X-Variable Is Body: An Interview With Victoria Fu
Victoria Fu is an artist working primarily in new media, collapsing forms of screen-based media including analog film and digital video and projection to address conventions of visual communication. I spoke with Fu in October about cinematic action, sexy formalism, medium specificity as related to global capital, and the ontological implications at stake.
ES: Victoria, your work is often described as boundary-negotiating – re-relegating the possibilities of desirous, virtual space wherein representation falls off its hinges and divorces itself from reality. In other words, you are drawing what is seductive about immaterial digital space: that it is able to redraw itself on its own terms. It is these terms you elegantly utilize in your own work, which are admirably cinematic. What exactly are the phenomenological implications of engaging in this kind of visual boundary-making process? Beyond rendering the contemporaneous situation surrounding ahistorical modes of knowledge production (new avant-gardes), do you think stripping a thing of its context is a useful strategy beyond art?
VF: There’s a reason I hold so tightly onto cinematic frameworks: they are terms we know. They present a familiar sense of space on a flat screen that is coherent to us. Because our bodily senses can imagine being in those spaces that cinema shows us, when those frameworks contain something anomalous, like virtual space, we can try to decode it using our cinematic spatial faculties. If we blatantly inject the virtual world into the perceived wholeness of cinematic space, we can start pulling at the rug under our feet and see long the space still coheres. Can it inform us how our bodies encounter virtual space from a phenomenological standpoint? How much is it like our sense of cinematic space?
In theory, we learned to perceive and translate images of the narrative world of cinema through the language of the camera lens, and for now, CGI still mimics this view. Even though we can create convincing-looking reality that is completely computer-generated, it still obeys a spatial logic of the camera lens and its movement. What happens when we start to depart from this logic and rules of perspective? We are absolutely technologically capable of this now–it’s our perceptual abilities that can’t make sense of it yet.
My videos and installations are small experiments of these questions. I’m combining my own 16mm analog film transfers and video footage of bodies performing, merging them with lo-res clips sourced from the internet. For the most part, I obey the rules of perspective as governed by a camera, and I’m riffing on touchscreen space as I animate my camera movements. I am very aware that I’m making up space as I go along, and depending on how the piece is installed, the “x-variable” is how a viewer’s body relates to the time and space of the images they see.
The short answer is that I don’t know what the phenomenological implications are of the virtual world, its images and spaces on our bodies and minds. That’s the million dollar question. What is the phenomenology of the virtual? This is not confined to movies with CGI; it is the everyday, from the way things move on our laptops and phones to the set graphics of ESPN Sports Center to drone pilots. While we can look to science to answer these questions, to map the brain as it travels through the virtual world over a period of years and years, there seems to be real ontological implications at stake–not to mention political implications: whomever owns the interface (now that it is legal to privatize and monetize it) owns some real estate in our brains, influencing how we perceive reality itself. It’s a frightening question at times, and we are only scratching at the surface of something that affects us deeply.
ES: You’ve talked about this notion of making the same piece over and over again, but changing the players and stretching the potentials, so to speak. I am struck by this kind of rigor (devotion?) to your subject matter. It seems to me that there is this sort of funny, performative discipline regarding the subject matter – like drawing the same picture but with different actors and color densities each time. Do you find yourself interested in any one, central nugget in particular? Or is it this act of rendering meaning slightly differently, slightly more dissociative and circumambulatory of an interstitial core how you might define your studio practice?
VF: My process is the least interesting subject to myself about my own work. For some reason, it always surprises me that I can’t change very easily even when I set out to make a really different piece and at some point I realize it’s the same at heart as all the others before it. It turns out it’s really a challenge to shake off one’s sensibilities and preoccupations. So while I am indeed devoted to my subject matter, this business of trying to stretch and change just ends up with a smattering of cousins with slightly different faces, but all in the same family. When I feel lost, it’s a comforting thought; when I feel adventurous, it depresses me.
ES: New-media, net-art, post-internet, cyber-art, new aesthetics… it seems to me that this recent emergence of new subgenres — that are only slight departures from one another — suggest that this kind of work is interested in reifying its own medium. A departure from the age of relational aesthetics concerned with social relations and breaking sequestered space, these genres self-confer status and maintain medium specificity in accordance with what I think can be understood as neoliberal privatization. Can you talk about your relationship to formalism, a historically un-sexy topic, as it relates to cyberspace?
