The golden rule of communication studies is that new media is necessarily born of new culture. The artist may have no business in pre-empting these changes, but when it comes to new media in art in practice, the important question lies in the extent to which a work can alter modes of presenting art and perceiving the world—the extent to which it can forge new and different ways of seeing.
Compared with many artists new to the game but working in old media (sculpture, painting, photography), Jeffrey Shaw and Hu Jieming—veterans who work in new media—are known to bring elements of surprise to the art-viewing experience. In this exhibition, they use new media both to reawaken ancient ways of seeing and to endow mere mortals with the possibility of extending the power of sight.
Jeffrey Shaw’s AVIE (Advanced Visualisation and Interaction Environment) series is a “360-degree stereoscopic interactive visualization and audification environment.” Donning 3D glasses, viewers are introduced into an immersive panoptic experience akin to an IMAX. One of the works, Place-Hampi,takes us to the ruins of Vijayanagara, within the village of Hampi, India. The artist and his team edit 360-degree panoramas taken there, and layered these with visual elements from ancient Hindu mythology.
Though this dream world depends on sophisticated new technology, the whole experience is actually just a restoration of ancient human memory. When humans are placed amid natural scenery without the aid of any external device, the naked eye’s first instinct is to look around immediately in every direction. This look-around provides us with a sense of our own power, of our sovereignty. Julius Caesar’s pompous proclamation “Veni, Vidi, Vici” itself seems to imply that he who stands at the centermost vantage point also stands at the center of power. In fact, philosopher Jeremy Bentham, designer of the panopticon, was working with this logic as well—inherent to the dynamic of power is seeing and being seen. Of course, we know that Bentham’s panopticon was meant for prison. He was not concerned with humans in natural scenery, but rather prisoners under surveillance.
Incidentally, Hu Jieming also uses technology to arouse elements of primal human memory. The slight difference is that Hu Jieming’s way of seeing is not a look in all directions, but a kind “peering” in. His work is divided into two parts: Overture and Tai Chi. Overture has already begun showing, and Tai Chi will come next. At the opening for Overture, Hu Jieming unveiled his interpretation of the old Chinese saying “boring a hole in the wall to steal the neighbors’ light”—a saying used to describe a diligent but here interpreted more literally. The artist takes over 800 images and hides them behind a stone wall riddled with holes of varying sizes. Light emanates through these, a gleaming reminder to viewers that there is something truly worth seeing just behind.
The wall is a return to underdeveloped, pre-modern lighting technology, while the audience’s inference of an invisible whole from only its visible parts is an homage to underdeveloped, pre-modern forms of visual information. Unchanging throughout human history has been our relationship to the unknown; we have an insatiable desire to pull back the veil and see. But what separates contemporary from ancient experience is that now, there is no scarcity of visual resources. In fact, there is a crisis of surplus; in this fragmented, flickering onslaught we struggle to capture anything at all. This has paradoxically ignited an intense impulse: the more we are used to seeing, the less we are willing to miss out on. Like someone dying of thirst and attempting to quench it with salt water, our desire only serves to stimulate more and more desire.
The inclination both to look out and to peer in come from the same human yearning: to conquer the center of visual power and bring every single tiny, even imperceptible visual fragment into plain view. These are two of our most ancient impulses, but using new media to awaken them is unmistakably contemporary. After all, isn’t the most popular cultural strategy now to continuously bring the present to bear on the past?