Shi Zheng is a multidisciplinary artist based in Shanghai and New York. Shi Zheng’s works range from audio-visual installations and digital music to live performances. The artist’s body of work explores the overlapping space between the real and the virtual by creating immersive spaces, which resonate as meditative spiritual experiences. In turn, these perceptual experiences created by Shi Zheng open up spaces for deep introspection.
Shi Zheng’s two newly commissioned artworks by Niio expose the artist’s ongoing interest in technology, machine vision, digital voyage and ‘latent time’. Marvelous Cloud #1 and Marvelous Cloud #2 are part of Shi Zheng’s ongoing Nimbus series, which he started working on in 2015. Nimbus is defined as a cloud, an aura, or an atmosphere. In Latin ‘nimbus’ refers to a dark cloud. In Shi Zheng’s works, the clouds are made visible by light, which instills in them a sense of aura of gaseous floating. The Nimbus series represents the artist’s construction of virtual realities where virtual clouds live inside of the screen space, thus setting his viewers into imagined virtual spaces that mimic reality. However, here, the reality is entirely generated from virtual cameras of computer programs and noise algorithms. Ultimately, the viewer is able to experience the virtual landscape that computers share with human eyes.
Shi Zheng’s works have been exhibited at a wide range of galleries, museums and institutions including TANK Shanghai, MOCA Yinchuan, Ars Electronica, and Institute of Contemporary Arts London. In 2013, Shi Zheng, together with Nenghuo, Wang Zhipeng, and Weng Wei, founded the artistic new media art group RMBit.
In your works, through computer technology, you explore the possibility to extend your viewer’s audio and visual experience. Could you elaborate on this process and the anticipated result of the interaction with your artworks?
In my Audio-Visual installations, I’ve always thought that sound and image are the two sides of one being. They are intertwined and can’t be separated from each other. In these works, there is no discernible narrative. I did not intend to let the work convey a specific message or language. Instead, sound and image as two different materials, are presented to create a purely perceptual environment. So in my work, I hope to create an immersive space in which the viewer can generate thoughts through their experience.
Shi Zheng, Marvelous Cloud #1, 2022.
As an artist that creates both electronic music and digital imagery, what is it about these two artistic practices and their association that interests you most?
For me, the most exciting part is the space, where the acoustic field created by the sound and the light diffused from the screen are composed into an immersive space that surrounds the audience. So I often prefer to describe my video works as spatial installations. The audience can resonate with surround sound and projection when facing the visual content. If we imagine the screen as a membrane, this immersive audiovisual experience is an attempt to make the membrane disappear.
Also, I feel it is very interesting to create sound and video simultaneously, especially when considering them as a whole. It’s like the sound is an echo of the image, or the image is some kind of generator of the sound. For instance, in the work Nimbus, although the work visually portrays an ever-changing “cloud,” the sound embodies another part of it. So in terms of this relationship, as I mentioned earlier, sound and image are two sides of the same being.
Your Marvelous Clouds series display whimsical lights of nature and trace their boundless metamorphosis. Could you dive deeper into the artistic techniques that are involved in the creation of these artworks?
Marvelous Cloud is inspired by the clouds in J.M.W. Turner’s paintings as well as the “sublime” embodied in his work. The images of clouds in his work often appear in different colors under the illumination of light. I often focus on the flow of things rather than the still images, looking at how these dematerialized gaseous objects are shaped by light under flowing motion. So when I simulate virtual clouds in computer software, different modules and algorithms can help me transform the original realistic clouds into more abstract ones. In addition, I can control the distance of the light in the virtual space, which gives me a lot of possibilities in terms of color.
Shi Zheng, Marvelous Cloud #2, 2022.
The clusters of clouds and gas which originate from natural light in your Nimbus series can be interpreted as an aura, an ignis, or a fatuus which together generate a meditative almost spiritual experience. Can this experience be interpreted as intentional?
Yes. It was also the first time I tried to create this meditative spiritual experience in my work. During the creation of Nimbus in 2015, I had the opportunity to visit the Rothko room at the TATE Modern. Rothko’s Black on Maroon series was displayed in the dimly lit gallery, which immensely impressed me. When I returned to the studio to continue working on Nimbus, the intense spiritual experience continued to influence me, and I couldn’t help but bring them into my work.
