Have you ever thought that history can repeat itself, but it might take different forms or “the more things change, the more they stay the same”?
If yes, “Bodyless” is for you.
If not, think again, after you watched “Bodyless” – a VR experience directed by taiwanese artist Hsin-Chien Huang, produced by Virtual and Physical Media Integration Association of Taiwan that won this year’s Golden Mask Award at NewImages Festival 3rd edition
The experience will take you on a journey through those times when martial law ruled Taiwan, making you discover and live a part of that world. The story could stop here. But, Hsin-Chien Huang decides to push further the boundaries, and makes you question how power elegantly escapes history and generates new forms to keep us obedient. The new tool is: technology that can lead us to ‘the good, the bad and ugly’ hazard in different forms, including, but not limited to,… fake news.
Did we already succeed to confuse you about what Bodyless is? Good! Because then you can stay with us to discover the wonderful worlds created by Hsin-Chien Huang (in conversation with CleoHanna Paradoxigen) described by himself.
In addition, we have talked not only about history, but also about the relation between technology and humanity, fake news, his collaboration with Laurie Anderson, about the research “Being Steve Jobs” done by Mel Slater, who is the artist that he doesn’t like, and why VR will change people’s heart!
TechvangArt: Firstly, let me tell you “Congratulations” for being the winner of the Golden Mask Award, at NewImages Festival
Hsin-Chien Huang: Thank you a lot, it was really my honour and pleasure to participate.
TechvangArt: This year you were in the competition of the Festival, but I noticed that also previously you attended as a keynote speaker, so it seems that you really like being part of this festival :). What is your overall impression about NewImages Festival?
Hsin-Chien Huang: I really like the NewImage Festival. Two years ago I started to collaborate with French company called Lucid Reality, and got to know more about the new media and the VR development in Paris. And previous edition, in 2019, when we are being invited by the NewImages Festival as the keynote speaker and judges, we felt so happy. And it’s such a wonderful experience because we got a chance to interact with all the judges. I think the judges that were picked, they are outstanding, and I felt so honoured to be one of them. So, overall the quality of work and the event, it was all very nice. And Taiwan has a good presence in the festival. So, we want to continue our collaboration with NewImages Festival.
TechvangArt: And now, let start a little bit with Bodyless, the VR experience that was a winner. I have lots of questions, so first thing first: What was the inspiration for it? How did it all start?
Hsin-Chien Huang: It’s a very personal project, because it’s based on my childhood story that my mother told us. It is during the 1970s, in Taiwan – we call it the White Terror period – when the government was afraid that civilians would contact the people in Mainland China, and become a spy.
During the Cultural Revolution, my grandfather was still in Mainland China, and he wrote a letter to my family saying that he doesn’t have anything to eat, and asked for some money. So my mother helped him. But later is being discovered by Taiwan’s National Security Council. So as a consequence, my mother was followed for a year.
…This is the story, my mother told us and I want to make it into a VR experience. Because, two years ago my mother started to have dementia – she cannot remember things that she told us. So I thought if I made this experience, then I can show it to her, and she might remember the stories she told us. So this is kind of the background of where the Bodyless is coming from.
TechvangArt: I also find it interesting the introduction of the spiritual elements, the myth of heroes. And all this with a stilistic of surrealism, and cubism. Can you develop a little bit, why these elements, why these choices of heroes and spiritual elements because one would expect that “you stay with the story in that period”?
Hsin-Chien Huang: Well, this is also part of my experience of what it was in my childhood. I feel that in the old days, we had a very rich culture, spiritually, but we are very poor, in the material world. So, you will see in the Bodyless, a lot of elements made of newspaper, because a lot of time we didn’t have any good material, newspaper was the most abundant material in our life. So we all make the newspaper into lotus waters lanterns . I want to show that in our imagination, our belief system is a very beautiful world. For example, if you go under the water, that’s a very beautiful world which is a symbol or represents the spiritual world, but when you submerge from the water you will see elements made out of newspapers and that’s the physical world. This is the contrast I want to show in Bodyless. And also, in the old days, a lot of Gods from the Taiwan folk believed they were actually very tragic heroes, in the past, in history. But people believe they are good people, so after death, they will turn into Gods, and will become the governor/ruler of this heavenly court. I think this is the process that people believe that it is a gradual healing, just like with this tragic hero – someone less important, but with a high power. So, I wanted to put this in the story.
