Isaac Leung has a new term for the smartphone-obsessed crowd: “phoneur,” a riff on flâneur, someone who wanders and observes city life. “One thing about Hong Kong is it is a sci-fi-like city,” says the chairman of video art space Videotage. “We’re living in a space where we’re receiving information from the cityscape, architecture, and our cell phones. We use screen-based media to navigate the city on a daily basis.”
Leung thinks it’s time to look up. This month, he wants people to focus not on their mobile phones but on a much bigger screen – the video billboard above the entrance of the SOGO department store in Causeway Bay. That’s where Leung’s exhibition Artificial Landscape, featuring works by four video artists, will play every hour until 31 March 2019, from 6am to 10pm.
Each video runs for just three minutes, echoing the transient and fragmented nature of city life. “In a way, the experience is already there,” says Leung. People scroll [through] their Facebook or Instagram on the streets. They rarely spend 30 minutes on an article.”
Leung says the Videotage team has already done a test for Shi Zheng’s Embers, a video art piece that depicts a moving sky, mountains and rock formations, manifesting the idea of an artificial landscape in its most literal sense. As the tests were done during the night, the video bathed Hennessy Road in a sea of red, inducing more than a few heads to stop in their tracks and turn their heads up. “Shi Zheng’s work creates a certain irony about what we imagine nature to be, and bring that into the cityscape,” says Leung.
Displaying art on public screens is not a new idea. The most famous was probably American artist Jenny Holzer, who displayed text-based works from her famous Truisms series on New York’s famous Times Square screen in 1982. But Artificial Landscape is a unique project, not least due to the fact that the SOGO screen is the biggest of its kind in Asia. “Because of its scale, the SOGO [screen] plays a role in constructing the landscape of Causeway Bay. Every day, tens of thousands of pedestrians are disrupted by it.”
While SOGO’s exterior has always been defined by its gigantic billboards, it wasn’t until 2017 when the current video screen went up. An image might capture your attention for a second, but a video holds the eye. By interrupting the usual ad displays, Leung hopes that Artificial Landscape will make people think about how we engage with our city, and how we value public space. If the screen is ultimately a public space, who gets to decide what gets displayed?
This question underlies one of the videos, “O,” by Howard Cheng. He filmed the busy junction in front of SOGO with a drone before feeding it through a computer tracking programme that allows artificial connections to be generated between the pedestrians crossing the street. As it appears that these connections are generated in real time, the edited footage will no doubt engender a certain self-consciousness among the people who see it.
“Pedestrians will wonder whether they’re being filmed, or whether the video is live, so it’s about creating that kind of illusion,” says Cheng. “It’s also a very good starting point to think about the relationship between the screen and subjectivity and identity,” adds Leung.
The artist intends his piece to provoke viewers to think about the distance we maintain with strangers in a busy, crowded city like Hong Kong. “Physically, we’re very close, but psychologically, we’re far apart,” he says. “To me, Hong Kong is a very artificial place. It looks very warm, but it’s actually very cold. I mean, people only have 30 to 40 seconds to cross the road, but cars have a minute or two. Cars are more important than pedestrians.”
It also puts the issue of surveillance in cosmopolitan cities on glaring display, though Cheng is of the opinion that Hongkongers aren’t as sensitive about being watched as their counterparts in Western cities. “There are so [many] indoor spaces in Hong Kong, and there is at least one CCTV in every one of them,” he says. “I think people have gotten used to it.” At the end of the day, he thinks people could take away whatever they want to from the videos.
Carla Chan’s Black Moves depicts a landscape said to “simulate the forming and de-forming of an amorphous black mass.” The piece is inspired by the artist’s interest in natural formations. Like the other three pieces, it is sure to clock up many ‘shares’ on social media. “This creates many dynamic layers,” says Leung excitedly. “The architecture is first transformed by art, then, through the lens of iPhones, gets re-represented in another space. I like it a lot more than showing video art in a white cube space, which is a highly constructed space by a few power players.”
The same goes for Lawrence Lek’s Nøtel, an ad for a fake hotel in the future. Viewers could either feel tricked, or be amused by the delightful twist on the many property ads that populate Hong Kong’s cityscape, or both. “Hong Kong is still a capitalist city, where the public screens are almost all used for advertisement,” says Leung. “Lawrence’s work turns that idea on its head, and makes people stop to think about how they engage with the city.”
It also raises questions about the neighbourhood itself. Nicknamed Little Tokyo in the mid-20th century, Causeway Bay was a chock-a-block of Japanese department stores including Daimaru and Mitsukoshi. “I loved shopping in SOGO, and all the Japanese department stores in Causeway Bay,” says Leung. They are all gone now, except for SOGO. “When I go to Japan now, the streets actually remind of my childhood in Hong Kong,” he says with a laugh.
The curator has another fond memory of the place. He won his first ever art prize in a drawing competition sponsored by SOGO when he was five – and proceeded to spend his HK$1,000 cash prize in the department store’s toy section. Cheng also went to secondary school in the vicinity. He says the neighbourhood had far fewer high-rises than it does today. “We can no longer see the sky,” he says.
The history of Videotage itself is tightly entwined with that of the SOGO screen. In 1998, the arts group held its first public exhibition on SOGOvision, the former, much smaller iteration of the current Cvision screen that hangs on the department store’s façade. The exhibition was part of the Microwave International New Media Arts Festival, first set up by Videotage founder Ellen Pau in 1996.
By changing the way that pedestrians interact with the screen, Artificial Landscape is changing the cityscape of Causeway Bay itself – and changing perceptions of it, Leung hopes. In a way, the exhibition is about evoking something weird, or inserting something that doesn’t belong in a familiar setting in order to jolt viewers out of their consciousness. “We’re recreating an in-between space,” says Leung. “SOGO is still a commercial building, we’re still surrounded by commodity, but the art pieces are radically changing the landscape into a space that is difficult to define.”
Is Artificial Landscape anti-capitalist? Leung deflects the question. “I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s anti-capitalist,” he says. “I mean, if you look at everything within a Marxist framework, everything [in our society] is bad. But art’s power lies in its ability to disrupt. I mean, if every single commercial building were to become a piece of art, it’d be meaningless. We aren’t destroying Causeway Bay, we are disrupting it. Art is a poetic strategy.”
For Leung, the exhibition is also a return to what video art has always been about. When medium first exploded onto the scene during the 1980s, artists were using it to frame and reframe their vision of the world. “Because of the art market, video art has become something that you put on a very slim plasma TV, and in a white cube gallery. The medium has lost its edge,” says Leung.
Artificial Landscape provides an opportunity to put video art back into a setting that allows artists and the public to frame their visions of the city and, as Leung puts it, to return art to its interventionist role.
Artificial Landscape, plays every hour from 6pm to 10pm until 31 March 2019. Click here for more information.