Xiaolei TIAN 田晓磊
The words “fragility” and “collapse” are often reflected in Xiaolei TIAN’s work, specifically, the sense of vulnerability and crisis that threatens to collapse. For him, the pandemic is the result of a chain of events, similar to a cascading reaction. No one realised at first that the virus would be so radioactive and that it would also lead to the interruption of all activities throughout society. Restrictions appear from country to country, people to people, and eventually, all life was messed up.
The astronaut is a symbol of man’s exploration of himself or a human figure cultivated by the spirit of science. He is constantly exploring new planets, and when he gets to the next one, it becomes a ball light in a ballroom, but it slowly blows up like a self-cracking explosion. And when he goes to the next one, the last one is restored, and man is like a locust, passing and exploring one by one.
Even though they are dancing wildly, those two have started to take on distorted and dead features, and the background has changed from a starry sky to a blue screen, reflecting a kind of revelry before the reboot.
Xiaolei TIAN: Young Chinese artist, a pioneering force in Chinese new media art
“The post-pandemic era may accelerate the arrival of the post-human era; the pandemic is actually accelerating the speed of man’s incubation in the virtual world, as well as man’s dependence on the internet, while also moving further towards a world like cyberpunk. In general, man is actually getting more comfortable with the evolution of machines and technology, and at the same time they are cycling faster and faster on man.”
The names are abbreviated as “Jackie”(Jackie GAO) and “TIAN”(Xiaolei TIAN)
Jackie: As R-Lab is an organisation that explores the transformation and changes in Art during the pandemic, so our discussion will focus on the potential discourse that the pandemic provides for the transformation of art.
First, have there been any changes in your life and work since the outbreak that have impacted you?
TIAN: At the beginning it was very intense, but now I feel it has become very easier in Beijing, apart from that, sometimes, we still wear masks when going into public places.
However, when the pandemic first broke out, the feeling of change was very noticeable, as if there was tension around us all the time. The city management also tended to be stricter and more closed off. Whenever we went to some places, we needed to have proof of access and went through many checks which inevitably created more stress for us.
This change has affected all aspects of society, the main impact was about traveling, and we all had to take activities indoors mostly. Everyone was like an island, seeking information with the outside world, and the only option had become the internet and our phones.
Jackie: Right, we must be more proactive in order to connect with people.
TIAN: Exactly. I think it is the same all over the world. During the pandemic, people’s emotions became negative, so we just had to go through such a lonely period. I was one who adapted quickly and was not too sensitive to this change. Then, I have made good use of this period because I was used to being alone, so instead I felt that I suddenly have plenty of time without so much strife.
Jackie: Agreed, it needed to take a process and it might be negative at first.
Jackie: Then after the pandemic, do you think your perception of art has changed compared to before? Like the focus of your Art creating or enjoying art.
TIAN: I think the key words I am thinking about now are “fragility” and “collapse”. This may also be reflected in my work, specifically, the fragility of the status quo and the sense of crisis that there is a possibility of collapse. As the pandemic caused a series of events triggered by a single event, it is like a chain reaction. It was not acknowledged at the beginning that it would be so destructive, even leading to a state of almost stagnation throughout society. There were all sorts of restrictions between regions and between people, and eventually everything just went haywire.
It is as if our current situation cannot withstand any fluctuations, and a problem of any aspects could bring the whole society to a status of standstill. This vulnerability was much stronger than we thought. A problem in one area seemed to mean the whole world went wrong in an interconnected way. It felt like the current world order was not actually very solid, it only appeared stable on the surface, and it could not adapt to the change as quickly as we thought; like a wound, it takes a long time to heal, and its pain is global and continuous. So, I might rethink some of the topics about the sense of vulnerability, or the instability, etc.
Jackie: Yes, these two words are very concrete, and they are reflected in your work. In fact, I have noticed that you have used some visual expressions in many of your works, such as the LED gallery in Hangzhou, the ‘specimen form appeared on the flat screen’ presentation in Posthuman Zoo, and the ‘screen formalin’ concept. I think the concept of “screen formalin” is very clever, so how did you come up with the idea of using this kind of presentation? Do these works have a reflective effect on the context of the pandemic?
