Shu Lea Cheang is one of the few artists I know able to operate in both the new media arts and the contemporary arts world of museums and galleries. Born in Taiwan, Shu Lea left Taipeh after the democratic changes and worked in New York as a member of the Paper Tiger Television collective to become a truly global artist in the nineties. It is hard to keep track of Shu Lea and her projects. I got to know her when we both worked in the media lab of the Society for Old and New Media in Amsterdam. At the time, around 1998, she was producing the Brandon project, with programmers and designers of the Society, a website and installation which deals with gender and identity on the Net. She then moved to Tokyo to produce her first feature film in the sci-fi porn genre. The following e-mail exchange took place over a few months in the second half of 2000.
GL: Where are you? It is hard to keep track of you, digital drifter. Which trouble in, at this moment? You are such an expert in freaking out stessed, burocratic art institutions. Excellent. I know you are not looking for trouble perse. Still, your work provokes people, at some stage, though not in a direct, obvious manner. You are well known for strategy that in Japan.
SC: Where I am, in terms of my X-Y positioning or Location URLs? My dissimulating body parts as compressed bytes, transmissible and available. Well, this year, I barely scratched the skin in Germany, a bit of exchange with the German Federal Ministry of Internal Affaires over interfacing airport Hi-Scan machine and internet. I was warned that sending scanned images from suitcases onto the net, ‘could possibly give information about how to circumvent measures taken for the protection of attacks on the security of air traffic.’ I do play by rules. My intention written in proposals are stated out front when dealings with Institutions. I stepped right into the political conflicts, those of Tokyo Central Government and Okinawa over US military ba se issues, during my residency in Okinawa with the project, ‘Elephant Cage Butterfly Locker’ (1996). The exhibition at Tokyo’s Atopic Site led Japan’s censorship debate after the recordings of my meetings with Tokyo Government representatives were published. Back in 1995, I got into trouble with Bowling Alley at Walker Art Center. The museum commanded the site to bear a warning, ‘This Site contains mature subject matter. Discretion is advised’. That was on the eve of US Congress’ delivery of Communication Decency Act, the museum had yet to configure the cross-section of public and private space. When Brandon was presented at the Guggenheim Museum, all cautious procedures were taken to ensure that subversiveness could work within the system.
GL: You have specialized yourself in on a highly specialized meta level of (new) media work. It is the realm of the pure conceptual. In doing so, you depend almost entirely on other people’s design, programming work, editing, pre- and post-production. Almost every aspect of your huge productions such as the interactive online installation Brandon and the sci-fi porn film IkU, are realized by third parties. How would you describe your work? Art director, media manager, concept artist?
SC: Why do you insist on the division of expertise as ‘realized by third parties’? Every aspect of production works toward realization of concepts. I communicate with my parties on a conceptual level. I take the credit as concept/direction in executing large scale productions. I decide with which of the writers, designers, programmers, cinematographers who I would collaborate with. They are each self-claimed art practitioner in their own right. I seek collaboration as I conceptualize the projects. I have carried out my art installation as a filmmaking practice or directing a film as a large scale installation. I think there remains this romantic notion of the artist as loner and a sole operator. I do not practice art as self expression. The urgent command from the ‘meta’ level has designated me to be Institutionalized.
GL: How do you feel about the division of labour you are in?
SC: Concept_proposal_design sketches_routing public interface. This year, the project CARRY ON for IFU (International Women University), had me working with IMK:MARS/GMD as part of their CAT (Communication, Art & Technology network) initiative. (http://imk.gmd.de/mars). In this institution, a computer scientist made system analysis of the concept and three system programmers collaborated on database network platform and Java applet application. It was a group effort to configure languages and engineer the systems hard and soft.
GL: Let’s speak about discontent in media activism – and what to do about its visual poverty. You have been a member of Paper Tiger Television, back in the late eighties. Like me, you have ambivalent feelings, about the immanent danger of activism, using whatever medium or platform, falling back into the one-dimensional styles of the video diary, documentary journalism and plain propaganda. Which strategies would you suggest to escape these obvious traps? The concept of ‘tactical media’ has been developed, intending to bring together media activists and new media artists. Are cross fertilizations sufficient? Is it an option to abandon the ‘activism’ label altogether? Good news is the renaissance. The WTO protest in Seattle (December 1999) has brought up a whole new (rave) generation. Then there is the concept of hacktivism. The dark period of neo-Luddism and pessimism seems to be over. What esthetics, in your view, could further energize, broaden, and critique the current global movements?
SC: Back in the 80’s, we were out on the streets. There was this sense of global connectedness, camcoder media and satellite feed. The sense of urgency for information flow– shoot, deliver and act. It took a while for video collectives to make transition onto the Net. but then, the nature of hyperlinks on the Net may also contribute to infodata overload and scattered social bodies. Shared information does not amount to counter-activity. I did buy in the idea of electronic disturbance. The Net sit in as media event, but is it helping the movement? Or is it intellectual exercise for computer crash course? The global net-connectedness can be an illusion. Locality reclaims matterness when political agenda is specified. Esthetics functions on conceptual level. I am encouraged by corporate level Netivity. No One is Illegal’s campaign on http://www.deportation-alliance.com is good example. Counter information is a slap in the Corporate face one click away. Harwood’s Uncomfortable Proximity for Tate Modern goes further to demand side(site) by side(site) fusion. And that is quite a few steps forward from demanding a media slot.
GL: You moved away from regular media activism for a certain reason. What is so hot, so interesting and so strategically important about the conceptual and formalistic level? Is it a meta level? Should we consider this more powerful compared to the ordinary levels of content production, design or programming? Can we perhaps compare it with the role of the film director or conductor?
