Wednesday, December 17, 2008

YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES – Αnna Kafetsi: A conversation

ANNA KAFETSI: Flash poems, visual narratives, textual animations, text movies are some of the numerous terms used on the Internet to refer to your work. These, and other, terms describe in effect a hybrid digital narrativity, on the threshold between electronic pictorial poetry and prose, which incorporates words, sound, motion, using Flash computer software, merges artistic genres, leads language into new, exciting territories of aesthetic experience. You call your works simply “web pieces.” Would a distinction between a visual artist and a poet, like you two, still be meaningful? And how is it manifested in your joint work?

YOUNG-HAE CHANG HEAVY INDUSTRIES: Distinctions are especially meaningful to those who make the distinctions. To us your distinctions are revealing because, quite frankly, we don't spend much time analyzing what we do. Distinctions such as yours give meaning to our work. They complete it. As paradoxical as it may seem, our job is to erase or muddle distinctions -- to create something different, to startle you into seeing the particularities of our work, making sense out of it. Once that's done, we all start over again. We muddle, you un-muddle. It's a great relationship.
We also like to call our work stuff.
Just coincidentally we were invited this fall to make presentations to the "digital writing community" at Yale University, to "language driven" digital artists, professors, and students at Brown University, and to "experimental poets" at Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney Cal Arts Theater), in L.A. -- three different writing networks with less overlap than you might think. Our point in mentioning this is that we were pleased to discover what they were all about, pleased to see how they felt we fit into their ways of looking at things, and pleased that we had never considered ourselves from their respective viewpoints. Pleased to be someone they thought we were and we never considered ourselves to be. Pleased to let them make distinctions about us.
Some people also like to distinguish us as pornographers.

Α.Κ.: Anonymity is an Internet condition, to a large extent adopted also by the artists who create on the web. Corporate names (such as YHCHI), pseudonyms, names or photos that do not correspond to actual persons, multiple identities… The point is that anonymity in all its forms affects the writing and reading process each time. Does it liberate the text from its author, or does it restore the author-reader relationship? What is your point of view as Internet storytellers?

YHCHI: Anonymity is both a shield and a weapon, in any case a provocation. Unpunished criminals are anonymous. Good-deed doers are often anonymous. Throughout history artists have also been anonymous. (But are they criminals or good-deed doers?) Anonymity drives good and evil, both in fact and in fiction. Anonymity conditions then not just the Internet, but life, without which there is no . . . mystery. Anonymity is a whodunit, a status that by definition should only be temporary. For us, this means that under the cloak of mystery we can be other than ourselves. The Internet is a great facilitator of the desire in many of us to be someone else. From there it's a mere question of defining (making distinctions) what an Internet storyteller is -- a not-so-easy definition, for everyone on the Internet is telling stories by sharing information, which is also, as may be in our case, disinformation.
Of course, the storyteller's desire for anonymity and mystery can't exist without the reader's equally strong desire for identification and revelation. In our case, we feel that the less readers know about us, the more they will plunge into our stories and reinvent who we are. They will do us a favor by making us other than ourselves.

Α.Κ.: “In the text, in a way, I desire the author: I need his figure […] as he needs mine,” wrote Roland Barthes in 1973 in “Le Plaisir du Τexte,” following his celebrated 1968 essay “The Death of the Author,” and his view had been regarded as a traditional shift. Today’s Internet reader also seeks the author’s identity, through the use of pseudonyms, and this quest can be a liberating process. Without biographical, racial, sexual, social or cultural stereotypes, which restrict the hermeneutical horizon of the works. In the era of anonymity, the biography of the author – or authors accommodated under the same pseudonym – does not reflect his reality; it turns it into fictional narrative. I cannot find a more brilliant example than your own RESUMAY I on your homepage

YHCHI: Thank you! You're right. What we do is liberating -- for everyone involved. It's one of the perks of the vocation: to be untruthful and irresponsible -- to put it bluntly. And this is ironically what the reader/viewer expects of us. There have always been two essential mysteries to the textual and visual creation: the writer and the writing, the creator and the object created. The virtual reality of the Internet invites the reader to intensify this relationship. The reader wants instant revelation with no responsibility. The writer sees an irreconcilable distance. We feel it. Our desire to connect with the reader is immediately satisfied, yet we've never been further away. This futility leads us to act crazy, much like, relatively speaking, the power of a president to push the button -- the gesture is so small, the target so far away, the explosion so inaudible, yet the results so possibly earth-shattering that you wonder why more people don't do it. Write poetry, that is.

