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Video still of two long images. They are displayed on top of one another. Each depicts scenes rendered in a 1980’s style video game aesthetic showing people in space suits firing futuristic weapons at one another. A CCCP satellite with a hammer and sickle is visible in the background, as are US spaceships which also feature modules made out of Cola-Cola cans.

From Zen for TV to Touch for Luck, a brief history of new media at M+

While NFTs, blockchains, and phygital installations may be new, digital art has a long history driven by creative experimenters who have always been among the earliest adopters of new technology. From our position in Asia, M+ offers a unique perspective on this history. Significant innovations that intertwine scientific and aesthetic discoveries have happened here, and many others have been informed by global dialogue with Asian traditions. The digital devices manufactured for consumer convenience and capitalist efficiency can also serve artists seeking to explore personal fantasies, provide biting social commentary, exhume forgotten histories, and speculate about the future.

From television to multiplayer video games, and from early videos to advanced AI creations, the M+ Collections can be your guide to understanding the origins of digital art. Here are ten works you can discover at M+ that demonstrate creative uses of new technology:

Sculpture of a television with a brown wooden housing standing vertically on its side against a white background. The controls and speaker feature below the screen, which displays a vertical white line in the centre. A brown cable extends from the television to our left.

Nam June Paik. Zen for TV, 1963/1982. Manipulated CRT television. M+, Hong Kong. © Estate of Nam June Paik

Nam June Paik, Zen for TV, 1963/1982

Known as the ‘grandfather of video art’, Nam June Paik began his career as an avant-garde composer and a member of the international Fluxus movement.

In 1963, Galerie Parnass in Wuppertal, West Germany, held Nam June Paik’s first exhibition, Exposition of Music: Electronic Television. The show included some of Paik’s early experiments with the medium he would explore throughout his career. The artist’s Zen for TV is a television flipped on its side and altered so that picture is compressed into a single line. This minimalist composition may have been inspired by the work of John Cage, whose own austere work was informed by Zen Buddhism.

The artist, Nam June Paik, stands next to a video sculpture made out of a manipulated CRT monitor. A thin white line illuminates the middle of the CRT’s otherwise blank screen.

Nam June Paik. Nam June Paik: Edited for Television, 1975. Single-channel digital video (black and white, colour, sound). M+, Hong Kong. © Nam June Paik/EAI

Paik transformed television—a medium of mass communication—into an opaque device for personal meditation.


Video still of cherry blossoms sprouting from a tree branch. A vibrant blue sky is visible in the background.

Shigeko Kubota. Rock Video: Cherry Blossom, 1986. Single-channel digital video (colour, silent). M+, Hong Kong. © Shigeko Kubota/EAI

Shigeko Kubota, Rock Video: Cherry Blossom, 1986

Among the first artists to experiment with video, Shigeko Kubota pioneered post-production methods that allowed her to fuse natural imagery and organic forms with electronic effects. Active in the 1970s in New York, she collaborated with avant-garde luminaries including John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and Merce Cunningham. Rock Video: Cherry Blossom is a single-channel version of one of Kubota’s signature video installations—precursors to today’s hybrid ‘phygital’ art installations. A serene view of pink cherry blossoms against a bright blue sky is transformed into dynamic, kaleidoscopic patterns. Kubota’s dazzling footage is collaged with video documentation of the original installation, which featured a monitor embedded inside a sculpture that resembles a large rock.


A solitary person stands in a concrete-walled gallery space. A cross, made of five television screens, hangs from the ceiling in a formation reminiscent of a crucifix. The English text on the screen reads ‘OH YEAH!’. The same words are presented in Traditional Chinese text.

YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES. CRUCIFIED TVS—NOT A PRAYER IN HEAVEN (TRADITIONAL CHINESE/CANTONESE/ENGLISH VERSION), 2021. Five-channel video installation. © M+, Hong Kong; Photo: Lok Cheng, M+, Hong Kong

YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES, CRUCIFIED TVS—NOT A PRAYER IN HEAVEN (TRADITIONAL CHINESE/CANTONESE/ENGLISH VERSION), 2021

South Korean artist Young-Hae Chang and American artist Marc Voge are Seoul-based pioneers of net art. The artists formed YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES in 1997, and since then have been producing digital works that maintain a very consistent aesthetic: frenetic text-based animations presented in the ‘Monaco’ typeface, generally synchronised with original music—often jazz—composed by the artists.

