Could you introduce yourself in a few words ?
We are an artist collective producing animated shorts and projects using emerging technology such as VR (virtual reality) and AR (Augmented Reality). We are from Beijing, currently based in New York, US.
Can you describe your collaborations as an artist collective?
Our collaborations initially began in 2005 when video became our primary medium replacing traditional painting. In fact, our collaborations are highly coherent, perhaps more conceptual rather than technical, as they are through all phases of our creative process: from discussing subject matters to conducting in-depth research on a particular topic, from image-creation to animation and sound design, from final productions to exhibition installation plans.
From where did your interest in experimenting with new media develop?
In 2001, Honglei visited New York City for the first time. Then, video as a new medium of art was thriving and widely represented by museums and galleries. Honglei was very much impressed by this trend, particularly touched by work of Bill Viola, Pipilotti Rist, Vito Acconci, etc. After extensive discussions on the concept, experimentation in digital video productions, we started transforming our work from painting canvas to the screen. To us, the ideal format of presentation was video installation, although it wasn’t always easy to obtain the physical space and equipment for our large-scaled projects. Nonetheless we kept developing video work after our first collaboration on ‘Mango Tree,’ a 5-minute animated short in 2004. In 2006, we were introduced to Virtual Reality art during our graduate program at College of Visual and Performing Arts at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Immediately, we realized that presenting our video projects in virtual space instead of physical one could be an effective alternative solution, given the high-speed Internet connection made real-time interactions between project participants possible. Our VR project, ‘Land of Illusion – Reconstituting Chinese History and Culture in Online Virtual Reality,’ is our first experiment cooperating fine art with Internet technology. We own credits to Professor Scott Ahrens of University of Massachusetts, and Professor Zhengming Zhai of Zhongshan University in China, who is the author of ‘Get Real: A Philosophical Adventure in Virtual Reality,’ for both have inspired us with their pioneering concept in creativity, and provided us tremendous technological support.
Do you think the digital realm allows for greater participation in art than the material?
The meaning of ‘participation in art’ is probably not as simple as it appears. It depends on the level of engagement rather than the number of audience. While the digital realm definitely provides easy access to videos, music etc., we don’t really expect serious audience on YouTube or similar popular online channels. There are two reasons: first, the quality of the videos work could be greatly compromised after been uploaded online, therefore limits an audience’s experience; second, an audience going to a physical art gallery is usually more engaged with art because they are physically, mentally and intellectually better prepared for perceiving artworks. Physical presentation space remains essential while digital realm provides an alternative when experiencing the physical work is impossible.
Your works present so many layers and juxtapositions of concepts are there any particular messages you commonly like to address in your work?
Yes, our message in fact is very focused: we are visualizing individuals’ emotional and spiritual energies beyond their materialistic existence. These energies are accumulations of one’s cultural heritages and seek their contemporary meanings, taking a form of refusal to compromise with the society employing suppression of individuality. To us, these energies are materialized by imagery extracted from Chinese folklore, history and literature, with contemporary settings as background. There are indeed layer and layer of images referring to Chinese cultural and social events, but the message is very focused.
Many of your works incorporate Chinese traditional folklore culture, do you think this is still an essential element of contemporary Chinese identity? Or that it should be?
Yes, Chinese traditional folklore culture is always essential to Chinese identity. While some western researchers suggest folklore is waning during this Internet era, we haven’t seen obvious signs indicating folklore is fading in Chinese culture. This is largely because folklore is so profoundly integrated with Chinese people’s lives at different levels, for example, the traditional holidays such as Spring Festival, Mid-Autumn Festival, Dragon Boat Festival, Magpie Festival, etc., all associate with fascinating folktales and customs passed from generation to generation. Chinese folklore is also a rich source for creation of contemporary popular culture, for instance, Romance of Three Kingdoms, Journey to the West, among other most influential folk stories, have been adapted into movies, TV series and video games over and over again, and extremely popular among young Chinese. Finally, folklore remains significant in Chinese culture because generations of scholars, intellectuals have been devoted to transforming the oral tradition into classical literature, most evidently, the popular Four Great Classical Chinese Novels including the two titles mentioned above along with The Water Margin, and Dream of Red Chamber, which extensively involve folklore. Incorporating these cultural heritages into our work is a natural outcome indicating the significance of Chinese folklore in contemporary time.
