(Mr. Shi took the interview seriously. He went through a bath and some meditation before responding.)
Explain who you are.
I am an artist who designs through the media of digital technologies. I create unconventional experiences with the aim of provoking people’s consciousness.
Among the works I’ve done are a music generating system which improvises based on a human dancer’s real-time movements, a projection-mapped environment which imposes poetic alternative spaces onto and contrasting them with the physical one. I invited people to observe a serene little universe revolving by itself, and to interfere with it to appreciate its rich dynamics. I’ve built a Zen garden where almost every detail changes constantly, so that the audience has to decide whether and how to grasp, embrace, and enjoy the present moment.
In my recent work, Shan Shui in the World, the information of the buildings in Manhattan, New York has been transformed into traditional Chinese shanshui (landscape) paintings by a custom algorithm. This project revisits the ideas implicit in Chinese literati paintings of shan shui: the relationship between urban life and people’s yearning for the nature, and between social responsibility and spiritual purity. With generative technology, Shan Shui in the World has the ability to represent any place in the world—including the city where the audience is—in the form of a shanshui painting. The notion that shan shui can exist right here reminds the audience of an alternative approach to spiritual strength: instead of resorting to the shan shui of elsewhere, we may be able to obtain inner peace from the “shan shui” of our present location by looking inward.
Although most of my works involve substantial use of technology, I always try to base them on design thinking and my artistic aspirations. Technology to an artist or designer is like pen (or even better, words) to a poet—we use them as our media to reach (and touch) people’s inner beings.
What is the narrative behind this identity?
Two converging paths took me into my current position.
When I was majoring in computer science, I was intrigued by the domain of human-computer interaction, where man and machine meet each other across a myriad of interfaces. While it is computer scientists who invent these novel interfaces, I gradually realized that it is another kind of people—the designers—who actually build meaningful interactions. Besides being enthusiastic about what we can achieve with technologies, I’m also eager to infuse my work with a humanistic spirit. With this mindset, changing my role from a computer scientist to a designer was a natural move.
Meanwhile in a parallel universe, I’m also a painter, dancer and Zen practitioner. I believe in the value of mindfulness—being conscious of, acknowledging, embracing and enjoying the present moment. To achieve it, one needs to focus on observing their own thoughts and feelings, to turn on their sensations. It is easy for us to take our established daily routines for granted, and not being able to appreciate the space, light, sound and touch from outside, and our state of mind from inside. I’m willing to help. I want to create works that incite people to recollect their sensations and refocus their minds, just like a rich painting, a resonating dance or a deep practice of meditation can do.
That motivation, together with my standpoint as a designer through digital media, resulted in who I am and what I make.
But why make anything at all? Don’t we already have enough stuff nowadays? What place does your future work have amidst all the hustle and bustle of the contemporary globe?
Instead of making things, I engage myself in designing experiences.
The superabundance of material goods is one major cause of our indifference. The whole world uses essentially identical products—who remembers their unique feelings? We seek fake personalities by buying more mass-produced things, yet fail to look inward for the person we really are. While our bodies (and minds) are being spoiled by the contemporary materialism, our souls are at a loss.
Are you as curious, brave, excited and grateful for your life as the child you once were? Are you still well connected to the world by persistently looking out from your headspace? I design my works to be wake-up calls for the people’s consciousness through mind-renovating experiences. By presenting unconventional sensations, by revealing alternative structures and relations, and by inviting the audience to interact with the work and feel the connection, I hope the experiences I designed can help make us willing to perceive more, think more, and begin the endeavor to reconnect our minds and souls.
We are hard-working in making our livings, which enables us to search for a meaning. I have the optimism that more and more people in our contemporary globe will be willing to achieve inner peace through practicing mindfulness, to spread out their sensation and imagination so that they can fully appreciate the wonders of their respective lives and in our common world. And I will be willing to share my part.