August, 30, 2010
ARTINFO: Museum Views
Repatriation of Memory in the Age of Artificial Intelligence
Homa Nasab’s Observations on Art and Culture
Born and raised in New York City, Henry Chung studied engineering at Columbia University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science and photography at New York University’s Tish School of the Arts. In 1992, Chung established his first photography studio in Brooklyn which he has maintained at various locations since. The artist lives in Brooklyn, NY, and, along with his partner Robert Walden is represented by RHV Fine Art in Brooklyn. (See my earlier Cartographic Utopias – In Conversation with Robert Walden)
HOMA NASAB – What are the foundations of your interest in ‘obsolete technologies’?
HENRY CHUNG – I have always been interested in technology in general, even from a very young age. Growing up, I had every intention of pursuing a career in science and technology. When I was around eleven or twelve years old, I remember saving up my allowance to pay for a mail-order electronics course. I was one of those learn-at-your-own-pace courses, so whenever I saved up $25, I would send it in for the next instalment of the course. I think I went through eight lessons or so before they got too complex for me to follow along.
As young children, my sister and I got all sorts of hand-me-downs from my aunt’s family to play with. Often, they were just old, half-broken or out-dated “adult” things that were sitting around their basement, like transistor radios, cameras, cassette tape recorders or reel-to-reel tape decks. Aside from general fun and goofiness of recording ourselves singing and carrying on, I would also make modifications like rigging a cassette recorder to record slow and play back fast (taking out a battery and bridging the gap with a paper clip) or making it play back backwards (replacing a broken belt with a rubber band, but twisted in a figure “8.”) It was endless hours of fun.
Many of these hand-me-downs were often broken in some way so I would usually have to open them up and “fix” them – using paper clips, rubber bands, little bits of string and sticky tape – before I could play with them. …Even at that age, I had a notion that this piece of obsolete technology carried along with it some sense of romantic nostalgia for me.
In retrospect I think this frugal sense of reusing old things carried through with me all the way to adulthood. I hate throwing things out. I like to see that there is still purpose in obsolete items. Perhaps not necessarily their originally intended purposes, but purposes nonetheless.
HN- So was it this sense of Nostalgia that inspired you to infuse these technique(ologies) with the very traditional medium of portraiture?
HC – Actually, the portraits came first. I used to collect things like old stamps, old paper currency and old used postcards. Along with this was collecting old photographs of people. I liked the inherent history that was secretly locked in these items. For what important message was this stamp used to transport from Indochina? What did this yellowed crinkled 10 Ruble note buy back in 1911? In my hands I could hold objects that were evidence of these secrets. But, of course, they were secrets that I could never know. Unlike the stamps or the paper currency, the old photographs carried with them an abundance of clues. The objects in the frame, the setting, the fashion and the individual’s countenance all suggested a story of an identity that was just a hair beyond my grasp. Through a couple of different interactive installations, my intention was to explore this identity, whether real or fabricated, as perceived by the viewers of the artwork. It was through this play out that I realized that the allure of these images was that they merely suggested an identity. The emotional power in them is that they are anonymous. The few tantalizing hints in the photographs leave one wanting to know more. It became clear that at the most basic level this was about information access, or more accurately, the inability to access the information.
It was at this point that I wanted to include ideas of obsolescence and technology into the pieces. I saw a parallel in the old portraits that contains a story that I couldn’t extract and obsolete data storage technology that could no longer be read. Rendering one with the other seemed to be a sensible synthesis of my interests.
HN – In some ways, your work traces some kind of historiography of late modern era technological developments…
HC – I suppose it could. I don’t think my corpus of work is broad enough for me to be able to truly make that assessment yet, but now that you’ve mentioned it, I think it’s something I will keep it in mind as I further develop my work.
I think your question is well worded in that there is a sense of “tracing.” It’s interesting that there is often a lag between a technology being just old and a technology being obsolete. A technology may have fallen into history long before it becomes completely obsolete. My interests are in the obsolete, and because of that, they are behind that lag in time. In that respect, if history is being written as a line, I suppose my curiosity traces that line, but a few developments behind the leading edge.
HN – Should we suppose that since technological developments are taking place at such a rapid rate, you are happy to have a generous body of references and objects to play with…
HC – Oh yes indeed! There is already an endless line up of obsolete things from decades past that I want to work with. Rapid technological developments and avid consumerism only pile on more. Technologies that fall into obsolescence today will be fodder for me 10 years from now. My only disappointment is that I would never be able to have enough time to work with everything that I want to work with.
I think that when something that is widely used becomes obsolete because of technological developments it can come to say a lot about the time and place in history when it was used. It can say a lot about the available technology (a brick sized voltmeter is that big because it is powered by 4 batteries and includes mechanical parts), it can say a lot about the culture (Polaroid cameras satisfied the burgeoning American appetite for instant-everything) and what happened that obviated its usefulness (advancements in digital optical data storage, i.e. the CD, replaced the delicate and expensive-to-manufacture vinyl album).
