Paul Wong is a man who needs almost no introduction. The 'weird uncle' of digital media, Wong has been doing what he's been doing since he got his start in the seventies, making raw, unfiltered video works about sex, death, and racial identity often through striking but oft-missed moments in everyday life. He's been heralded as a national treasure, crowned with the Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts, and shown his challenging, campy, and convention-defying videos in venues as exciting and disparate as hidden woodland cabins and New York's Museum of Modern Art (the former of which he'd lug a generator out to in order to power debaucherous screenings for likeminded friends).
A sprawling, computer-warmed haven secreted away above an old-world flower shop, Wong's Mount Pleasant studio is an institution in the venerable sense — one that has played host to countless eminent Vancouverites, and which Wong has been working out of since the year I was born. It's crammed with stuff, and yet immaculately organized: videos loop endlessly on meticulous arrangements of screens, and the potential chaos of cables and wires that often accompanies media artists in a Pigpen-esque cloud is sequestered neatly away into tubs and buckets. In the interior chamber where we conduct our interview, the only sign of the man at work is a clutch of glowing LED wire, which Wong has been using to mock up his new neon hashtags.
Wong is at ease but deliberate when he speaks, often pausing for thought before listing off notes of importance in a staccato rhythm that reflects the flicker of GIF work installed around him. To better view his latest piece, an installation of 40 video screens called Looking, Looping and Listening that is being exhibited at Winsor Gallery beginning this Saturday, the room is kept dim. The only illumination comes from the rolling videos, a window whose curtain has been raked back to let in the last of the day's snowy-blue light, and a singular neon signature — Paul — that graces the back wall.
VIA: Tell me about your recent infatuation with the GIF format.
Paul Wong: The exhibition I'm doing for Winsor Gallery — Looking, Looping, and Listening — are all GIFs or short video clips that I've made with my smartphone, specifically the iPhone. This is something that started two years ago, using simple apps that are available. I'm interested in animation and motion. The gif made it possible to create simple movements. Click, click, click. I'm an incessant picture taker. This year, now that I've gone from digital cameras to the iPhone 5, the latest count is something like 35,000 images. That includes screenshots, which I'm also taking pictures of all the time. I'm interested in movement. Being able to take a series of stills and compile them into something makes perfect sense to me. It's how I see the world: a series of images, a series of shapes, a series of angles, combining perspectives and juxtapositions of stuff. I can do it all on my phone, right here. That is the attraction.
VIA: I was thinking about how present and interested you are in social media, and the way that we use these things on a daily basis. Do you see social media in particular as being a way of inhabiting the immediacy of real life, or whether you see it more as a way of creating characters or personas?
PW: Number one, I'm interested in the everyday. I've gone from constructing realities to more and more incessantly recording. I always have the immediate world around me, and I work with those materials. The idea that I'm able to look, record, play, and post and share that with myself is really cool. I first started working with video because it was instantaneous. You could record, and play it back instantly. You could close-circuit it instantly. It wasn't like working with 35mm film, where you had to send it to the lab and have it processed [before you could see it]. The current smartphone that I have, as a mobile recording, production, and delivery device, is not a far stretch from the video portapak that I had 30 years ago. They're exactly the same in terms of having a device that allows me to immediately respond to the world. When I'm creating a GIF, I can pound that out and see it right away. I'm sharing it with myself, as I'm playing. I can share it with the larger world, but it's often quite secondary. I can create this GIF and send it off right now, because I want to share it with you; I'm making it for you.
VIA: What is it exactly that drives that impulse — to always look at and reflect on the everyday?
PW: Each of these are a response to an object, a person, a place, a moment. When I'm creating the material for them, I'm responding to standing at that street corner, looking up at that building. This is what I see. This is how I see it. As two-dimensional, as abstract, as Constructivist, as a movement. It's how I see and respond to the world. It's no different than a photographer deciding for frame [something] like that, or a painter deciding to paint this. In this particular case, with this particular collection, it's seeing the world through short video and vines or instagram videos or GIFs.
VIA: And what's the relationship between this work and your work with neon?
