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Adaptation and Performative Installation: A Glimpse into the Work of Sougwen Chung

Updated: Dec 11, 2023

Blending body and machine, material and immaterial, Sougwen Chung pulls purpose and direction from their experiences as a musician, artist, and software developer. Chung is a multi-media artist whose research and work demonstrate the potentialities for human-robotic collaboration and reciprocal influence. Through their research and work they develop robotic arms capable of painting with them and often perform alongside their machine co-creators in the presence of a live audience. Amongst many areas of study, their research practices include codifying their artistic style, communicating with their robotic creations, and adapting to their processes.


Sougwen Chung, Exquisite Corpus. Source.


From early on Sougwen Chung had a love for violin and for painting, interests that eventually blossomed into their interdisciplinary practice [1]. While they enjoy the potential that technology provides, they still find joy in the materiality of painting. They explain that in their studio there are all the remnants of “material mess” alongside “robotics, intangible codes, and deep learning”[2]. Chung believes that it is possible to simultaneously occupy a number of artistic spaces and mediums, stating that, “one can engage in technologies without feeling necessarily like they are losing some inherent spirit of their practice”[3].


Navigating this balance constitutes the heart of their practice and inspires how they choose to document and share their work. Meanwhile, the use of performance in Chung’s research and exhibition practices creates space for an organic flow between human and machine that defies the artificial pressures of completion or perfection.


Sougwen Chung, Artifact No 1. Source.


Interdisciplinary Methodology


As a principle, Chung prefers to regularly change their processes and often likes to “fuse” together or create “custom” tools suited for each individual project [4]. Part of what drives this change is a desire to not “get stuck on any mode of creation”[5]. Through their work they negotiate a relationship between growth and consistency. Meanwhile their proclivity for adaptation inspires innovation and interconnection within their practice.


Chung persistently seeks out opportunities to develop their ideas alongside organizations and institutions, a strategy which further enables them to expand on and implement their projects. They state that Bell Labs, in particular, is where many of their ideas came together since they were “able to take the divergent influences, ideas, and prototypes […] and reflect on them in the quiet space of my studio” [6]. One particular idea that they focused on during that time was what people would like for society to be like in a decade [7]. With that framework of futuristic thinking, Chung imagines what the future of art might look like and purposefully engages with the new and trending tools that will define humanity's trajectory.


This includes work with Augmented Reality, such as their piece Into the Light, and also includes NFTs. Chung thoughtfully approaches these technologies from the perspective of an artist. As a result, their NFTs are “certified with a Fair Trade Art Certificate,” proving that the money generated from any sales is “benefiting a charitable cause”[8]. Ethically participating in these activities allows them to learn more about their potential and also sets a precedent for how to creatively and positively participate in these trends.



D.O.U.G.


While Chung uses a variety of tools and methods in their practice, for a number of years now they have consistently developed and worked with DOUG, an acronym that stands for “Drawing Operations Unit”[9]. These intricate robotic arms are their frequent “collaborators,” capable of observing and working alongside Chung [10]. Initially they included a camera, code to breakdown and process data from the camera, and the robotic and software systems needed to participate in the creation of artwork [11].


All together, the first iteration of DOUG could watch Chung paint and follow along with similar actions, mirroring the processes and style with which they painted [12]. Since then, Chung has continued to create new versions of DOUG, adding up to a total of about two dozen units, all trained on images of decades worth of their drawings and guided by recurrent neural networks [13].


Newer versions of DOUG are even able to read their brain-wave activity and act accordingly, further connecting Chung and their robots through a “shared bank of knowledge, and through live, in-the-moment visual and movement cues”[14]. As Chung explains, their relationship is “more of a call-and-response” and is about the “feedback loop” in their interactions [15].


The overarching goal for their longstanding development of DOUG is to discover whether DOUG can eventually manage to produce art independently [16]. Chung also considers the robotic arms themselves to be a form of tangible art, “a kind of kinetic sculpture"[17]. While extremely generative and thrilling, the work of developing DOUG continues to challenge and transform Chung since it is, as they describe, “a process of negotiation, wayfinding, and tension”[18].


Sougwen Chung, Chiaroscuro. Source.


Performative Installation


Like their research and disciplinary methods, the outcome and exhibition of their work spans a variety of forms. While their paintings are standalone pieces with depth and aesthetic weight, their installations and performances engage with an even greater range of ideas.


Chung states that, “I stumbled into my path,” in part through their experiences playing violin and the “rush of performance” that it awakened in them [19]. The spaces they create are birthed and christened through performance as they “immerse” themself “into days of on-site improvisation”[20]. Adaptively responding to the space, they create “performative architecture” that often reacts to or synthetically features music [21].


There is no precise moment where the exhibition has reached its fullest. Rather, it encompasses stages of movement and growth, shifting as the space demands. It is within settings like these that Chung performs with their robots, dancing in tandem and reacting to their shared environment while the audience observes.


The entire process is “quite ephemeral” and, consequently, is quite difficult to document; however, Chung finds that they can manage to capture the experience if they focus on crafting “a narrative with the documentation"[22].


Sougwen Chung, Corpus VIII. Source.


Intersection of Human and Non-Human


Intertwined throughout the complexity and variety of Chung’s interdisciplinary practice is the theme of human-ness and machine-ness. They believe that experiences with robots and new technology create moments where “our human-ness is thrown into high relief”[23]. In order to emphasize on that dynamic, they have studied the intersection between body and machine, tradition and technology, and how a piece of artwork “transmutes between mediums. Shifting between the real to the virtual and back again”[24]. This fluctuation between realms of experience knits these worlds together into a synthetic and cohesive art form.


