Notes and Comments from the Uncertain Future symposium

Uncertain Future: about New Media Art & Games1
4th Edition: Practice

I revisited the new development at Fangjia Hutong, near Yonghegong Temple yesterday, for a fascinating symposium organised by curator Juliette Yuan and Tang Contemporary. Last time I went there it was a building site, but now has become an “Creative Neighbourhood,” in this case a meeting place of fashion and art entrepreneurs. I guess “neighbourhood” projects a more homely feeling than the commerce-heavy “Art Districts” that have become a feature of Beijing’s Cultural quarters over the past few years.

This was the fourth in a series of talks, organised around the subject of New Media and Games, this one focused on “Practice.” But this was not to be just about artistic practice within these fields, but broadening its scope to include curation and collecting as a “practice” of New Media, or perhaps demonstrating New Media in practice. An interesting starting point!

Three speakers were lined up, Du Zhenjun, an artist who favours interactive projections; Richard Castelli, curator and producer of New Media works; and, Sylvain Levy, a collector of works in this genre. At the last minute M. Levy had been unable to come to China, so was present via a choppy skype call which curtailed his presentation to a few sentences before dropping out completely.


The following is based on my notes from the event, I hope that I have reflected the participants views accurately (please correct me if not!), and in Du Zhenjun’s case these were taken from the translated version of his Chinese presentation.

Du Zhenjun began by saying that in general the borders between traditional and new media art are confused in China. He went on to propose a definition of “traditional” as work which was linear. For example, he said, video art is linear, therefore: traditional. For Du randomness and non-linearity is good, incorporating interactivity and the discontinuous state. He stated that in the West too much attention was paid to form for it’s own sake, divorced from meaning, but he felt that the meaning of a piece is closely linked to it’s form, which also should reflect the times we are in.

The curator Richard Castelli focused on pieces that he and his organisation had produced, including performance and dance presented accompanied by projections, or as interactive environments. Other works made use of the lights on buildings to create large-scale displays, 3D presentations, or interactivity using motion tracking.

Upon being questioned about the meaning of some of the works he showed, he was unwilling to provide any—even adamant that he shouldn’t—saying it was his role to facilitate the creation and presentation of the pieces, not to explain them.

Sylvain Levy presented the DSL Collection, which he has put together with his wife Dominique, over the past few years. Although he has been collecting art and design for some 25 years, since 2005 he has focused primarily on Chinese artists. An essential part of the Collection is it’s presence on the internet as a way to make the works accessible, thus proving the Levy’s New Media credentials.


The rest is my own take on the words of the speakers.

One very obvious point of contention which arose, was the issue of the abstraction of form versus any meaning it might have. Du Zhenjun was explicit that he felt it was a requirement for form to have meaning, saying “Form should bear meaning, and also be of its time.” He seemed to have no time for works of art which were pure form, without an inherent meaning. His own works are often laden with subtle or overt meanings which perhaps give them a strength over abstract works.

On the other hand, Richard Castelli was of the opinion that form should take whatever form it needs. As I said, he was extremely reticent over the question of the meaning in the works. Obviously he is not the artist, so cannot give a first-hand account, but you would expect at least an opinion. But Richard was almost ideologically opposed to the idea of giving his questioner satisfaction.

I felt that the examples Richard showed definitely reflected his opinion, they were very much about technical developments,2 3D, stereoscopic vision. In a way, all about augmenting the audience experience of a work, through improved interfaces, advances in interactivity and immersion techniques. So concerned was it with the form of the works, this came across as a diametrically opposing viewpoint to Du Zhenjun’s.

At first it was somewhat frustrating to hear the same old questions about “meaning” being brought up, where there was obviously such an assumption that meaning and form live such separated lives. I would like to think that people could form their own opinions about meaning, without needing to ask such a simplistic question. But Richard’s reticence actually gave me some sympathy for this view. Actually, what is the “meaning” of a building lit up with an abstract synchronised display? This is pure form, a “wow” factor, for me it’s just a pretty display.

These pieces, although they may push boundaries of technology, come across as somewhat sterile “proofs of concept.” They are not discovering anything, they are just subtly, incrementally investigating existing technologies. I felt no inspiration or leaps of creativity, just a (geeky?) joy in technology for it’s own sake. So what’s the point in that?

Although they can be heavy handed, at least Du Zhenjun’s work had some kind of message, an overt meaning which could be related and reacted to, for good or bad. This was not something he suggested, but maybe Du Zhenjun’s focus on meaning would be too simplistic for Richard Castelli. But it seems that in the subtlety of Richard’s examples a social meaning or connection has been lost that no amount of interactivity can regain.

  1. Uncertain Future: about New Media Art & Games
    4th Edition: Practice
    Tang Contemporary Art / DSL Collection / Beijing Oriental Foundation for Art
    A project presented by: 袁小潆 Juliette Yuan
    With contributions from:
    杜震君 Du Zhenjun: Media artist, France/China
    Richard Castelli: Media art producer, curator, founder of Epidemic media art production company, France
    Sylvain Levy: Chairman DSL Collection, France.
  2. In my notes I referred to these, perhaps unfairly as “tricks,” in the sense of ways to fool the spectator into a position of belief. The various 3D technologies, the tracking of eye movements, all these could be seen to be a progression of the development of ever more “realistic” modes of painting during the Renaissance (and beyond). Ultimately for me that means casting a layer over reality which only serves to conceal it more than it already is.