Α.Κ.: In recent years, in addition to your own homepage, in which all of your net works are available, you also exhibit your work in museums, biennials, lectures, as installations with projections or on plasma TVs. Getting out of the internet into actual space certainly brings a web artist out of anonymity and isolation. It moreover entails a different kind of relationship with the reader/spectator, who now has a figure. Is the translation of online works into offline ones and their recontextualization, this in between two conditions or forms, a new creative stimulus for you?

YHCHI: Yes. On the one hand, showing our work offline is a technological regression -- sort of like going from a cell phone to a landline. On the other hand, it accomplishes a major mission of the Internet, which is to bring people together. So although we may be betraying innovation, we're pleased to shut down the computer every now and then and honored to travel to places like Athens to meet people like you.
As for the differences or similarities between our work online and offline, we rarely stop to consider them. We feel it's O.K., even necessary, to try new approaches, especially given the apparent simplicity of our style. In art, size has always mattered. Our online work has always been noteworthy for how it fills up the browser. It's big for the Internet. It's also resizable. So, we tell ourselves, when given the occasion, why not make it really big? Now we have the best of both worlds.
Oh, one other little thing. It's hard to earn a living as an Internet artist. It's all virtual money.

Α.Κ.: Translation, in both its literal and metaphorical sense, is a prevalent element in your digital poetics. A translation not only from one language into another, but also from older art forms, genres, media, practices and semiotics into totally new ones, and vice versa. A fluid sense of the familiar and the unfamiliar at the same time is created in the spectator, which first attracts his attention and then lures him, transfixes him in the world of reading. Would you like to comment on this aesthetic strategy?

YHCHI: Actually, if we have an aesthetic strategy, it's one we tripped over (but don't tell anyone, please). Young-hae's background is artistic, Marc's is literary. At the outset we wanted to reconcile our two vocations on the Internet. Our feeling, er, strategy, was that we would combine two mediocre talents into a synergetic superior talent. We came up with text set to music because before broadband it was hard to download images quickly if at all. By using Flash text and mp3 files we were able to present several-minute-long pieces that downloaded in less than 20 seconds and played full screen on your computer.
Although for most writers one language is enough, since the ethos of the Internet is its world-wide availability, from the very beginning of our collaboration we felt the need to write in several different languages, if only to keep up with other Net artists, whose image-heavy work, if and when it downloaded to your browser, had no problem communicating with the farthest corners of the Web. And to be honest, writers are proud of the number of languages into which their writing has been translated. At last count we've done work in 14 different languages, a tidy sum that only the most successful conventional writers can boast about.
As you so correctly remark, a piece of writing translated into another language carries with it a new culture. That is exciting for us, especially because it's a culture we have no hand in. We get it for nothing, and it's something that turns us into strangers to ourselves. Translation renews us. It's funny, too, like when, in Seoul, we watch a foreign movie dubbed in Korean. We imagine Greeks reading a sequence in our piece The Movies where our two heroes are confronted with an Armenian-Russian taxi driver in Los Angeles -- everyone is speaking Greek. Strange and marvellous.

Α.Κ.: Another equally prevalent element is the speed of reading. You address a reader/spectator who is already accustomed, from the wealth of moving information in his daily reality, to quick, rapid reading, from advertising in the city to online news headers. Faced with your works and trying to follow the story that you narrate at such a fast pace, he lets himself surrender, one might say, to a total contemplation that any narrator would envy. Is that your “trap,” or a “play” in this in a way love relationship, between author and reader? How do you imagine the reader of your stories?

YHCHI: We're learning that not everyone appreciates the speed with which some of our texts move. And we hear them. We've been slowing down our texts considerably. We've also been eliminating a lot of the flashing, which can be annoying, it seems. When we started out, it just seemed natural to speed the text along. Speed in life is intoxicating. Slowness is boring. It seemed like speed was the whole point of streaming media and of a certain philosophy of modernity. But now we see, more and more, it's not. Or rather, it's aesthetically pleasing to alternate fast with slow. During a workshop we were giving this fall at Brown University, a student told us that our work was extremely frustrating for her dyslexic boyfriend. Touched by her comment, we told her we would do something that her boyfriend could enjoy, something slow. We intend to do it.
That said, we think that the ideal reader is someone who is so into the text, into a zone, so to speak, that he or she forgets themselves and are carried by the images and the story, much like when you're transfixed by a good movie. This is not so much "playing" with the reader, we feel, as presenting compelling literature in exactly the same way that more conventional writers do it.
Α.Κ.: It is at precisely this point, I think, that the difference, often noted by commentators of your work, between the hypertextual interactivity of most net art works, which requires the reader to click, and the open character of your fragmentary and, in that sense, non-linear narrative, which mobilizes the reader’s cognitive, perceptual and aesthetic experiences, is annulled. Interactivity takes on many forms. The rich intertextuality due to numerous texts and references crossing in your works is one of them, the most profound one. Serious scholars, such as Jessica Pressman, whose essay is featured in this catalogue, have highlighted such relationships in your works. I would like to ask for your point of view on this.

