How Hong Kong’s Microwave International New Media Arts Festival Questions the Notion of Truth in Our Times

Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) (US), Environmental Triage: An Experiment in Democracy and Necropolitics, 2020, installation view, Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2020. Image courtesy of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
A decorative device created by Hong Kong-based design studio WARE. Image courtesy of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
Forensic Architecture (UK) and Praxis Films (US), Triple-Chaser, 2019, installation view, Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2020. Image courtesy of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
Lawrence Abu Hamden (Lebanon), The Whole Truth, 2012, installation view, Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2020. Image courtesy of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
Don’t Follow the Wind (Japan, US, Italy), A Walk in Fukushima, 2015–17, installation view (detail), Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2020. Image courtesy of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
Don’t Follow the Wind (Japan, US, Italy), A Walk in Fukushima, 2015–17, installation view (detail), Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2020. Image courtesy of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
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Information is disseminated at an alarming speed and scope in this digital age, often leading to questionable accuracy. For its 24th edition, Microwave International New Media Arts Festival brings to the forefront the effects of this phenomenon, and prompts questions on the investigative nature of art.

 

TEXT: Kate Lok
IMAGES: Courtesy of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival

“The idea was, of course, first triggered by the determination and curiosity to pursue the truth.” Such began the curatorial statement for the 2020 edition of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival. The digital age—with its ease of access to information—provides quick satisfaction to our inquisitive nature as humans. But when a deluge of information is thrown our way on a daily basis, how do we remain critical of what we see? Does it bring us closer or further from the truth? If there is such a thing as truth, how should it be recorded physically and virtually? And to whom should the authority be given to define fact from falsity?

These questions underpin the theme of this year’s festival, “Sharp Chronicles,” which brought together artists, filmmakers, and non-profit organisations to explore a digital world under the siege of excessive information. Since its first iteration in 1996, the festival remains as the only art event in Hong Kong dedicated solely to new media arts.

 

Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) (US), Environmental Triage: An Experiment in Democracy and Necropolitics, 2020, installation view, Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2020. Image courtesy of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
A decorative device created by Hong Kong-based design studio WARE. Image courtesy of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.

 

At the entrance to the festival’s main exhibition at Hong Kong City Hall, a decorative piece that resembles a speculative archaeological device designed by Hong Kong-based multimedia design studio WARE stands as a reverberating representation of the exhibition’s theme. A giant piece of rock, etched faintly with the words of the theme, is pushed through a scanner repeatedly. “This [year] is about the investigative nature of art, questioning and probing into what constitutes the truth and our understanding of truth,” explains programme director and curator Joel Kwong.

Exploring the intersection between art, science and technology, seven multidisciplinary works from artists and collectives around the world take on critical discussion on resonating issues. From an interactive experiment on necropolitics under the context of Hong Kong’s water supply, an immersive experience of a post-2011 Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster, through to virtual depictions of an Orwellian dystopia, their chilling relevance to this day and age is very palpable.

Marking the beginning of the exhibition is a short film by London-based multidisciplinary research agency and 2018 Turner Prize finalist Forensic Architecture (FA), investigates cases of state violence and human rights violations through employing spatial and architectural techniques. The film, Triple-Chaser (2019)—commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art for the 2019 Whitney Biennial—is a video investigation of the controversial use of tear gas grenades manufactured by the Safariland Group, which was owned by the former vice-chair of the museum’s board of trustees, Warren B. Kanders. The revelation sparked widespread protests, which led to Kanders’ resignation from his role in July last year.

 

Forensic Architecture (UK) and Praxis Films (US), Triple-Chaser, 2019, installation view, Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2020. Image courtesy of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
Lawrence Abu Hamden (Lebanon), The Whole Truth, 2012, installation view, Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2020. Image courtesy of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.

 

As shaky footages depicting rounds of tear gas being thrown at scurrying immigrants on the US-Mexican border flash through, it is impossible not to notice the eerie sense of familiarity of its context. Through a narrator, the film explains how the FA team, through machine learning and synthetic image generation, detected Safariland’s tear gas grenades through deciphering millions of photos and video footage taken by past protesters, activists and journalists in events globally, which proves that Safariland’s tear gas were in fact used in many cases of suppressing civilians in protests around the world, including those in Hong Kong.