Shi Zheng, Nimbus, 2015.
You have stated that you do not only see yourself as the creator of your artworks, which display computer-generated virtual worlds, but also as a wanderer wanting to share the experience of these lonesome lands with your viewers. Is there an attempt to connect to your viewers through this shared experience?
I have always felt that making art is a sharing experience and that artists have their own way of seeing the world. I started to learn about virtual worlds from Second Life, and since then, my work has always had a sort of “wanderer” perspective. Whenever I create a new work or build a new “world,” I feel like I’m in a “sandbox” environment. Imagining this “sandbox” as a glass container, I can observe the real world through this container and also reflect on ourselves through the mirror reflection. I suppose the superposition of the real and the virtual is what I want to share with the audience through my artwork.
I grew up in a small suburb connected to Sydney called North Rocks in the west away from the coast. It was mixed, lower middle class and solid middle class in other areas. I found it exciting at times and desperately boring at times as well. I now live in London and mostly spend my time in the Southeast of London.
Where did you go to school and what did you study?
I went to a state school in North Rocks and then after graduating I went to an art school in Sydney called Sydney College of the Arts. I stayed there for a few years, got an Honors degree and then jumped to an another art school.
My Masters study was at the College of Fine Arts University of New South Wales. I studied painting although by the time I left Sydney College of the Arts, I was already experimenting with video and other technology so for my Masters degree I was mostly moving between lots of mediums.
What does your workspace / desktop / studio look like?
I’ve got a physical studio space in Southeast London that’s connected to a gallery space called the Drawing Room. It’s a medium sized space with a beautiful view of London. It’s very much a painting studio. It’s really messy, there are big unstretched canvas on the wall. There’s oil, acrylic, aerosol, it’s a real mess. I do work in VR through other studio spaces.
When did you start working creatively with technology?
A lot before officially studying video performance and installation. I was creatively using technology in my painting process. I was interested in taking reproductions of paintings and scanning them, altering their dimensions and then re-painting those manipulated images through Photoshop.
The Photoshop image of say a distorted Gainsborough or a Reynolds painting from British society portraiture going back to the 1700th or 1800th century would then become the proprietary sketch for a very detailed painting. So that’s probably when I started looking at this interface or this connection or somehow a conversation between technology and something more traditional.
In 2009-10 you were the official Australian War Artist and the first to use video for your project. Can you describe your experience working on the ground with the Australian military in Afghanistan and talk about the process of creating Double field/viewfinder (Tarin Kowt)?
This commission with the war memorial was very different for me. I was heading into a very difficult, unknown space and couldn’t control the elements around me like I do here in this studio or like I think I’m doing in this studio.
To work in an environment like that required a different kind of thinking. I wanted to explore ideas that I already had in my practice so that’s where Double field/viewfinder came from which was really me taking this technology into the theater of war but also knowing that technology was entirely integrated into that experience and supporting that experience and probably most of the technology I was using was actually developed through military objectives.
Video recording technology and digital video was so familiar to a lot of the soldiers because they are technologists. I decided to hand cameras over to them and let them record video. It ended up becoming quite intense because the soldiers took on the project as if their lives depend up on it. It almost was like a military drill so that was quite interesting for me and then letting the soldiers know that it was an experiment and getting their feedback after was equally important.
In 2016 you co-founded an Indie VR Content Collective with producer Leo Faber called Badfaith. You’ve mentioned the name of the collective is a reference to the Sartrean philosophical concept. Do you believe VR can be an antidote to certain social forces that cause people to act in bad faith? How do these ideas factor into your practice?
Firstly, the name BadFaith is connected to the concept of Jean Paul Sartre as well as Simone de Beauvoir. Each philosopher or thinker has versions or signs and symptoms of ‘bad faith’ within their thinking or within their ideas around the concept so it can be quite nuanced and complex to talk about ‘bad faith’ depending upon who I’m footnoting or referencing but I think technology can also potentially generate bad faith as well just depending upon how the technology is used. Like any technology if it’s being used as a weapon or a tool for something else.
