Must We Only Contemplate?
The Political Ideals of the “Writing Machine Collective 2nd Edition”

**1a space Newsletter, April 2007**

As direct as its title suggests, the activities of the “Writing Machine Collective 2nd Edition (WMC_2)” engage with both “writing” and “machine,” as ideas and as practices. Lacking in presumed seriousness of great arts as it seems, the WMC_2 is consciously playing out its political ideals to the test of the local contemporary art space and the attached expectation of its visitors. By being “political,” we refer to the basic stance to question and rethink existing power-relations that underpin the norms for creative practices. And here is the irony: we have failed many who have expected to come to contemplate, and our deliberate emphasis on playing was mistaken for esoteric pursuits.

To Physically Engage, to Be Part of a Work, and the Carpe Diem of Contemporary/Media Art

Our prime thesis is: new media art is “born” to be political. In line with the concern of 20th-century art development, new media art has, as its mission, the critique and deconstruction of traditional ideas of art. At the same time, new media art has created its own set of questions to address: the artist’s relation with tools and technology in general has to be reconsidered, so are subsequent implications on creative principles, the material process of artistic creation, ethics of art practices and so on. In new media, the significance of a work is partly its own presence, and partly a function of the user’s direct participation. This suggests a heightened sense of co-creation, by which the artist, dethroned from her supremacy, now becomes an initiator and/or facilitator of an open-ended generative process of a work always in the making. The transcending subject position of the author is no longer: a work encompasses multiple subjectivities instead.

Local art practitioners, close followers of trends in art in the West, are no strangers to modernist theses of art and deconstructionist thinking, by which essential positions on the notion of an art work, the artist, display and exhibition and so on are subject to critique. Strangely enough, some exhibition visitors at WMC_2 are still expecting to come to a physical exhibition only to be overwhelmed by the aura of a work, or to become absorbed in meditative wonders, like they do in a traditional art exhibition. The author-artist remains the grand inspirer they look upon in reverence. Seemingly, local art education and audience development have fallen behind the course of art itself.

Partaking in new media’s experiments in interactivity, the 12 works exhibited in WMC_2 invited visitors’ participation each in its own ways. Body Language by Gabbie Chiu, Venda Lee, Told To and K.C. Yip, Morgan Wong’s Alliance (both exhibited at Videotage), Nick Foxall’s Untitled Announcements, and Reine Wong’s ARound (at 1a), all require the user to move his/her body so as to move the image and text on the screen to generate random combinatorial composition. The recognition of textual content has to be the outcome of the user’s bodily activities and his/her active engagement with the work. Textual comprehension does not have to be the ultimate goal of these works. Using free ware Inform 7, Hector Rodriguez’s text-adventure game Station creates a virtual space in which the user has to communicate with the computer by asking questions, testing a wide range of words and phrases in order to move on. Interesting dynamic results as the user focuses increasingly on sorting out the specific ways language is programmed to form a unique virtual world. Justin Wong’s Typing Machine (Junk Mail Factory) generates junk mails in real time by picking up signals of the approaching passers-by and the minute change of light and shade in the environment. Adopting the very hip Wii remote controller as a medium of interaction, Ray Chan and Keith Lam’s Wii Writes What Wii Moves allows the user to create text semi-automatically by sorting out Wii’s almost twenty functions. Lawrence Choi and Linda Lai’s Who is Singing? – Donald, can you hear me? adopts the message board format, by which the public can enter their opinion to Hong Kong Chief Executive Donald Tsang directly onto the computer interface. The luminous vase aside will chant the messages out on the spot, to make fun of the fact that our wants and needs so often turn into alien tunes when they reach our Chief.