TRAVELING TO UTOPIA
TRAVELING TO UTOPIA
3:50

YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES. TRAVELING TO UTOPIA: WITH A BRIEF HISTORY OF TECHNOLOGY (ENGLISH / KOREAN VERSION), 2005. Single-channel digital video. M+, Hong Kong. © YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES

Upending traditional models of ownership in the artworld, YHCHI have published much of their work on their website, yhchang.com, so that anybody with an internet connection can experience it. On view for the M+ opening display, their CRUCIFIED TVS, is a sculpture composed of five screens that display rapid-fire texts inspired by recurring news stories of warfare and civil unrest. The repeated refrain ‘OH YEAH!’ appears as a simple affirmation of life and humanity in the face of adversity. A layered soundtrack of jazz percussion, ethereal chanting, and melodic Chinese strings intensifies the work’s emotional undercurrents.

In late 2016, M+ acquired artist’s proof 2 of 2 of the entire body of work of the artist duo YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES. This trove includes not just editions of everything that they’ve ever exhibited or published since the late 1990s, but also their drafts, unrealised projects, and translated works.

A piece of paper lies on a bright yellow envelope. The entire paper has been cut in half, with only one half present in the photo. The words YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES presents UPDATE NO-[cut off] to YHCHANG.COM/-[cut off] June 2018 have been cut off in the middle. Underneath are the words 50% of certificate of authenticity: Must fit with other 50%.

50% of the certificate of authenticity received by M+. The other 50% sits with YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES

In addition, for as long as the artists make new work and present their projects internationally, M+ will receive editions of everything the duo makes.


Two video stills are presented side by side. The first depicts a bridge in low light viewed from a high vantage. The traffic lanes are filled with blurred cars illuminated by a solitary streetlight. A large body of water is visible in the background. The second video still depicts a bridge in low light viewed from a high vantage. The scene is blurred, except for a bus that remains in focus. A large body of water is visible in the background. A streetlight can be made out, though its light trails across the top of the frame.

Ellen Pau's. Recycling Cinema, 1998. Single-channel video projection installation; 8mm film transferred to digital video (colour, sound), armchairs and table. M+, Hong Kong. © This edition of work is produced and archived in Videotage Media Art Collection

Ellen Pau, Recycling Cinema, 1998

Hong Kong has been a centre of new media experimentation for decades, and artist Ellen Pau has been an influential figure in the movement since long before ‘STEAM’ became a byword. Composed of footage of a coastal highway in Hong Kong, Pau’s Recycling Cinema was filmed from the rooftop of an office in the city’s North Point neighbourhood that also serves as the home base for Videotage, a new media art institution Pau founded in 1986. Horizontal pans capture the flow of traffic on the highway while, in other sequences, the lights of Hong Kong appear superimposed over footage shot while driving. Pau has shown the work as an installation with the images cast on a curved screen from a projector that moves back and forth. The result is an aesthetic of surveillance that forms a complex, unpredictable rhythm through the movement of vehicles, the camera, and the projector. Trained as radiographer and self-taught as a video artist, Pau is influenced by science and technology. Her early videos explore that nature and possibilities of the medium while reflecting on issues such as gender and identity, with an ever-present anxiety about Hong Kong’s future.


Installation consisting of a miniature monitor mounted on a wall. The monitor shows a video of a basketball hovering in the air.

