Hsien Yu Cheng: the Collector

Hsien Yu Cheng is an artist, designer, and programmer. He provides hardware designs for artists working with technology and programs applications for iOS. But, most notable is his creative output of technology-based art. He begins by giving us a description of some of the works from his solo exhibition.

Well, I do many different things, and I am probably going about doing things the wrong way. I should become highly specialized, but I enjoy working with different media and languages. So, the result is an exhibition with the theme of Collector v1.0.0, or the objects that collect stuff. I have revived two older works. One is a web browser you can connect 88 mice to. All the mice can surf the internet and when there is no screen activity, the mice cursors come together to display Portrait 2013: Douglas Engelbart, inventor of the mouse. The second work is a new version of Afterlife.

I have two new pieces which collect more stuff. Like Half-Life, I have an object called ‘Collect a Life’ which is a robot that makes very loud noises and continues to do so until you put coins into it. Then, it becomes quiet and returns to its place. The second, is a re-make of a work called ‘Out of Position’ or Fish on Dish by an important Taiwanese artist, Yuan Goang Ming. His installation is a video of a swimming goldfish projected on a large white dish. My re-make is called Dish on Fish, in which a robot fish swims around on a projection of a large white bowl.

Additionally, I will issue a plug-in for Quartz Composer which allows you to program in real-time with OpenGL scripts. This could be useful for people working with multimedia design.

Because you work developing software and hardware for a variety of artists regionally, as well as yourself, can you explain what the relationship between art and technology means to others in the region of Taiwan? Is the process of creating art integrated with developing skills with technology?

Well, artists in Taiwan don’t really build too much; that is why I am busy. I think this disconnection comes from the academic environment. They offer courses and degrees for new media, but it is something you or I would call video art or digital art, and maybe, there are a few artists who even build sound installations. But, even the term ‘new media’ is quite old already.  In general, there is not much engagement in artistic research for new media. Sometimes you will see simple electronics with lots of wires being very obvious that object is technical. You can not mistake the technological work with a more archaic approach. Regionally, I mostly see projects that are mixed media or traditional materials with no real interest in interaction. At the Taipei art exposition, I saw a Japanese artist presenting work that I saw my classmates in Holland working on and developing with more of a focused outcome. Perhaps he even saw the project on the internet and decided to make his own version. I can not be certain, but I am sure that technology tends to be viewed in the art-world as an after-thought.

If they can see the soldiering, the wires, and the detail
…maybe they will see this part of the story.


When artists approach you, do you wear the hat of a designer; the one that strictly tries to resolve problems? Or, do you not distinguish the artist from designer, perhaps thinking how the projects you work on for others maybe be improved not just technically but artistically as well?

Ummm. I think there is a design process, but a different type of design process at work. If artists have difficulty working with technology, then they really will have difficulty understanding the design process. It is more likely they will not even get involved with process at all. But, maybe this is better.

I began working for artists at Mediamatic in Amsterdam. So, I understand how process can turn in any direction. We made things that we thought clients wanted, so the design choices were based-on meetings, and then more meetings with the client. And, more meetings still. When you finally present a prototype, you want it to be the best possible solution because the client does not always understand that there is a version control; with every subsequent view and use of the material, the design is potentially revised. At some point, you have to just go with it.

As a artist working with technology, the design process begins with the concept. You have to be flexible with materials, both hardware and software, as your knowledge increases with out abandoning your idea. However, it may be that your idea gets better, so you adapt to new decisions. It is more casual compared to the business of product design.

Whether you are building a complete object or appropriating some consumer product, it is usual that you ask many companies for materials, such as internet searches through AliBaba. This alone is an interesting process. When you start to make something, you have to think so much through the process, that the process itself becomes designed.

As you say, design in the art process is different then product design because you don’t have to go through the length and rigor to form an idea. If artwork does not have to conform to any particular standard, the standard is self-determined? 

Of course. If the design is for your own consideration, it has to be something that you are happy with. I want the stuff I make to look nice. When I choose the components for a project, I will not just think about the needs of the circuit, but the physical characteristics and the visual appeal of the object. Maybe, I want to have nice, big, older components. Something that is not necessarily defined by any time or place in particular. If I am purely a designer, I would ask a company to make my circuit and print a board. I know I will get something small and cost effective for quantity production. But, as a work of art, that is not what I want to present.

I try to think from the viewer’s perspective, so I consider what the audience wants to see. I think hiding the electronics and wires away in a box also hides the process away from the audience.  Components are an important part of the composition and I like those visual characteristics. Seeing how things are put together gives the audience an opportunity to understand another layer of the work involved. If they can see the soldiering, the wires, and the detail of the components, then maybe they will see this part of the story.

Let us say we are looking at a coffee maker on display, and we did not know anything about a coffee maker. It is some thing clean-looking with no indication of what is inside. Without seeing any of the functioning parts, we might think the art work was purely conceptual. Basically, you show people what you think is important, and that all depends on your artistic disposition.

The other aspect of working with technology is that you have to have skills to make tools, and often. You make tools to build your ideas, and these tools can be shared and passed on. This is the essence of open source. I think this will be important as artists realize new levels of physical computing.
Lastly, some description of the work you presented in a recent Group Exhibition(?)

I am becoming more interested in bio electronics, so in developing a piece for a group exhibition focused on a theme of energy, I thought it was appropriate to make something based on the Thesis of Ruud Timmers and his work with microbial fuel cells. I have modified a VU meter based-on his research. When the plant is really producing a significant amount of electricity, the needle with point to the label reading something like, “we are working hard” or Hard Working.

by Michael Dotolo (De Fenestrated)


Michael Dotolo (a.k.a. Defenestrated) is a contributing writer to LatusCreativity, a multimedia artist, and educator who has lived and worked in Europe and Asia. He currently lives in New York and continues to produce technology-based art forms.

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