Wired for Art

Singaporean artist Urich Lau on technology in art, surveillance and artificial intelligence.

Text by Lee Chang Ming
Photographs courtesy of ART STAGE Singapore and Urich Lau

Visual artist, independent curator and art educator Urich Lau’s multimedia installations often raise questions about our relationship to technology and its role in our daily life. He is a founding member of the art collective INTER-MISSION, The Artist Village, Instinctive (INSTINC) and resident artist at Goodman Arts Centre in Singapore.

Adding on to his list of on-going projects is a commission for the upcoming ART STAGE Singapore 2019. The multimedia art installation is co-commissioned by Bang & Olufsen and will feature at the entrance arch of the fair. We met the boundry-pushing artist on a quiet morning at LASALLE College of the Arts, where he teaches, to talk about his practice, sustainable technologies and how working with technology informs us of what it means to be human.

ART STAGE Singapore has commissioned you for its upcoming edition. How did you get involved?

It started with a video installation and audiovisual performance I did with Your MOTHER Gallery for the event “Wu Wei Performance Series” organised by Jeremy Hiah and Min Hyung. My work was then recommended to the team at ART STAGE and they wanted to include it in their programme. Since the work will be in a different context, likewise it will be a different set-up. As one of my ongoing works is a video installation, I use spycams, CCTVs, monitors and other equipment. Through playing with the equipment, I create live-feed and unique images on the spot. It will be instantaneous and I don’t intend to do a recording or to save the videos. Additionally, the equipment is also presented as a medium, as opposed to trying to hide the cameras and wires.

In Guy Debord’s book “Society of the Spectacle”, he talks about the concept of the Spectacle not only being a collection of images, but also social relations mediated by images. Surveillance is a form of image making, which you have used in your previous works. What are your thoughts on this?

We behave in a certain way because technology shapes society and gives us certain means to navigate within a city, and how we relate to each other. I find that [the book] is still relevant, not because of current technology, but because we have certain choices as how to communicate and access to digital data. People in power can manipulate and decide who has access to information. It’s not so much about how technology is making us into mindless drones… I think it’s about who is holding onto information and knowledge, and in turn holding onto power, and who is on the receiving end.

In the local context, with the government’s plans to make Singapore a “Smart Nation”, how do you think surveillance relates these issues?

I think the initiative started out with the idea of providing more convenient services, supporting start-up companies or innovations to help with smoother running of businesses and services with a more integrated digital infrastructure. Across sectors, for example in healthcare and transport, there can be a better way of operating when technology is embedded in daily procedures in accessing information and helping users in determining their needs and accessibility. However, one should understand, as we are moving towards a more integrated environment, that there will be a massive amount data and personal information being accumulated in the process.

We use technology to a point when we don’t notice it, but in your work you make technology as a medium obvious. What is the reason for this?

It is a form of critique and it’s to show the imperfections by creating intervention or disturbance. For example, if I make a work that intentionally glitches, it creates an awareness of how we look at technology and what it does. You look at the moving images but you also look at the video medium as an art object. In video art, looking at images is not enough; you should look at the technology as well.

Because there’s live feed in your work, there is also a participative and performative element, whether it’s by you or the viewer. They also become part of the work in that moment.

Precisely. “Light-Space” was a work that I collaborated with Warren Khong, who is a painter and installation artist. It was exhibited at Objectifs. We wanted to re-create a space for the video installation and also to contain the audience inside, like trapping them in the space. We constructed panels to create a small passage leading to a larger space where there were spycams hanging in-your-face. They’re not spying, they’re in front of you. Initially, we wanted to create a space that is disturbing for the viewer because of the audio feedback and glitching images, but everyone just stayed inside and took selfies. We then looked at the reactions of the work and the audiences and reflected on the conditions that we have in relation to technology.

You co-founded INTER-MISSION, which is an art collective focusing on technology in art. How did it start and what was the idea behind it?

We had done many shows together before we formed a team and needed some form of direction. All four of us [founding members] have a deep interest in technology and we are all fine art trained or trained in film and photography. We are not engineers; we are artists working with technology. We felt the need to form something that can address certain issues in the local art scene. Singapore is still backward in how we deal with different forms of technology in art, and there’s not much of a scene or research culture in technology, media art and digital art. Singapore has very strong technological industry, but technology in art is different.

Art is more about asking certain questions: What kind of media are we using? Why are we using this medium? How does it inform us about ourselves as artists and also Singapore art as a whole? How can we have a conversation with other countries and art communities that have a longer history in media art? For example, Japan in the 70s was already dealing with video and broadcasting in art, but in the 70s we were not. In the 70s…I don’t know what we were doing [laughs].

Which quite strange because Singapore always prides itself as being technologically forward, but at the same time maybe we’re not critical enough. In your work, it raises all these questions about technology.

Yes, for me it started out as something interesting to explore. Looking at other countries in Europe and UK, they’ve been dealing with the video and film medium since the 50s. The format of recording also evolved from film, magnetic tape to digital. Asia is also a major region in manufacturing and development of such technology in the past – Taiwan, Japan and Korea. But in Singapore, video art or media-based art didn’t catch on during that period. Just looking at Asia today, there’s already a lot of discourse about the post-digital age and the Internet 2.0 among artists.