A particularly intriguing observation Chung made is that people tend to project “agency” onto AI [25]. They find interest in our “capacity to anthropomorphize our relationship to machines” and point out how these relationships can become “a mirror for how we view ourselves”[26]. We tend to overlook our interactions with other humans, but when dealing with robotics and AI we have a propensity to become more aware of others and ourselves.


An example that Chung remembers clearly is when they failed to account for the physical properties of paint and how it would affect the mechanical movements of their robots. This error allowed them to observe how the “audience sympathizes with the robotic units in a humanizing moment of the fallibility of the machine”[27]. Failure and the process of learning are often treated as uniquely human traits and, consequently, make the robots feel more relatable to the audience.


Error and Growth


With any artwork based in engineering principles, there can be a tendency to pursue perfection and efficiency. However, this mindset directly negates some of the essential principles of art making, its open-endedness and subjectivity. This is where Chung’s work shines as they embrace the messiness of the process and the limitations that they face.


Observing their robots, they note that DOUG’s, “behavior could be quite silly and playful if there was an error. […] The more imperfect the line work is, the more it seems like it's expressing his style of drawing"[28]. As mentioned earlier, imperfection is humanizing and seems to animate the robots with an aura of life.


The sense of connection fostered by this feeling of familiarity illuminates the “potential generosity” of art that Chung believes in, which “necessarily evades definition, or legitimization” [29]. Many viewers of art expect static and finished pieces. There is an element of disconnect in this which artificially heightens the mystery of the work while estranging the viewer.


However, allowing the viewer to witness the metamorphosis of an artwork implicates them in the piece and merges vivid memory with the piece itself. To engage in this exchange is an intimate gift, an act of generosity that exceeds monetary value. Chung shares an experience with their audience, the permission to witness the process, the mistakes, and the adaptation. This is what they believe gives the work its value [30].


The errors not only draw the audience in, they also captivate Chung. They say that reacting and responding to the errors and mistakes makes, “the process uniquely stimulating. Thrilling, even. It feels more true to how life actually is, full of the encounter with unmediated moments that go wrong. Sometimes I think creativity is working with imperfections and mess, and seeing how one adapts to them” [31]. The messiness inspires movement and change, which are essential to creativity and progress.


In more concise terms, the fallibility of the machines appeals to the viewers and provides Chung with a more complex and rewarding role in the development of the work. The challenge bolsters engagement and builds memory, rather than simply existing as something to be worked around, eliminated, or fixed.


Conclusion


Like Chung’s studio space demonstrates, their work intertwines a multitude of practices and disciplines, highlighting the potential for interconnectivity between humans and machines. Regarding predominant theories about AI, Chung explains how these narratives often foster “a very adversarial, power-driven dynamic with technology”[32]. Chung actively works to redefine these conceptions of AI by demonstrating what collaboration with a machine can look like, bringing DOUG into relationship with their viewers through performative installations. Ultimately, it is their willingness to organically adapt to technology that sets them apart as they view error as both a possibility for growth and as a gift to the audience.


 

Footnotes

[1] Marletta, 2016.

[2-3] Tan.

[4-5] Shin, 2018.

[8] Verisart, 2021.

[9] Saini, 2015.

[10] Kaufman, 2020.

[11] Saini, 2015.

[12] Issues in Science and Technology, 2018.

[13-15] Kaufman, 2020.

[16] Saini, 2015.

[17-18] Tan.

[19] Kaufman, 2020.

[20] Marletta, 2016.

[21-22] Shin, 2018.

[23-24] Marletta, 2016.

[27] Tan.

[28] Saini, 2015.

[29-31] Tan.

[32] Kaufman, 2020.


 

Bibliography


Kaufman, Sarah L. “Artist Sougwen Chung Wanted Collaborators. so She Designed and Built Her Own AI Robots.” The Washington Post. WP Company, November 5, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/11/05/ai-artificial-intelligence-art-sougwen-chung/.


Marletta, Donata. “Organic Forms and Digital Visions. an Interview with Sougwen Chung • Digicult: Digital Art, Design and Culture.” Digicult, February 9, 2016. http://digicult.it/news/organic-forms-and-digital-visions-an-interview-with-sougwen-chung/.


Saini, Shivam. “This Robotic Arm Draws Almost as Well as a Human Artist - Because It Sort of Is One.” Business Insider, July 29, 2015. https://www.businessinsider.com/robotic-arm-draws-by-mimicking-an-artists-movements-2015-7.


Shin, Nara. “Charged: Sougwen Chung.” COOL HUNTING®. COOL HUNTING®, August 24, 2018. https://coolhunting.com/culture/interview-sougwen-chung/.


“Sougwen Chung.” Issues in Science and Technology 35, no. 1 (2018).


“Sougwen Chung – Artist Profile (Photos, Videos, Exhibitions).” AIArtists.org. Accessed November 28, 2021. https://aiartists.org/sougwen-chung.


Tan, Ken. “On the Collaborative Space between Humans and Non-Humans.” Artist Sougwen Chung on the collaborative space between humans and non-humans – The Creative Independent. Accessed December 2, 2021. https://thecreativeindependent.com/people/artist-sougwen-chung-on-the-collaborative-space-between-humans-and-non-humans/.


Verisart. “Sougwen Chung: Human and Machine Collaboration.” Medium. Verisart, June 7, 2021. https://medium.com/verisart/sougwen-chung-human-and-machine-collaboration-72d912d6b065.


“Works by Sougwen.” Sougwen Chung (愫君). Accessed November 28, 2021. https://sougwen.com/.



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