TechvangArt: Usually when artists, from the different artistic fields, try to deal with the past, with their own history, or how history/regimes influenced our life, usually they remain in that history. Especially if you are coming from a country with an oppressive regime, even more, you can be ‘’stuck ‘’ in that part of the history to tell those stories. But, in your case – and this is what I like a lot – I feel that you bring up this historical moment as a starting point for a discussion about power relationships between people – that also in the past those in power were seeking to maintain power by using different methods – in the past were weapons now (maybe more friendly?) technology… Am I reading it correctly?
Hsin-Chien Huang: I wished not only to recreate the (his)story my mother told me, but also bring some of my own experience, and so the present of my experience also being included as a part of the story or the extension of the story. So for example, there is a statistic that says that the fake news in Taiwan is the highest percentage around the world. Because I think Mainland China tried to influence Taiwan by using fake news, but Taiwan’s ruling government tried to counter fake news by creating more fake news. So, I feel that we are surrounded by fake news, or I’ll start to feel that these images are from other people’s imagination and they try to push it on citizens. So, to counter that I kind of create my own fake news. You can say that the Bodyless is this imagination story. Because in the old days, the ruling government used the power, they used the military, police and tried to make people obedient. But now the new governments use the new technology, artificial intelligence and try to change our minds. Although it is not as violent as before, but I still feel it’s, it’s against our freedom, against our will. So this is what I try to say in Bodyless, is that, do we really escapes from the old days, from that autocracy government or now we actually still live in the world like the novel “Brave New World”,, where we live around these bubbles, and the government, one has to believe most fake news so we can be obedient.
TechvangArt: This is exactly what I really like about Bodyless. You could have made a story just about the past, and still be a good story. But the extraordinary is exactly this choice of yours that you are just starting from the past and showing that some things are still the same like manipulation, as you said, and the power relations are here, but the forms changed. And also you mentioned that in the past the methods of control were more violent, now they are more friendly. I mean, for example Facebook, now it’s a trending topic, with this new film The Social Dilemma that is out. All these instruments are friendly, technology is friendly, not scary, and they can be used against us, it can be used in both ways like everything related to power, but do you feel like it’s more dangerous now, or because the methods are nicer?
Hsin-Chien Huang: Well, maybe our life is not in danger in the current situation. But I have sometimes the feeling that history can be changed. And so my children and my grandchildren might not really know me as I was, as I really am. But they would know me through this fake news, and then they would get a completely wrong impression of me. So, maybe the method of ruling is not as scary as before, because it’s not using guns and the knife. But I think now our memories are being changed and you can get the feeling that there is no truth anymore, I start to doubt that everything I read or I see is really true. We used to think that with technology we have this fast communication technology, and like now we can discuss face to face. But what if in this communication, my face is being manipulated through AI technology, and you actually hear something that I haven’t said. It is a layer of technology that gradually becomes more and more scary.
Let me tell you another story that happened two or three years ago in Taiwan. It was a big company from the food industry, and they used their own laboratories to prove that oil used in the food respects national standards, when in fact, the oil was not respecting it. So, they put oil in food, and that oil was not actually for food.
So I think this is the scary part when people with money and power use technology and can give us something, when something that is not edibles becomes edible.
… I think that technology becomes a new thing similar to guns and knives. And there is another layer, we will always have a minority who don’t have access to technology, and then they will be at the mercy of those rich people.
And as a new media artist, I try to make my art to focus on that point, and as a professor in my class, I always try to teach students more technology because I think that with technology they have a chance to fight back.