PW: In this particular case, for this exhibition, I'm doing hashtags. I'm doing hashtag constellations. I'm taking that hashtag symbol — the number symbol, which has now become the hashtag symbol — and presenting that as a little small, medium, and large star. To me, neon is light — it's drawing with light. And the camera is all about light. Certainly, digital mediums are all about light. Without light, I couldn't do any of this, be it dark, gritty, or bright light. I need light. With the previous exhibition at Winsor Gallery, with Full Moon Drawings, that was me shooting with a camera, the full moon, and literally drawing with the camera, and then re-rendering some of those shapes and lines with neon. To me, neon is just a stroke. And it could be representational as a language, or it could be very rigid as the representation of an object, or it could be a piece of fruit, or a letter. In this case, it's going to be those strokes.
VIA: And are you interested in that collective experience that the hashtag can offer?
PW: Going back to the social media aspects of what I've been exploring in the last couple of years — I'm on Twitter, I'm on Instagram, I'm on Facebook, I'm on LinkedIn, I'm on Grindr, Manhunt, Squirt, Vine, Snapchat, and other platforms that you can share. You can follow. You can have followers. In some cases, I'm not interested in followers or following at all, but I'm just using it. For a while there, I was posting a lot of stuff then deleting it as part of that process. I belong to groups that are [made up of] two or three people, or groups that are in the thousands. All of these platforms have the potential to speak with somebody else. The possibilities are endless in what you can do with or on them.
VIA: Beyond the exhibition at Winsor, you are quite the cornerstone in the Vancouver community. What are your thoughts on the trajectory of Vancouver art and culture right now?
PW: I have been the co-founder of a lot of artist organizations, such as VIVO, On Main, and a number of collectives and artist groups — really, it's been parallel to developing my own practice. At any given moment, I am producing, co-producing, collaborating, curating several projects in development. It comes from when I began in the seventies, when it really was about DIY. We very much wanted to be, and needed to be, in control of our own destinies. We needed to have some say over the production, presentation, and distribution of our own work. That is still the kind of crux why I do those things. I don't like the specification between amateur and professional, number one, and what is and is not art, number two, and the curator and the artist and requiring middle managements and mediators. Yes, I respect all those people, but to allow yourself to give up control of any of your production methods, exhibition venues, and distribution of your work to somebody else entirely is not a healthy thing. I think that educational institutions, commercial galleries, and the big museums and galleries, are slow. They're way behind the times. [Most of them] don't know what's happening on the ground. Unless you can facilitate, encourage, and allow things to develop, it's not going to get to that other place. Those are the reasons why I still am involved in facilitating and producing and curating the work of other artists' and creating venues to do that.
VIA: Do you still consider yourself a radical?
PW: No, no, no. I've never really considered myself a radical. I love radical work. I like experimental work. I like work that speaks the truth. I like work that takes aesthetic, formal, and content risks. Creativity is not all about the mat and the frame. Sometimes it's important to allow artists truly to have creative freedom. Freedom from the marketplace, freedom from formal constraints, freedom from critical analysis, freedom from peer review, and the freedom to just go crazy. There's not many places to do that. But I don't feel myself to be a radical, to answer that question, because I play by the rules.
VIA: Why did you decide to work with a commercial gallery, in that sense?
PW: The work that I've been exhibiting at Winsor Gallery has been honed for what I think is … it's been commodified. Everything I do in here is work. Curators come here and they want to see what I'm going to present them in terms of finished work. Very few curators have peeked into the cupboards and go, that's interesting, understanding that — there's the work. There's a lot of stuff where I get frustrated because I have to package it for them, and they don't actually see. Sometimes I wish that they could exhibit exactly what I'm doing, and not worry about all this other packaging that's involved with it. The first show for me at the Winsor was quite challenging, to come and filter through stuff and put together a collection that could be commodified and editioned and finished and cleaned. I'm used to doing a lot of events and ephemeral and time-based installations. So why I'm doing a second show for the Winsor is because it's pushing me to come up with this collection, and I still say the work is totally me — in this particular case it's not a huge stretch. I'm producing 40 unique digital frames that you can just take away. Consumer priced. Anyone can have a digital screen. It's only going to cost $2,500, not $25,000. Of course, you could buy all 40 as well.
VIA: So you're fine with the installation being broken up?
