Code is Beautiful: An Interview with Liu Chang

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I first met artist Liu Chang (刘唱,b.1987, Beijing) over a month before her solo show was scheduled to open at Fou Gallery.  We sat at a large round table in a Chinese restaurant on Bowery, after a long gallery opening night in the Lower East Side.  Liu studied television and film direction in China, where she co-founded Hibanana, a creative art and technology studio, with artist Miao Jing in 2011.  After she came to New York in 2013, she turned her focus to interactive arts at Pratt Institute and eventually transferred to New York University’s Interactive Telecommunication Program (“ITP”), where she continued to embrace its core mission to “explore the imaginative use of communications technologies.”

Although I had seen her interactive digital work before, it took me a while to picture her recent algorithm project in my mind as she explained the idea to me with excitement.  “I randomly pick a geographic or a landscape picture and develop an algorithm by looking at the textures in the original image.  The computer generates a new image according to my coding which visually imitates the original image.”  She repeated the process for 100 consecutive days to complete the Nature and Algorithm series, an ambitious project in which she tries to pay respect, as well as questions, the relationship between nature and artificial intelligence.

Nature and Algorithm is now on view as part of her solo show Code Is Beautiful at Fou Gallery along with Random Walker – Dripping, the latest interactive work from her Flickering Existence series which she developed at ITP.  Composed of a monitor, a camera, and an algorithm designed by the artist, Random Walker – Dripping generates an abstract portraiture of the viewer by gradually capturing the his or her image through the camera, adding dripping lines and layers on a digital canvas.  In Liu’s words, “the algorithm serves as the painter’s brush.”  As the title Flickering Existence suggests, nothing lasts forever, so neither does the digital portraiture generated by a machine.  After the viewer moves away from the camera, the “painted” likeness dissolves.  Liu, fascinated by the passage of time and left behind traces, believes a transient existence is also part of history.

A viewer standing in front of ‘Random Walker - Dripping’ at the exhibition opening at Fou on October 22, 2016. Photo by Mengyao Wang.

A viewer standing in front of ‘Random Walker – Dripping’ at the exhibition opening at Fou on October 22, 2016. Photo by Mengyao Wang.

I saw Liu Chang again at her show’s opening reception in October.  Her digital installation, a first for the Brooklyn apartment gallery, contrasted with the dark wood and simple elegance that surrounded it.  I found myself standing in front of Random Walker – Dripping, gazing at the screen, waiting for the camera to capture the bright orange of my wool scarf.  Tiny color strips slowly appeared on the screen as if painted by an invisible hand, and after a few minutes, I recognized myself.  “Random walker,” I learned, is the name of a computer algorithm for image segmentation.  There is no definite final work in interactive installations since each interaction creates something entirely different.  Where does this uncertainty lead us?  And what is artist’s exact role in algorithm art?

I conducted this interview with Liu Chang over email hoping to find some answers to my questions about her art.  The interview is edited for clarity.

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Tell us about your first encounter with new media as an art form, such as audio-visual installation. How did you develop your initial interest in this format as an artist?

I started with VJ (video jockey) practices after graduating from college in 2009.  Compared with film and other video formats, live visual performance was a new format for me to do video collage.  During that time, I often prepared a lot of video footage—which ranged from movie clips, shot footage, real-time camera feeds, to video effect loops—for performances based on the theme, the music style, and even the space.  I found it was pretty fun to remix video clips and to correspond them with the music, the atmosphere, and the context.

After that, I started to consider live visual performance as a chance for me to express my emotion through video and to provide my understanding and insight of the space, the sound, etc.  I saw a sentence [on Beijing multimedia duo 8GG’s website] by chance [see image below], which reinforced the idea that being a VJ is not only about making visual backgrounds for parties and events, but is also about shouting out one’s voice through such visual language.  It says:

“What important is that the rhythm of the images should be as satisfying to one’s heart’s content as the music.  Such vjs are not enough around the world. Yet such vjs can only be counted as up to standard.”

A screenshot provided by the artist

Screenshot of 8GG’s website.  Provided by the artist

What is the thinking behind creating a program that turns detailed, particular faces to Pollock-like abstract paintings?  And what is the connection between your aesthetic and the one of Jackson Pollock, who you have said you admire?

In the digital art field, we call such programs “generative portraiture” or “computational portraiture.” “Generative art” means that the program is running in real time, and there is no final form.  In my work, especially Random Walker – Dripping, there is no image-processing behind it, and everything is changing over time—rather than my intentionally making portraiture abstract, or setting a goal to make them unclear.  That’s the nature of generative art.

Visually speaking, for me, the dripping effect reminds me of how our memory works as well as decaying images.  I feel sentimental when I think about the passage of time and the decaying process of things.  The dripping effect morphs the physical form to an abstract result.

Liu Chang invited her fellow students to participate in her portraiture booth studio. The capturing session allows her to "draw" their portraits through different computational tool and algorithms that she developed. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Liu Chang invited her fellow students to participate in her portraiture booth studio. The capturing session allows her to “draw” their portraits through different computational tool and algorithms that she developed. Photo courtesy of the artist.