VF: Where are we now? The last thing I remember is post-internet, but that already feels like a while ago. Art was never not about capital, collectors, the circulation and exchange of banknotes and assets and property. It’s just getting laid bare now, with quicker cycles and more visible operations of capital. Relational aesthetics was not an exception nor an antidote. Neoliberal privatization is just a symptom of the larger system. All subgenres are eventually co-opted–that is their fate and assumed condition. Despite this, as artists, I think we chase the spirit of the avant-garde because the pursuit and the dialogue around it is what is interesting and valuable.
Maybe formalism is sexy now? There’s a seductive gloss coating to everything we caress that is seamless with the glass laptop screens to the white lucite countertops in the open concept kitchens with backsplashes of subway tiles. They frame the art scrolling by on iPhones; they frame the living room walls, the ultimate destination of the artwork sold in brightly lit art fairs. One of my favorite things to watch is HGTV’s Property Brothers’ animated renovation pre-visualization: mid-century modern sofas and end tables falling from the sky with a bounce. Cyberspace and our living rooms are one and the same, and our art is no exception.
ES: Global capitalism is excellent at using the language of distraction and oversaturation to its own end. Your work appears to co-opt this language of capital but to instead illustrate a dead-end for material, replete with narrative nuance. Are you nervous about any forms of dissemination – of late capitalism binging on abstract property?
VF: We are complicit and part of the fabric of global capitalism. Given that fact, I’m not sure the work illustrates a dead-end because late capitalism has infiltrated everywhere, including ‘abstract property.’ That might sound dire and cynical, but it doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t make one’s own rendition or analysis of moments within this dynamic. I don’t view myself as co-opting the language of capital so much as slowing a moment down to take a long glance, calling it out and making it visible. It’s about the framework and the context, the act of placing material in a different light to make one pause and reflect, ideally.
ES: Your most recent works, Velvet Peel (1 – 3; 2015-2016) and Bubble Over Green (2015) feel like they syndicate my presence as a viewer moreso than some of your early work (I had the pleasure of introduction to your work by the 2014 Whitney Biennial installation of Belle Captive I.) I especially enjoy the neon-sign moment in Bubble Over Green, which feels just as cheeky to me to as the cockatiel moment in Belle Captive. Is this a moment of cohesion to your subject matter? How is your work evolving spatially?
VF: Yes, Belle Captive 1 in particular depicted hands swiping, tapping, caressing. I offered a surrogate for the viewers’ hands, and also these hands are part of the cinematic action, a protagonist. That piece is from 2013, and it seems in the last few years, there isn’t a need for the hand anymore to indicate a space that is tinged with the touchscreen. The later works never depict literal hands swiping anymore because I think it is assumed that the whole cinematic frame moves and is active for the viewer, implicating perhaps a more embodied engagement like a touchscreen, an implied level of control from somewhere outside of the frame. Viewers these days are used to the idea that on a certain level, what we view on a screen, even in a traditionally cinematic set-up, might feel manipulable, reversible, and tangible. This has been a big shift in recent years, and I think moving image art has responded correspondingly.
I tend to frame projects around an approach to the space of an image. To that end, their narrative cinematic space both coheres and falls apart. That is the rhythm I abide by in much of my work, and a dynamic true of many moving image works throughout history: the creation and destruction of narrative and its space. What has changed most markedly in recent years–and will keep changing–is the embodied relationship viewers have to the screen, influenced largely by the prevalence of touchscreen technologies and our intimate relationships with them.
ES: I’m a painter who doesn’t use pigment suspended in glue, so I have to ask: What are your thoughts on contemporary painting?
VF: I love looking at pigment suspended in glue probably more than any other form. At the moment I’m following a lot of female contemporary painters, many of them abstract like Rebecca Morris, Tauba Auerbach, Trudy Benson, RH Quaytman, Laura Owens, etc. I could just devour it all. I think that the quandaries of defining an image’s spatial plane is what binds me with painters, that what I’m trying to do with cinematic space and the projected image is quite close to how painters tussle with differentiating (and meshing) illusory space with the surface of the canvas.