- Shu Lea Cheang: Hi-Tech Aborigine
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Reevaluating the notions of “interactive,” New York City based media artist Shu Lea Cheang moves her collaborative technological hybrids to the controversial frontiers of cyberspace. Cheang’s strategies for the construction of participatory media developed, in part, through her involvement in the 1980s with the grassroots alternative news media, Paper Tiger TV.
Engineering textual and visual material generated by artists and activists, Cheang’s collaborative installation The Air Waves Project (1991) forces viewer participation. While watching Peter Jennings’s reported newscasts on the lost H-bomb in the Pacific Ocean, viewers were able to tug on suspended binnoculars. This would trigger the installation to disrupt an image of an ever-travelling garbage barge, and replace it with alternative, environmental issue “stories” culled from twenty Bay Area activists organizations and individuals. Her feature film, Fresh Kill (1994) confronts eco-racism in a channel-switching culture. In the world Cheang presents, alternative communities battle the elite mass media over control of information and unchecked environmental contamination. [End Page 3]
Her multi-media installation works combine issues of culture/counter-culture, power, and control. In Color Schemes (1990), video monitors inside coin-operated washing machines spin tales of race assimilation. The 1993 Whitney Biennial installation, Those Fluttering Objects of Desire (1992), recounts twenty-five women artists’ tales of postcolonial interracial desire through reconstructed red phones, appropriating the 900-phonesex and 25-cent-per-peep pornography apparatus.
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In Cheang’s latest work, Bowling Alley —a cybernetic installation linking the Walker Art Center’s Gallery 7, Bryan-Lake Bowl community bowling alley, and the World Wide Web—issues of interruption, desire, access, and power collide. Actual bowlers at Bryant-Lake Bowl causes a shift in the laser-disk projected video portraits of the ten collaborating artists, making their images and written texts clash. The e-mail correspondences between Cheang and the artists are also accessed and distorted by cybernetic bowlers, depending on “strike” or “spare” scores. Limitless participatory identities in flux resonate without form or time in this cyberspace. Throughout the wide-ranging layers of her work, Cheang decodes the language of technology in order to mutate existing languages into forms that open up alternative spaces in which to create new communities and relationships. In her own words, she has evolved from “developing artist to hi-tech aborigine,” in her drive to explore cyperspace and to understand the possibilities it offers to alternative communities.
What follows started as an interview, conducted in August, 1995, and continued as an electronic dialogue through March, 1996. Since that time, Cheang has implemented the Bowling Alley project at the Walker Art Center. Currently, she is developing a digital web feature, Brandon, for the website of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Kimberly SaRee Tomes: Today, what kinds of communities can people be involved with?
Shu Lea Cheang: You might get involved in a local community, or in a more [End Page 4] international cyber community; right now, I sort of travel in between those zones.
Yeah, physically. I duck in and out of cyberzones. A self-appointed advocate for electronic vibes, I am virtually netting communities I come across. How else can we sustain a shifting relationship in our time? It’s always fun to meet old pals playing their cyberpersonae in such splendid manners.
How is sustaining a cybercommunity different than traditional modes of sustaining community? Do you think it is more effective to be a cybercommunity?
We used to do dinners, have parties—a way to get down and touch someone, to get the vibe of physical closeness. Even without cyber-dinner, I very much enjoy the intensity in which we share ideas and cut distances in the cybersphere. We’re working on Bowling Alley through a listserve (provided by MTN Public Access in Minneapolis) among the collaborating artists. It provides me with very intimate and substantial relationships.
Do you think...