From the pattern of Pollock’s dripping paintings, I feel the strong and the mysterious energy from the artist’s hands.  They seem to be totally random paints from random directions, but I do feel there is a systemic pattern going on behind the artist’s control.  For me, this energy comes from the “ghost” in my computer.  I wrote the program based on one kind of algorithm and set certain parts to a random mode. Each time, the process is different and the result unpredictable.  I admire the beauty of randomness from both artist’s hand and the “ghost” (algorithm) in the computer.

Liu Chang, Friend’s Portrait - Ella, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist and Fou Gallery.

Liu Chang, Friend’s Portrait – Ella, 2016, another portraiture generated by ‘Random Walker.’ Image courtesy of the artist and Fou Gallery.

A screenshot from Liu Chang’s ‘Wild Growth’, interactive video installation, 2014. Courtesy of the artist.

A screenshot from Liu Chang’s ‘Wild Growth’, interactive video installation, 2014. Image courtesy of the artist.

Your Nature and Algorithm project echoes the title of the exhibition, Code is Beautiful—we are curious to know the behind-the-scenes.  Did you develop a work pattern during this 100-day project?  How has your view of the relationship between nature and artificial intelligence changed after this project, if there is any?

This project began as “100 days of making” in March when I took a class at ITP.  I was inspired by an image of a greenhouse in Spain that I saw in a documentary film.  The picture immediately reminded me of a data visualization image.  I made the first image for the project and started to get obsessed with exploring more artistic patterns between nature and the artificial world.

Liu Chang, ‘Nature and Algorithm - Day 001,’ archival print, each 5 x 7 inches, 2016.

Liu Chang, Nature and Algorithm – Day 001, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist and Fou Gallery.

Liu Chang, ‘Nature and Algorithm - Day 052,’ archival print, each 5 x 7 inches, 2016.

Liu Chang, Nature and Algorithm – Day 052, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist and Fou Gallery.

After the 100-day practice, I kind of developed an “occupational syndrome” wherein I would automatically make connections between patterns and algorithms.  I don’t know if it is a good thing or not, but it does reinforces my thought that nature has a deep design.  And finding nature’s deep design is my question for my art.  Art just follows the rules, evidently or potentially.

Which of the images in Nature and Algorithm stand out for you either as a favorite or one that was particularly difficult to make?

Numbers 6,7, 30, 48, 52 and 100 are my favorites.  You see, it’s really hard for me to see what’s my favorite. I want to talk about the last one, the 100th day.  To my surprise, I felt the abstract connection between the tree and the generative form, which is a metaphor for the tree.  I named the last image “Catch the Wind.”  Both nature and artificial intelligence have no fixed form.  The former depends on wind, air, climate, and reconstruction by humans; the latter depends on parameters, randomness, the machine, electric current, etc.

Liu Chang, ‘Nature and Algorithm - Day 048,’ archival print, each 5 x 7 inches, 2016.

Liu Chang, Nature and Algorithm – Day 048, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist and Fou Gallery.

Liu Chang, ‘Nature and Algorithm - Day 100,’ archival print, 2016.

Liu Chang, Nature and Algorithm – Day 100, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist and Fou Gallery.

In addition to nature, new technologies, and your daily encounters with the city, what other aspect has been your source of inspiration?

I am always inspired by different things—mostly maps, history, and stories.  Personally I think I feel more sensitive towards language-based media than image-based ones.  I had a conversation about this with my visual-driven artist friend, who is inspired by images and remembers things visually.

What do you say to people who don’t see artistic value in computer art?  At what point is technology more than a tool and is an extension or part of the artist?  Could the artist be secondary to the technology?

People have the right to interpret the world in their own ways and to understand art and almost everything [in their own ways].  Technology is always a tool, but the point is how we use it.  I was told by a good friend, who is also an artist, that “what to do is always more important than how to do it.”

In terms of technology as an extension, I think it’s a pretty special thing for my generation (70s, 80s, 90s).  We grew up with technology, and we potentially might have allowed technology to change our daily lives as well as behaviors.  Technology can do things that humans can’t.  Also, humans keep trying to make machines to have the same abilities as humans—making them intelligent and have emotion.

For the last question, no. Artists make the decisions, and they just choose a particular technology to serve it.

Any new project in progress?

I’m not ready to announce yet, but I have a potential idea in which I will try to involve handcrafts with algorithmic art. I have a one year plan, divided into 12 months, with explorations of 12 different materials. I will start with stitching Sashiko on fabric by hand on November 1.  The whole process can be very systematic and programmed.  This month, I’m going to research fabrics and patterns.

Liu Chang: Code Is Beautiful continues at Fou Gallery (410 Jefferson Ave #1, Brooklyn. Open on Saturday afternoons and by appointment) through December 18, 2016.

Lead image: A viewer examining Liu Chang’s Nature and Algorithm at the opening reception at Fou Gallery, October 22, 2016. Photo by Hansi Liao.