Interview with Phoebe Hui

Enoch Cheng spoke with Hong Kong artist Phoebe Hui about the evolution of her work, her practice in relation to audience, literature, and sound and her view as a young Hong Kong artist


Enoch Cheng (EC): Let us start with your 2008 solo exhibition, 'Translucent Noise' which you were commissioned to make for a period of three months. It was through this exhibition that you started to gain more attention. Can you tell us about it? How did you first come up with this ambitious proposal?

Phoebe Hui (PH): 'Translucent noise' was the name of my Bloomberg solo exhibition. The project wasn’t developed in a single instant, but built out of thoughts that germinated over a long period of time. Thinking is infinite. In the process of creating my work, many ideas are generated, and either discarded or left incomplete. In 'Translucent Noise', a few concepts that, for various reasons, were not developed into finished works, were given a platform for consideration.

In Drop, for example, I was exploring the relationship between composer and performer by inviting the performer to participate in the creative process. The 'score' given to the performer was created by repeatedly dropping a marker pen on a wooden canvas at random. Each point was annotated with a number, date, or time according to its chronological order. The performer could then interpret this 'score' in her own way. I was searching for subtle word-sound linkages rather than a system of rigid signifiers.

In another work, entitled Doublets, doublets, doublets, I played with the fact that, in the language of classical music, the name for each note is a letter, such as A, B, C…, and these letters are also used in the English language. I assigned a tone to each letter, which a sound generator then played when a word was keyed in.

EC: Your work focuses on text and its deconstruction and often refers to literature, such as works by James Joyce and Lewis Carroll. What is it about these authors that you are responding to? Are you currently reading anything that is influencing your work?

PH: My interest in Joyce and Carroll grew out of my ongoing research into the relationship between visual art and language. I am particularly interested in the way that these two authors have tried to change the function of language. Neither author uses it solely to communicate meaning; language becomes an end in itself, a toy to be played with, rather than a vehicle of communication. It is in this context that I came across the playfulness of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. This playfulness manifests itself in his neologisms. My work, Regain Wakes, is a response to the novel. I avoided trying to search for meaning or mapping the novel to reality, but instead tried to understand it in terms of sentence pattern and paragraph structure.

Currently, I am reading a lot of Franco Morettti’s books, including The Novel, Volume 1: History, Geography, and Culture, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History, and Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900. Morettti is a historian who studies literary history using quantitative methods, a radical idea. Traditional literary historians focus on individual texts. They choose a novel, for instance, and try to explicate its meaning or analyze its form. Instead of performing such close readings of isolated novels, however, Moretti describes large masses of facts gathered from many different novels over many years. Statistics thus form a major part of his methodology.

Moretti might, for instance, trace the rise and fall of the literary market by counting the number of novels published per year, or the number of novels in a particular genre, or the number of walks that are described in novels over a long period of time. This methodology requires a movement away from the detailed analysis of a single literary text. He looks for patterns that can only be found across many novels. His results are then displayed in the form of tables, graphs, maps, and other diagrams.

This emphasis on the search for patterns is fundamental to my work, as well. Moretti describes his approach as a distant point of view. Instead of focusing on a single novel, he steps back and focuses on a longer span of time. But I believe that we can apply quantitative methods even to individual texts. We can take a distant view on a single text. This is what I have tried to do with James Joyce. 

EC: Sound is a strong element in your body of work. When did you start to develop an interest in sound? What kind of sound intrigues you most?

PH: When I was doing my undergraduate work at the School of Creative Media, I took a one-year course focusing on digital editing and sound design. Because visual elements in moving images overshadow other elements, there is often limited attention paid to sound design; sound is thought to complement the image. I am always interested in changing the function of language and the idea of ‘sound’ is very important in this context. My practice plays with language by incorporating both its visual and sonic properties.
Later, I studied the art of pure sound and the development of new relationships between images and sounds. I use the expression 'pure sound' to describe the act of considering sound for its own material qualities, not as an instrument to communicate meanings or thoughts. I want to find ways of combining sound and image in which sound does not merely complement the image; sound should be an independent element that enters into productive tension with imagery.

I have found that sound generated by a vinyl record played at a peculiar speed is riveting. This is the core concept of one of my ongoing projects, called The study of circular motion: Merry-go-round gramophone. Every vinyl record is intended to be played at a specific speed so that the music can be heard 'correctly'. By manipulating the speed at which the vinyl record is played, people can generate unexpected sounds.

Following this line of thought, I came to associate the gramophone with the idea of a merry-go-round, the two objects obviously connected by the concept of circular motion. I devised a sensor that records the number of revolutions per second on a merry-go-round. A computer then uses this information to adjust the speed at which sound is played on a gramophone. A way of listening to the same 'source' of sound but a completely different aural experience is thereby created.

EC: Some of your works – such as Drop that you talked about earlier, which instructs your audience to play with sound – remind me of Cage and other Fluxus artists. Do viewers typically do as they are told? What are some common reactions to your work? How do you feel about these reactions?

PH: It depends on the exhibition venue. Audiences usually do what I tell them to do. Most viewers follow the instructions. Yet, some are way out of line. The study of circular motion: Merry-go-round gramophone broke the first day of the exhibition because some viewers 'tried too hard' to interact with my piece. The whole merry-go-round thus moved out of the orbit. Ha ha!