YHCHI: We think it's fair to ask, even at this early stage in the development of the Internet, what the future of the hypertext is in literature. At the advent of the online hypertext, say around the mid-'90s, some in the literary world supposed that it would quickly become an important way of writing fiction and poetry. Instead, most hypertext fiction and poetry seem like novelty acts. On the other hand, the Internet itself has become an overwhelming success. We read somewhere that in the early '90s the World Wide Web had around 500 users. Less than 15 years later it has become a way of life for countless millions. What stands out then is not the failure of the literary hypertext to catch on, but the desire among all writers to exploit somehow the many other possibilities of transforming their writing on the Internet. This includes us. We initially approached the Web not with the intention of writing hypertext but with a vague idea of creating an audiovisual artwork -- of exploiting the Internet's sound and image ambitions -- that reached a virtually limitless public all the time.

Α.Κ.: Let us remain with the text a little more. As a prose narrative in the form of poetry verse, or vice versa, it uses the traditional semiotics of typography, such as smaller/larger letter size, bold/light, regular/italics, punctuation, and always the same Monaco font using capitals, which is the trademark of your works. The image is the written text, with its specific typographical arrangement on the white computer screen, or in horizontal bands, often in two languages. The playful return to forms of printed language, yet in a way that reverses their original use, is your critical stance vis-à-vis information aesthetics and content on the Internet. Do you agree?

YHCHI: Yes, but by default. Your succinct summary of our aesthetic and poetic style validates a literary precept, that the writer have a voice -- a trademark, as you say. You've mentioned the few basic elements of our voice, which we've found is rich enough to express so much of what we'd like to say. We believe in what we do, but obviously also believe that there is room for every other aesthetic voice and content on the Internet. So in that sense we're not taking a critical stand. What we have noticed, though, is that our "playful" way of writing prose poetry on the Internet is in stark contrast to hypertext fiction. So by default we are challenging hypertext fiction writers to write compelling works.

Α.Κ.: In your works, writing moves in an undefined territory between visual and written. Interrelations with older art forms lead us, besides the more recent visual and concrete poetry, to futurism and the Russian avant-garde, and in this sense to a kind of continuity in the history of art, as established through ruptures, appropriations, crossings and subversions. An effort to redefine poetry and writing in general or to transcend the mere fascination exerted by the new media? Or both?

YHCHI: Both, possibly. Every creative writer tries to redefine writing through his or her work. It's the name of the game. What's interesting about Internet writing is that it's the bastard child of technology. The creators of the Internet probably didn't give much thought to how it would influence literature. But by creating such a rich and ubiquitous medium, it has become irresistible to many creators, including writers. So whereas it's the Machine Age that may have inspired futurism and the Russian avant-garde, say, it's the machines themselves that have inspired new media writers. It's technology itself that is redefining poetry and writing. It's hard to escape that realization, especially when the Internet reader needs a little more know-how than the conventional reader. Our work, both on and off the Internet, minimizes the extra know-how, perhaps because we began writing on the Internet with very little of it ourselves.

Α.Κ.: Various media, new and old, mingle, merge, interpenetrate in order to create the verbal/visual/acoustic entity that is each of your stories. A term widely used today is intermedia. I would like to ask you to comment specifically on the role of music and sound in your works. Also, how the shift from a jazz soundtrack to your electronic music came to be, and what media you use in order to create it?

YHCHI: We think music makes everything better -- or worse. It imbues every experience with an atmosphere, and in its most magical manifestations makes certain experiences memorable. Poetry is often discussed for its musical qualities. Somewhere along the line poetry was accompanied by a lyre -- that may have been in Greece. But how do you maintain the musicality of a translated poem? It's hard. Since we were writing from the beginning in three languages -- English, Korean, French -- we made the simple decision not to worry so much about the musicality of the phrase, all the more so since no one would be reading aloud our writing. Instead, we would add a musical soundtrack -- get back to the beginnings of poetry and exploit the audio component of the Internet.
At first we used other musicians' music -- jazz, just our taste -- but after a while realized that any music, not just famous jazz, even any sound, added an element of complexity and pleasure to a text.
We started to make our own music because the digital age encourages everyone to use technology. So we gave it try. We'd love to make jazz, but we're poor musicians, and jazz is a great art. So we make music on the computer with some loops and some midi, add some acoustic drums (drums are the easiest instrument for untalented musicians), and slap it on to a text. In art, what often counts is not so much virtuosity but difference -- that's originality. If you stick with it, that difference becomes a style, a voice.

