A French radio journalist once asked the Hong Kong new media artist GayBird to talk about technology’s “sensuality.” His response came as a cold shower for the reporter. Technology, he said, is “just like breakfast”: no seduction; just caloric energy.
The same pragmatism underpins HACK, a performance that GayBird conceived with theatre director Ata Wong to debate whether technology is good or bad. After two years of working on the question, however, they admit that it’s more of a rhetorical exercise. Now that AI has become “the new electricity,” we are indeed eating technology for breakfast and there’s no going back to a lo-fi diet.
They are also clear that their collaboration is not an experiment in “arts tech,” despite the show’s invitation to the New Visions Festival which promotes the integration of technology in the performing arts. But GayBird, who is perhaps Hong Kong’s most tech savvy artist, and Wong, an equal visionary but in movement theatre, are not artists who play by other people’s rules.
Understanding what HACK is starts with this pair, friends for many years who have also worked together artistically (GayBird composed the music to The Lost Adults, created by Wong’s company, Théâtre de la Feuille). They came together on HACK to “change the practice between us,” Wong says, so that both contribute holistically to the production.
Wong lends to HACK his organic practice of movement theatre, whose very un-tech pillars he describes as “the body, the natural voice without any microphone and the imagination.” GayBird wrote and will perform the score, along with musician Emily Cheng Mei-kwan; he was inspired by the minimal music of Steve Reich and Terry Riley, whose composition “In C” reverberates through sounds that include alarms, a ticking clock, steam, and something like a whirring conveyor belt. Together they designed the set, which they imagined as an industrial building and looks as if it could be an M.C. Escher drawing, with stacked cubes and staircases.
During a late night rehearsal in Whampoa, they focus on the interplay of the electronic score with the human presence of the dancers. GayBird and Wong consider whether and how to allow the music to direct the cast’s movements or vice versa. In the former scenario, the dancers may appear to be robotic extensions of the music. In the other, human agency may be implied.
HACK’s five dancers have just finished running through Wong’s tightly structured choreography for the last 30 minutes. In it, four women used obstacles to stymie the progression of a single male dancer across the stage. Later, having neutralised his advances, they worked through a series of interlocking mechanical movements then spun off like atoms in a centrifuge. As an experiment, Wong swaps in a quiet piano composition from YouTube and asks the dancers to execute the same choreography to this more classical piece.
Perceptual shifts like these, which Escher’s work also explored, open interpretative possibilities that GayBird’s score encourages as well. Later in the choreography, as the dancers bounce off and assemble around each other, voices provide instructions to prepare a corpse for burial. Suddenly the thought arises that this uncanny place is not located in a robot-driven future but in the here and now.
A rare bird in the Hong Kong arts ecosystem, GayBird, whose given name is Leung Kei-cheuk, is an enigmatic composer and performer. He has been compared to the French electronica-new age composer Jean-Michel Jarre but might best be described as the love child of the avant-garde American composer and multimedia artist Laurie Anderson and those German pioneers of electronic music, Kraftwerk.
He is the creator of instruments and sound installations which aim to help contemporary audiences whose lives are saturated by sound to train a different kind of hearing in those auditory environments. Fidgety, which won the UK’s Lumen Prize for 3D/Interactive art in 2018, harnessed the frequency of GayBird’s heartbeat to create a kinetic sound composition.
As a performer, he has used trippy futuristic video and robots (CouCou on Mars, 2013) and smart tablets simultaneously as costumes and musical instruments (Digital Hug, 2011). In One Zero (2016), which was also presented in New Visions, he dressed as a futuristic Mad Hatter and channelled a high priest in his trance-like control of video, media installations, live musicians and sound explorations on computers, objects and his own instruments.
A key to understanding HACK may be found in GayBird’s newest installation, 0 x Anything = 0, which is on view through November in Hong Kong Arts Centre’s Cultural Masseur program. A trio of ingeniously designed machines use the sounds of Hong Kong public spaces such as the MTR and the airport as raw material to reflect on the theme of home through the lens of chaos theory, which seeks patterns in random states of disorder. Are the soundscapes of the MTR and the airport sampled for their emotional resonance, as sites of protest and departure?
“It’s like a funeral for me,” GayBird reveals, referring to the “stories” he imagines for all of his creations, but speaking particularly of HACK. “That’s my idea, how to organise all the music, all the sound. I think it’s because of our city, our daily life. I just want to use my work to reflect on what we need.”
HACK can raise the hairs on your neck in the ways it hints at what we stand to lose in a machine-driven world. As an elegy for Hong Kong, it’s downright chilling. Nevertheless, his vision of the future is unsentimental. “It’s not technology that dehumanises,” GayBird says. “Dehuman [means] becoming a new human.”
For a show whose title nods to covert computer activity, HACK aims to subtly spam our conceptions of the tech-human equation. In other words, an intensely human experience.
HACK runs from November 4 to 6, 2022. Click here for more information.