The same technology has very different outcomes and effects and I think that the fact that bad faith was always about simulating a kind of presentation of self or position even down to the occupation of the waiter as Jean Paul Sartre’s famous example goes, then that immediately becomes relevant to technology like VR which is a very powerful simulator that we all now have access to as consumers rather than it being locked up in university research labs or tech developers so we’re going to see all kinds of different forms of bad faith in a kind of hard boiled sort of I guess bare life to use Giorgio Agamben’s term in relation to VR.
What projects are you currently working on?
Good question. I’ve got a few long term projects related to shows and a few little ones that are more like doodles. I do some sketching in video. I go out and ride my bike and follow the line on the street and it’s kinda like a video drawing. I’m really excited about doing more of those in London, really simple raw works. I still draw, still like to printmake and paint. But I love VR and AR.
I’m trying to run that full spectrum. I don’t want to lose out on the idea of working with materials and using substance and stuff and getting dirty. Like in VR sometimes I can feel like it’s just too much of a pure space which does not reference the gunk, junk and the abject reality of my body or the world.
Have you done any work in AR? Do you find VR or AR to be a more compelling medium? Why?
I’m developing an idea for a show in AR now.
The distinction between AR and VR is quite enormous. VR completely arrests your sense of sight and hearing and when you start to include kinetics and haptics then you aren’t given a frame outside of the frameless space you’ve been immersed within while AR still gives you the reference physically and optically and and conceptually to your immediate environment as it then starts to augment that space so you still have some reference to that space if it’s to be defined as AR. So I think they are so different for me given those kinds of boring different textbook definitions. Some ideas could be better wrapped up in VR and others in AR.
In a field where hardware and software can quickly become obsolete, how do you approach documentary and archival processes for your work?
Usually I’m sorta just hopelessly producing work that will very quickly be its own ruin because that sort of archival and documentary process has changed. I’m only just now bringing it all in to a central nervous system but then it would of course be better managed through you guys in terms of the digital phase which is great.
It’s amazing to start off in art school and go from prints to slides you put a in projector right through to this system that you guys are working on. I think it’s an incredible arc as to how I’ve used technology to archive my work or to document the way that it’s been shown from a slide projector to the cloud in the space of my professional life and student years.
Who are some contemporary or historical new media artists that you admire? What are some of your favorite works?
Caravaggio’s use of optics back in the day. Interesting to think of these early examples of people who have used technology. Galileo’s drawing of the moon after he developed the telescope are some of the most beautiful images I can think of from the sides of both art and science.
In terms of new media artists, I like everyone, Raqs Media Collective to Pipilotti Rist. I’m interested in why people are using technology and sometimes I’m also interested in the result but there is always some interest to me as to why people are picking up the camera and trying to make episodic TV series and calling it art or making a series of elaborate performances around their sculptures and calling that video. Probably the one artist who I really love is Stelarc the Australian guy who auments his body with technology.
You have an MFA in painting from RISD: Rhode Island School of Design. What came first for you, art or technology?
I studied traditional analog art in high school and at RISD as an undergraduate before transferring to Brown University to study mathematics. I was as surprised as anyone to find myself using the computer to make art after graduation. In fact, I have to admit that I was a total computer-phobe and pretty much thought art made with a computer had to probably be evil (which, unsurprisingly, seemed to be the general institutional sentiment when I later returned to RISDI for my MFA).
I really began to appreciate the visual power and convenience of the digital world when I was working in New York after college. I had a computer in my cubicle and was working a gazillion hours a week. The only way I could work on my art was inside that machine; it became my tiny studio. I began to explore what I could do with art software like Photoshop… and when my boss walked by… presto… like magic… I could easily click back on Excel.
After a while, I realized my future probably didn’t rest in banking [duh] and I applied to graduate school in Painting at RISD–of course, without mentioning that I’d been using a computer to make art, since that was still a pretty subversive insult to the painting tradition back then.
Once I was back at RISD, I wanted to continue exploring the digital realm. There weren’t any classes offered, though, so I actually ended up getting “volunteered” to teach one to my fellow graduate students. In the course of developing curriculum for what became the first digital fine art courses at RISD and Brown, I ended up writing the widely used textbook, The Computer in Visual Arts (Addison-Wesley). This was a multi-year undertaking and it brought together aesthetic, technical, and art-historical aspects of the field.