TechvangArt: It’s very interesting because I am also part of the generation that used to see technology in a good way, and I was really fascinated the first time and I discovered how to write code, it was like “wow” magic and VR it’s also kind of magic. And technology was also about democracy and open platforms and communication. But, then we gradually started to see that thing can shift in a direction that you don’t want. And we, as a society, don’t want to be used by technology. And it seems that you are very attached to this topic of technology and people. I also saw The Machina, which is extraordinarily made and is touching on this subject, with all those images of how machines can use us. And in an interview you said that people can be used as a “commodity in the digital world”. I am very curious why are you choosing this by this topic, this investigation of the relation between us and tech, it seems like a deep internal motivation.
Hsin-Chien Huang: Partly because my family is always a minority. So for example, I am now from the art world, but I used to be a mechanical engineer. My mother is an artist. But, because of my mother, my brother and sister could not choose art as their career- my sister is a nurse, but now she is making pottery. When I entered the art word, the art world was hesitant to accept me. So I always feel that I was in the background, I’m kind of like always a minority.
Then, I have this very strong engineering background, and I think technology has the potential to make good things. But you need to have the power to master it. Otherwise, the technology could become a disaster. So like my friend, Laurie Anderson, she always says that – I think this is a quote somebody – she says that
“if you think your problem can be solved by technology, then, first, you don’t understand technology, and the second you don’t understand your problem”.
The focus on technology, I think that’s because I believe the art is always focused on something that influences people’s lives, and humanity the most. So in the old days, the art was focused on religion, because in the old days, religion was the biggest power to influence people’s life. And then you could see a lot of art focused on war, focused on politics, or on gender, because those are the things that influence people’s life most. But in the last 20 years, you ask what influenced people’s life most, I will say is, technology. So for example, if you think about cell phones or the social media, it changed our way to interact with friends, family, or how we remember our past, it has been changed by the cell phone completely. For me, the meaningful art for me considering my background and the time I live in, is the focus on technology.
TechvangArt: Because you have mentioned that art reflected on society, in the old days it was religion, and then it changed to other topics. It is also that many cultural forms (literature, paintings, singers, puppets, so on…) were also contributing to our narratives and stories and collective memory and interpretations about a historical period (We remember more history from a novel, then from a history book). And these stories were told and re-told, and sometimes, reinterpreted. But, now, VR is entering the game. And I guess, it will be for the first time, that stories are not told, but experienced. How do you think this will change the game, even about how we remember histories?
Hsin-Chien Huang: I think, what you’re saying is very important and also that’s the reason I fall in love with virtual reality. Because just like you said, in before that people used the term storytelling. But now they are using the term storyliving. So instead of telling or sharing a story we want to live in the story. There is an outstanding Spanish professor, Dr Mel Slater, and I am a big fan of his research, one is called “Being Einstein” and the other is “Being Steve Jobs”. So, the experience is in a full body VR. And before entering he will scan your body. And in this experience, you will sit on the table with Steve Jobs. And people who participated in the research were asked about the problem in their life that they can’t solve. After people finish naming the problem, in the second phase of the experiment, the participants in the experiment will become Steve Jobs in VR, hearing exactly themselves telling their problems. And a lot of people when they are in Steve Jobs, then they actually suddenly have this inspiration, they can start to think about a solution to their problem that previously they cannot think of.
So, when I started to work on VR, when friends had been coming to my studio, I would just let them experience the VR and then see their reaction. And one VR test was about transporting you on Mars. I was expecting her to tell me about the experience on Mars, but on the contrary, she looked down and said: “Oh, I don’t have my body, my body disappeared” And the next thing she said really amazed me was that she feels so relaxed. And she said the body actually is a heavy burden for her. But she didn’t realise until it disappeared.
