Sougwen Chung: translating errors into poetry ◕
The artist and researcher delves into the question of creative extension.
Sougwen Chung, a pioneering Chinese-Canadian artist and researcher, embraces technology as a collaborator in their artwork. They recently relocated from New York to London, exploring robotics, AI, and emerging tech in their studio practice. Notably, they created a robot named "D.O.U.G" during their time at MIT Media Lab, which was trained to follow their drawing patterns and mimic their linework.
Chung’s latest digital sculpture commissioned by Gemma uses dimensional marks made in virtual reality and translated through custom software to create a gestural meditation on nature, ritual, and technology. Proceeds from the sales of the work will be donated to EV Loves NYC, a volunteer-run, non-profit organization helping New Yorkers in need.
Below, Chung speaks with Gemma contributor Willa Köerner about reconciling contradictions in their work, the “formal aesthetics of process,” and using generative art for the feminist practice of writing one’s own histories.
Willa Koerner: I'd love to hear you describe your research practice. When you’re investigating a new idea or question, what does that look like?
Sougwen Chung: My research practice is pretty porous. For the past 10 years I've been inspired by the fields of computer vision, neural networks, optical flow algorithms, and biofeedback and how that translates into my lived experience. I like to dive into the material of something and see what comes up as I learn more about it. It’s an experiential and practice-based way of responding to an input.
Lately I have been thinking about gesture and form as they pertain to marks made by hand versus marks made by machine. Creating new configurations out of a material, in either a conceptual or formal way, is something I find really exciting. I usually work in VR, AR, and digital sculpture and I try to marry that with performance to combine things that I haven't seen put together before—all while trying to make something beautiful out of it.
Willa: A lot of the “material” you work with—whether data sets or neural networks or AI—feels very opaque, or hard to learn the ins and outs of. It seems like a steep learning curve to figure out how those kinds of things work from a technical perspective, especially so you can understand it enough to be able to play with it from a creative perspective.
Sougwen: I'm always coming at a new project with beginner's eyes, and there's a lot of research and experimentation that goes on behind the scenes. It helps that I have a background and base in music, interactive graphics, and code—and that I enjoy thinking about processes. I've learned a lot through being curious and interested. Not dedicating myself to any one set of tools has allowed me to poeticize errors and appreciate their significance in a system.
Learning any new skill requires setbacks, which can often feel like failure. I’ve learned to reframe failure as iteration, and as an opportunity for adaptation. It’s only by working through frustration, broken code, and sometimes even broken robots or visual systems that I eventually end up with an interesting outcome. It's been getting easier over time. I needed a lot more technical support in the beginning, but my process is fairly self-sufficient now because I have a better grasp on what I'm doing, and how to navigate uncertainty.
Willa: I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about the piece you're releasing with Gemma. Can you introduce the series and share how the piece fits into it?
Sougwen: This new work for Gemma is a continuation of my interest in vedic meditation practices. In virtual reality I’ve been drawing mandalas, a geometric combination of symbols, as a way of focusing my attention through mark-making. Over the past few years, I’ve been exploring how that manifests in the embodied robotic gesture through recording my brain waves during meditation. However, for this new visual study I’m sharing the mark more explicitly as a digital sculpture, using prompts to manipulate the form as a seed from which more natural forms can emerge.
A lot of digital work today is generative, and what makes it interesting is the visual output it produces. I'm invoking the prompt to extend the formal aesthetics of the process of additive sculpture and traditions like drawing. We're in a moment where the relationship between the written word and the visual image is changing. In that sense, playing with text has a new kind of energy, which, as a visual and sculptural person, gives me a fresh approach to the digital image.
Willa: You've shared that the organic kinetic form in your work takes its inspiration from author Susan Stryker, and particularly how it reinterprets her feminist text as an ethos for generative art. What do you see as feminist about generative art?
Sougwen: What's excited me about generative art, and digital art, is this opportunity to write one's own histories—especially with the fluidity of the medium, and how it's evolved into this generative space. We can draw from our own inspirations, our own data sets, and create our own narratives. I think it has the capacity to make visible that which has been invisible or erased from history. I find that really exciting—this idea that we can create our own context and our own reference points, and actually bring that into the work in a very explicit and singular way. I see it is a testament to the fluidity and the movement of the medium right now.
Willa: It’s definitely an exciting time for artists who are comfortable working with new technologies, even as we don’t fully understand them yet. Along those lines, how do you approach the challenge of working with things like AI and blockchain from an optimistic perspective, despite the unknown, or potentially even dangerous, sides of these new technologies?
Sougwen: I am always trying to reconcile contradictions in my work. One thing I'm excited about—especially for this release with Gemma—is using the speculative nature of the blockchain to support mutual aid efforts. I've been inspired by an initiative in New York called EVLovesNYC, which is a community kitchen that’s been doing really incredible work over the past few years, rain or shine. It's a brilliant volunteer effort run by two people, Sasha and Mahmoodi, who've yet been tirelessly dedicated to creating an ecology of care for people in New York.
I see artwork on the blockchain as a way to bridge people and initiatives that I believe are making a positive impact on their environment. In that way, the object of art becomes the link between myself and the community—as well as the collector, myself, and the community. All proceeds from my Gemma release will be directly deposited into the wallet of EVLovesNYC. For me, it’s a way to speculate on the function of digital art beyond the aesthetic image.
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