Having an unending supply of this allows me to fine tune a concept and match it with a complementary technology and vice versa.
HN – I’m intrigued by your use of 1” wide paper tapes from old (ancient!) computers to create Pop style portraits of anonymous Chinese (American?) figures/characters… How did you come up with this concept?
HC – I wanted to use a technology that was prevalent or contemporaneous with the eras of these found photographs, which were roughly 1930’s through the 1960’s. Punch cards first came to mind, but there were limitations with working with that technology (the machines were as big as dishwashers), and it also was not a prevalent technology the entire span of the period that I was working with. A related and much older technology was the paper punch tape, which has its origins in ticker tape, and was in common usage up to the 1980’s.
And yes, with a few exceptions, the portraits are all of anonymous people (or anonymous to me, that is), including many of the Asian or Asian-American characters. The only ones that are not anonymous are the two self-portraits, and a piece using a portrait of my father’s family. It’s the sole surviving photograph of his father and sister who have long since passed away, so it has special significance to me. In fact, it was this photograph that started me on collecting other old photographs. These fall more into the “Identity” part of the project as opposed to the “Anonymity” part of it. I may pull these out in the future and include them into a separate project, perhaps focusing on the immigrant Chinese-American experience.
HN – Much like your partner Robert Walden’s work, your technique is amazingly laborious…
HC – It actually is not so laborious to me. Of course, I say that since it is something that I am passionate about so the time I spend working on my pieces is something I enjoy doing. Much of the time is spent on the computer, working with the image so that I have the right kind of detail when the image is rendered in holes on black paper. The punching is mechanized using an old computer tape punch machine. A program that I developed decomposes an image into individual vertical strips of data that I then feed to the machine. The strips are punched out one at a time and then I put the whole thing back together. The assemblage of the strips can be pretty tedious, especially for the larger pieces.
HN – This delicacy of technique stands in contrast to the nature of the crude technological materials which you employ…
HC – I think the contrast falls in line with the general idea of repurposing the old or obsolete, and by extension, the idea that something of beauty can be created out of what is essentially garbage.
These materials are technologically crude only by comparison to what we have today. Even as recently as the 1970’s, punch cards and punch tape were still considered high technology. I suppose it’s just a matter of perspective.
* In Conversation with Henry Chung CONTINUES tomorrow when the artist discusses the Blade Runner, Contemporary Chinese Art, Artificial Intelligence and the future of antiquated technologies.
HN - The other dichotomy is that your portraits are about emphasizing the loss of memory and identity… whilst computers are about preservation and organization of data which may be considered social memories, of sorts.
HC – Yes, the dichotomy exists, but in reality, the permanence of computer data storage is uncertain. Many years ago, I worked for a company that had a specialty in data translation and media conversion. They were one of a small handful of companies that existed that would be able to, for example, take your reel of IBM 9-track data tape and convert it to an Amstrad disc cartridge. Or, it could take an 8" floppy and convert it to a 5 1/4" floppy. Along the way they could also do data translation of the data from COBOL data format to native text processing format. A translation in encoding from EBCDIC to ASCII was also necessary to complete the conversion. My point here is that technology is ever changing. A data storage format in wide usage can completely become obscure in just a few years. As an example, does anyone really remember SyQuest cartridges or even Zip discs any more? Those were dominant storage technologies a mere 15 and 10 years ago, respectively. Data storage technology can "preserve" all sorts of data, but that is useful only as long as there is something that can read it back. Having a reel of 9-track tape filled with your most important financial information has no value if there is no way for you to retrieve that information. Similarly, having a disc full of MultiMate files is useless if MS Word can't open them. I don't have to go that far back to remember the box full of Zip discs that I had to throw out because it was too much trouble to retrieve the information, and even if I did pull the files off, nothing could open the pp4 files on them anyway.
With that perspective in mind, information that is preserved or hoarded by computer can (and does) often end up in the same boat as these photographs, which were taken with the same intention of preservation and hoarding. I think the dichotomy exists, but it exists within the recording medium, whether it be photographic or data storage media. I suppose if I were doing this project 50 years from now, I would be going through boxes of CD-ROMS wondering about the identities behind the data.
HN - As a Chinese American, what are your thoughts about recent developments in contemporary arts, in China?
HC - I have mixed feelings about the contemporary art coming out of China. I will have to admit that I'm not a big fan of much of what I've seen, despite the hype. I imagine much of what gets shown is done so solely because the artist is from China, and not so much that the artist and artwork is mature, conceptually or otherwise. I do like the freshness and rawness of the artists' approach, however. It reminds me of art created with the excitement that young art students often have -- one that is based on unrestricted exploration of expression. I suppose that comparison is appropriate given that this is really still the coming out of contemporary Chinese artists.