I finally found that the VR is a device that can make people believe they are somebody else. And when they turn into somebody else, their mindsets change, they can think of some idea they previously cannot think of, then they can exceed their own limit. As I am also a professor, I think what education tries to do is make people learn something so they can change their life. But, in order to change people’s lives, you cannot just do it with knowledge. I think you need something to change people’s hearts. And I think that VR can do that. So to answer your question, II think that’s the big power of VR.
TechvangArt: Definitely, it is something else when somebody is telling you a story, and something else, when you can feel it and your body remembers it. Because you previously mentioned Laurie Anderson, and I really like her for what she’s doing. And you did projects together, one was the winner at the Venice Film Festival. So now is my opportunity to ask you all about Laurie, so how your collaboration started and how was to work with her?
Hsin-Chien Huang: We started to collaborate back in 1993 and 1994. At that time, we used the media of CD-ROM. So, we work on the first project called ‘The Puppet Motel’, which is interactive CD ROM. In the 90s, it was this new type of platform called a CD ROM. I don’t know if you remember that time, but a lot of musicians published a CD, you could put the CD into a player for the music, but also in the computer for an interactive programme that you can play with. And many artists suddenly saw this as a new platform – other than a gallery and museum, and we can use the CD ROM because everybody can see the work at home. And CD ROM has been around for like a couple of years and it just crashed, nobody uses CDs anymore. And then in 2016, I started to play with VR and I found it as a new interesting media. Then I went to New York and visited Laurie, and talked to her: “because 20 years ago, we used the newest media called CD ROM, but now we have this new media called VR. Do you want to do another new project with me?”. And I think Laurie was very suspicious at that time, she is quite slow to accept new things, but because we have been friends for over 20 years, she said: “Okay, let’s try it!”. And it took us two years to create the “The ChalkRoom”, and also “To The Moon”. We spent the first year doing a lot of prototypes and testing, and said: “we like this and we don’t like that”, and gradually we started to explore how VR can be used to convey our ideas. I’m very honoured to work with her. Because, although I’m the one who’s doing all the coding and the 3Ds, she has a very good intuition, and she is providing a lot of insights, and so the VR experience has become very unique.
TechvangArt: And because you’re also teaching at the university, for somebody who is just starting in this VR field, what would be your recommendation?
Hsin-Chien Huang: Because it’s a new media so just live with it, play with it, if you have any idea, just try it. The prices become so reasonable, tools are free. It’s a new media so I feel a lot of artists or directors just try it.. For example, I see a lot of directors who want to transfer their film into VR, but I think that’s a new media. You need to really have hands on and see what this media can do, what kind of stories you can tell. It’s not like other media, here you really need to experiment with. Try it out, allow yourself to experiment with as much as possible. And not only see it for yourself, but also, have your friends come by to try it, watch or your friend reactions, And that will tell you a lot of things. I would say this is similar to the times when film was being invented in the 1900s, like with Georges Mellier or the Lumiere Brothers, they are all inventors. Georges Mellier was also a magician, so he applied a lot of magician tricks to his film. There are no rules for VR yet. Compared with the movie that has been invented for hundreds of years, not only the director knows the language of the movie, but also the audience knows the language of the film. So, if the directors showed something, the audience knows what the director tried to say. But, in VR, there is no such language yet. I see a lot of time the director tries something, and the audience reacts in another way. I think the VR creator really needs to see how other people will react to their content.
TechvangArt: I think it’s always interesting when something new is starting, because as you said, there are no rules and it’s kind of the beautiful period of experimentation and then the rules anyhow we’ll come in the time-history has always taken care of this aspect. But, returning a little bit to Bodyless, you turned it into a live music experience. How did it go?
Hsin-Chien Huang: Well I think it’s an interesting experiment, we had these robotic arms attached to a live feeding camera and we superimposed augmented reality images on the projection. So you will see the live footage of the concert for all audiences both so you will see the Bodyless virtual image superimposed on top of it. I think it’s an interesting experiment but it is not mature yet we still have a lot of work to do. In the digital content, we the liquid content, theory. He says that the content is a liquid, it can flow to different media. So VR is one media. The movie is one media or the concert, the music concert is one medium. I think this was the first experiment, I tried to convert the Bodyless content into the musical performing media. And I think it could work. But we need more work to do. So, I think people like the experimental side of it, but I think to really have a gratifying experience, I think there’s still a lot of gap that needs to be filled.
