Fei Jun: Where to find “an interesting world” in the ever-growing media art?

TEXT:Sue Wang    DATE: 2019.6.26


Fei Jun, a Professor of “Art+Technology” at the School of Design, China Central Academy of Fine Arts, a Doctoral Supervisor of Media Art Research. As a media artist, he is participating in the China Pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale. With his interactive works entitled “Re-Search”, “An Interesting World”, he responds to the theme of Venice Biennale “May You Live in Interesting Times”, by inviting people to discuss this interesting “epochal issue”, he has transformed the dialogue modes of human-machine interaction and media design to another perspective and he pushes forward the empathy of art to a more vivid and colorful realm.

CAFA ART INFO has specially invited Professor Fei Jun to talk about the Asia Digital Art Exhibition. How would he reveal the clue and perspective of this exhibition, further extend to the core of logic? What is his comprehension of the still-disputed media digital art trends? How would he interpret the 22nd new discipline “Art + Technology” which has received much attention?

Interviewed Guest: Fei Jun

Journalist: Zhang Yizhi

Photograph: Hu Sichen

Translated and edited by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

CAFA ART INFO: Hello Professor Fei, you have served as Curator of the Asia Digital Art Exhibition as well as an exhibiting artist, would you like to talk about your experience? We understand that the core of this exhibition is to present the beauty of fusion. So what are the key concepts? From your personal point of view, how to interpret them?

Fei Jun: The exhibition was co-sponsored by China Arts and Entertainment Group Ltd., Beijing Haidian District People’s Government and Central Academy of Fine Arts. Wang Chen and Zhang Jinlin were the producers. Fan Di’an, President of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, served as the academic advisor. Song Xiewei, Dean of CAFA School of Design served as the chief curator, Fei Jun served as the curator, Xue Tianchong and Wang Naiyi served as executive curators, and Li Zheng and Hong Qile served as exhibition coordinators. As a member of the curatorial team, I would like to talk about my experience of participating in this project. First of all, this exhibition originated from the recent “Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations” held in Beijing. As one of a series of activities, the planning of the Asia Digital Art Exhibition has given us an opportunity to observe, research and present the developments in digital art in Asia. During the process, we found that we have a better understanding of the neighboring East Asian countries to China such as Japan and Korea; but we lack understanding of contemporary art in other Asian countries such as Vietnam and Turkey, especially we felt completely strange to their developments in digital art, even less than our understanding of those from Europe and the United States in this field.

Three hidden clues were set in our curatorial logic. The first is “geography”, to explore the local cultures of Asian countries based on geography. It consists of a series of works of art that expresses the culture of geography, such as the moving image work of “2 or 3 Tigers” by the Singaporean artist Ho Tzu Nyen, it was based on the Malaysian folklore that builds a story between the Malay peninsula and humans, in the way of mythological narrative, the work tries to explore historical construction and multiple identities; in the video work of the Vietnamese artist Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, “Memorial Project Nha Trang, Vietnam: Towards the Complex—For the Courageous, the Curious, and the Cowards”, old-fashioned rickshaws with local characteristics were sunk on the sea floor. While several individual drivers were struggling to step on the rickshaws under the water and trying to drive the rickshaws on the bottom of the sea, they still had to breathe air to maintain their lives. The poetic expression of this work expresses the pressure of rapid developments in the local culture.

The second clue is “field”, which explores the mutual influences and integration of cultures among Asian countries. Artistic works that transcend geographical boundaries and cultural boundaries, such as Korean artist Lee Sung-Jae’s work “AVYAKRTA: The Unanswered Questions” which combines the moving images of life in the microscopic natural world with ink paintings. It has produced a dynamic digital painting with oriental philosophical imagery. The influence of Chinese ink paintings vividly reflects the cultural integration of East Asian countries.

The third clue is “heart zone” that explores the impact of Asian culture on the world. In this dimension, we present a group of Western artists who are deeply influenced by Asian culture. For example, the German artist Tobias Gremmler has long studied Chinese calligraphy, kung fu and traditional opera. His video works including “Chinese Calligraphy in Motion” and “Virtual Actors in Chinese Opera” translate the well-known Chinese cultural heritage into contemporary artworks through digital 3D technology; an interactive collaboration between Jeffrey Shaw & Sarah Kenderdine from Australia, “Kung Fu Visualization” is not just a protective study of Hakka masters, but also provides a new path and method for us to interpret traditional culture.