Although people often associate new media art with the computer platform, several non-digital works are deliberately chosen for the WMC_2 exhibition. This is to declare that new media’s prizing of user participation can be achieved even without any computer programming involved. For instance, the non-digital version of Coco Ho’s de-code x re-write invites the visitor to cut print news into bits and pieces with hand tools, then paste them onto a hidden text of the classic One Thousand and One Nights that is coded by the parts of speech of the words only, in order to create new grammatical texts. Eric Siu’s grARTphicator provides a calculator and mathematical formula for the visitor to calculate and draw the result on a piece of graph paper. The work invites us to look into the nature of procedural operation typical of digital media, and to experience it manually using our own hands. The analogy of what is between writing and machine is also illustrated in Janice Leung’s Within a System (of Translation). The work algorithmically translates and retranslates the same sentence by people of varied backgrounds, also with the aid of thesauruses and “Babel Fish,” an online translation device. The sentence deforms and generates itself into a set of four books.

WMC_2 self-consciously situates itself as both new media and contemporary art, in two aspects. First, this exhibition connects with what we call Generative Art, a form of art that [delete “that”] extensively explored in 20th-century fine arts and experimental literature, and more recently in code-based, programmed media arts. Many works in our event are structured for the test of their generative process. Second, while the computer as a creative platform has mainly been imagined for graphics and animated pictures, WMC_2 begs to open up the computer’s machine capabilities in the play with words, texts and speech, without forsaking the visual. By treating the computer as a tool for creative writing, we turn writing into a playful collective activity. As a result, we blur the line between author and user, and open up a work for user participation, which is where the political ideals of new media arts lie.

Writing through the Eye of New Media

On the research level, all the 12 exhibited works investigate language and its many ramifications of everyday usage. Morgan Wong’s Alliance clearly shows the flexibility of character-combination in phrase-making in Chinese. Coco Ho’s de-code x re-write begs us to wrestle once again with English grammar, and builds a playful tie between a foreign literary classic and the local news of Hong Kong. Through its painstaking translation exercises, Within a System (of Translation) alerts the visitor to be cautious of the inherent “inaccuracy” – or loss of origins – caused by translation. Perhaps translation is so subtly built into our language activities that the so-called “distortions” can be taken for a unique form of creation. Playing Station for 10 minutes, you suddenly realize how many verbs in the English language you actually know, and if they are enough or not for use. Or, in the process of playing, you become more sensitive to the variety of verbs and how they work. With sound art as its point of departure, Who is Singing? tempers your complaints and turns them into praises, and you begin to realize that the same wordings can become totally different expressions, depending on how they are adjusted and presented. Many visitors were amused and bemused by their dream-like presence in front of Body Movement. Now you see and now you don’t, or if you do, you may still be struggling to comprehend – all a matter of chance encounter with the random flow of fleeting texts as your body negotiates with the camera’s imperfect detection. Perhaps there is no surprise here after all as the overwhelming amount of flow of fragmentary words and texts in our surrounding only affords quick registering than reading.

The materiality of the act of writing also becomes a research object for our artists. The exhibited works have examined the multiplicity of writing as a humanist activity: scripting with a pen alternating with striking on the keyboard, writing equated with signification and textual production, or simply for the experience of its process, writing as performance or as gaming. Writing is imaginable as a bodily practice which in turn produces new space and re-defines the meaning of a place. As the embodiment of all of the above, writing becomes a site, a location where human creativity spins off to display its unraveling as well as inventive power, in partnership with the material tools employed.

As to “what to write,” many of our exhibited works appropriate found texts in our everyday culture, such as information on the Internet, government’s public service announcements that instruct us on how to be human and how to be a proper citizen, the soliloquy of an individual, truncated poetic fragments, mathematical formulae, literary classics, news items and so on. The very act of “writing” ranges from sonification, visualization, to spatialization, thus mapping a unique matrix of inter-disciplinarity. On this basis, we seek to ensure all the works would shed light on our banal everyday life setting and to engage in elements of our culture.