I was also fortunate during this time to work with Andy van Damin his Computer Graphics Research Group in Brown’s Computer Science Department where I was a researcher and Artist in Residence. It was a bit like an old fashioned apprenticeship and I learned about the technical side of the field.
After 15 years immersed in academia, I thought, if I don’t give my art career a chance it’s probably never going to happen. I took a sabbatical in 2008 and ended up not returning.
What do you think is most misunderstood about digital art and what would you like people to know?
Ahh, where to begin. Perhaps the most common myth, similar to the “anyone can point and click” accusations that plagued photography, is that somehow the computer is making the art for you and the digital artist is merely pressing a mouse button and sitting back with a toothpick while the machine does all the hard work.
In reality, it is exactly as difficult to make art with the computer as with a paint brush or any other medium because the hard part doesn’t lie with the technical device or medium but in the artmaking aspects–the choice of content and how to express it. A great artist can make art with a crayon–as Picasso did drawing a dove–and a lousy artist can fail to make art with the world’s most powerful supercomputer. If anything, I’d say it takes more hours working with a computer than most traditional media because it is a new technology and involves a lot of tedious problem solving on a daily basis.
As we move into a new world of machine learning and AI, this may change and the computer may truly be making art, but I have not seen convincing examples of that yet.
I’d say another misunderstanding, and one that photography and video art and some other art forms share but that has for some reason particularly plagued digital art, has been that “it’s not art because it isn’t done by hand.” For reasons that are not entirely clear (given the history of other genres for which this is true), this stumbling block keeps reappearing. Ironically, I have often felt more like I was drawing and painting when working with digital video than I did wielding a physical pencil or brush. One would think in this day and age that art could be accepted for it’s conceptual and aesthetic qualities and the mediation of the hand would not be brought into so many discussions–but it remains an issue.
I could go with these misunderstandings forever, but I’d say these are the most common.
You use custom software to create your work. Have you always developed/used your own tools? Tell us about that process.
At this point I have custom software, but there was a process behind the evolution that led me there. I mostly used off-the-shelf software (back to Photoshop 1.0 and even its rudimentary predecessors like Letraset Realist) but starting with my kaleidoscopic video works, the standard software didn’t offer all of the features I felt I needed.
I began working with a wonderful programmer, Nathan Seilikoff, on custom plugins for Adobe AfterEffects and Photoshop. These let me work with more parameters for the patterning and motion, and also control them better. I did take programming courses but, basically I’m a slob and spent an inordinate amount of time chasing down stray semicolons. Learning how to program does help me understand what is possible, however, and to communicate with people who are good programmers. That said, I am happy working with programmers like Nathan to develop my custom software.
As an artist, what do you think are the biggest challenges in exhibiting digital art?
Some galleries simply will not exhibit digital art. Of course, many artists use the computer at some point during their creative process (from image research to composition work and beyond), so this is an increasingly meaningless statement.
For those that do exhibit new media, the biggest challenges are making everything run smoothly and supplying instructions for non-technical people to easily keep things running. Surprisingly, there are still not any widespread “entry level” mechanisms for basic digital art display (e.g. a simple and easy-to-use screen or projector that would seamlessly loop digital files), and thus a new media show usually involves a crazy set up of extension cords and media players; multiple remotes with line-of-sight issues; and other things that are baffling to gallerists unaccustomed to such technology. Things are even worse if an actual computer must be kept running the whole time a show is up. Many spaces turn their power off at night requiring everything to be reconfigured each morning.
Beyond technical display issues, it is also sometimes challenging to explain to viewers that a work could be shown in their home or institution differently from the way they are experiencing it in the gallery or museum. For example, it is sometimes hard to explain to people that a video work would look fine on a different sized screen, or on a screen even though they are seeing it projected. Prospective clients also often balk at having to choose their own screens or other equipment, even with advice from the artist or gallery.
As a collector and artist, what do you think are the biggest challenge in collecting digital art?
We collect mostly early works that are plotter prints on paper. As such, we avoid most of the archival and storage issues of collecting new media as essentially they are india ink on paper and this is a well known entity. We do have some works that are video, i.e., files, and those are backed up multiple times–both on physical hard drives and in the cloud.
