Summer flew by, largely because I spent most of it taking courses in order to graduate in the Spring of 2012. But I can’t complain. I got to take a class on live image processing with the incredibly talented R. Luke Dubois. His deft treatment of code as a medium for art is astoundingly inspiring, but to be honest I had a difficult time keeping up with the material. On our last day of class he invited us to see Laurie Anderson perform live at the Lincoln Center’s Damrosch Park Bandshell as part of the “Out of Doors” Series, but I had to pass in order to finish making a printed circuit board for another course.
I was having a hard time accepting the fact that I will be spending the next year staring at computer screens and burning my fingers hacking electronics in order to complete this degree. So I decided to take some time away from my work, with the excuse that I was going to research traditional performing arts before diving deep into the world of interactive media. The day I submitted my finals, I packed my bags, stowed my laptop safely inside my underwear cabinet, and jumped on the next plane to Asia.
I spent a week wandering the incredible streets and catwalks of Hong Kong, in a quest to meet with Sifu Wong Fai, a puppeteer who strictly follows the traditions of Chinese shadow puppetry. This proved more difficult than I expected because I don’t speak a lick of Cantonese. I tracked him down to the Jockey Club Creative Arts Center (JCCAC), a decommissioned factory that has become home to many artists and designers.
On the day I arrived, the center was hosting several interesting exhibitions, including one that installed work stations for unionized seamstresses to create bags and trinkets out of vintage scraps of cloth. I tried my best to explain that I was trying to meet with the puppeteer, but I ended up having to walk up and down the entire building, checking each studio to see if it was his.
The presence of very political work from Chinese artists who can worry a little less about censorship than their mainland counterparts is a lovely experience. Posters of Ai Weiwei could be found on each floor, though because of my Chinese illiteracy I could not place them in context. I finally found the studio I was looking for but there was no one there, so I had to leave a message and hope someone would understand me. I ended up leaving Hong Kong a little dejected, with only a glimmer of hope I could meet Sifu Wong on my one-day layover before returning to the states. The prospects of my next destination, however, was too exciting for me to mope for long. I was heading to Solo and Yogyakarta, the epicenter of creative work in Indonesia.
I got to spend my time in Java with some of the best performing arts students and teachers in the area. Their clout enabled me to witness several Wayang performances from inside the orchestra pit, a real privilege. The highlight was when the scholar, musician and educator Kitsie Emerson invited me to watch a Wayang Kulit (Leather Puppet) performance by Ki Purbo Asmoro, quite possibly the most popular Dalang (shadow puppeteer) in all of Solo.
Considering the remote areas I was planning to go to, I wasn’t expecting the technology I was running away from to interrupt my life. I hadn’t realized that in the fourteen years since I visited Indonesia, smart phones have penetrated the market. They are mostly ripoffs of original brands (Blueberry, iClone, etc.), but they were still pretty fancy. However, they are quite disruptive. During one performance, a singer was watching television on her phone while she sang. It was surreal.
I am more than a little worried that by pursuing this degree in interactive media, I am becoming part of the problem. But on my layover I finally did meet Mr. Wong and watched him perform, and it was indeed a smart phone that was my saviour. It provided me with a map that led me to his apartment. It allowed me to take photos and video after my camera’s memory cards were full. And it let me call up a very good friend to help translate when my conversation with Mr. Wong got overwhelmingly confusing.
Maybe this is a sign that I should focus my last year less on creating work based on the traditional arts and instead spend it archiving and disseminating it to the masses. But now that I am back, I find myself more inspired than ever to create new pieces from what I’ve learned. Perhaps there can be a happy medium. It’s something I have to think about in the coming year.