Nila Utama, regarded as the ‘first’ king of the Malays and said to be heir to a glorious lineage of great kings and immortals, he was said to have given Singapore its name after encountering a lion along its shores.... However, this event has often been questioned because lions are not a species indigenous to this area. For many historians, Utama’s existence is itself a major issue of doubt — he was known under a variety of names and pseudonyms, and attributed with a multiplicity of identities and stories, many of which are contradictory in nature.... This film is an attempt to summon forth the spectre of Utama — but he does not return alone. Instead he returns with an unruly host of characters, fictional, mystical and historical. Ultimately this is a film about the intertwining of myth and history, the impossibility of ontology, the instability of all beginnings.”

References to “post structuralist” theory abound in the artwork, but what I like so much about Utama is that it never advertises its use of theory, even as, like much artwork today, it is profoundly structured and informed by it. Most importantly, the script is well-crafted, intelligent, and very funny. The two principal actors in the film are Zulkifle Mahmod, who plays Utama and all his various incarnations, and a trickster figure played by Rizman Putra. Ho capitalises on the contrast between Zulkifle’s shyness and Rizman’s flamboyance. The film has subtitles in English, and the voiceover in Malay is Rizman’s. What struck me about their performances was how charismatic they both were. Every time Zulkifle appeared in the frame — and I don’t believe he had any prior acting experience (Rizman, in contrast, is a musician, performance artist, etc.) — often just posing and not moving (like when he took on the persona of Saint Sebastian shot through with arrows) he, or rather, the image he manifested, looked virtually iconic.

Utama is a work that is self-conscious — but not, in my opinion, self-indulgent — about the seductive powers of film and painting (the former works through charisma, and the latter, through aura). Both aura and charisma work to mystify the very source of their power. And while Ho unpacks or demystifies these processes of seduction, he doesn’t in the end, undermine them; or at least, one can leave Utama knowing that the desire for origins (for national history, for the originality of the work of art) is a phantasm, an impossibility. And yet, one also leaves with the pleasure of “presence”, of being with the work of art.



1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Blue and Brown Books: Preliminary Studies for the “Philosophical Investigations”, New York: Harper & Row, 1958, pp. 6-7.
2. Lev Manovich, The Database, Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985, Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung, eds., London: Blackwell Publishing, 2004, pp. 408-427.
3. And, as I’ve argued a number of times, Singapore is symptomatic of this contemporary condition of quotation and appropriation. See, for instance, my essays Citing and Siting (Art Journal Vol. 60 No. 2, 2001) and Just What Is It that Makes the term Global-Local so Widely Cited, yet so Annoying? (Over Here: International Perspectives on Art and Culture, Jean Fisher and Gerardo Mosquera, eds., Boston: MIT Press, forthcoming in 2004).
4. See, for instance, Michel Foucault, What is an Author?, The Foucault Reader, Paul Rabinow, ed., New York: Pantheon, 1984, pp. 101-120.

Lee Weng Choy is an art critic and artistic co-director of the Substation, an independent arts centre in Singapore.