PW: Well, I see it as a feature-length film. When you put all these back-to-back, it's a non-linear film. Each one of these frames has got seven GIFs or five short videos. 40 x 7, you know, that's a lot of different scenes that I'm putting together. In that sense, it's cinematic and film-making and narrative. I do see them as scenes with characters, with landscapes, with portraits, with architecture, with colour, with rhythm, with movement. Everything kind of deals with time. That other piece right there [on the screen] is called Summer Solstice. It's a view from a window of an alleyway on the corner between Main and Hastings recorded on the summer solstice. It is a time-lapse piece recorded over twenty-four hours from noon to noon, which I've reduced to twenty-four minutes. With the time-lapse, it recorded one frame every ten seconds over twenty four hours. What I've used is a generative piece of software, which has taken this ten seconds, and the next ten seconds, and generated the movement in between. So that is a computer generated movement between two things, which are in fact two still frames every ten seconds. Formally, it's based on duration, but the action is the recording of people in the business of going about their daily lives — loitering, lingering, hustling, dealing, going to and from work, working, the cars coming and going, the buses coming and going. Whatever happens happens. Over that 24 hours, we get glimpses of all kinds of stuff. People hanging out in the window, smoking cigarettes in the hotel or the apartments, watching TV, digging up the street, ambulances come and go, a breadline forming and coming, or the same person coming and going over half a day. I'm still making observations of everyday life; it's not a constructed reality.
Chris Bentzen: Where some artists get stuck in the same pattern of always repeating the same things, you seem to always have this sense of play; the idea that you're fluent in the medium and figure things out and explore what other possibilities are out there. Can you talk about play and how you value that in your work?
PW: I cherish my playtime. And I don't get enough of it. I think sometimes I talk about getting a punch-clock in here, to see the amount of hours that I actually spend at creative play. The actual time to physically play and experiment is rare, and it continues to be. I cherish it. I think what I did do, a number of years ago — I really switched from a production office with big projects, short term staff, and crews, to a studio practice where I just came in and worked with what I had. None of this big planning for months to do this. I stopped worrying about making the right big project, and just played. That's where all this stuff comes from. I don't try to over-think stuff, and try to return to the roots of what excited me to start with. [I had to make] decisions to push aside what everyone else is doing, what everyone else is thinking. I have to believe in myself, and realize that I'm only good at what I do — I'm not good at what you do. Obviously I must be good at what I do, because I've been doing it for a long time. I just had to let that happen. When I work with other artists, I treat them the way I want to be treated: with honour and respect and the openness to go, yeah, do that! Let's see if we can make that happen. [Art has] become such a business. There's a lot of artwork out there that is not about play. It's been formulated even before the production starts. They've already created the artist statement, they've talked to the critics, they've set the price, the venue, and then the work gets made. I've gone the other way around. And these [works] are great; they really came out of just jamming with a few people on the cameras and sending things back and forth and sitting around and playing with our phones, and discovering a lot of stuff out of play.
VIA: What are your thoughts on being such a big influence for a lot of young people, who have grown up as digital natives, who are working in net-art and video art today? Your name is always out there when younger people are thinking about how to contextualize their own practices. Your nickname is 'Uncle Paul', after all.
PW: I'm honoured, and I'm thankful that I'm still working today. I think that the technology, the audience, and the delivery systems have finally caught up to where I wanted things to be forty years ago. Now I have a camera that is truly mobile, as opposed to the 60 piece thing that I used to carry around twenty years ago, where this is fifty times the quality. I can do all of that, getting stuff out of the studio, out of the hands of film studios and television production. I am able to use media in non-institutional ways, and explore the potential of it as a personal medium of creative expression, for different kinds of story-telling, as a mirror to show other kinds of realities, and as an optical and perceptual tool. When I was making that work then, people were not very responsive to it. Even the ones who were being very nice to me about that stuff really hated it. They didn't get it. They were all about the plastic arts — painting, sculpture, that stuff. They had to put up with it because we made them put up with it. But now, there's a whole generation — a couple of generations — who have grown up with this stuff. They get it. They automatically understand it. There's no more apologizing. When I say I'm a media artist, they understand. I think that this is a mediated generation, and it's cool that they like what I do. They actually come to events or exhibitions and respond to them, and don't really require an excuse or an explanation. They truly get it. And who calls me Uncle Paul? — They all call me Uncle Paul. — #PAULWONG2014 opens at Winsor Gallery this Saturday, January 18th, from 2-4pm. Get in touch with Paul Wong.