In addition to the above three clues, the exhibition contains three perspectives, one is between the times, reflecting the dialogue between ancient civilizations and modern civilizations in Asia; the second is between the fields, reflecting the synergy between culture and technology; The third is between countries, reflecting the symbiotic resonance between different countries and cultures. These three clues and three perspectives form the core logic of curation, and also weave a rich exhibition narrative experience for the audience.

CAFA ART INFO: The Asia Digital Art Exhibition is a stage for dialogue between art and technology. Artists with different cultural contexts and academic backgrounds meet here, and they exchange ideas and discuss with each other to activate innovations. This exhibition has selected more than 30 artists. What is the selection criteria for artists?

Fei Jun: When we were discussing artist selection, there were several paths. One path was to discover and find artists by studying important international exhibitions and festivals. Such a choice has two advantages. First of all an artist who can often participate in these exhibitions would usually have the ability to express his or her local culture, and at the same time he or she can communicate and spread in an international language. We do not make choices based on an artist’s popularity, but rather consider the fitness of an artist's work to the theme of the exhibition.

Another perspective for our choices is the diversity of the medium for creation. We hope that the exhibition will include relatively classic digital works of art such as animations and moving images, as well as a number of more experimental and inspiring works, such as Korea Artist Yunchul Kim, who uses fluid dynamics technology to precisely control the fluids made of metal powder through magnetic fields, forming a unique aesthetic with a solid image; Daniel Rozin, an Israeli artist, created a textbook-level interactive device “Pom Pom Mirror” which is a combination of 928 artificial fur balls and an interactive mirror controlled by hundreds of motors. The “pixels” made up of hair balls in the mirror can project the outline of the audience; Qiu Zhijie and Dr. He Xiaodong’s “Jingdong AI Generated Map” is a real-time interactive work realized by artificial intelligence technology. It is shown at the front end of the map that was made by the team of the Central Academy of Fine Arts based on the hand-painted map of artist Qiu Zhijie, while the database kernel was completed by the team of Institute of Artificial Intelligence, JD Group. After a month of training by the artist, the artificial intelligence robot can draw the vocabulary dictated by the audience into a map containing landscapes, building shapes and other keywords in accordance with the artist’s way of thinking. These works effectively expand our understanding of digital art and also create a multi-sensory experience scene for the audience.

CAFA ART INFO: So how do you further plan and present the exhibition in the rich choices of artists?

Fei Jun: This Asia Digital Art Exhibition is divided into three sections. The Thematic Exhibition expands the three clues mentioned above through the streamline design of the space; another highlight of this exhibition is the Culture + Technology session. The establishment of this session helps us play the platform and incubation role of the exhibition. We paired the technology companies in Haidian District with a group of young artists to create a series of works based on the theme of the exhibition. It is very special in the exhibition. It does not only show some artists who have already made a name for themselves, but also works that have already been completed. Instead, it turns an exhibition into an incubator and incubates a group of works created by culture + technology.

This session exhibits nearly 10 works, such as the “Dirty Read Pool” by Meng Songlin and UBTECH. It combines robotic technology with art to create a fake landscape created by mechanical organisms with Chinese bonsai concept. Although this exhibition area does not occupy a large space in the exhibition, I think it is the most dynamic exhibition area. It shows the meaning of the combination of art and technology and accumulates our experience in cross-domain practice.

The third section is the Audiovisual Art Exhibition. Why is there this section? I think it’s related to people’s current changing demand for digital content. Today, spectators do not just want to see some artworks, but they also want to experience some works. An exhibition offline carries a new function and provides the audience with an irreplaceable and non-replicable live experience. Therefore, the Audiovisual Art Exhibition  has concentrated on ten groups of this type of work. And most of them are created by young artists who are active in the art of audition, who are good at using immersive image spaces for customized creation.

The space of the audio-visual art section (30 meters in width plus 30 meters in length and 15 meters high) is probably the largest video space in the world we have seen so far, 900 square meters of horizon, plus walls, jointly constructed an immersive image space of nearly 1800 square meters. Such a volume can give the audience an ultra-daily video art immersive experience. This is a very popular exhibition area for the audience. The audience commented that “they felt that they actually walked into an artwork” rather than “going closer to a work of art”.

So I think it also reflects several characteristics of digital art, dynamic, interactive and immersive. Our curatorial team is particularly concerned about the audience’s experience. In fact, one of the core tasks of curating is to transform the concepts into an experiential scene in space.

