The artists discuss virtual reality, art, performance, and empathy
The following e-mail exchange between Nonny de la Peña, known for her work as "The Godmother of Virtual Reality," and New York and Beijing-based artist Lin Yilin explores their collaboration on The Life of a Wall on Lin He Road, a VR project that drew from Asia Art Archive’s collection to form a new iteration of Lin’s seminal 1995 performance, Safely Manoeuvring Across Lin He Road. Inaugurated at Art Basel in Hong Kong in 2017, The Life of a Wall on Lin He Road represents the final commission for 15 Invitations, AAA's fifteen-year anniversary programme.
Nonny de la Peña: How did the VR re-enactment differ from any personal memories of your initial mid-nineties performance when you built a wall of bricks in the middle of a busy roadway in Guangzhou, and where you were living at the time? Can you describe the sensation of being in the VR experience compared to your initial engagement at the Guangzhou location?
Lin Yilin: First let me say it was a pleasure to collaborate with you through Asia Art Archive, and how impressed and very excited I was when I saw the VR trial run at Emblematic, your 'next generation media company' in New York. But it’s quite hard to re-enact the scene I created in Guangzhou.
In fact, it’s impossible. As the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: "No man ever steps in the same river twice." Moreover, a physical road and a scene in virtual reality represent two different "streams" as two spaces with distinctive characteristics. To me, spaces have physical differences that concern the irreconcilability between memories, consciousness, and rediscovery.
So for me, the biggest difference in terms of physicality between the two is that the Guangzhou performance required immense manual effort, while one must follow set rules to control the VR experience. Both, however, have the same goal: to move a wall across the road. Interestingly, since I did not complete this process myself while using the VR this makes me appear as a person who finds it difficult to play by the rules.
NDLP: Not only was the performance virtual but the participants did not experience the work outside at all. Instead, this took place at an art fair inside of a convention centre. Normally the environments I create for people to experience are hosted anywhere from film festivals to museums, but the aim is always the same: to bring subjectivity into play as well as a sense of 'real' empathy within the virtual content. How much does this cross over into the objectives for your work? What are the best conditions for people to get a real sense of their own bodies?
LY: On the one hand, having the VR work at an art fair allowed news about it to circulate widely. On the other hand, there were large crowds that restricted the number of participants. As my roadway performance only involved a small audience of friends, passersby, and nearby site workers, its circulation took time. While my artistic practice does not focus on the audience—I simply want to let particular things happen in certain places, then observe whether it continues to attract feedback in the future—my later performance art pieces did involve audience participation that allowed people to experience something unconventional. This is similar to the qualities of VR.
NDLP: When we first discussed the project, I wondered whether your original piece was a protest against unbridled development. Instead you spoke about being inspired by the idea that a wall "possesses life." Can you talk more about this? Do you think the same idea was achieved this time around through a virtual representation and experience of your original concept?
LY: I am usually critical of social reality, but enjoy delving into the potential and various possibilities of performance art in my work. During the nineties, I repeatedly used bricks to build different forms of walls that were metaphors for certain ideas such as social structure, natural beings, or the subjective-objective world. But I am unsure whether a virtualised interpretation can express the original meaning behind the work. Audience participation is a key element of this VR piece, yet their movements are regulated. While I don't think this VR piece can transform the audience into artists, it is a deep virtual experience. Almost like a dream, it opens another door for viewers to understand the original work.
NDLP: In describing your source work, Safely Manoeuvring Across Lin He Road, you have spoken about the impulse to build a "moving wall." In the VR re-enactment, this is put to the test, just like when you performed it the first time, the key word here being "safely" since both versions are about moving the bricks (and oneself) across a busy roadway without being hit by oncoming traffic. This is why I chose to recreate your piece specifically, because it offered audiences the potential to viscerally yet safely engage with their virtual embodied presence.
LY: The title was chosen only after I completed the work but traffic safety was a significant problem in China during the nineties. You had to take Lin He Road to get to the nearby train station so it was very busy on that road, and I worried about whether I could finish the work or not. That said, "safety" had different connotations then as nobody, including the police, interrupted my act. The VR experience was quite different in that way. Sometimes the vehicles would hit the wall or the audience directly—and when the wall fell, they would get frightened.
NDLP: In researching your work through the Asia Art Archive collection, I learned that you were based in Guangzhou, China, when you made Safely Manoeuvring Across Lin He Road. Also, how many changes were taking place at the time that affected where you lived and worked. Does the VR piece speak to what was happening then, as well as how things are now in China and other parts of Asia?
LY: Regardless of whether it be VR or other mediums, artistically I would definitely not be satisfied by simply simulating the scene or features of foreign countries—these aren't difficult to achieve. You create good artworks by first gaining a thorough understanding of the external world, and then expressing your observations by utilising your own unique forms and languages.
NDLP: Besides the wall serving as a sculptural component of your work, the body—a real one—connects both pieces. After experiencing The Life of a Wall on Lin He Road yourself, you also commented on the beauty of witnessing people performing your work. I definitely consider this a collaborative project with you, but how much has this experience changed your approach to audiences as potential collaborators?
LY: Most people learn about the original performance through video recordings. They're all absent from this space of the past, but it's the same for me afterwards. I also possess a consciousness rooted in memories, whereas the re-enactment by VR creates another space. For those who have watched the video recording of the initial performance, their participation in the VR piece is an equally authentic experience—like in a dream. I think dreams are also authentic. When I see people losing themselves in the VR experience by shaking their hands and legs, it's as if I’m observing a sleepwalker. It’s very poetic.
NDLP: Why did you allow me to do this in the first place? What did you think VR could add to your already seminal artwork?
LY: At first I wasn't sure if it was appropriate to recreate this work with VR. Upon speaking to you about how my physical image would not appear, it was apparent that audience participation would differentiate this from the original video recording. Looking for ways to enrich my work through VR was outside of my line of thinking but likewise when making a book-to-film adaptation or a remake; you'd have to come up with a reason. Mine was how I thought this would enrich the ideas behind the original work, serve as a conceptual update, or inject new elements.
NDLP: I am often described as being a "pioneer" of virtual reality, but as the medium and technology implies, the world of VR is constantly changing. In working with an existing artwork like yours, and as one that is already "archived" in terms of being important to the history of 1990s art in China, I became aware of time and space in a different way. How do you feel about technology's place in art and did your view change after this experience?
LY: I hope I'll have the chance to learn even more about VR from you soon but technology and art is a vast topic, and many books have been written on it.
My physical performances are very simple—technical training isn't necessary, let alone technology. However, I am extremely curious about new technology. Art has a symbiotic relationship with technology—they just use a different language to interpret the same world. Ordinarily, I would never consider utilising technology as a medium for artistic creation. But when these mediums are capable of becoming a way of thinking, I could then possibly be involved with them, and as my passion to create art would also arise spontaneously.
NDLP: How would you like to see the VR re-enactment develop further, if at all?
LY: I wish more audience members could experience this VR piece. It's not only a game, but also a time machine that lets people "return" to a certain roadway in Guangzhou during the nineties and actively participate in something that continues to be art.
NDLP: Would you work in this medium again and do you see it as a viable option for artists to work with in the future?
LY: I hope that I will have the opportunity and prerequisites to do a VR piece soon. On the premise that it becomes more accessible, VR would definitely be the medium of choice for certain artists. Artistic creation requires one to break free from different constraints, and using technology to do so is one of them.