To Hack into Hacking

Zhai Liang, One Track — How to be a Protestor, 2015
Simon Denny, Formalised Org Chart/Architectural Model: GCHQ 3 Agile/Holacracy Workspace
2015
Simon Denny, Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking, 2015
Xindanwei — One Company, 2015
Cui Jie, Government Building, 2014
Cao Fei, Rumba II: Nomad, 2015
Liang Shuo, My Homeland No. 1, 2012
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With “life hack” becoming a buzzword, people nowadays no longer confine hacking in the realm of computer science. It has turned into a synonym of any novelty method to increase efficiency in all walks of life. Recently, as the whirlwind of Art Basel Hong Kong swept over the city, Hack Space, an exhibition in honour of the hacking spirit was staged at Cosco Tower in Sheung Wan among the streets of dried seafood shops.

TEXT : Yidi Tsao
PHOTOS : Courtesy of the artists

Jointly presented by the K11 Art Foundation and Serpentine Galleries, the show features artworks of New Zealand artist Simon Denny, who represented New Zealand at the 2015 Venice Biennale, and 11 artists from Greater China including aaajiao (Wenkai), Cao Fei, Cui Jie, Guo Xi, Hu Qingtai, Firenze Lai, Li Liao, Liang Shuo, Tao Hui, Xu Qu and Zhai Liang. They are united under the curatorial theme of hacking space, and tap into the more localised term of “Shan Zhai”, referring to the counterfeit products most commonly seen in Shenzhen, the adjacent Chinese city right across the border.

Formalised Org Chart/Architectural Model: GCHQ 3 Agile/Holacracy Workspace 2015
Simon Denny, Formalised Org Chart/Architectural Model: GCHQ 3 Agile/Holacracy Workspace
2015

The work of Simon Denny in Hack Space was previously shown at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery (25 November 2014 – 14 February 2016) in his first solo exhibition in London Products for Organising which deals with different moments in the history of hacking, monumentalises the process and values around hacking. It starts from MIT where hacking was invented, then it goes onto open-sourcing with different mascots that are used to represent open-sourced softwares, and then an important hacker community L0pht Heavy Industries, whose members turned to work for DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency) etc. The non-binary way of story telling reflects the contradictory nature of these social issues, according to the artist who regards himself as a cultural hacker. His practice evolves on the conversation with others, who he thinks are important cultural producers and leaders of the things at the moment. His art background makes him believe that art can play the role of redefining and reinterpreting that process. “It’s always about meeting people, going to places that I don’t know about, learning new things and reflecting them in my own language,” the eloquent artist told me at the opening.

While I look closer at his works, all the accurate and fascinating details he has chosen to show in the works aroused my curiosity: did he hack into the organisations to acquire the information that should have remained confidential? Where did he find that blueprint of GCHQ? It turned out that the answer was incredibly simple and I’d like to quote it directly from the artist, “Just some googling actually. The designer who designed the floorplan is not supposed to publish it, but he’s been to several conferences talking about it. So I just put them together. I basically did the job of connecting A twitter stream with A conference and the drawings and the environment. That’s what I do — I listen to other people and try to make sense of what’s been displayed in another context. But that’s amazing because GCHQ is the building that represents the most closed, secretive organisation on the planet which is combatting hacking on paper; but inside an architecture as a space, it’s designed with the principle that they want to be open, they want to have cool collaboration, they want to share, they want to have radicle flexibilities — all of these values that’s in hacking inside its walls. I find it a crazy contradiction which is why I was talking about binaries at the beginning, the ‘black hat’ and ‘white hat’. I have a monument over there dedicated to a hacker community— the L0pht Heavy Industries and one of its members went on to work for DARPA. It’s a continuation of the story, a rich conversation about not being binary.”

Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking 2015
Simon Denny, Modded Server Rack Display: Adapting Hacking, 2015

As the exhibition is set as a platform for exchange and promote emerging Chinese artists, I cannot help but wonder how Simon Denny feels about being “surrounded” by 11 Chinese artists. “A privilege” is the answer from Simon Denny. “To me, the ethos about hacking is about unconventional solutions to problems and the way you enable that is to be open and flexible and do things you wouldn’t usually do. We’ve been learning from each other in this dialogue. Open-sourcing the art making process in a way, that’s my commitment in the show. For me, to have all these artists in dialogue, that’s enriching my thought process in thousand folds.”