TIAN: Actually, those works started as an attempt to do it inside a box, to create the screen itself as a space. I think that was a little proposition I gave myself or a little restriction. It was a spatial restriction so that it would be better organised. From a formalism point of view, I focus more on the spatial relationship of the content, that is, the relationship between the content itself and the container. Later, I felt that this was making patterns, so I created some of these imaginary patterns that I imagined to be related to post-humanism. Of course, it is a long-term project that will probably take a few years to develop and refine, and eventually it will become a series. And it will all be displayed side by side, probably in many boxes, each with a different object in it, and eventually it will be displayed like a museum and could be collected on screen.
Jackie: I think this is a particularly great concept because including the ‘screen formalin’, which you mentioned earlier is a developing concept, which has porosity. What is also interesting is that long before the outbreak you proposed this concept, but once again when you look at it through the lens of the pandemic, its meaning has changed. I think this point also proves that the work does have an extensibility about it and a kind of prophetic quality too.
TIAN: Actually, I am better at working on the computer, which probably allows me to be more open and flexible than I would be. Because there are a lot of specific constraints, such as materials, costs, space, and time, and even a lot of mechanical or other specific problems, but on the computer, these are not really problems. In the future, it could be made into VR — VR is already being done, wearing 3D glasses, the world would be real, it’s like we are looking at exhibitions in a virtual museum, so the experience could be better.
Jackie: Right, so do you think the concept of ‘screen formalin’, is there some overlay or overlap of context between this concept and the pandemic?
TIAN: The pandemic has catalysed the fulfillment of the concept.
Jackie: As an audience, from my point of view, the pandemic is a continuation of the concept of this series of works. You just said that the pandemic is akin to a push for the fulfilment of these ideas, which I think is indicative of the prophetic nature of the post-human perspective of this work, the pandemic is akin to a validation, which is also interesting.
TIAN: Yes, the audiences are free to make associations. Although they might have different perspectives to what the artist initially thought, however, it is very normal and the artist would like the audiences to do so, to have various interpretations.
Jackie: It is. I think that is also one of the charms of art. Therefore, it has brought a lot of changes due to the pandemic, so what might be the most impressive change that the pandemic has imparted on the art world?
TIAN: I think it is the fact that there are more artworks online, or that people have a stronger desire to showcase it. It used to seem like people were a bit secretive and would not always post their ideas on public platforms. But then I found that people were trying to promote themselves in every way possible. However, there is probably so much information on the internet that even if you do speak up, you might not always be noticed. People only have a limited attention span and most of their attention was taken up by those platforms who have a way of knowing what could get people’s attention, even if it’s not necessarily what they really want or like. At the same time, because of the lockdown, there were more online exhibitions.
Jackie: That is right, you have been very specific about the profound shifts in the Art world. So, let us go back to your work. I have seen some short videos on your Weibo account, such as Before the Reboot and the Mythology series, which have some astronaut and planet elements in them. What are your thoughts on applying these elements in a post-human context?
TIAN: These astronauts relate to the stability, fragility, and collapse that we just talked about. In The Thrill of Stability, for example, the astronaut actually symbolises a human exploration of himself, or an image of a human being cultivated by the spirit of science. He is constantly exploring new planets, and as he goes onto a planet, that planet would become a ball light in a ballroom, and then slowly collapse and blow itself up, and as he is walking towards the next one, the last one resume, which could give a feeling of a human being as like the locust, going from a planet to another for plundering.
That is also what Before the Reboot is about. They are having a carnival dance, but the man has started to take on a distorted and deadly character, and the background has changed from a starry sky to a blue screen, a sense of one last carnival before the end. That is how I interpret it, but audiences may see it differently.
Jackie: I think this is also a wonderful piece of work. And as an artist who mainly works in the field of new media art, what do you think is the relationship between Technology and Art?