Some of the challenges are the same as any art collection I think–storage, organization, documentation, etc. We have begun to put the collection online for research purposes–to share it with a broader audience and you can see our efforts so far at spalterdigital.com. Many works are not up yet as they need to be photographed, and we are still entering data. Implementing any new cataloging system is always an incredibly daunting task, though.
As an artist creating digital video works that others collect, I have struggled to find an optimal way to present work for easy display and use and integration with clients’ existing collections. Several of my collectors have told me my work was the first new media piece they purchased; I think that is because I go to great lengths to try to make it easy to install and maintain the work. My ongoing search for solutions in this space led me to Niio. Their approach is the only hardware agnostic one I know of —letting clients use their existing screens without the need to deal with extra remotes.
In addition, unlike virtually all the made-for-art displays available, Niio addresses file quality issues that have always bothered me, letting clients view the optimal version of the video. The Niio server also stores archival versions of the file, and addresses distribution and backup issues. It is difficult to communicate some of these features to collectors who are not technologically inclined, but they are supremelyimportant.
As a collector and artist, how do you tackle the topic of preservation?
[see above for the Collection]
As an artist I live in fear that I will lose files! This is the equivalent of a fire in the studio. I make local backups to a RAID array, multiple cloud backups, and off-site backups.
AR – Are you a fan as an artist? As a collector? Any works in your personal collection?
I really love AR. I think AR has a great combination of convenience and aesthetic quality and ease of use. We own one of Claudia Hart’sAR works. I thought Will Pappenheimer’sPrivateer (in Boston Harbor) was super. And, of course, I did an app for Pulse Contemporary Art Fair Miami Beach in 2016–Miami Marbles–which you can download from the app store.
What do you think will help establish the stature of digital art in the context of the global art world?
Fortunately this is already happening! Although we are all impatient, it really hasn’t been that long since the invention of digital computers and the advent of digital art to, now, shows at major museums featuring new media works. I think we all live in internet time and expect things to happen almost instantaneously. Artists already know that the computer is a part of the art-making process and use it without hardly thinking about it.
For collectors and the critics and THE art world status quo to accept it will just take a few real leaders to give it THEIR seal of approval. Shows like the Thinking Machines, curated by Sean Anderson and Giampaolo Bianconi currently up at MoMA in NYC, help accomplish this. Not only is it a thoughtful interesting show but it brings together digital and analog works under the aegis of a larger theme and it doesn’t comment on the difference. The show treats all the artists equally — de facto as part of art history. This is the type of thing cements digital art into the canon.
About Anne Spalter:
Digital mixed-media artist Anne Spalter is an academic pioneer who founded the original digital fine arts programs at Brown University and The Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in the 1990s. In her studio practice, Spalter uses custom software to transform source footage—captured by the artist during multisensory experiences such as riding the Coney Island Cyclone; walking through an open-air flower market in Bangkok; and gazing down from a helicopter over downtown Dubai—into kaleidoscopic, algorithmically manipulated Modern Landscapes.
Spalter, who studied mathematics as a Brown undergraduate before receiving an MFA in painting from RISD, has a longstanding goal of integrating art and technology. With additional cross-disciplinary masteries including a 2011 Sensei designation in Kenpo Karate, Spalter’s influences in the studio are as diverse as Buddhist art, pure mathematics, Futurism, and Action Painting.
Spalter’s work is housed in the permanent collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum (London, UK); the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo, NY); the Rhode Island School of Design Museum (Providence, RI); and others. In March 2016, Spalter received accolades from Forbes, Surface, Whitewall, and others for her large-scale installation Precession at SPRING/BREAK Art Show. Later that year, she was tapped by PULSE Contemporary Art Fair for its inaugural commissioned installation series, debuting at PULSE Miami Beach 2016. Also in late 2016, MTA Arts commissioned Spalter to create a 52-screen digital art installation, New York Dreaming, in one of its most crowded commuter hubs (on view through Summer 2017 in Fulton Center). Spalter currently sits on the board of the New York Foundation of the Arts (NYFA).
At Niio, we are passionate about the intersection of Art, Design & Technology. From code-based and algorithmic artwork, to AR & VR installations, blockchain, and the new .ART domain, digital art was everywhere in ’17. Check out some of the great stories that we’re reading now and look out for lots more in ’18.