I’m interested to know do you find the hyper-capitalist contemporary culture of China to be as threatening to traditional culture as Communism was?
In our opinion, these two have functioned very differently to Chinese traditional culture. The process of capitalism of contemporary China is also the process of westernization that inevitably confronts China’s traditional cultural values. However, as China becomes more open to the rest of the world, it has to adjust its own position as the ‘Central Kingdom’ in the universe, and communicate more effectively with diverse cultural systems, especially the western ones. During clashes of these systems, each culture has to present a comprehensive image of itself in order to compete or cooperate, which presents a great opportunity for exchanging views and reaching understandings. The so-called hyper -capitalist culture challenges Chinese intellectuals to develop a new language for communicating with the world, which requires creative approaches to cultural heritages. Overall, we think the process of capitalism in China is a relatively constructive one for the most part.
What influence do you see contemporary artists have in bringing about changes or reforms to current socio-cultural issues of Chinese society?
In our opinion, the most meaningful changes that Chinese contemporary artists have brought to the society is, they have not only introduced free expressions in form of art to Chinese audience, but also created work directly addressing current social issues in China by adapting western artistic language that is universally understandable, and presented these issues in front of a global audience, which has resulted more attentions, dialogues, and actions. For instance, during 1980’s, the so-called 85 New Wave Movement took place, which inspired several generations of Chinese intellectuals to reflect the position of the nation in the world, the significance of individualism in a society, and the future direction of China, etc. Concurrent with literature movement, 85 New Wave Movement initiated significant discussions on ‘universal values’ such as democracy, individualism, freedom of expression, etc., among Chinese people for the first time during Communist China. We still keep the copies of China Art Journal (中国美术报) comprehensively covering 85 New Wave Movement and its social-cultural background and influences. It has a real intellectual impact on us.
Has your work ever been restricted by censorship in China? If so, can you please give examples?
This happens very often. Because most of our works focus on ‘sensitive issues,’ curators and galleries usually ‘suggest’ us at the first place, that we should present ‘nonpolitical’ pieces in China. Our animated short ‘Forbidden City’ has been removed from exhibit list in several occasions because it is about 1989 Tiananmen Protest. Our blogs have been blocked in China for years.
You are based between Beijing and New York, do you feel your practice varies between the two locations, i.e. more limited in China?
Beijing provides us endless source of inspiration, while New York is ideal place for showcasing the outcomes. The two locations play different roles in our art practice. We are not concerned if the work cannot be shown in Beijing. The real limit in China is access to information as a result of censorship such as Great Firewall, and seeing your peers become more and more self-censored with their creativity is heart-wrenching.
What drew you to working Augmented Reality? Has this become your focus rather than Virtual Reality artwork?
We see the emergence of Augmented Reality art on mobile device as an inevitable development since mobile communication technology has been changing people’s lives. It is indeed replacing Virtual Reality as medium at this moment. This is totally expected when you involve technology in your work, as ever-changing is the nature of technology. Meanwhile our primary medium remains digital animation based on our paintings, which has greater capacity for our creativity.
We find interesting your way of including Chinese history in the everyday life objects as you do it in your artwork AR Art. Could you tell us how did the idea came to you ?
AR (augmented reality) art has becomes an effective medium for us to convey our concept on cultural displacement since beginning of 2011, when we joined the international artist group MenifestAR. Our projects Butterfly Lovers, Peony Pavilion, Peacock Flying Southeast, etc., unfold ancient Chinese folktales in a contemporary, westernized cultural environment to visualize the cultural confrontations or spiritual struggles. As AR is to ‘superimpose computer generated three-dimensional art objects, enabling the public to see the work integrated into the physical location as if it existed in the real world,’ the two layers of imagery – romantic ancient Chinese characters, and a materialist surrounding, can be perfectly blended together.
In the Manifest.AR it states that ‘public space is now truly open, as artworks can be placed anywhere in the world, without prior permission from government or private authorities” Do you find the possibilities for Augmented Reality Interventionist art as open in China as they are in other environments?
Yes, we do. In fact we have done several AR works around China, including Tank Man, Statue of Democracy, Great Firewall, under a pseudo artist name 4Gentlemen. AR technology allows us to install the ‘virtual sculptures’ anywhere on the globe, and so far there is no restriction to access the works inside China. Audience can view the AR artworks with a smartphone or tablet on a specific location such as Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and interact with the virtual sculpture installed on site.