Such an interdisciplinary approach to investigation suggests a new way of seeing new media art. As Kwong points out in her curatorial statement, “Apart from communicating messages, documenting evidence, researching and awakening, it opens the possibilities of tracing and pursuing the truth.”

Beirut-based artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s audio installation The Whole Truth (2012) stands as a testimony to Kwong’s statement. Known for questioning the politics of sound and surveillance in his works, The Whole Truth is an audio documentary revolving around the application of voice analysis as a lie detection method, commonly used among European, Russian and Israeli governments and border agencies. In a similar manner to a radio show, the documentary pieced together interviews with software developers, anthropologists and entrepreneurs from the biometric industry around the world, questioning the reliability of the verdict it generates.

A strong immersive element pervades the exhibition, it is also one of the defining characteristics that sets new media art apart from more traditional mediums of art. Audience participation, as demonstrated in the interactive installations, were key to the curiosity that Kwong intends to arouse, “How do you lead people to think? Because this is a very important value of art. There were a lot of thoughts and inspiration that crossed my mind during the curatorial process. But what is most important for me—what I hope the audience will gain from this exhibition is an experience of viewing art. I threw in a lot of open questions [throughout the exhibition] and I hope by reflecting on such questions it will inspire deeper and more critical thought.”

 

Don’t Follow the Wind (Japan, US, Italy), A Walk in Fukushima, 2015–17, installation view (detail), Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2020. Image courtesy of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.
Don’t Follow the Wind (Japan, US, Italy), A Walk in Fukushima, 2015–17, installation view (detail), Microwave International New Media Arts Festival 2020. Image courtesy of Microwave International New Media Arts Festival.

 

The exhibition concludes on a sombre note with A Walk in Fukushima (2015–17), an immersive 360-degree video installation by curatorial collective Don’t Follow the Wind. Headsets bearing a design based on the Okiagari-koboshi, a traditional doll from the Aizu region— made by artist Bontaro Dokuyama in collaboration with a Fukushima family who live just outside of the zone in a contaminated area deemed “safe to live” by the government—are provided for audience viewing.

A Walk in Fukushima takes as its departure point, a long-term exhibition, also named “Don’t Follow the Wind,” initiated in 2012 by Chim↑Pom, Kenji Kubota, Jason Waite, Eva and Franco Mattes as a response to the devastating aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster. Unveiled on the fourth anniversary of the crisis, the project commissioned 12 artists to produce site-specific work, all of which are still occupying the deserted homes and buildings in the exclusion zone. As the exclusion zone continues to be inaccessible, the artworks will remain invisible from the public until the ban on entering the area is lifted.

The video shows the sites of the exhibition but not the artworks that were installed, which are hidden behind the bodies of the artists and curators dressed in white protective suits. It is interwoven with first-person narration of a former resident’s visit to his devastated home inside the hazardous zone, showing his conflicting thoughts for being a former employee of TEPCO, the Japanese electric company that owns the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station.

Much like the artworks that are presented in the show, Kwong takes a rather democratic approach to her curation, setting an open agenda that is free for interpretation. “To be honest, I don’t curate the show thinking of what people should take away from it. I made sure to leave enough room for further exploration. There are maps, leaflets and iPads scattered throughout the exhibition to provide different ways for visitors to deepen what they see. We are also doing a lot of satellite events and conferences, so that the audience can take part in the thought process. Through interactions, conversations and the sharing of information, hopefully this will be intriguing enough to induce more thoughts on these propositions.”

The theme of the 2020 festival will be further extended in a second exhibition at Cabinet of Stories, an art gallery and lifestyle space in Sheung Wan. Titled “Project Room: About Life and Death,” the exhibition reimagines four fictional narratives written by Kwong revolving around the lives of four individuals during months of lockdown due to a pandemic in an immersive setting of a female writer’s bedroom. A strewn of happenings, including film screenings and virtual conferences will also continue through the month.

 

 

Microwave International New Media Arts Festival: Main Exhibition
31 October to 8 November
Hong Kong City Hall, Hong Kong

 
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