TIAN: Technology and Art are closely linked. Historically speaking, technology and art are one and the same, but I think it is basically technology that drives art. Because art is only beneficial if people are well fed and clothed. Like the technological revolution, which invented so many technologies that are particularly useful for life, such as CT, and technology has in turn contributed to the development of art, rather than art contributing to the invention of technology. Because art does not have that much objective energy, it’s the economy that’s behind the technology, and the economy drives the technology, and then the technology drives the whole society from all aspects.
田：科技和艺术我认为是紧密连接在一起的。从历史上来说，科技与艺术是一体的，但我觉得基本上是科技在推动艺术的发展。 因为艺术其实是在人们丰衣足食的前提下才能体现出它的益处。 所以这就像科技革命，它发明了好多对生活来说特别有用的科技，比如CT。科技反向促进了艺术的发展，而不是说艺术促进了科技的发明。因为艺术并没有这么大的物质能量，科技的背后是经济，经济推动了科技，然后科技带动了整个社会各种层面的运转。
In fact, from the invention of pigments to the computer, the Internet, including VR and artificial intelligence, all these inventions have been promoting art and finding new possibilities for it. Some of them are material, some are directly conceptual. In fact, art and technology are one and the same, but technology comes first, and art comes second.
Jackie: Well, yes, the economic base determines the superstructure. Then we come to the next question, the concept of the post-pandemic era was proposed in a way that overlaps with the context of the post-human era that you proposed earlier, can you talk about what would be potentially illuminating about the post-human era for what we call the post-pandemic era?
TIAN: I think the post-pandemic would accelerate the post-human era because the pandemic is accelerating the rate at which people are incubating in the virtual world, people are becoming more dependent on the internet, and we are taking a step further towards a cyberpunk-like world. In general, man has become more and more adapted to machines, to the evolution of technology, and conversely man has become more and more updated to them. There is a heavy dependence on technology, especially in some big cities, people there has reached an unrealistic level of dependence on technology. It is as if people are handicapped once they have been removed from certain technologies. For example, if you do not have navigation app on your mobile phone, you may not even know where you are driving. The use of the Internet for express delivery, ordering food, having fun, etc. has also increased our dependence on it. So, I think people would probably be happier in the virtual world, and this process may last for a few hundred years. As the technology becomes more and more mature, people will spend more time in the virtual world than, for example, gaming time now feels like a lot, as well as brushing Jitterbug or some other social media software. Excitement and entertainment, this is the next direction. People’s time has slowly been taken over by some technology, so I think the pandemic is a kind of acceleration, I guess.
田：我觉得后疫情会加速后人类时代的到来，因为疫情其实是在加速人在虚拟世界的孵化速度，人对互联网的依赖更强烈了，我们也向类似于赛博朋克的世界更进了一步。总的来说，人对机器，科技的进化变得越来越适应了，反过来说人对它们的更新换代也越来越快了。人对技术有严重的依赖，尤其在一些大城市里，人对科技的依赖程度已经到达不太现实的程度了。好像人一旦脱离了一些技术，就像残疾人一样了。 比如，手机上如果不安装导航软件，可能开车都不知道向哪里行驶。还有互联网对一些快递，订餐，玩乐等这些生活中的技术运用，也加强了我们对它的依赖。所以我觉得人可能在虚拟世界会更快乐，这个过程其实可能会持续个几百年，随着技术发展越来越成熟，大家在虚拟世界里面的时间会比在现实中更多，比如说游戏时间现在感觉就会花上很多，还有刷抖音或者一些其他社交媒体软件，再下一步就是戴上VR眼镜，在另一个世界中沉浸，去寻找刺激和娱乐，这个肯定是下一个方向。 人的时间其实慢慢已经被一些科技给占领了，所以我觉得疫情是一种加速吧。
Jackie: According to what you have just said, technology might gradually take over our physical world and art world. Do you think this form of online art exhibition may gradually become mainstream in the future or even replace the physical art exhibitions completely?
