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:
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.
Paik transformed television—a medium of mass communication—into an opaque device for personal meditation.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cao Fei, RMB City, 2007–2011
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.