Intermedia Experimentation in the Pre-digital Age

Way before the use of computer programming, many experimental writers had been begging for ways to conceive writings with automatic, if not automated, processes. Many such works carry a playful quality, and are deliberate in their design for reader participation; the creation of the book is meant to be carried on and completed during the process of reading. For example, American writer William S. Burroughs invented the “cut-up” writing technique in the 1950s; his method was to create new texts by randomly recombining the words and phrases cut up from an article. Then came the Oulipo (Workshop for Potential Literature) in the 1960s, best known for their creation of rules and constraints, and incorporation of mathematical methods. The “grammar” of oulipian literature mainly comprises of the following operations: “combination,” “permutation,” “recursion” and “algorithm.” Take the following as an example: comprising ten 14-line sonnets, the well-known Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (1961) by Raymond Queneau, one of the Oulipo founders, asks the reader to cut down every line of the sonnets and make free rearrangements, so that 1014 possible sonnets can be potentially produced. With this kind of literature, writing becomes a playful activity, and a territory in which readers are invited to explore the unknown rather than normative potentials of writing. Literature is no longer always serious articulations, surely not a sacred domain. Burroughs’ works have been discussed and compared to “collage,” a concept originally in the field of visual arts. Expressing the ideas of randomness and rule-drivenness, literary works of the Oulipo writers have also been commonly accredited as prime examples of generative art and literature.

Just as what Loss Pequeño Glazier suggests in his book Digital Poetics: “The electronic medium not only provides a means of publishing and distribution but also, as a technology, enters the materials of writing. What writing is becomes altered by how it is physically written through its production technology, its files, codes, and URLs.” (See p.4 of the book.) “Literature” requires continuous revisit and redefinition, and it seems active borrowing from other artistic media is a major source of energy.

To Keep Creating, to Make Dialogs, to Wonder… to Be Continued
“Writing” and “machine” are alien terms in the vocabulary of visual arts, and they invoke discomfort as themes and subject matters in the field. Perhaps the “textual” is often taken for the diametrical opposite of the “visual,” whereas the term “machine” itself goes against the intuitive and the perceptual much prized in the arts. Like its previous edition, WMC_2 also chose to take place at the Cattle Depot’s 1a space, only this time the event is also co-presented by Videotage who supplied a second venue. The twin venues indicate our deliberate effort to embrace both the fields of visual arts and media arts -- thus also to call attention to the (potential) difficulty of the double identities underlying our event.

While we have comfortably sunk into the habit of contemplating a work of art from far away, new media suggests we can let go, relax, be a little more playful, and spend time with the exhibits like talking to a new friend. This does not mean that new media works are lacking in depth or profoundness. In fact, such works encourage us not only to trust our common sense, but to use it inventively. If this is the case, there is no need to worry about not catching the artist’s authorial intention, nor should one be over worried about not understanding the machine design. Therefore, when we learnt that some visitors felt confused and uneasy with the conceptual sophistication of the exhibition, we wondered if it was just a misunderstanding – it is very likely to be a mismatch of expectation, or that visitors are not ready to believe that the apparently machinic works are knowable and accessible if they simply treat them like toys. The difficulty may also be caused by the unwillingness of some visitors to turn themselves from the role of viewers into users. We believe that the regular guided tour, which prizes verbal exposition and interpretation, may have to be totally re-adapted when it comes to a new media art exhibition, and this should be an open and very worthwhile, discussion.

Admittedly, the WMC_2 experience clearly shows how difficult it is to carry out new media exhibitions in Hong Kong. For our participating artists, the “black box” problem becomes more serious when the exhibition demands professional knowledge from the visitors. It is already not something to be taken for granted that the visitors have acquire a sufficient visual language in order to understand a visual art exhibition (-- fortunately, senses and intuition are still useful in such case). To expect them to think about the matter of programming via our works, or to see the works via that algorithmic mindset of programming is definitely too demanding for the time being. Paradoxically, when the artists’ own black box operations are over, placed in front of the visitors are game-works that can be easily operated without too much intellectual work required; but ironically such quality has not been properly recognized by the visitors at our exhibition. No matter what, this contradictory character of WMC_2 is positive for us. (This contradiction also interestingly resonates with Modernist works, where the upholding of authorial subjectivity is coupled with a demand for the reflexive quality of the work, a necessary degree of “transparency” to the viewer.) What excited us was, before we really managed to persuade the visitors that the works were easy and playful, a generous officer from our supporting organization already proposed the possibility of showing our works in shopping malls.