Paul Pfeiffer. John 3:16, 2000. Single-channel digital video (colour, silent), LCD monitor and metal armature. M+, Hong Kong. © Paul Pfeiffer; Photo: Lok Cheng, M+, Hong Kong

Paul Pfeiffer, John 3:16, 2000

A basketball appears to hover in the centre of the screen, one of the few clearly defined objects amid a succession of images so rapid that hands, bodies, and crowds of spectators go by in a blur. To create John 3:16, Paul Pfeiffer manipulated five thousand digital frames from the archives of the National Basketball Association. Such meticulous editing is central to Pfeiffer’s process. He creates videos, sculptures, and photographs that probe the relationship between image-making and reality. Pfeiffer often incorporates audio-visual equipment in his work as sculptural components. John 3:16 is presented on a miniature monitor and mounted on a wall, obliging the viewer to approach the screen for an experience of intimate contemplation and reminiscence of that offered by Zen for TV—Paik’s line now transformed a digital-video orb.


Two video stills are presented side by side. The first video still depicts a 3D-rendered fluorescent green baby floating in front of a black screen. An image of a male boy, or man, is reflected in the same post as the baby. We cannot see the reflection's head. The second video still depicts a 3D-rendered man holding his arms out wide. His face is one of anger. A microphone is on a podium in front of the man.

Zhou Xiaohu. Channels of Socket Live, 2003. Single-channel digital video (colour, sound). M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation. © Zhou Xiaohu

Zhou Xiaohu, Channels of Socket Live, 2003

A leading figure in digital art in China, Zhou Xiaohu began experimenting with computers, gaming software, and animation in the 1990s. Made in 2003, Channels of Socket Live reads as a commentary on techno-capitalism. Babies grow alongside skyscrapers, only to be entrapped within the buildings despite the vast space they ostensibly afford. Zhou creates a myopic world: apartment exteriors draw us into cell-like spaces inhabited by humans who stare at television and computer screens. Figures who seem to lack agency are subjected to the buildings in which they live and the media they consume. Even with such a critical worldview, Zhou instils his characteristic irony into the piece through novel applications of colour. While the narrative resonates with our contemporary condition, the vivid neon colours suggest a (dystopian) fantasy.


Unbox M+: RMB City
Unbox M+: RMB City
4:37

Curator Pi Li and conservator David Smith unbox the offline version of Cao Fei’s RMB City, a virtual world that originated on the platform Second Life, and discuss the challenges of collecting an artwork meant to be played live and online

Video Transcript

PI LI: Hey, David. I think I know this work.

DAVID SMITH: Yeah. This is the offline version of RMB City.

DAVID SMITH: This is China Tracy. So we can fly around.

PI LI: Wow. Great. Don't jump . . . jump.

DAVID SMITH: Oh. I mean, you can fly. It's okay.

PI LI: Hi. My name is Pi Li. I'm Sigg Senior Curator and Head of Curatorial Affairs of M+.

DAVID SMITH: Hi. My name is David Smith. I'm the Conservator for Digital and Media Art here at M+.

PI LI: David, I feel very happy to see the RMB City again here. I haven't seen the work for many years. This is a work by Cao Fei, a Chinese artist, and she created this work in 2008, the year when Beijing hosted the Olympics. Basically, she invented the whole city. The work is talking about the city, urbanisation, and how people are dealing with this kind of massive, rapid urbanisation in the computer game called Second Life.

DAVID SMITH: Yeah. So, Second Life was a really interesting project. It's still going. It was popular into the kind of 2000s and was one of the first really kind of mass simulations where it was less about a game having a beginning, a middle, and an end, and action elements or narrative elements, but it was kind of open and free and you could do basically whatever you wanted.

PI LI: The whole point for the work is that people can really hang around in this cyber city, and people can meet the other people who play the game. I think Cao Fei spent like four or five years on the internet to build up every part of the city and also invited art people, creators, and artist friends to come to RMB City to play with, to dialogue over. It was quite popular since then. A few of the internet games have been updated so fast, so after 2011, it seems like the whole Second Life game became a little bit quiet.

DAVID SMITH: Yeah. Over time, the internet evolves very, very quickly, and although there are lots of efforts to try and archive parts of the internet and catalogue and log things, there is a huge amount of loss. Like a lot of our digital and time-based media works, it came on a series of hard disks and flash drives, so we’ve migrated those into our digital preservation infrastructure. And as computers get more advanced, what we'll actually have to do is look at emulating the entire computer operating system and then render this version of RMB City within that emulated operating system. It sounds quite complicated, but it's actually one of the digital preservation routes that's available to us.

