“Cheang does with Internet technologies what Pasolini did with film, and Kathy Acker with literature: turn a medium against itself only to reconnect it with political history and social agency.
In doing so, the post-Internet digital avant-garde, to which Cheang belongs, challenges the aesthetics of Internet global capitalism and the politics of identity construction fueled by social media and exploited by marketing and political control alike.”
Shu Lea Cheang is a prominent Taiwanese-American new media artist and film-maker who is globally regarded as one of the pioneers of internet/new media art. She’s lived and worked around the world, and is currently based in Paris, France. Throughout her career, Cheang has become an illustrious voice within the industry of new media, seamlessly weaving social commentary, aesthetics and technology into thought-provoking visual experiences.
Cheang has exhibited at Walker Art Center (Minneapolis), Guggenheim Museum (New York City), NTT[ICC] (Tokyo), Palais de Tokyo (Paris) and her works are collected by the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum, Guggenheim, among others. Last year, Cheang represented Taiwan as the first female artist from the country with a solo-exhibition at the 58th Venice Biennale.
Before Digital Art
Cheang has been creating and spear-heading mediums of film, electronic, and internet-based art since the 1990s. Interestingly enough, Cheang skipped over the gallery portion of her career and jumped straight into the exhibitions and collections of renowned museums and fine art institutions — a rare feat for most artists. She began her digital art career before the term “digital art” came to fruition, creating large scale, electronic installations that encouraged participation and interaction from viewers. One of her first major art installations, Color Schemes, “a multi-layered discourse on racism and assimilation” was displayed in full form by the Whitney Museum in 1990.
In 1994, Cheang directed her first film, Fresh Kill, a 35 mm analogue experimental feature film, which was an official selection at the 1994 Berlin International Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. This film is notable for its influence and emphasis on hacker subculture, with it’s write-up including one of the first ever uses of the term “hacktivism.” In 1995, Cheang was commissioned by the Walker Art Center to create Bowling Alley, “a cybernetic installation linking 3 public spaces through ISDN lines and digital sensor data”.
The Birth of Net.Art
Cheang’s interest and exploration of electronic mediums continued in the years to follow eventually resulting in her adoption of Net.Art towards the late 90s. Net.Art, or Internet Art, is a reactionary, sometimes anarchic, art form that uses the internet as a medium and means of presentation/communication. The rise of this movement coincided with the technological revolution that had overtaken the world as personal computers, the internet, and a host of other technological tools became accessible to the global population. Internet art is meant to be consumed from a computer screen. Interaction and participatory creation was at the center of this movement, which for the first time allowed for a global connection that before now was not possible.
Cheang recalls her first encounter with Net.Art in 1994 when she experienced Spanish artist Antoni Muntadas, The File Room. Fascinated by the compounding effects and networking possibilities of Internet art, Cheang began creating a number of iconic works within the medium that would remain poignant reminders of the movement’s global impact.
One such historic creation was Brandon, a one year (1998-1999) internet art creation by Cheang which reflects on the tragic story of a young transgender man Brandon Teena through an interactive, multi-faceted web project that encourages investigation surrounding the common notions of gender and sexuality. This artwork marks the Guggenheim Museum’s first ever engagement with Internet art, and as one of the first works of this medium to be commissioned by a major institution, Brandon will be remembered throughout history as a breakthrough moment for the Internet art movement and contemporary art as a whole. In 2017, the Guggenheim Museum digitally restored this artwork as part of their Conserving Computer-Based Art initiative.
The Post Net Crash: A New Era
As the internet and the art inspired and created through it continued to evolve, a new movement of Post Net.Art was introduced to the world. It is thought that the eventual death of what is classically considered Net.Art occurred around 2001 giving birth to the Post Internet Art Era in which Shu Lea Cheang’s work is centered upon today. This era differentiates itself from its predecessor in the way that the internet is utilized in general, which has in turn affected the way it is used to create and present artwork. One major difference that Cheang notes between these two eras is the consumer-centric nature of today’s internet use across channels, as well as the increase in pay-gated material.
For Cheang specifically, an artistic evolution took place as a result of the medium’s transformation. This stylistic transformation can be observed in Cheang’s post millennium projects, such as the BabyLove and BabyWork which explore modern topics and concerns such as genetic cloning. This evolution involves a push towards sci-fi centered artworks which explore ideas that in reality are not so far fetched as many may assume. These ideas are at the center of Cheang’s BioNet creations — A collection of works starting in the 2000s which explore the impact of technology on human health and body.
Your body is your last asset. Everything is going to be within your body, your body is the final frontier. I consider your body to be the network itself.
—Shu Lea Cheang
As the world ventures deeper into unknown vaccines, facial recognition and other forms of biotech, many questions of implications, benefits and losses remain unanswered. Today Cheang’s work aims to explore these ideas and hopefully ignite thoughtful dialogue around what they mean for humans across cultures and socioeconomic levels.
Cheang’s most recent body of work looks deeply at the impacts of technology on the human body and sex. Her sultry sci-fi film I.K.U. which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000 began to explore this notion through the introduction of a product distributed by a mass corporation which controls innate human pleasure. The theme of BioNet has remained a central topic for Cheang with her later film Fluidø, which was screened at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival, continues to address this time 40 years in the future where gender fluid humans have possessed the ability to create a narcotic within their own bodies.
BioNet baby, BioNet blood cell.. and Blockchain
I welcome this innovative blockchain platform for selling art work. It is an experiment in building online digital art lovers’ community
— Shu Lea Cheang
Cheang’s artwork debut on the blockchain (via MakersPlace) carries on the theme and exploration of BioNet. Cheang will be releasing two short films, which are meant to act as teasers to the imminent sequel of I.K.U, that is the inverse UKI, which is a feature film in progress that is set to release in the next few years. UKI has received its development funding from CNC (France) and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2020.
The premise of BioNet Baby, BioNet Blood Cell, and UKI is that a powerful bio-tech corporation has cultivated a bacteria which carries DNA data to enter human blood cells and ultimately modify human forms and behaviors, thus changing and controlling the human race and our visceral interactions. It is a continued exploration of the affects of biotechnology on every aspect of our lives, starting at our innermost core.
Shu Lea Cheang spoke with our Community Manager, Aisha Arif, to discuss her past works, inspiration and the evolution of BioNet.
Check it out below!