Decentralizing Contemporary Media Art-world Through the Lens of Eastern Metaphysics


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
  • MoBen BENAYOUN (Supervisor)
Award date19 Jan 2022


The theoretical, political and technological systems that govern our global infrastructures are built upon the paradigms of European Modernity. Such remnants of imperialism still haunt our rapidly globalizing world today by perpetuating the systemic occlusion as well as careless misinterpretations of other cultural perspectives. In view of the thickening Anthropocene and general critique of Modernity, scholars such as Philip Descola (2013), Francois Julien (2009), and Yuk Hui (2015), have voiced the necessity of cross-examining various cultural modalities of thought in order to speculate new ways of inhabiting this world. Of particular interest to me, are works by Francois Jullien (2009), Byung-Chul Han (2017), and Takahiko Masuda (2008), who elucidated how East Asian metaphysical worldview, which informs the way we think and enact ourselves in this world, can be glimpsed in traditional conceptions and practices of art. Their analyses exemplify how art praxis encapsulates cultural orientations and grant intimate access for artists to observe deeply ingrained propensities, which we may otherwise overlook. However, while the last century’s avant-garde practices such as Gutai, or Mono-ha invoked East Asian lineages of thought to indigenize Western conventions of art, such purposeful and deep engagement of cultural traditions, both in terms of art-making and theory, are rare in the more nascent fields of experimental media art. Cultural Hegemony is silently in action here, with the field’s perimeter of inquiries pegged to what is in vogue in Europe and North America, whereas ideas and cultural specificities that lie beyond the dominant discourse are often flattened or glossed-over during theoretical exposition. Thus, in advocating for cultural plurality in the academy of art, my thesis proposes to envision experimental art praxis as a potentiating action research platform for generating discourses that critically reflect, dialogue with, and experiment with alternative cultural perspectives.

I have taken two different approaches to this end. For one, I focused on the experimental sound performances of sound artist Ken Ueno, to delineate and substantiate distinct cultural propensities that emerge through his praxis. The other approach focused on the cultural context upon which an artwork takes place, by analysing the political repercussions of Countdown Machine, which is a Tactical Media campaign deployed by activist artists Sampson Wong and Jason Lam in the precarious political atmosphere of Hong Kong in 2016. The decision to study the subject via individuals and contexts marked by distinct hybridity is intentional, where the co-existence of two worldview within one unit of consideration makes discrepancies more conspicuous than in cases emerging in culturally homogenous contexts.

In terms of methodology, my contrapuntal analysis on Ueno’s works is based on a thorough survey of his oeuvre and a series of semi-structured interviews, whereas the analysis on Countdown Machine is driven by action research arising from my involvement as the organizer of the exhibition. The theoretical components of my research are substantiated via an archaeological approach that supports cross-examination of propensities across diverse fields including cosmology, religion, meditation, philosophy, and landscape painting.

The introductory chapter provides an overview of my research and a detailed survey on the issues of cultural imperialism in academia with focus on the field of experimental media art. The second chapter discusses Ken Ueno’s experimental practice to unpack the problem of theorizing his oeuvre predominantly upon the framework of Somaesthetics (as had been done by historian, Martin Jay) while omitting discussion of the inherent cultural aspects (Jay, 2018). The following chapter provides an additional layer to reading Ueno’s work via East Asian metaphysical worldview that nuances the work with propensities such as an affinity toward cosmic continuums and a distinct understanding of the mind-body relationship. The fourth chapter covers the Countdown Machine campaign vis-à-vis the Open Sky Project, as a case in point to discuss the repercussions of uncritically transposing artistic movements into fundamentally disparate cultural contexts where conceptions and approaches toward criticality, art and creativity are radically different. The thesis concludes by recapitulating the need to build and propel both praxis and discourse in the arts toward the goal of diversifying the art-world so that this culturally inclusive orientation may radiate back into academic discourse and in our lives.

This research thus opens up a new area of investigation for experimental media art to be an active site for surfacing, articulating and experimenting with cultural modalities of being that have often been left unvoiced and misunderstood by the dominant narratives of our shared world.

    Research areas

  • Decentralization of art-world, Cultural Imperialism, Experimental Media Art, East Asian metaphysics, East Asian art-world, East Asian philosophy, Decolonialization, Academic imperialism, Postcolonialism, Art-world imperialism