TechvangArt: As an artist, you are very complex – from street installations to visual art, to film, VR experiences, concerts, so on. It is all a mixing of forms. I don’t want to ask you if you have a preference, but what excites you more as an artist, the experimentation, the mixing part, or something else? Because it is really a huge palette that you covered.
Hsin-Chien Huang: Yes, I enjoy creating in different media. The interesting thing is that, because I use mostly digital tools that allow me to create my art in my studio, I don’t need to go around to different places, so I can just stay in my studio and create 80% or 90% of the work. In Japan I think it is a term called “otaku” it means “somebody that likes to stay home”.
TechvangArt: But, on the other hand we live in a world that is globalised – even if we don’t want it, businesses are globalized, technology, and so on, and all this globalized world gives us a lot of opportunities. But, on the other hand, this globalized world tends to make the boundaries for the local context “thinner”. And as you said, many of us like to “stay at home” because for artists, somehow, inspiration always was from the local context, the local DNA. Do you think that local context will be less relevant?
Hsin-Chien Huang: For me, my heritage and the place I stay provides me a lot of ‘nutrition’, inspiration for my work. When I need to create something that’s really dear to my life, I need to stay at home. But, it is fun to travel around and to meet people, especially like the last couple years, when I went to Festivals and saw other creators, and see their work. It’s all very important to me. I enjoy meeting people, I enjoyed talking to you and got inspiration from this conversation. But also, I think, to have the freedom to stay home and then to concentrate and then to keep quiet from the sound or all the different voices from the world and just to be very quiet and then only listen to what my heart wants to tell me. I think that’s just a good mixture of life.
TechvangArt: What books influenced you the most?
Hsin-Chien Huang: Maybe Italo Calvino, The Invisible City. I like that book very much. Actually, to tell the truth, in Bodyless, originally, I tried to use The Invisible City, as the basic story. And I want to create the VR experience out of the Invisible Cities. But as I worked on that, I think, one short story in that book, started to remind me of my mother’s story and then that’s a very interesting transition so I started to deviate from that story and to my mother’s story. So, I will say that, that book is my favourite book.
TechvangArt: With the word artist, you would NOT like to be compared?
Hsin-Chien Huang: Picasso, he is not a very good person, he was a bastard to women.
TechvangArt: Have you ever thought of creating a VR experience about your creative process, like, what it’s inside your brain?
Hsin-Chien Huang: No. Because I’m the teacher, I think, this year, I started to record a lot of my classes into video. I think, because I’m already 55 years old, so I try to leave a record of all my skills, so the students can learn. It’s kind of like a recording of my creative process, although it’s more like a technical or like a software basis.
TechvangArt: You gave up your engineering for art, but now like with all that technological evolution, engineers are becoming again in “trend”. Did you ever regret your decision of giving up your engineering career?
Hsin-Chien Huang: No, I don’t regret it. And I’m really happy I made that choice. I think, compared to my friends, I am not making as much money as they do. But, I’m a happy person, I am really proud of what I’m doing, and I understand the meaning of fine doing. A lot of my classmates, they are doing something but they are like a part of a big company. All they do, their contribution is like a small piece in this big machine. My work for me is more clear, I know what’s my relationship with society, and I think I know what my contribution is. So yeah, I think I live a much simpler life, then theirs.
TechvangArt: What you were wishing to be asked and we did not ask you?
Hsin-Chien Huang: I don’t know, I don’t have an answer for that. I think you covered most of my ideas of why I created Bodyless so I’m really happy about this interview. Yeah, thank you very much.
TechvangArt: We thank you, too for this interesting discussion and for your time.