One of the books that comes to mind is Marshall McLuhan’s is “The Medium is the Massage”, which is also relevant to your work because it highlights the medium.

In my work, I see it as how we look and use a medium. Not only as an art medium but rather technology as an interface and conduit between people. For example, how we look at photography and how information in the form of visuals and data are being mass-produced and mass distributed almost instantaneously. From the camera to the viewer, it’s quite instantaneous nowadays.

It links back to my earlier question about social relations mediated by images. It’s not just about the individual and society, but it can also be about how we understand ourselves in an introspective sense. Technology affects how we view and understand ourselves as humans.

Yes, new technology not only informs us of possible futures and ways of dealing with technology. It also informs us of the fear of an unknown future as well. At the same time, it informs us of our humanness. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, is one of the earlier examples of science fiction that let us peek at the future, it raises questions like: what does it mean to be human? So the more we use technology, actually we are being made aware of how to be more human.

It also raises the issue of sentience. In the past, one could say that to be human is to be intellectually superior to other animals or organisms. But with artificial intelligence (AI) surpassing human intelligence in specific areas, what does it mean to be human? There was this case where Facebook shut down it’s artificial intelligence units because it became too smart?

Facebook was experimenting with language, so they let the AI robots to communicate. But eventually the AI started talking to each other in their own language, so the scientist couldn’t understand what they were talking about. Maybe about invasion or something [laughs].

So how do we address ourselves as humans when we work with technology so much? The artist Stelarc does performances and installations using cybernetics, robotics and the internet, and often talks about how the body is not a truly sustainable and regenerative entity and gives another perspective on the human body.

That kind of fear that people have about whether AI will take over our jobs…I mean it will happen, for certain. For example for some repetitive manual jobs, we should let machines do it. So some jobs will be lost, but doesn’t mean your life is gone.

However when it comes to art, it’s different because creativity is supposed to be a human labour. But with AI that can make art, should we start to question what do we need artists for? AI is not just a machine; it’s a self-learning machine. If you give commands to the AI, over time it will train itself and create its own specifications and it will even talk to other AI. It can be sentient.

When I show my friends about AI making paintings, they would say that humans are still giving it commands. Yes, humans give the first line of commands but eventually the AI is training itself. Now there’s even some technology in AI that can “reproduce” itself. There are research like a certain robot can regenerate or “self-heal”, with a certain polymer material as its outer covering. Some scientists talk about whether AI or robots have rights, like humans. For example, if you send a robot to explore space they know they won’t come back, can the robot choose not to go? You create the machine and they know that they exist. Soon, we will be talking about ethical issues that relate to robots.

Then it’s also a question about ethics and consciousness.

The philosophies of Jean Paul Sartre and Henry David Thoreau talk about how we learn about the universe, whether it’s through science, logic, or religion, and how it gives us another sense of awareness, our humanness. Aristotle talked about metaphysics, on how do we understand the universe beyond the physical realm and the normal cognitive processes. When we have technological devices that are interwoven in our daily life, it is an extension of our being, which forms an expanded cognitive and alternative sense of engagement with our environment and towards non-physical entities. Even from literature and popular culture from Kafka to “Ghost in the Shell”, we can see the ethical issues arising from how governments and individuals are effecting or affected by technology.

Earlier you mentioned ideas of industrialization and about automation and how it takes up jobs. With automation and AI, it fills certain functions that people occupy in society. Shouldn’t we then also change how to function as society? Who does it really benefit?

I find technology now has a different and more urgent role. It has to be more sustainable and responsible. For example, creating technology that can help us wean off the more harmful things like fossil fuels and coal. Using renewable energy and materials that are not harming the environment or animals, or putting poorer countries in disadvantage.

For example, cars are one of the biggest polluters, but what is stopping us from having electric cars everywhere? By now it should be common, but why is it not? Maybe it’s big companies that still want to use fossil fuel, and governments that take money from these companies. So who is making life better for us and who is profiting from old technologies? Sustainable and newer technology is still not commonplace enough yet.

I don’t think new technology and new media are only for profiteering. Technology should make our lives and our environment better, rather than becoming more decadent.

But in art, it shouldn’t just focus on technology. Technology in art doesn’t mean everything is art, some are just about technology. Whether you use traditional medium or high tech stuff, it’s all good. I don’t agree that you should abandon all the traditional art training. You should still embrace all kinds of art forms. Even in school I will try to show my students the oldest to the more current art forms. But if you just learn the new forms, then you will not know how we arrived at this stage.

What are your upcoming projects?

With my art collective, INTER–MISSION, we are still working on collaborative and co-curatorial projects with Taiwan and Korea. We will still be focusing on technology as the primary thematic approach as well as technology in art in this region and globally, to better inform the art community in Singapore.


See Urich Lau’s commission for ART STAGE at the Singapore 2019 edition, happening from 25 to 27 January at Marina Bay Sands Expo & Convention Centre Level B2.  

Find out more at www.artstage.com and get updates @artstagesg.