In November, 1998, “Amsterdam Impact” – a talk salon by a media activist Geert Lovink from the Netherland – was held at Shibuya XP in Tokyo. At the salon there was an another guest talk session which was taken by Shu Lea Cheang, the “digital drifter.” Shu Lea is an artist whose works explore a wide rage of media based in 3 cities – New York, Amsterdum, and Tokyo.
She is now based in Tokyo for producing a new film. In this interview she talked about many aspects of her art works and her work styles including film, internet installations, Amsterdam, etc.
I heard that you are making a film in Tokyo. Could you talk about the film?
I was approached by Mr. Asai of Uplink to do a porno film. That’s how we got started. I think from the beginning we always have the idea of making a science fiction porno, and now it’s becoming a real SF porno. I guess in the beginning I thought all if I am just making a porno film. I just came to Tokyo for one month and I can do this film very quick and make some money (Laugh), and finish it. But right now it’s taking longer time. But it is getting really exciting. We have a great story and have many artists involved in doing art design. I think it’s a sort of a science fiction of post Blade Runner. So it’s like if you think about the idea of Blade Runner is neon and a lot of orientarism of the future, you know pretty much like modern day Tokyo almost. So when we want to do this Si-Fi film, we have to think about post Blade Runner. You know like a lot of images from Blade Runner that we can’t really take it anymore. So right now we are doing a lot of locations in Tokyo in tring to imagine our future.
Did you have the idea of this Si-Fi story before you came to Tokyo?
Actually I wrote the synopsis for this film last December (December in 1997). Because last year when I was doing the project for NTT ICC, Mr. Asai talked to me about making this film. So I tried to make the proposal for him. And after that I’ve been so busy, I couldn’t do this film. So this is the first time that we decided to go ahead and spend some time working on this film.
You have been working on films like Fresh Kill and other films, forcusing on race, gender issues, mixed culture, and also technology that you are working through various media like internet installation works. So these are always reflected on your works not only films but also internet installations.
現I think right now I’m kind of the artist, sort of switch between films and installation in art world and more commercial world, that kind of things. So it’s really tring to merge a lot of medium. You know we are talking about 35mm films or digital that kind of translation also. In terms of technology I think my idea to use technology is like technology is everywhere. People just everytime use the word technology is like people get very nervus. But I think that technology is really everywhere. So all my work in terms of using technology is in a very common manner, trying to make very kind of accessible for common people. So in the reason I have much desire to reach an audience. So for that reason may be a lot of my work is trying to use differet medium, different story telling way in to do it.
On Uplink site I read a sort of the summary of the story of the film, that one guy is researching on “extacy” and through his research on extacy people are able to feel extacy through the computer…
For me I think nowadays people seems to need a lot of sexal systems. You know if you go to like a drug store here you see all those medicines for like ” to make men strong” that kind of things or like a sex toy shop. I read some magazine here like a lot of women now use bibrators. You know sex shops is always popular here. So I think toward the future you need to create those alomost kind of the fantasy land and sexality. I don’t mean to make a film about sex that’s very kinky or strange at all. I think in real life even the normal couple I think maybe will enjoy using a different way of fantasy to come to orgasm you know.
So that’s your film work. How about Brandon project? I’ve seen the website and all those small images are also talking about gender or sexality.
Brandon is actually a commisioned website from the Guggenheim Museum. Particularly with Brandon, the internet project what I am doing right now is like to set up those website with time period.
For Brandon I call it “One year narrative project”. So within a year the story change and many people get involved. We will have many artists to participate. And then in this case also all the image can be changing by different artists. So I view a lot of interface as structure for people to access. In terms of the story it’s taken from the real life story of Teena Brandon, a woman that dresses a man in Nebraska where is a kind of country side. At the end he was raped and killed. After that people found out he was actually she. So it was a big story in 1994. So from that story I kind of thinking about a lot of , at that time by 1994-5 I played with the web, you know internet sort of persona play and switching charactor you know. So I was very curious, not curious as a project. I’m just curious in a real life and cyber space. When swich charactor in a real life or a cyber space, what’s the difference or what makes the whole changes. So basiclly it’s a project like that.
So this is still on-going project right?
Yes. What happened is I got connected with DeWaag. This is a space (Dewaag, Theatrum Anatomicum), it’s like a theater anatomical where they use to disect prisoners’ bodies or study. So I was very interested in to use this circle or theatrical space as a kind of space to disect our body in a way, social body in a way.
Yeah that’s images I’ve seen on the website. All those small images of body parts… You are kind of interested in man and technology..cross over. You are working on web or internet installations and always the main theme on them is human.
I think as I said, for me I like to use technology in a very common way. There is a network artists’ group actually study the whole internet structure, you know whole communicaiton structure. Those people study sensor, TVs. My own interest is using the net to play with the narrative idea. Again it’s like technology and access like having people feel close to it. A lot of my work in terms of installation, all the interface is a common objects like NTT ICC project (Buy One Get One) is a Hinomaru Bento box (Japanese traditional lunch box). And for Brandon it’s actually kind of real space interface in the Museum there’s like a huge video wall. So it’s really depends on different things.
You just came back from Amsterdam for the vacation. I’ve read that you are working in DeWaag. Could you talk about Amsterdam?