Some caring friends had already suggested during the exhibition: should the “Writing Machine Collective” be a purely online activity instead? Wouldn’t that at least help to spare ourselves from the [delete “the”] criticism that picks on our “under consideration” for display aesthetics? Our response is: it is absolutely a necessary strategy for us to occupy a place in the arena of visual or contemporary arts. Opening up the conceptual and physical space of contemporary arts so as to allow “writing” and “machine” to be part of its system, becomes a challenge for us to achieve our political ideals. The interdisciplinary and intermedia concerns have long been affirmed in the contemporary arts, ever since installation art of the 20th century introduced new thoughts on body participation of the exhibition visitor. New media is undoubtedly an essential part of the contemporary arts. So, how much more time do we need to justify this way of thinking?

Linda Lai, Janice Leung
February 2007



坦白不過,「文字機器創作集」第二輯 (WMC_2) 展覽關於的就是「文字」和「機器」。然而,在這個新媒體展覽的背景下,由「文字」和「機器」的結合所引伸出來的關於藝術和文學的政治理想卻毫不簡單。這裡的「政治」,是泛指所有對既定觀念的權威所作出的質疑、反思。



本於新媒體的互動精神,是次展覽所展出的作品均鼓勵了觀眾的親身參與。由於十多件展出作品的主題指向相異,它們所涉及的參與性質亦大有不同:趙綺鈴、李雅頌、涂業生、葉啟俊合作的《身體語言》、Nick Foxall 的《無題公告》、黃榮法的《連》和王潔淳的《瞬間圈移》 都以觀者的身體動作去影響螢幕上的文字組合和影像活動,閱讀只不過是身體活動及訪者積極與作品建立關係的結果,又或意義理解並不是作品的最終目的。羅海德 (Hector Rodriguez) 的 《下一站》(Station)以開放原始碼 (open source) 程式語言 Inform 7 創造出一個虛擬的探險世界,當中參觀者須輸入不同的字詞來試探電腦所能確認的語言,從而跟電腦溝通,讓遊戲得以繼續下去。黃照達的《打字機器 (垃圾電郵工廠)》依靠觀者的走近來與互聯網上的資訊進行協作,即時製造出大量垃圾電郵。陳志恆和林欣傑的Wii Writes What Wii Moves就運用了當時得令的 Wii 遙控器來作互動的渠道,近二十種玩弄遙控器的方式,讓玩者半自動地創作文字。黎肖嫻與蔡智揚合作的《誰在唱歌?… 曾特首,你聽見我嗎?》採用了坊間常用的留言信箱形式,參觀的大眾可在電腦介面上直接輸入給曾特首的意見,旁邊發光的大花瓶會即場把留言吟誦出來,暗諷特首總是把港人的訴求當成為亂音亂語。

雖然新媒體藝術通常令人聯想起電腦作為其發表的平台, WMC_2展覽中卻放置了幾件非數位類的作品,實行不靠電腦程式去表達新媒體所著重的參與性。例如何樂嘉的《複製巨著》的「手作版」就邀請參觀者動手把新聞剪剪貼貼,套入《一千零一夜》的詞性結構。蕭子文的《算畫匣》則提供數學算式並輔以計數機予參觀者在圖表紙上繪畫書寫。作品讓我們重新檢視舊有媒體所給予觀者的參與空間之餘,亦實行以人手進行有如電腦程式般的機械式藝術創作。寫作與機器之間的關係亦展現於梁燕蕾的《活於系統之內 (的翻譯本)》。作品透過不同背景的譯者、詞典和網上翻譯工具 “Babel Fish”,機械地把一個句子不停的翻譯下去,將之變形並結集成一套四本的翻譯冊。