I think that it is a monumental achievement that contemporary Chinese artists are able to express themselves at all. Given China's tumultuous recent history, Chinese artists have a lot of psychological material to work through and to work with. If this is the beginning, I'm very excited to see what will emerge in years to come.
HN - Your work addresses the challenges of preserving, recovering or reconstructing cultural memories and personal identities…
HC – Memory is fleeting. Even memories of daily activities get swept away during a night's sleep. Despite our best efforts with various methods of recording our memories, the majority of an individual's lifetime memories will disappear when he or she dies.
The artefacts left behind only hint at the memories, the stories and the identities that they are supposed to preserve. I suppose it's not necessarily bad. I think it leaves us with wonderment that encourages us imagine and explore. Without this wonderment, we wouldn't have half of Shakespeare's plays.
HN – What are your thoughts on Artificial Intelligence?
HC - I think the human brain is immensely complex. I also think it's an immensely complex machine. Like any other machine, if one can understand how it works, one can recreate it. I think artificial intelligence is attainable, but given how little we understand the human brain, true artificial intelligence based on human intelligence will be quite a long way away.
Now having said that, I will add that perhaps artificial intelligence need not be modelled after human intelligence. I think we have a very myopic view of intelligence and define it based on human intelligence, human sentience and the human experience.
If a computer could be programmed by enormous sets of simple rules to respond in a human-like way to stimulus, and everything about the responses were indistinguishable from how a human would react, would this system be artificial intelligence? I think most would answer "no." It would just be a rules-based system that takes input, runs it through the rules and creates output. But philosophically speaking, would that matter? If I interacted with the system through text messages, for example, with the belief that it was a real person, and I died with that belief, would anything be different if that machine were a person?
I think it's possible that we will eventually reach a point when we will have truly created sentient artificial intelligence and we might not even know it. Part of what makes humans intelligent is the ability for the brain to store experiences as memories, make the connections between these memories and recognizing the patterns that these connections make. Computer technology is already very good at storing the information and making the connections.
Similarly, I also think it's entirely possible that humans are not actually sentient (and nothing truly can be), but we only think we are.
HN - Who have been your biggest influences – in visual arts or other fields?
HC - I'm slightly embarrassed to say that a lot of my influences come from science fiction movies, and especially from the styling in films such as Brazil, Blade Runner or Until the End of the World where there is visually a combination of high and low technologies. I like the contrast of the two, and how it reminds me that we are not divorced from our past. I think about how the future was presented in the 1950's and 1960's, and how low-tech the reality of today is by comparison. Despite Velcro, zippers and lycra, we still use shoelaces. We have screwtop caps yet we still use corks for fine wine (although that trend is changing). Incandescent light bulbs are truly an antiquated technology and we have much better alternatives, yet 99% of households still use them. In recent years, the fabled "TV Telephone" has become a reality with iChat, Skype, GoogleVideo, etc., but its adoption has been slow. Inertia is strong and it is human nature not to let go of the past.
HN - Do you have any faith in advances in technology and the ways in which they can improve the human condition?
HC – I have tremendous faith both in technology and that it does improve the human condition. I think about the advancements in communications alone within the past 20 years and how it has changed the world. The internet has made the world a smaller place, and in doing so, hopefully it has brought people and cultures closer together. The exposure alone to the wealth of information is invaluable by itself. I know that in many places in the world, access to information is a very powerful thing. And then I think about the cell-phone based micro-payment systems that have popped up around Africa that in effect offers micro banking services to people who may not have access to other kinds of banking services. All one needs is a cell phone and a signal.
Maybe I'm an overly optimistic person, but I think any advancement in technology could be used to improve the human condition. The hope is that we actually use it to this end.
HN - What will be the next recently antiquated technology which you are going to engage?
HC - In continuing my love of Polaroid instant film, I've recently constructed my Holgaroid (front of a Holga plastic camera attached to the back of an old Polaroid land camera) and have been shooting with it. It's an ongoing project and I'm not completely sure where it will go yet. The project really has yet to find its vision. The way that I constructed the camera places the lens a few millimeters farther from the focal plane that it's supposed to be. The net effect is that the camera can only focus on objects between 12 and 18 inches away from the camera. The short-sightedness of the camera is something that I think I'm going to use to explore the concept of myopia in general. I've been using the Fuji "Polaroid" film and I am loving its rich color saturation. The images have the kind of effect that the Hipstamatic iPhone app makes (but mine are made for real).
I'm looking on my storage shelf now and I see a stenographer's typewriter, a super-8 projector, a Theremin, an accordion and a mini reel-to-reel tape deck. There's a project there yearning to be assembled.
I also have rolling in the recesses of my brain an idea or an interactive piece that delves into notions surveillance, observation and privacy using old CCTV equipment. Barring any distractions form the stenographer's typewriter, I will most likely explore this project next.