PI LI: Yeah. For me, it's quite poetic. It's like you're hiding into an abandoned city, like you walk into the Pompei by yourself. So on that level, it's quite interesting. Whenever you use a very classic media or use such a higher . . . like an internet media, the art is always dealing [with] this kind of the time, the concept of time in a very unexpected way.

PI LI: You know, many people had a party here many years ago.

DAVID SMITH: Did you visit yourself?

PI LI: I visited once in a wild Friday night.

PI LI: Virtually dancing, drinking, chatting, hanging around with other people.

PI LI: After many years, I still think that this is a very crazy project. I mean, when Cao Fei decided to make this work on the Second Life and Dr Uli Sigg, a Swiss collector, supported her to make this project, and he also collected the work.

DAVID SMITH: Was he the first mayor of RMB City? Or . . .

PI LI: Yeah. He was the mayor of the RMB City.

DAVID SMITH: So, yeah. So it's really nice that he's the person who's donated a kind of virtual copy of it to us.

PI LI: They created something that does not exist. They collect something that does not really physically exist.

PI LI: And then they donate it to M+ and then we have to find a way to make that more tangible.

Cao Fei, RMB City, 2007–2011

Cao Fei’s fantastical, topsy-turvy metropolis RMB CITY was built in Second Life, a pre-Metaverse online platform that allowed users to buy and trade objects, build urban structures, and interact using avatars.

Produced on the eve of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the pioneering digital artwork presents a heterotopia of urban China—a world within a world that mirrors but also subverts its reference. ‘I wanted to create a modern Chinese city that was dynamic and full of energy in this digital world’, the artist said. RMB City’s mishmash of socialist and capitalist landmarks, all rendered in lurid pastels and neons, includes factories belching smoke over the CCTV Headquarters designed by OMA, the Three Gorges Dam flooding Tiananmen Square, and a rusted-out Beijing National Stadium sinking ominously into the sea.

Screen capture from the online world 'Second Life'. In a calm blue sea a small island is clogged with modern skyscrapers and futuristic buildings.

Cao Fei. RMB City, 2007–2011. Videos, video games, digital image files, website, print publications, plastic helmet and shovel, stainless steel logo, and fabric flag. M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation. © Cao Fei

The project opened to the public in 2009 and remained active for two years, hosting visitors from the international art world who attended exhibitions, performances, nude avatar pageants, and even the spectacle of the inauguration of Dr Uli Sigg—donor of the M+ Sigg Collection—as mayor.


Video still of two long images. They are displayed on top of one another. Each depicts scenes rendered in a 1980’s style video game aesthetic showing people in space suits firing futuristic weapons at one another. A character with a red star on its head fights soldiers in one image. At the same time, a zoomed-out version of the same scene is visible below. It resembles a platform game. The Statue of Liberty is visible as background art behind the scene. Tanks and cans of soda litter the game's stage.

Feng Mengbo. Long March: Restart, 2010. Computer game projection (colour, sound). M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation. © Feng Mengbo

Feng Mengbo, Long March: Restart, 2010

This large-scale, Nintendo-like, side-scrolling video game recasts the history of modern China, documenting the Long March that led to the ascent of Mao Zedong and the Communist Red Army in 1935. The work takes images from classic 1980s video games, such as Street Fighters and Super Mario Bros., and turns the capitalist icon of a Coca-Cola can into a weapon in the game. Inside this immersive installation, viewers can use a wireless controller to direct a digitised Red Army solider to combat obstacles while navigating across China at different stages of the game. Long March: Restart offers a backwards glance at video games within the history of global visual culture.


Computer animated still depicting a square grassy island at sunset. Several shapes covered in white fabric covered in logos of companies such as Facebook and Uber are strewn across the island. A white fan is visible under one of these fabrics.