從研究的層次看,十多件作品同時檢視語言及其實際運用的成規,找到的角度卻層出不窮。《連》名正言順的展現中文配詞的活潑性。《複製巨著》明用英語文法,給「他文化」的古典與「香港本地」的新聞搭了一道方便橋。《活於系統之內 (的翻譯本)》千辛萬苦的翻譯練習,奮力遊說訪者提防東翻西翻的差誤,又或語言活動可能本來就是連場翻譯,差誤可以甚具創造性。玩《下一站》玩上十分鐘,你突然發現了自己懂得的動詞其實有多少,夠不夠用,又或者你會對動詞的種類性質敏銳了點。從聲音藝術出發,《誰在唱歌?…》把你的控訴變成歌頌,令人感到罵不過癮,總是搔不著癢處,於是你發現同樣的字眼,用不同的方法包裹、調理,就變成完全不同的表述。《身體語言》的夢感令不少訪者驚歎,同時又難為了他們:看見與是否讀到,是身體跟鏡頭糾纏的隨機變數。文字真的講求閱讀理解嗎?還是更多時候是掠過的意會?


論到「寫些甚麼」,我們有不少的作品挪用了現存、現成的文本 (found text),如互聯網上的資訊、政府公告的道德勸諭、私人的喃喃絮語、成聲卻不成文的片斷詩詞、算式、古典巨著、新聞等等;聲音化、形象化、也空間化,是全盤的跨學科方位。這樣,我們亦希望參展作品能突顯普及文化中的各種元素,為日常生活的平凡景象帶來一點撥動。


在新媒體出現之前,一些文學作家著實早已有寫作機器化的想法,並鼓勵讀者在閱讀期間親力親為參與創作,造就出另一種玩味性的文學類型。如上世紀五十年代美國作家 William S. Burroughs 所創的 “cut-up” 寫作技巧,就是把一篇文章的字詞作隨機的重新調置,再以片段式的文句組合另造新文章。法國文學組織 the Oulipo (Workshop for Potential Literature) 就以規則及數式寫作,基本「語法」是組合 (combination)、排列 (permutation)、遞迴 (recursion) 和演算 (algorithm)。其創立人之一 Raymond Queneau 的作品Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes (1961) 邀請了讀者把十首十四行詩逐行剪下隨意組合拼貼,創造出有1014個可能性的詩歌。寫作活動因為這些文體而變得好玩,充滿著對未知之數的好奇;「文學」不再一定嚴肅深沉而任重道遠。Burroughs 的創作在歷史論述中多與(源於視覺藝術的)「拼貼法」 (collage) 相提並論。至於the Oulipo的眾作者規則、機緣為本的「作品」,誠早已成為公認的「衍生藝術與文學」 (generative art and literature) 的範例。

正如Loss Pequeño GlazierDigital Poetics一書中指出,「電子媒介不僅提供了一個出版與發行的渠道,它作為一項科技亦構成了寫作本身的物質性,進入寫作活動的本身。透過實質寫作過程中所牽涉的生產科技、檔案、編碼和網頁,寫作也因此而給重新定位。」(見第4頁)「文學」需要我們的不斷發掘、重新界定,支取別的藝術媒體的元素去開創自己。當代「藝術」的整體亦然。




也得承認,WMC_2的經驗清楚的給我們說明這類展覽在香港舉行的困難。對這次展覽的藝術家而言,需要「專家知識」的「黑箱作業」變得更為「黑箱」 -- 一般視覺藝術展覽要求訪者對視覺語言有所認識已非易事,(幸好感官直覺還用得著,)要求觀者看見我們的作品而想到programming的問題,或用programming的眼光去看作品,只能歎一句時機還未成熟。吊詭的是,WMC_2展出者的「黑箱作業」完畢,放在訪者面前的,其實是不用動腦筋便可輕鬆玩弄的遊戲作品;這特性竟然未被他們確認。對WMC_2這種「分裂」的個性,我們會從積極的方面看。 這種「分裂」,令人想到現代主義一方面高抬作者主體性、對媒體語言要有獨到的創見,同時又講求作品向著觀眾的透明度、內容方法同體對照的堅持;看來,WMC_2跟現代主義同樣分裂,只是我們像在開著前輩們的倒車?乍驚乍喜的是,我們還來不及勸說訪者遊戲好玩,這邊便有善心的資助機構人士想到WMC_2作品開進商場的可能性。