Α.Κ.: Your profound relationship with language is demonstrated not only by the multiple appropriations, references and tropisms, especially the metaphor, but, much more, by the subtle irony as a principal stylistic choice, the diverse simulations of style, from which I would not exempt the style of your interviews. The spoken English and slang, which you often employ in your works, give me an impression of assumed lightness, as if trying to conceal a theoretical background and eruditeness. In other words, the opposite of a parody. Am I mistaken?

YHCHI: Uh, no. You're not mistaken, you're right. You're right, because the reader and the viewer are always right. And because -- and this is what's beautiful about our profession -- there is no right or wrong. Everyone is right! All the time! So even if you're wrong, you're right, because no one can prove you wrong. There's no math in art, thank God, just taste -- O.K., so there is some math here and there, and classical Greek architecture demonstrates it. But that's another story. You need no special training to be right about our work.
Are we hiding anything? Oh yeah. Aren't we all? The beauty of the Internet is, to get back to your second question, that you can pretend to be someone you're not. It may seem immature and irresponsible, but then, that's what poetry and art are all about. Society is fascinated by arrogant, egocentric, reckless poets and artists. Under this crust of disagreeableness hides an insecure poet and artist. O.K., so not every poet and artist fits this classic stereotype. It takes a lot of blind energy to go on and on about oneself. There's a reason why these brilliant guys die young. It's an exhausting shtick. Now irony, as you mention, is one way of economizing energy, of giving yourself better odds to make it into old age and avoiding what is obviously that great slayer of contemporary poetry and art -- sincerity. It's hard to be a sincere poet and artist these days. It's hard to attack the things that are important in life today with a straight face.
Does this irony end up as parody? And if yes, of what? Yes it does. It's tough being yourself when you don't like yourself. Look at James Joyce and Ulysses. He turned Dublin into a Greek odyssey. Most of us are glad he did.

Α.Κ.: The three-part work Close Your Eyes, 2008 was a commission by EMST for your first personal exhibition in Greece and is intended to become part of the museum’s collection afterwards. Would you like to talk to us about the work, its stories, the tripartite structure that you favoured, your music, and above all the experience of translation into another language, Greek, which is jointly present in the three-part narrative, along with the English original, the language in which you mainly write?

YHCHI: It's been a pleasure, a unique experience, and an honor to make this work for EMST.

Close Your Eyes is about . . . we're not sure what. As with all our works, we're never sure what we're doing. (That's an easy enough artistic strategy.) We know we're dealing with three experiences that occur in a few days time, in three different, dark corners of the world. We're dealing with darkness -- fear, even terror: you're being held in a small, windowless room -- ever been in one? -- or you're in a taxi that breaks down on a barren stretch of midnight highway, in a strange city -- Los Angeles, or an old Chinese guy is peddling you around in a rickshaw through the dark alleys of a Beijing hutong -- Why, you ask yourself, is this city so dark at night? And it's a certain kind of darkness. It's got the whiff of nothingness. Then it dawns on you: this is the way most people live and have lived forever -- in darkness. We noticed that in all three panels of this triptych you're in transit. We noticed that these days people, ourselves included, perhaps you, too, are going places. We live in privileged times. Places that took adventurers weeks if not months to sail or ride to you're landing at in half a day -- that is, if you get there. Hence, in particular, Close Your Eyes, where some poor guy gets pulled out of line and ends up in a gulag.
We like the triptych structure: one projection on each of the three walls that the visitor sees when entering a space, creating what we hope is an immersive audiovisual environment.
We've synchronized the three pieces to one almost 18-minute-long original music soundtrack, and we hope the music brings as much pleasure to the visitor as do the stories.
We're thrilled to be presenting our first work ever in Greek. We want to extend a special thanks to Christina Rizopoulou, our translator, for digging into our writing. We are sure it wasn't easy and feel she did a great job. As for the Greek version of the Monaco font, it echoes the English version nicely, and we think that's beautiful. For this particular work we made the English subtitles very small, because we like the graphic qualities of Greek capital letters and don't want the Greek viewer to be distracted by the English. We noticed in our first day on the streets of Athens that Greek is systematically translated or phoneticized into a less prominent English. That was our goal, too.
Thank you for giving us this unique opportunity.