We’ve featured our friend Canadian-born, New York-based artist Sougwen Chung on the site several times in the past, from drawings and projection-mapped installations to her more recent experiments merging art, performance and technology.
I had a chance to catch up with Sougwen ahead of Ableton’s Loop event, where she’ll be speaking next month. More images and full interview below!
An Interview with Sougwen Chung
Jeff Hamada: It’s been way too long since I saw you last! This will be a fun way to sorta catch up! Since we’re doing this over email, maybe you can set the scene – where are you at this very moment?
Sougwen Chung: It has been so many years now, I’ve lost track! It’s lovely to be in touch again. I’m currently typing up these responses on my phone (underground on the C train from Manhattan to Brooklyn) on my way to a debate party. I try to catch up with as many correspondences as I can while commuting; trains and even the subway are a quiet and reflective time for me.
JH: I was actually thinking about you recently. My friend Maggie started a site called Faculty Magazine investigating the natural world and art and technology, and it totally reminded me of your work. How do you describe your art practice these days?
SC: I’d love to meet her, is she Vancouver based? I’m overdue for a proper trip up there. That makes me think of this show my friends and colleagues at Alphaville are curating in Spain later this year focused on the same thing. We should all chat!
So, my practice is certainly in transition these days, and that’s a space I like to occupy. Am still experimenting with different processes, spatial expressions and material investigations (as always). Exploring gesture-based sculptural works and as well as considering various interfaces (robots and headsets) for creating performances and environments.
(Just stopped at 14th Street)
JH: I wanna come back to the robots! And yeah she used to live here in Vancouver but moved to Europe. I’ll definitely connect you guys.
JH: When did you first start to combine art and technology? What was the first piece of technology you encountered as a kid, do you remember?
SC: Our generation was young enough to grow up with the explosion of connectivity afforded by the rise of the internet but also old enough to remember a time before technology was so ubiquitous. I grew up in a very musical family, so I was very fluent in art and technology as expression through musical instruments. Playing the violin at such a young age, to my surprise, still influences my art practice to this day. I transitioned from the technology of the violin to digital technologies pretty early on, through computers, and early internet culture of which I still remember quite fondly.
JH: When we first met you were combining sculpture and drawing with video projections are you still doing any of that?
SC: I am, in a new permutation! I’m still very much engaged with the practice of drawing, but moving from the traditional conception of drawing as mark-on-paper and thinking about the act of drawing as mark making, way-finding or activating space with gesture in a broader sense. Separating it from materials.
Recently I’ve been exploring the drawing practice in virtual reality, recording the lines “drawn” in space as a method of sculptural creation. In that it becomes a kind of drawing as sculpture or dance, its a physical investment of your whole person. Bringing this physicality into drawing that’s also profoundly disembodied as well. The only trace of the body becomes the form being made.
JH: Last year you were working on a fascinating project Drawing Operations, where you created collaborative drawings with a robotic arm! Where did the seed of that idea come from and how did it change and shift to the final performance/video?
SC: Ah, you’re talking about D.O.U.G., my drawing robot. I’m at once invigorated by and concerned with the role of technology in our lives, and it’s been an area of great speculative interest to me. But “technology” and “the internet” and “the cloud” has, by design, become so conceptual its difficult to pin down. Do a google search of any of those terms and you’ll see the goofiest most non-sensical images ever.
However, a physical machine / industrial robotic arm, on the other hand, can work as a visual metaphor for that otherwise somewhat vague image of “technology” as a whole. Often what we regard as “technology” could better be described as computation. So, taking that into consideration, in general computation lends itself very well to tasks involving automation. In particular, to me, robotic arms are often representations of machine as automation, in assembly lines or factories.
However, that’s never been what has interested me about working with the computational medium. It’s always been the other things, the mistakes, the surprises, that keep me engaged with working in this weird art + tech intersection.
So, that’s fundamentally what Drawing Operations came from; the initial phase anyway. A performance of a human and robot collaboration where the creative process is put on display but heavily reliant on improvisation and defined by the glitches and mechanical inaccuracies but with the intent to create something cohesive.
As I’ve said before, I wanted to engage in a performance with technology in which the bugs of the system are embraced. Bugs are no longer bugs, but features of these initial Drawing Operations.
JH: I love that approach, celebrating the imperfections and really using them as a starting place. What new technologies are getting you excited and giving you ideas?
SC: It’s probably cliche to talk about anything involving Virtual Reality at this point. I think I resisted it for a while… and I do still approach it with a healthy dose of skepticism. That being said, I’ve found my forays into spatial drawing and sculpture pretty liberating. Engaging the room and the body in a creative process is this uncharted territory, particularly from an interface design standpoint. How do you make creative decisions within this simulated dimension? What are the long term effects of inhabiting such disembodied space? What’s up with those VR Sex Suits in Japan? Will VR make us go blind, in time?
JH: Yeah, maybe! I remember reading about that guy Mark Farid planning to spend an entire month with VR goggles on but I don’t think he ever did it and I’m not sure if anyone has done it for much longer than a couple days. I imagine in VR’s current state it could make a person go crazy? What are you gonna talk about at the Ableton Loop event?
SC: I have no idea! This month is my month to figure it out. Looking forward to having a discussion / AV Interchange with friends Jem the Misfit and Tarik Barri. In addition to that I’m doing some presentation with artist and colleague Luisa Pereria, whose work I love. Apart from that it’s all in the air right now
JH: Definitely keep me updated on the things you’re working on. And I gotta say I’m glad @goth_screenshots came alive again recently, I thought you had stopped forever!
SC: Stop gothscreenshots? I could never ;-)