Among the pieces shown in the exhibition, a kind of behind-the-scene “hacking” process is revealed. The exhibition includes a 2011 piece by aaajiao that digs into the mining process of Bitcoin. “An absolute satire”, said the artist who studied computer science in university and now a rising star new media artist in mainland China. The work is surprisingly predictive considering it was created when Bitcoin was still fresh and unknown to the majority. aaajiao learnt about it by chance and formed his own opinion of it based on his general attitude towards the Internet which sits at the core of his works. “Based on its technological structure and details of design, I know where it’s the strongest (in the Bitcoin system). Also it was the first time that someone came up with the idea of digital currency, with computing capabilities as universal equivalent. It’s a brilliant and robust idea. It’s still going strong.” However, it now becomes a very commercial and radical system, taking advantage of people’s trust. So the irony continues till today when Bitcoin has become an investment tool, and even an option for money laundry. “I wouldn’t call the work predictive, but I did foresee that we would lose control of it. I have to say that the Internet today is different from the Internet we knew back then. I recognised the reality but not its value system,” said the artist.

Xindanwei — One Company, 2015
Xindanwei — One Company, 2015

A few paintings by Cui Jie lined up on the back wall of the space where the uncanny resemblance of the retro-futuristic urban view with contemporary Chinese cities captures my attention. A female artist born in Shanghai and educated in the scenic Hangzhou city, Cui Jie moved to Beijing 7 years ago where the vast difference between a northern city and a southern city provokes certain rejection in her mind. As a painter, she approached the city in her own way — to photograph it, especially the buildings and it was rather therapeutic for her. Contemplating on the relationship between public sculptures and the architecture in Chinese cities and its production mechanism along with urban modernisation process, Cui Jie tries to examine the process in which public sculptures and buildings were commissioned and built, she then extracts the abstract essence of the socialistic Chinese features from them and represented them in her own painterly language.

Cui Jie, Government Building, 2014

With her first museum solo show in the United States opened at MoMA PS1, Beijing-based artist Cao Fei brought to Hack Space a new video work Rumba II: Nomad created last year, focusing on urban space. “In the past decade, my works have been centred on urbanisation. In this video, I documented how Beijing kept expanding. Where it used to be suburbs have become a new commercial centre now. And I narrated the change in my own way.”

The absurdity continues in Liang Shuo’s work “Mai Hou Mu” which literally means “to sell the stepmother” and is translated phonetically from “my home”. The piece is based on his interpretation of Chinese landscape the he termed as “trashscape”. He groups together details from different places into one clay-like textured installation. “It looked reasonable at first sight, but when you go closer you will find the discrepancies. ‘Trashscape’ represents things that are so commonly seen but are a complete failure; things that we cannot bring to the table; but they are in every vein of the Chinese society.”

The exhibition displays an unconventional view of space, culture and urban life with a humorous twist. It does not only literally hack the space — the pop-up exhibiting venue is normally used for commercial purposes, — but it also hacks into the idea of hacking.

Cao_Fei_Rumba II-Nomad_2015_Video_14mins16secs_Image still 05_72dpi
Cao Fei, Rumba II: Nomad, 2015
Liang Shuo, My Homeland No. 1, 2012
Liang Shuo, My Homeland No. 1, 2012

HACK SPACE
Date: 22 March – 24 April 2016
Opening Hour: 10:00am – 6:00pm daily
Venue: K11 Art Foundation Pop-up Space
G/F, Cosco Tower, 33 Wing Lok Street, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong

 


Yidi Tsao

TSAO Yidi is a Hong Kong based curator and art writer. She is currently involved with the International Symposium on Electronic Arts 2016 as Chair of Artist Residency Programme. At the same time, she is also working on a master’s program in Curating Art and Media at City University of Hong Kong. She regularly contributes to regional art publications, including but not limited to, The Art Newspaper, Leap, radian-online, etc.

 
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