ARTNEWS // The Year in Screens, in Museums, Galleries, and So On
“It’s estimated that the average American spends about ten hours looking at screens—on phones, laptops, desktops, tablets, televisions, and so on—every day. Screens are more than a little ubiquitous at this point, and I realized, perhaps not so surprisingly, that many of my favorite exhibitions from this year involved the use of screens.” Read more.
THE VERGE // Miami Art Basel: Where Art Reckons With Technology
“In the mass of confusion that is Miami Art Basel, there’s more discussion about the issues of our time, and much of that is framed around technology and the way it is making us think, react, and exist. In the midst of traditional paintings and sculpture on view, Miami Art Basel is demonstrative of how the art world is catching up to internet culture.” Read more.
BOSTON GLOBE //
Boston Arts Groups Team up for Sprawling Look at Art, Technology
“This February, 12 Boston-area arts organizations will band together to present a sprawling series of exhibitions exploring the symbiotic relationship between art and technology — a rare cross-institutional collaboration that includes painting, film, and Web-based art, among others.” Read more.
OCEAN DRIVE //
Julia Stoscheck Talks Her Inspiring Collection of Time-Based Media Art
“Art that exists only when installed? Whose every iteration can be considered a different representation of the work? Employing essential equipment and technology that can fail or become obsolete? None of it fazes Julia Stoschek, a leading collector of time-based media art, who gives these pieces the space they need to unfold their magic.” Read more.
The 25 People Who Defined Visual Culture This Year
“What, exactly, is visual culture? In a world where we communicate increasingly with images, it’s an ever-expanding field, comprising not just art, photography, and design, but also memes, advertising, histories of representation, and the very technologies through which all this flows.” Read more.
THE ART NEWSPAPER // UK’s First Permanent Virtual Reality Space in an Arts Institution to Open in London
“This year saw Virtual Reality (VR) reach new heights and capabilities in the art world and now London is getting its first free and permanent public VR space.” Read more.
VENTURE BEAT //
AR and VR Could be Educational — and Profitable — Tools For Museums
“When introduced to new technology, many people react with a mixture of fear and confusion, rather than excitement for the possibilities that the future may hold. Museums are in an even more difficult position: balancing the archiving and preservation of our history and remaining relevant to our society in the present and future, while being cognizant of major financial considerations.” Read more.
UPROXX REPORTS // This Artist Explores the Intersection of Art and Tech by Using Bitcoin
“I make art that that tries to sort of shine a spotlight on the connection between humans and technology,” Bauch says. Read more.
THE ART NEWSPAPER //
High-tech Art in Houston: Data-driven Installations Look at Issues Like Hurricane Harvey and Mass Incarceration:
“While musical acts like Nine Inch Nails, Solange and Radiohead’s Thom Yorke might have taken most of the spotlight at this year’s Day for Night, a music and art festival in Houston, Texas, the visual art on offer was just as attention-grabbing.” Read more.
HYPER ALLERGIC //
Women Artists Working with Technology
“This rigorous exhibition uses art to critique the stereotype that men and technology go hand in hand.” Read more.
THE VERGE //
Artist Daniel Canogar Visualizes Real-time Environmental Shifts With LED Sculptures
It sometimes seems like technology is at odds with the art world — a tension between brain and heart. But plenty of artists, from Da Vinci to Cory Arcangel, have proved that’s not true, and continue to prove it as technology evolves. In Technographica, we explore how contemporary artists are using technology in unusual and unexpected ways. Read more.
RHIZOME // What is the Future of Digital Art?
“A new video from the Thoma Art Foundation brings together answers from ten experts.” View video.
This November we were invited by our partner Marriott, one of the world’s leading hotel companies, to demonstrate a selection of interactive artworks at BDNY: Boutique Design New York, the leading trade fair and conference for the hospitality design industry.
BDNY brings interior designers, architects, hotel owners and developers together, introducing them to the most innovative and high-caliber design elements for hospitality interiors around the world. Over the course of two days, we were able to demonstrate how the Niio platform enables art advisors, curators, architects and designers to implement digital art installations within their projects.
We are on a mission to expose people to original, high-quality, immersive digital art experiences. With a collection of thousands of works from top artists and galleries, state-of-the-art technology, a global hardware infrastructure and white glove installation and support, Niio makes it easy to incorporate captivating digital art into any environment.