SC: You seem to be caught in a twisted complex here. Are we back at the ‘level’ of white/blue collar class struggle here? I use the word ‘level’ for my replicants. Level 7 is my recent updated version of humanoid IKU Coders or HiC agents. Level 4 is the retired outdated copies. The machine drives me. A deliberate take over of control key in my functionality. The machine operates. The corporate schemes. The sole/soul artist is out on the bound. Acting as ‘floating agent digitale’ on my own terms, all directorial and conducting power is given.
GL: I am saying this because there is a general discontent, for decades, about the work done by activists, like going to demonstrations, making pamphlets, targeting governments and corporations for their policies in the form of direct action. I see a certain fascination with the more symbolic meta levels where power is located these days. Do you think activists protest at the wrong spot when they go on the streets, blocking roads and offices?
SC: I was just off track into daytime porn…. stepped into a major web attack– ‘Webmasters, join us and increase your traffic drastically!’ The net windows are launched one after another faster than I can close them. eXXXtreme! are screaming at me !! The Net era traffic jam with roadside vendors hawking. Now, I have not seen activist organizations united this way. Have you? Hyperlinks decentralize. Virtual sit in holds still the information flow. The power to be is clearly s(c)ited. One chooses to confront or comply. The road block is metaphysical. The streets are up for grab. You can claim the streets for spirit refill or make the move to say ‘chess’ in the final play.
GL: Does it make sense for you to distinguish between a polymorphous ‘art porn’ practice and the mainstream porn industry? Which distinction would make sense for you? Is it a matter of high and low culture? I suppose you would agree that the mainstream porn industry is reproducing the worldwide male dominance and patriarchy. Obviously certain parts of the emancipated middle classes, the upwardly mobile gays, cosmopolitan lesbians, bi-sexual office workers etc. do need their own porn. In that sense ‘art porn’ is a niche market. Still, I suppose you are not just working for a market. You want more. What drives you to make these films, apart from the fact that it is fun.
SC: I have wanted to get away from institutions and funding cycles for a bit. I stepped into porn production as a director for hire with an indie Japanese producer. With my producer, we have all intentions to make money with this film. But it has proved to be quite difficult as the film doesn’t fit into any specified market.
The self claimed Japanese scifi porn I.K.U. (2000, Uplink Co.) operates on high concept, the meta level in your term. In every sense, it meant to subvert ‘the worldwide male dominance and patriarchy’, the hard on dick that upholds. Here I want to distinguish my practice from that of art porn which I consider to be a soft industry domain. I.K.U. <http://www.I-K-U.com> confirms cyberporn as Corporate operation of level 7 hard and soft fusion. Ultimately, I.K.U. severs cumbersome tentacles of the wired 90s’ cyborg entity and initiates the body as a gigabyte hard drive, self-driven by a programmed corporate scheme. It updates VNS Matrix’s ‘ The clitoris is a direct line to the matrix.’ by claiming ‘The Pussy is the matrix’.
GL: Do you mean that in the biotech cyberpunkish sense, as Kronenberg’s biopods? Is it the aim, still, to merge bodily functions with technology? Isn’t that fantasy already implemented and played out? To what extend do you see the sexualized techno-body as a role model, or let’s say, reference of an unlikely future?
SC: I am looking at a wireless digital mobile present with no portal to channel us; built in memory flash and gigabyte hard drive as delivered at birth; genetic mutation for ALL NEW GEN. The merge is complete. We ride on the fantasy. Living comfortably with the monster within, I assign my body as a self-programmed, self generative sexual unit. This body functions with an operating system that requires version update and memory upgrade. The unlikely future has come and gone. The retro future could be the next comeback.
GL: Over the last years you have been one of few artists who has managed to operate in both the ‘contemporary arts’ field and in the much smaller scene of new media arts. You have seen both worlds. How do these two rather different fields, which both use the ‘arts’ label, relate? Will they merge at some stage? Contemporary arts has finally discovered video. How long will it take once they will inhabit the computer networks? And will electronic arts ever leave its own self-referential ghetto?
SC: Hey, I am still working…and (projects) under development. I did cross over a few fields. I am not really in that particular ‘contemporary arts’ scene. But yes, I managed to work the medium. The new media arts field is in step with software development. Technically there are needs for collaboration between artists and programmers, which can be best facilitated by the Institutions. Like any large scale public installations, the new media art can be nurtured as commissioned art work. The Corporate funding is at the core of this underwriting. Here I am not neglecting the web as self-expression, self-distribution medium for a genre of web artists. However, to consider the Net as happening public space, not simply a broadcast medium, how do we keep up with web appointments? I want to feel collective breathing (can be extended to collective orgasm) on my computer screen.
As for the self-referential ghetto, we have to grant the privileged club members the fun of mutual masturbation. They don’t have to leave. They own the Net. Meanwhile, the rest of the world strides to catch up. Every art agency must comply to digital update. Only yesterday we were handing in our web work for ‘permanent collection’ at the museums as long as they can provide the archiving servers. Today, we float. (in market and travel sense). The dealers will eventually come around and work the scene.
An update on the trouble i am in since your first question- currently I am working on a 35mm movie trailer for my not yet produced scifi porn ‘FLUID’. The trailer is commissioned by Palais de Tokyo/Site of Contemporary Creation in Paris, a new museum that is scheduled to launch in the Fall of 2001. This is my first encounter with French Cultural Agency’s public funding. I would need to manipulate the ejaculation a bit to survive this one.