First time I went to Amsterdam was a couple of years ago and I found this place the Society of Old and New Media. This is actually a castle where the Theatrum Anatomicum is in there. This is like where those paintings of (pointing at one body disection painting on the Brandon flyer) actually using this building. I mean this is where they disect the body and where he did the painting. It’s in the building. So it’s very striking for me. I think Amsterdam is propably the most advanced in the internet technology of Holland. Amsterdam in terms of the Society of Old and New media it is a kind of place that they do some commercial work, but they also do a sort of policy making, structure, education, experiment, type of work, particularly on internet technology and particularly on the idea of the internet should be public access technology. So it’s a very open space in that way. Of course my background have a lot of that. So I was very attracted to this place and also they have really good labratory like you have designers, you have programmers, all working there. So that’s really good. As far as Amsterdam it’s such an advanced place. They actually have “xs4all“. I think that was the first time when they build so-called digital city. That was back in 1993-4. So the idea of having the digital city information is available. Amsterdam is quite advanced. I mean on the street you can see public telephone and all have the internet connection with screens.
How about groups or organizations like “xs4all” and “Steim“? “xs4all” is a free internet service provider… right?
Yeah. It’s a service provider and also house the digital city or DDS. All kinds are connected. You know it’s a small town. Every organizations are all connected and sometimes they come together to do works. I think Steim is a sound place that experiment sound technology. I don’t really work there, but I visited the place. They also offer kind of artist residency. So you can go work there.
In Amsterdam I think this year there are a lot of good web TV broadcast, internet TV broadcast and net radio things. In terms of the net event technology, actually quite a lot are happening. In Amsterdam you see those government support to make popular the technology.
That’s kind of what Geert and you are taking about at the salon like “Tactical Media.”
Tactical Media is like..I think Geert and a lot of people from these organizations used to be squatters. They take empty houses and live there. That was the time there were a lot of empty houses in Amsterdam. So they take those available spaces, live there and use computers. Actually DeWaag is right now orgnizing the conference for next March called “Next 5 Minites” (N5M). I think this is third time, so this time it is called N5M3. I’m involved in it as an international consultant. Idea with that is to try to bring people from different countries that are involved with the idea of public access media, involved with like technology and also woking on media for social and political cause to bring them together. So tactical media is almost like to discuss the media strategy you know, what you can do with this new media. For example how do you mobilize a kind of the social movement. Or more even small things. People do different kind of organization in a different community like small community. Over the years what we found out is in the different country, different people are doing different things. Well may be some people in Okinawa are having like the anti-militaly base for many years. I lived there in 1996 and I was doing the project. Also they have all these same kind of problem with ecology because of the military base. So people need that kind of local and global relationship. So once you know it’s like some kind of connection between different kind of groups, everybody come together. It’s really great.
Are they going to do net events for N5M3?
I think they will have a real conference in Amsterdam. Of course there will be a lot of net events and kind of things. I think the whole idea of tactical media is also like it’s not necessary you have to use the most high end technology. If you don’t have the internet, then you can use the fax. If you don’t have fax, then you can…
Write a letter!
Yeah. Exactly (Laugh). So the idea is not technology. The idea is what would you utilize, archive what you need. I think for me it’s attractive.
I think this year what I got from them is there’s a few focus. One focus would be different kind of strategy like what kind media using different strategies. And the other one is about the electronic border, sort of national border in electronic space and if there is a border kind of things. And trying to bring in different groups from different countries to come together. So mostly I think its’ the idea of using different media.
Where your interest on internet or technology to incorporate with your work came from?
Actually everthing I did have been self-learning. I am also really bad at reading instruction books (Laugh). I have no patience to read instruction books. So almost I need to do like out of necessity. May be even like simple photoshop, may be I learn how to use basics, but if you want me to do anything crazy I can’t do it. You know that kind of things. So same thing with when I have to use sensors in an installation, I study a little bit. But the matter is that I think there is a very specialized, as far as like the way technology has been developed now, everything is very specialized. People do java programming and then they are like “we can only do java programming”. So everything become very specialized. If you talk about sensor, certain people do sensor. I think as an artists working with those kind of technology, for me at this point I really don’t have time to learn everything. But at least what I would learn is to learn to speak the language to communicate. So I understand what sensors can do. But at the same time you can say “Ok if you can do this, can you do this?” You know because I think artists have the imagination to push the technology. So I think most of the time a lot of people who does chemical stuff and engineer stuff, they know everything. But in the collaboration with artists usually they can push around with the challenge. It’s a beautiful collaboration. I always feel good about these kind of collaboration, because you are actually helping each other to push forward.
Working with many people together is like engine. What’s your next projects?
Brandon is still happening until 1999. And may be in the year of 2000 I will do some projests in internet. I am also very interested in designing a sort of electronic space, involving sort of real space, public space, that kind of idea. So I would propably work on the idea. I do have a couple of projects the year of 2000. But right now I would be very happy to just for next year (1999) to finish Brandon and to finish the film and the next for the year 2000. Actually I have a lot of film scripts I’m writing for year 2000 and also set in Tokyo.
Do you know where you are going to be after Tokyo?
Propably I am going back to Amsterdam to finish Brandon. Propably between Amsterdam and New York.
Text: Mariko Takei
Shu Lea Cheang
Once a New York based installation artist/filmmaker/media activist, now a cyberhomesteader managing a digital existence.
Selected works:  “Making News/Making History” ICA (Boston, USA), “Color Schemes” Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, USA).  The Airwaves Project, Capp Street Project (San Francisco, USA).  To Enter, “The Final Frontier Exhibition” The New Museum of Contemporary Art (New York, USA), “Those Fluttering Objects of Desire” Biennial Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, USA).  “Fresh Kill” feature film, premiered at Berlin International Film Festival.  “Fresh Kill” Biennial Exhibition, Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, USA).  “Elephant Cage Butterfly Locker” Atopic Site Exhibition (Tokyo, Japan). [1997-98] “Brandon”, a one-year collaborative web installment project in development with the Guggenheim Museum, SoHo (New York, USA), among others.
In 1997, “Buy One Get One” at NTT/ICC Biennial Exhibition was held, where you experience vicariously wandering Africa and Asia bringing ‘digital lunch box’ on network. It became a permanent exhibition at NTT/ICC.