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Technology Anxiety in a “Zero-Latency” Era: in the Footsteps of CHENG Hsien-Yu’s Assimilator

CHENG Hsien-Yu's solo Exhibition {Assimilator} in C-LAB. Photo courtesy of CHENG Hsien-Yu
machinetechnology Technology Art

Artist CHENG Hsien-Yu has been a longtime observer of technology, human behavior, and the conflicting “symbiosis” between man and machine. His works harness cutting edge specifications while attempting to convey the flow of information from within. In the creative process, he uses popular, current technology as both medium and material to discuss issues revolving around technology. CHENG’s solo exhibition, Assimilator, is on display from June onwards at C-LAB’s Art Space III. The name “Assimilator” is characteristic of the artist’s personal way of taking a phenomenon and changing it into the form of its human practitioners. “Assimilator” indicates the exhibition’s theme of man and machine’s evolution into a complementary, or sometimes subservient relationship of man to his implement.

The exhibition Assimilator follows the different formats of internet broadcasting. While CHENG Hsien-Yu acknowledges the convenience technology brings, he talks about the negative effects it has on people in the form of the anxiety stemming from any nascent technology or social medium. He points out, “ The internet was initially created to serve military or political purposes before crossing into the lives of ordinary citizens via developments in personal computing and human interface devices such as the mouse. The internet also grew from our need to intercommunicate into serving complex social networking and broadcasting desires, and with the advent of 5G networks and satellite infrastructure, it takes us closer to the era of “zero-latency” communications. For me, such appropriation of the internet diminishes its openness and reduces it into a closed intranet. As the internet becomes a platform to serve network celebrities or new media, we discover greater homogeneity between those of a particular locale, and the information within is also seemingly acclimatized or “uniformed” to facilitate consumption.” Viewed this way, CHENG invokes “assimilation” as a term which emphasizes the normalization of the environment and social relationships in a zero-latency era.

CHENG Hsien-Yu, Hijacker:{,}, 2019. Photo courtesy of CHENG Hsien-Yu

CHENG invokes “assimilation” as a term which emphasizes the normalization of the environment and social relationships in a zero-latency era.

The Third Parties and the Intermediary

Consciousness may be the totality of sensory experiences, or an illusion wrought on by the human brain.

The main exhibit, Hijacker:{}, is a continuation of CHENG’s collaborative work with the University of Medical Center Groningen (UMCG) of the Netherlands in 2010 during his second year of graduate school, which was a research project observing brain waves of premature infants. “Because I frequented hospitals, I started to imagine the possibilities of representing brain activity in different ways and what these records would become of. But because neuroimaging results could be interpreted differently due to the placement of electrodes or the segregation techniques of wave forms, despite thorough research I could not complete the work at the time due to the sheer size of the datasets. However, it has since become relatively manageable through the adoption of recent artificial intelligence and data-processing strategies,” says CHENG.

Hijacker:{} is comprised of two sections, one exhibiting the hardware and its systems, the other a computer data analysis of the triple aspects of synthesized contextual sentences, recordings of CHENG’s sleep and dream activities, and abstract imagery. CHENG says, “First I record my brain waves while looking at everyday objects, comparing it against the brain waves in REM sleep and the contents of the dream. Then I create a randomized composition using CocoAPI, which takes images from the internet and sorts corresponding metadata into a keyword database. These works are about the concept of imagination. Whereas in the past people used to listen to others describe their dreams and recreate the imagery in their own minds, Hijacker:{} implements a system to carry out this process, creating a dream realm from a third person’s point of view.”

CHENG Hsien-Yu, Discharge what you charged, 2019. Photo courtesy of CHENG Hsien-Yu

Discharge what you charged, housed in a former military base, deftly mimics the fact of having to surrender one’s cellphone when entering a military base. Once the visitor places a phone into a device as instructed on the platform, it will be enclosed, leaving the phone to completely discharge before the visitor can take it out again. In today’s world where each person’s screen time on a phone increases by the day, the installation attempts to keep the user away from the phone, either through invitation or by force. The anxiety of not being in charge of technology is also reflected in two other works, Invitation and What’s in the middle. Invitation is a work originated in 2016, created by CHENG when he was an artist in residence in Chile. He embeds malicious codes inside a PDF-based e-invitation of the exhibition, which when opened results in the web browser being hijacked, displaying the artwork in the form of a “system infected” pop-up warning until the end of the exhibition. This year, CHENG has created an updated version that allows visitors to email the invitation to themselves or others. What’s in the middle employs a WiFi adapter that listens to every data packet in the vicinity of the exhibition. Once a packet is decoded, a computer processes and exposes its routing history using abstract imagery, tampering with communications in the manner of a man-in-the-middle attack.

These seemingly spiteful and forcibly interactive works project technological anxiety into visible spheres. But in the composite media installation Portrait2020_2011re-edition, it becomes a retrospective of CHENG’s related works since 2010. A mechanical robot that is perceptive to visitors’ actions, cries when nobody is around it. Through the act of “crying behind your back,” it explores the question whether artificially intelligent robots could be emotionally sentient.

Amidst discussions on global information networks and the existential anxiety of human versus technology in the contemporary society, Hong’s Foundation for Education & Culture has awarded CHENG with one million Taiwanese dollars in prize as part of its second Tung Chung Art Award. Chief creative officer Grace CHEUNG says: “We wish to approach technology with an artistic eye, and CHENG Hsien-Yu’s works, which has always been in touch with the society, allow us to be pushed into a realm we couldn’t have imagined before. Through his projects, we discover an approach to discussing such pervasive and inevitable issues related to technology.”

The multifaceted, experimental, and interdisciplinary implications of technology also fit well with C-LAB’s mission in fostering creative ecosystems, finally leading to the realization of this exhibition. Through Assimilator, we grapple with the conflicts and tensions between human-machine interactions, and as we reflect on our anxiety towards technology, the unique characteristics of the exhibition space may as well take us to another level through further intellections and dialogues.

machinetechnology Technology Art
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