CAFA ART INFO: You are both a curator and an exhibiting artist for this exhibition. Your An Interesting Worldis a work about connections that try to reach a broader social field. In response to the theme May You Live in Interesting Times,you worked with the team to design a socially built app to connect participants from around the world. Can you tell us more about your work?

Fei Jun: “May You Live in Interesting Times” is actually not like a traditional art exhibition theme. It seems to be very “normal”. There are even some ordinary meanings inside it, such as fun, this is a very daily description. But it’s an interesting point that different people have very different interpretations of interesting concepts. What a child sees is childlikeness, a “disorder” of the world that a politician sees, and what an artist sees may be cultural uncertainty and so on. Different people are in different positions, and different cultures will affect his understanding of the “interesting.”

So when I think about this theme, I find that a personal expression is hard to summarize interesting comprehensions. A key question is as to how I could interpret this interesting thing as an artist. Instead of a personal interpretation of “interesting”, is there another way, such as creating a platform and tools for more people to express their understanding of the interesting? So the core driving force behind this work comes from this kind of thinking.

In a sense, I forwarded the “invitation letter” I received from the China Pavilion, the 58th Venice Biennale to the public. The way to forward it is to create a tool and platform to spread in an art game. You can download the “Re-Research” app and build “an interesting world” on the phone.

This app provides each user with a land that offers more than 300 various models, and participants can build this interesting world like Lego. We also designed a social mechanism for the game. Each user can only obtain a limited set of five kinds of 3D model resources when they start building their own world. Users can share 3D model resources with other users through establishing or forming alliances. Surely, while sharing resources, you  can also accept the possibility of other users to edit or rewrite your interesting world. My team and I are more like tool builders and algorithm designers. By providing materials, tools, and algorithms, we are trying to create a work with a social field survey function, by understanding people in this “interesting world.” The behavior may help us better understand this “interesting world.”

The model borrowed from this work is not new in the entertainment industry, but as an art work, it is still a challenge to fully enter the system and enter the entire market system in accordance with industrial standards. Therefore we are also learning to promote this application by using a marketing mode. Because the interesting part of this work is its growth, they are constantly involved with users, and we are constantly updating it. The entire Venice Biennale has been on display for nearly half a year, and this work will continue to grow and iterate during the exhibition. In order to establish a connection with the physical world, we also connected the Venice weather system to the work itself. When it rains in Venice, the virtual world in the works will also rain. So sometimes we see that the work is raining in Beijing. It is actually a different effect. It is connected with the real world. This is also the concept of a work I want to construct. It is not a virtual, isolated existence, it has a very direct relationship with this world.

CAFA ART INFO: As you mentioned, there is indeed some controversy about digital art. You are a practitioner of digital art media. In your opinion, digital media is a creation method like other media, or is it itself an innovation that will have an impact on the traditional definition of art? What kind of development trend is there in China? What is its relationship with international digital media art?

Fei Jun: I personally think that it is mostly positioned in concepts, some call it new media art, others call it media art, or digital art. There are even many concepts such as database art, robotics, bio art, and so on. When every new concept comes out, I think the controversy is inevitable. But one thing is not controversial. Everyone sees the influence of digital technology on artistic creation. Whether in the art world or in the world of collecting, this trend is very clear. Moreover, in the field of digital art or in the broader field of media art, this is precisely the art form of universal cognition in the international arena. The tools used by artists from all over the world are almost universal. If we say that there is a difference between ink painting and oil painting in the field of painting, then in the field of digital art, the technology and the equipment it carries are extremely versatile, and even the programming language used by engineers are similar. So in a sense, it is easier to be cross-cultural than the language we use to communicate, and this is why digital art has a strong cross-cultural ability. I think it must be related to the popularity of tools.

Of course, there is another important point. We cannot look at digital art itself in isolation. It is inseparable from the foundation of people’s digital life. In other words, if there were no developments in digital life, and there will be no soil for the progress of digital art. We tend to forget such a social reality, but just look at it from the perspective of art history.

At this point, whether in China or abroad, everyone is trying hard to use digital technology to integrate with art. This is basically synchronous. Even I feel that China has a better development opportunity in such a field because China has a deeper foundation for digital life. Especially in East Asia, the enthusiasm and courage to try new technology has formed a contemporary culture, which may be the most rare context for digital art creators.

