Hong Kong did not agree with Julius Popp. The digital artist has just unveiled behind Bit.Fall, an installation of technological wizardry that turns water into rapid firing buzzwords, but when he arrived in our frenetic metropolis, he felt frazzled and overwhelmed.
“Hong Kong feels crazy,” he says, grasping for words in a café behind the bright atrium of shopping mall Pacific Place. His installation stands nearby, a structured comprised of two 3o-foot containers stacked atop one another. Inside the bottom container, hundreds of nozzles emit water droplets that appear to form words. These words appear at a rate that is difficult to process, and with a seamlessness that does away with any desire to analyse them as they scroll down in front of the viewer. It’s a transfixing sight.
“I’m interested in how people build up cultures, how we use information differently,” he says. “Science is the input side. I open questions for simple people who are not scientists to think about.”
This installation is an interesting development in the landscape of public art in Hong Kong, a city that has been trying to break away from its reputation for treating art as the preserve of the elite. Among the Starbucks and high-end shops of this busy shopping mall, Popp’s installation is an unusual fixture, but it doesn’t feel out of place.
Part of the structure’s charm comes from the sensuality of the experience. Lit up, the curtain of water emits a satisfying click-like sound with each word changing as it splashes. Popp says he wants viewers to feel the words on visceral level, to draw attention to sensations a word might arouse.
“It’s never about a single word,” Popp says, “It’s about how you build up your own story, how your brain builds up a story [around the series of words that appear in front of you].” Popp’s sentences stop and start as if they were formed from the numerous cogs in his mind that are working on overdrive.
The installation is connected to the internet, and it is powered by an algorithm that selects words that appear most frequently on international news feeds. When selecting the words, Popp’s algorithm discards meaningless units in speech, like “and” and “so.” This leaves a cycle of trending words that bear no connection to each other, other than that their ephemeral high occurrence on news portals based on real time statistical analysis. Specifically targeting its Hong Kong audience, the keywords are derived from local news sources. Popp had originally wanted to incorporate Chinese words into that mix, but such software proved as yet too complex an endeavour.
When I visit the installation, “America” appears in the water. “Trump” appears later, and then “Russia” makes its presence felt. Later, “Elon” appears twice, presumably referring to Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla. There are more surprising words that present themselves, too, and their effect is peculiar. Among them, the word “vomit” appears in gleaming, watery brightness, as does “brother,” followed directly by the name of my own brother, Thomas, in a moment that feels rather serendipitous.
“I wanted to find a way to express our fast-changing world and our interactions with our information,” says Popp. “Meanings or values can change very fast and be completely different tomorrow,” he says. “Cultures are evolving”.
A tall man, he is shy and kind, but finds the experience of being misunderstood nerve-wracking. His ideas are complex, and his delivery of them rapid, like endless sparks of cognition that run the risk of being extinguished before the listener can fully take them in. Born in Nuremburg, Germany in 1973, Popp moved to the quiet but creatively fecund city of Leipzig, where he now lives. He avoids working in the capital because, in his words, “I get lost in Berlin”.
When we speak, he tells me he is having a bad day. It’s not that he dislikes Hong Kong. He speaks fondly of the markets and the skyscrapers, and the city’s arresting cinematic quality. It’s just a lot of stimulus to take in: a sensory overload that makes him feel unable to stay longer than a day.
But he’s excited to bring Bit.Fall here. It has previously been shown at a number of prominent galleries and museums around the world, including MONA in Hobart, and it was featured at London’s 2012 Olympics. It’s part of series reflecting on bits, the smallest unit of data, which explore man’s relationship with information in a digital world. The series emerged with the onset of smartphones. Popp was interested by how quickly unsubstantiated rumours had come to be spread with the rise of mobile connectivity.
In the “post-truth” age of Trump, the work has proved more relevant now than ever. Woven into this concept are concerns surrounding how we have come to communicate with each other when such huge chunks of our interactions have gone online. Part of what troubles Popp is that the pace of change is such that we can’t we don’t have time to analyse and reflect on it amid the deluge of information. “Cultures are evolving,” he says. “We haven’t tested enough how people interact with smartphones.”
“We have access to so much information and yet we’re treating each other like we’re in the Middle Ages,” he says. He adds concerns about Europe’s turn to the right to his list of current worrying cultural shifts. “Tensions are rising,” he says.
Popp’s singular mind has developed pioneering works in the threshold world of art and science, with MIT’s computer science and artificial intelligence laboratory among the list of academies studying his realisations that include developing software for artificial intelligence. “I don’t feel like an artist,” he says. “I do research in my own way and I have to develop the technology to do that. Sometimes I don’t even understand what I’m doing. I do these pieces to explain things to myself.”
Working with technology is stressful for Popp. “If I was a painter, maybe my work would be relaxing,” he says, when asked whether he finds the process of creating digital art soothing. “Technology it’s hard to control. Because of the complexity — it’s always a complex system — it’s an enormous amount of responsibility,” he says.
As our conversation comes to a close, I ask Popp why he focuses so heavily on the medium that obviously causes him such distress and unease. (Earlier, he had mentioned that he was not looking forward to his flight home – planes belonging to the long list of machines that bring him discomfort.) He responds quite quickly that technology isn’t all bad. And Bit.Fall is not only about data: it’s also about water, which to Popp represents life, and as such, culture.
“I shape the material, I’m able to able to shape the water,” he says. “It’s up for us to shape our own culture.”