Miao Ying. Hardcore Digital Detox, 2018. © Miao Ying

Miao Ying, Hard Core Digital Detox, 2018

The first of M+’s online digital commissions, Hardcore Digital Detox by Miao Ying is a playful reflection on both the World Wide Web and the heavily restricted Chinese internet, known as ‘Chinternet’. The piece navigates these two spaces simultaneously, pitting mainstream internet users against Chinese censors by playfully instructing users to set their virtual private network (VPN) to mainland China, where the popular apps that dominate the rest of the world are blocked. Far from seeing the restricted internet as a deficiency, Miao’s self-diagnosed Chinternet Stockholm syndrome celebrates the ingenuity, humour, and intelligence of Chinese internet users, and the rich visual culture they have cultivated behind the firewall. Hardcore Digital Detox presents itself as a Strategic Lifestyle Advice tool with the seemingly illogical premise of offering an online retreat from the digital world. The work parodies the widespread commodification of ‘wellness’ in Western societies, as well as the growing demand among affluent consumers for post-materialist experiences rooted in authenticity and nature—the kind that makes for perfect Instagram posts.


A moving image artwork made up of eighteen screens on display in a white-walled gallery space. An animation on the screens depicts a bright red snake-like creature with thorns. Small objects seem to float in the air and fall around the creature. Two people stand in front of the screen and view the work. One of them holds a smartphone in their hand.

Ian Cheng. BOB (Bag of Beliefs), 2018—19. Digital simulation (colour, sound). M+, Hong Kong. © Ian Cheng

Ian Cheng, BOB (Bag of Beliefs), 2018-19

Ian Cheng creates computer-generated artworks that mutate and evolve. His interests in video game design and cognitive science come together with BOB (Bag of Beliefs). Resembling at times a snake, a caterpillar, or a dragon, BOB is a sentient creature who lives inside a set of screens—a sort of digital terrarium. BOB responds to directives and actions from the audience. To interact with BOB, visitors download a smartphone app that acts as a shrine, allowing them to send charms and instructions to BOB with charms that can be sent along with instructions.

Let us introduce you to BOB. He is our first and only life-form to inhabit the M+ galleries. An invention of artist Ian Cheng, BOB (short for Bag of Beliefs) is an example of an artist using digital technologies and software to power their work

Onscreen, the creature moves and jumps to grab the different charms offered by viewers. As BOB responds and reacts to these directives, this behaviour evolves and changes, a process that continues even when the museum is closed. Cheng uses forms of artificial intelligence and machine learning so that BOB’s actions are not fully predictable. This technological creature serves as a point of departure for understanding the human capacity for change. Cheng also explores the idea of creating a holistic world that starts preprogrammed and then goes in its own direction, walking the line between chaos and order.


Studio Moniker on ‘Touch for Luck’
Studio Moniker on ‘Touch for Luck’
8:44

Created by the Amsterdam-based interaction media and design studio Moniker, Touch for Luck explores the lure of social media and the physical and psychological costs of staying perpetually online. 'Disconnection itself has become an elite privilege,' according to the artist.

Moniker, Touch for Luck, 2021

Touch for Luck is an interactive digital work that reflects our collaborative online presence and the mechanics of social platforms designed to hook you to the screen through a game. Staged on the M+ Facade, the luck-packed pond of fish connects you to your phone and allows you to join up with others who are touching their own screens simultaneously. Touch for Luck brings a mesmerising experience and probes into the absurdity and problems of touch-fuelled online interactions. Created by the Amsterdam-based interaction media and design studio Moniker, Touch for Luck explores the lure of social media and the physical and psychological costs of staying perpetually online. 'Disconnection itself has become an elite privilege,' according to the artists.

Image at top: Feng Mengbo. Long March: Restart, 2010. Computer game projection (colour, sound). M+ Sigg Collection, Hong Kong. By donation © Feng Mengbo

Texts in this article referring to Ellen Pau’s Recycling Cinema, and Cao Fei’s RMB City, are derived from the artists’ entries written by CT Li and Ulanda Blair, respectively, in the M+ Collections Highlights book, available from the M+ Shop.

M+ Members

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M+ Membership benefits list updated in November 2022

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