TIAN: It is impossible to replace the physical ones, because people have not lived completely online yet after all, and it’s only when they live completely online that offline is likely to be replaced. Exhibitions could become like games, where you could interact on your mobile phone, but right now we have not seen any exhibitions that are interactive enough to attract people, so there are still no big surprises comparing with physical exhibitions. A well-done online exhibition could complete the exhibition in the process of playing it, rather than still being a simple viewing experience.
Jackie: It is saying that the development of online exhibitions is not very mature now, isn’t it?
TIAN: Yes, but I rarely see physical exhibitions now. It depends on who the audience is. For young people, they have a demand to go to physical exhibitions, for dating or socialising. They must be the main audience for physical exhibitions. However, the cost of physical exhibitions is relatively higher, mainly in terms of time. For example, if you are busy at work, the time cost of watching a film on your mobile phone is different from watching a film in the cinema. In the latter case you must spend several hours, or even half an hour preparing before leaving home. So now the exhibition must be attractive enough and famous enough or have a following to go and attract people. Otherwise, it is satisfied for people to go through exhibitions online.
Jackie: Yes. There was some discussion about technology pushing art forward, could you talk about the impact this has on the future of the art industry? And how might this affect your future work?
TIAN: In fact, the combination of technology and art in China is quite hot right now. Because to some extent, art has fallen into a big dilemma, so it needs technology to give it a new breakthrough. Firstly, there is a lot of potential for technology, because it appeals to young people and it is easy to create a buzz, and secondly, commerce likes it, for example, many shopping malls and advertisers would like to incorporate new technologies into art in their exhibitions. In China, the combination of technology and art has been very popular in recent years.
But I think artificial intelligence would be the thing most interesting in future. I think that artificial intelligence and mechanics could be combined with more virtual things. We could find a lot of potential directions in this area, and it will be interesting to see how each direction could be promoted. There is no direction that is better or more futuristic, so I think the state of technology now is that it is full of the possibility to be explored and rediscovered. Because there is no breakthrough in basic theory right now, it needs a process of accumulation, and there is a rhythm of quantitative change producing qualitative change. So, I think there is going to be a slow mix of technologies, there is going to be a lot of subdivision of new ways to play. I think it is going to be very great.
Jackie: This reminds me of your previous work in which you mentioned that technology has a life of its own. Do you have an idea or thought about this?
TIAN: Technology itself is like a kind of life. Kevin Kelly wrote a trilogy that is actually talking about this. People are nurturing technology into life and trying in various fields to make artificial intelligence become like a life form, for example, it can control itself, make itself, and then he also wants it to be conscious at the end, in fact, they are all working on this. I think that after continuous experimentation, once the direction of evolution is determined, it will evolve successfully. It is just a matter of time because human beings have evolved over a long period of time. However, this is just a natural and slow evolution, but the time it took for man to cultivate technology was actually very short, and perhaps in another 1,000 years, this could break through even faster. It is giving a sense that human is cultivating a strong and powerful life from the point of view of the evolution of living things.
田：科技它本身就像一种生命。凯文·凯利写的三部曲，其实就在说这个事。人是在培育技术变成生命，人会在各种领域的尝试让人工智能变得像个生命体，比如它能控制自己，制造自己，然后他最后还想它有意识，其实都在这方面去努力。 但我觉得经过不断的实验，其实演化的方向一旦确定的话，他一定能演化成功的。我觉得只不过是时间长短的问题，因为人类的演变也经过了漫长的时间。这个只是自然的缓慢的演化，但是人培育科技的时间在很短的时间内就有了这种雏形了，或许再过1000年的时间，可能这个会突破的更快。 这是从生物的演化的角度来说，人在培育一个强而有力的生命的感觉。
Jackie: This is a brand-new point of view.
TIAN: All of these points are actually mentioned in Kevin Kelly’s book, which I do prefer, and some of them I’ve put it out in another way in my work.
Jackie: Exactly, I could feel your self-interpretation in your work. So that concludes our interview for today, thank you for sharing.
Host: Jiaqi GAO
Contact Person: Ifance FAN, Christy YANG
Planner: Christy YANG
Text: Ifance FAN, Christy YANG
Translator: Jiaqi GAO
Proofreading: Calum BAIRD