Digital Shadows: An Interview with Tyler Coburn

AAA Researcher Michelle Wong speaks to the New York-based artist about his work with the Ha Bik Chuen Archive


Image: Ha Bik Chuen, Contact Sheet No.63 "Kwok-Art Life For 30 Years" (3 of 3), 21 March 1998 (detail).
Image: Ha Bik Chuen, Contact Sheet No.63 "Kwok-Art Life For 30 Years" (3 of 3), 21 March 1998 (detail). Courtesy of the Ha family.

New York-based artist Tyler Coburn is the artist-in-residence at AAA’s Ha Bik Chuen Archive in August 2017. Since December 2016, Coburn and AAA Researcher Michelle Wong have been having an e-mail discussion about the Ha Bik Chuen Archive; he is seeking to interpret Ha's archive through text presented in a digital format. Together, they have been thinking through what it means to navigate archives physically, digitally, and collaboratively. The conversation below is excerpted from Coburn and Wong’s emails from December 2016 to August 2017.


Ideas: How did Memory Machine come about?

Tyler Coburn: In August 2016, I was in Hong Kong as an artist-in-residence at Spring Workshop, where I presented a lecture about my project I’m that angel (2011–). This artwork straddles the digital and the physical, comprising an absurdist text about "the cloud" that I periodically perform in data centres: the storage sites of the virtual world. You attended this talk, and we discussed how these topics might resonate with the work AAA is doing in the Ha Bik Chuen Archive. On a return visit to Hong Kong in December 2016, I spent a few days in the archive, sketching the basic outline for this project.

Memory Machine has two key features. First, in the spirit of Umberto Eco, it's an "open work" of poetical and essayistic writing, available for endless editing and modification. Anyone can sign up to use the website, and anyone can edit it. I worked with graphic designers Luke Gould and SB-PH to create this platform using MediaWiki, an open-source software that shares the ethos of the "open work."

Second, Memory Machine is more than a text influenced by the Ha Bik Chuen Archive; it's an opaque way of organising the archive—a digital shadow of the diagrams and spreadsheets and alphanumeric systems that are daily employed by you and your colleagues. For example, throughout the website are short descriptive lists that seem to correspond to archival materials, while also linking to other pages: pages of text; pages of images; and pages waiting to be created. It’s upon the user to interpret and elaborate this digital-archival network.

Why have you chosen to partly write in a poetical manner? 

I'm thinking about how certain types of poems have organising structures that are quite evident to the reader: rhyme, metre, a certain number of syllables per line, a certain number of lines per poem, etc. Reading such poems is a process of oscillating between the content and the rules structuring the content. In other words, I can never be absorbed fully into the language, because the structure constantly reminds me of its function. 

So too, in the archive, do I find myself constantly reminded of its organising structure, no matter how deeply I dive into one particular box or file. In choosing to write poetically about Ha's archive, I'm trying to explore this similarity.

Why an "open work"?

I've spent time in different archives, and no matter the size, I'm always struck by how individualised these experiences feel. It's a bit perverse to share a room with like-minded people, yet remain in silent study.

I'm also struck by how many people pass through these spaces—people whom I'll never meet, or whom I'll only know through a footnote in their essay or book, acknowledging that they once visited the same archive as me.

As an "open work," Memory Machine attempts to socialise the archive: to build a social network of users, in the spirit of Ha's photographs of the Hong Kong art scene. It’s both a piece of collective writing in the present, and a message transmitted from past to future users of the archive.

Of all things, why has the organisation of the archive interested you? 

A common topic, in many of my projects, is infrastructure: the physical data centres that underpin the cloud, as previously mentioned; the spaces in smart cities where sensor and surveillance data collect; the massive labour force behind crowdsourcing websites. I try to understand how these systems work, and what their logics purport, both functionally and ideologically. In response, I imagine counter-systems and counter-logics that might allow for new forms of subjectivity and sociality where the possibilities seem largely foreclosed.

For these reasons, I was immediately drawn to the infrastructural concerns of the Ha Bik Chuen Archive: that you and your team are still in the process of organising the archive—and that you’re inviting artists and researchers to contribute to this process. In my case, I see Memory Machine less as a counter-system than one adjacent to the archive, which operates in an ongoing and complementary manner.  

What does a digital shadow look like?

Let me return that question with another: How faithful is a shadow to its subject? On August 14, 2017, when the Memory Machine website went live, it appeared as if in high noon: a small shadow of my texts and their Chinese translations by Wing Chan, as well as selections from Ha's contact sheets. As people sign up to use the site, the shadow will grow longer. It may stretch and distort its subject, but it will always be connected to that point of origin.


Tyler Coburn's residency is part of The Ha Bik Chuen Archive Project (2016–2019), generously supported by the Hong Kong Jockey Club Charities Trust, with additional support by Spring Workshop.

Residencies and fellowships under the Ha Bik Chuen Archive Project aim to catalyse new ideas and knowledge by opening up, activating, and circulating materials from the Ha Bik Chuen Archive. Practitioners in artistic production, exhibition-making, and curatorial and art historical research are welcome to apply. For more details, please email



Michelle WONG, 黃湲婷


Mon, 14 Aug 2017
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