It is precisely for the rapid development of such digital life that art can provide more resources for our creators. For example, the reason that I can invite 30 artists to participate in development and creation in such a short time is because the industry has already been endowed with such capabilities. I just borrow social energy to participate in this matter. If there were not so many mobile game players or practitioners, without the technical achievements of this field brought by so many practitioners and the industry itself, I cannot quickly apply myself to create an artwork.

Many people follow the logic of American art and think that we have replaced previous oil colors with the pixels of digital art. This is not the case. It is a simple or inferred experience. It is only a level, but we ignore the changes in the media, which actually exist. For example, the work I created this time is purely in the internet space. Its best carrier space is internet space, not physical space. Physical space is just a mirror image of it. This is completely different from the traditional white box system in the traditional sense. Secondly, its extensibility and uncertainty, which does not mean a change in media, its continuous growth, constant iteration, and even the uncertainty of the media, which are also different from traditional art.

The third point is the changes in the ways people observe artworks. For example, spectators may even participate in co-creation, which is not only covered by changes in the media. In other words, digital art is not only a change in the way art is created in terms of creation. It means even the way it exists or the changing way it is displayed. This way of display is not in the traditional sense. It is also redefining the way in which a work of art exists and how it is viewed. This is precisely that digital art brings a more valuable part, but it is often overlooked.

CAFA ART INFO: The Central Academy of Fine Arts should follow the trend of the times in a timely manner, break the boundaries of disciplines, professional barriers, stimulate the creativity of self-exploration, open up a greater vision, establish a systematic and speculative way of thinking, and set up disciplines of art and technology from the perspective of teaching. What kind of talent will you focus on in future education as a professional tutor in the direction of art + technology?

Fei Jun: “Art + Technology” officially became the 22nd new undergraduate discipline this year. First of all, I think the general context of this discipline is the teaching reform that the School of Design has been conducting for several years. It respects every professional precondition and tries to open every professional extension and let each discipline integrate with each other. Talking about art + technology in this context, I do not think we are involved in an innovative discipline. Today’s most dynamic innovations are mainly in the corporate world. When we look at what the business community is doing, we have to understand that education must follow the pressure of the industry. For example, today’s enterprises are already a fusion of art and technology. Many companies are already making such innovative models, from Apple to Google. If we are still clinging to talent that can only do visual design today, it is already difficult to adapt to today’s changes, let alone meet tomorrow’s needs.

I often give an example of what happens in the industry, take Airbnb as an example. Instead of building a hotel, it does not happen in the original industrial system and concept. It provides the largest hotel in the world without a single entity. It subverts the entire hotel industry through links.

Similarly, we say art + technology, which is not another art discipline in the simple sense. It is not an easy task to construct a new model of dialogue with other disciplines. Because our original system cannot fully support this system. The name of the discipline promulgated by the Ministry of Education is art and technology. Our external name is art + technology. This small change, we want to say this discipline does not only encourage creations of artworks with technology, but emphasizes that the two branches of art + technology are interdisciplinary and experimental on an equal basis, resulting in the emergence of calculable innovations in both disciplines.

I firmly believe that the way of practicing art in the future will shift from studio to lab. Such a turn actually requires us to take education as a basic point of view and carry out the underlying construction. The laboratory may have stronger comprehensive experimental conditions, and one of the more important features is changing the practice that is driven by individuals. Engineers, artists, and scientists are encouraged to create in a collaborative way in this environment, creating subversive changes that coincide with interdisciplinary practices at the forefront of industry and technology. In a sense, what we do in college is just synchronizing with the changes that have taken place in the industry.

At the same time, education will also produce positive feedback to the companies. Let me give you an example. We are now working with UBTECH (Shenzhen) to build a joint laboratory, the scientific research personnel provided by the company, and the art and design talent provided by our school to build this laboratory. This laboratory is not only valuable to the Academy, it can provide a platform for teaching, a platform for experimentation, and at the same time output a lot of value to the enterprise.

The lab does three things. The first is to work with researchers to create some art + technology works. This is the first level. The second level is to help companies to develop conceptual products, that is, to look forward to the future and expand more forward-looking products of artistic application scenarios. The third thing is to help enterprises enhance brand value through academic activities and other means. A lab also has multiple outputs that can be exported to the art world or exported to the enterprise as a prototype for future product development. The third point is that we can offer education and exhibition promotion activities. This is more from the needs of the corporate brand itself. What may be needed in the future is not a sponsor, but a cooperator who agrees with this concept and gains value and  rewards.