Whenever possible, I will discuss my work with audiences. Viewers usually find my work invites playful participation. While it is exhilarating to interact with, the concepts may not be readily understood. I also love to pretend that I am an audience member and observe how viewers interact with my work. 

EC: Do you document your work? How do you do that?

PH: I usually document my work with video and photos, sometimes sketches, like most artists. I also try to build miniature versions of some of my pieces in case someone who hasn’t seen it installed wants to know more about my work. 

EC: Your work involves subtle detail, but also, sometimes, very specific technical research and set-up. For example: In Granular Graph, you transformed a human gesture into a musical notation using a scientific instrument called harmonograph. Can you walk through the process of creating a work such as this one from beginning to end?

PH: When I was studying in London, I found this little book called Harmonograph: A Visual Guide to the Mathematics of Music. This book describes a harmonograph as a fashionable instrument in Victorian times. It is a pendulum-based apparatus, which creates curvaceous geometric images to represent harmonies and intervals in musical scales. I started to do research into how to build a harmonograph. I wasn’t interested in merely rebuilding a harmonograph. Instead, I wanted to re-appropriate the structure of the harmonograph and develop ways of notating gesture. Water became an important medium.

Audiences play the Granular Graph by walking on a wooden platform. Their movements produce changes in the flow of the water, which affect the reflection of light. The sound generated through a light organ attached under the wooden platform then changes, depending on the continuously changing light conditions. Thus, the expenditure of energy and the gesture of the performer are notated by means of water.

EC: In your early work, you were interested in comics and the space within the medium. Your design training is evident in those works. How did your training inform the early stages of your practice? And would you agree that you have shifted directions? If so, why is that?

PH: I never took any formal design training, but I was very interested in it and read a lot of books about design, in particular in typography. I found David Carson’s design philosophy inspiring. In one of his interviews, he said he didn’t want young designers imitating his work, but rethinking the idea of text as image. That was also the fundamental feature of my own design practice.

Some people think that I shifted artistic direction from comics to sound. In my point of view, I have always been interested in the relationship between art, technology, and language. By language, I am not only referring to everyday language, but also to other scholarship, for example, music and comics. Most of my works de-familiarise, and experiment with text, image, and sound, to discover new possibilities and to transgress ordinary boundaries. This approach has always been the fundamental trajectory of my artistic strategy, from my early work to my more recent work.

EC: As a relatively young artist in Hong Kong, do you think you have the support you need in terms of space, material, peers, audience, etc? Particularly when making sound installation in Hong Kong means waiting for niche audiences to appreciate your work.

PH: It is baffling to make art in Hong Kong but I believe it is a universal challenge. The point is that I don’t have to make artwork. I am doing it of my own free will. If I decide to make artwork in Hong Kong, I should try hard to overcome the limitations. It is part of the package. My studio is in the JCCAC (Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre), so rent is relatively cheap. Yet, it is small and packed with work. I am barely able to work, but still I always have a jolly time there. 

Attendance at exhibitions is not always good in Hong Kong. Yet, I have found more people who aren’t from art backgrounds will visit exhibitions now, which is a good sign. I believe that genre is not that important once people enjoy visiting exhibitions. 

Recently, I received a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council to spend eight months in New York researching the relationship between art, science and technology. I hope my ideas about sound can be further developed through this artistic residency.

EC: Early in your career, you also got a scholarship to study abroad followed by a grant to realise a sizeable exhibition. What are your thoughts about the beginning of your career? When you look to the future, are you confident? Are there artistic challenges you still want to find the answers to? What are they?

The short story by Franz Kafka called ‘A Hunger Artist’ may be a good reference to describe my inner need of making art. I wish there was something else I could do to that would make me feel satisfied and assure me that there is meaning in life. Yet, I don’t find it anywhere except in art. As an artist, I’m always afraid of not being able to complete a work. Creation is a lonely process, particularly because of the difficulty in verbalising the making of an artwork. Sometimes, I don’t want to let people know that I spend so much time on an artwork. It sounds wrong. I don’t believe it is criminal, but it seems more acceptable to work very hard making money, meeting friends and family, or doing anything else except making art. 

EC: I heard that you were trying to invent an interactive vinyl-like device that is like an onion circle. Can you tell us what that is? How is that project going?

PH: This ongoing experimental project aims at getting inside the physicality of sound and manipulating its characteristics directly. What methods of organisation can replace the traditional methods of selecting and combining sounds?

One way to explore sound directly is by revealing the materials of sound storage. It is particularly interesting to explore vinyl records, the analog sound storage medium, which usually stores music that operates within the classical music system. Exploring sound storage materials directly makes room for the discovery of musical resources and techniques beyond the discrete tonal closed system.

I am interested in implementing such ideas by cutting vinyl records into concentric rings, giving audiences the opportunity to mix and rearrange them so they can manually 'edit' their own discs. I am still looking for good ways to cut vinyl in Hong Kong. I did a few experiments but it broke the vinyl into a million pieces. 





Enoch CHENG, 鄭得恩

Tue, 1 Feb 2011

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