What You Read is Not What We Write

/ Linda Lai and Hector Rodriguez


“Tracing” is multiple. Following, step by step, moment by moment. Recording. Scanning. Compiling. Archiving. Unfolding. Reconstructing. Decomposing. Deconstructing. Streamlining. Visualizing. Sonifying. Mediating. Transforming. Translating. Transferring. Associating. Mapping. Combination. Permutation. Integration. Hypothesizing. Calculating. Estimating. Interfering. … These are the manifold actions that the artists of WMC_e5 have enacted on the data they are working with.

The impact of computation on both aesthetic expression and aesthetic criticism has been widely felt. Not only artists but also critics are using digital technologies to analyze works of art and literature. Computation generates new modes of art by which criticism and artistic creation meet, an apt description for many works in this exhibition.

Many scholars in the so-called digital humanities, for instance, use the computer to “mine” individual texts, or large collections of texts, for patterns that are not obvious on the surface. Daniel Howe and John Cayley’s The Real Story of Ah-Q (阿Q正傳) is a real-time exfoliation of a famous text by May Fourth writer Lu Xun (1881-1936), through the politically-implicated lenses of algorithmic and networked services.

Cinema scholars and experimental artists have also used the computer to re-examine existing films, presenting familiar content in unfamiliar ways. Linda Lai’s Vaulting Space (翻騰空) is a formal analysis of swordplay syntax by a restless, almost endless combinatorial display of 3 image discourses, to open up our understanding of “montage.” Hector Rodriguez’s Theorem 8 (第八定理) uses the information of one movie to decompose a second movie frame by frame, turning “superimposition” into a unique analytic-aesthetic language. Ip Yuk-yiu’s Rehearsals for muted films #2 is a reductive analysis of Hollywood films set against Hong Kong, turning the speech-image hierarchy on its head.

The computer has made possible not only new ways of making art and literature (writing) but also new ways of reading (understanding and analyzing it) it. In the works presented in WMC_e5, reading is also writing, and vice versa. The crucial question for us is: How do computational technologies change what we call reading? The idea of reading is to be understood broadly, to include any act of engaging critically and creatively with a text. We understand reading so that it applies to language in a broad sense, including visual, sonic, and cinematic language. What can the act of reading become in a digital context? For instance, how can we read a film, photograph, or literary work through methods of computational analysis? How can we use those methods to read works of visual and literary art in ways that were not previously possible? Next to Howe and Cayley’s piece on Ah-Q, Justin Wong’s Autocomic #1 is both a reading machine of his own library of comics and a writing machine of potential comics narratives governed by a set of rules. James Coupe’s cameras, for example, survey Fort Street outside the venue Connecting Space-HK as well as the venue itself to generate a ficto-docu narrative, jalousie room, drawing from Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie as its meta-script. Mike King’s map01 also takes an inventive approach — by visualizing procedural interference between transcendental functions.

The topic of reading is closely connected to the question of surveillance. Coupe’s work turns surveillance into an artistic metaphor to shed light on our postmodern human condition. Techniques of data mining and data analysis play a crucial part in surveillance activities. Data need to be “read” so as to be rendered useful. Surveillance can therefore be understood as a form of computationally mediated reading. In this way, new forms of reading acquire huge social and political significance. YoHa’s Endless War magnifies leaked data from the Afghan War Diary by taking multiple analytical positions as well as makes audible machine sounds when data are running. Moreover, many artists use techniques that originated in, or were inspired by, surveillance applications – such as Rodriguez’s deployment of a mathematical technique, orthogonal decomposition, often used in surveillance software.

We live in a society where privacy is continually under threat, not only due to government monitoring of activity, but also to the widespread collection, analysis, and exchange of consumer data by companies like Google, Amazon, or Facebook. This negative, yin,  side of tracing data is equally intriguing. Winnie Soon, with her Hello Zombies (回轉喪屍), walks in the shoes of dormant and discharged data waste to play up their endless, zombie-like wandering in the limitless virtual space inside the machine-world. On a performative note, Audrey Samson’s ne.me.quittes.pas (請別離開我) materializes a(n) (im)possible farewell to immaterial data through her symbolic-scientific digital data funeral service.

There is always room for poetics, even when working with computation. Zoie So’s Weather forecasting (氣象預測) articulates an experience that approaches the sublime: the contemplation of the unfathomable, immense impact of a tick or glitch of a minute chunk of data. Jess Lau’s The Fading Piece (消失之中) is a trial of our attention to a process of transposition. It echoes the Chinese title of this exhibition – 《唧唧復唧唧》– which suggests the sounds made by a weaving machine or the sighs of the persevering female weaver: Jik-jik-fook-jik-jik, Jik-jik-fook-jik-jik, … … …


Linda C.H. Lai (WMC Artistic Director) / Hector Rodriguez (WMC Director for Research & Education)

October 2014 / Hong Kong

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