Paul Wong’s Multi-Verse: Life, in GIF format
*This article was originally published on The Belgo Report*
A wall of flickering images depicts the many details of multimedia artist Paul Wong’s daily life. Each image is visible for no more than half a second. The viewer is struck by the overwhelming quantity of content, and by the obsessive collecting that allowed its creation. Some of the GIFs include: geometric abstractions, a blooming rose, an iPhone message asking for confirmation to delete a photo, and a naked backside seen under a Pop Art filter. The personal mixes with the public, the figurative with the abstract, and the amateur with the professional. The images burn with the intensity of the everyday.
Capturing and exploring identity through digital imagery has always been an integral part of Wong’s practice. As one of Canada’s most respected, and prolific, artists he investigates what it is to be oneself in a society where it’s easy to be engulfed by overwhelming external influences and perspectives. Throughout his 40-year career, Wong has seen different technologies come and go. For many years, he carried two heavy cameras everywhere he went – one for video, and one for still photographs. Nowadays, his kit is much lighter. At a talk to open his exhibit Multi-Verse at Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal (MPM), he explained how smart phones have revolutionized his practice, saying, “Since I got the iPhone 6, it’s all I carry.”
This new media aspect of Wong’s works allows it to speak to what MPM curator, Joan Fontcuberta, identifies as the establishment of a “new visual order”. As one of the biennial’s key conceptual frameworks, this idea incorporates the notion that society’s relationship with the image is fundamentally changing. Nowadays, images are: largely digital, readily available, and easily transmissible. Their now ubiquitous nature means individuals communicate via images on a day-to-day basis. Wong presents four pieces as part of the exhibit. Each work offers us a glimpse into the artist’s world, and most are an expression of his identity as seen through his social media. One piece is an outdoor video installation, and the remaining three are presented at Galerie Joyce Yahouda.
In #LLL, Looking, Listening, Looping (2014), Wong covers a wall of the gallery with 40 tablets – each screen plays GIF animations on a continuous loop. Like much of his recent work, it was created and edited entirely on a smart phone. Each of the GIFs and videos were initially shared with his social media community through free apps like Vine, Snapchat, Instagram, and GIF Boom. He said that at the time he didn’t give much thought as to what he may do with the images, and certainly didn’t plan to present them in a gallery one day. Their sole context was to be shared with his community of followers, online. The GIF and video content is varied, and ranges from selfies to more abstract imagery. In total, Wong presents 75 minutes of work, the equivalent of a feature length film; he said he considers each GIF as a scene from his life.
Standing in front of the installation, it’s difficult to focus on any one tablet. However, to see each image within a GIF, it needs to be watched through at least a few repetitions. There is a sensation of distracted attentiveness that feels similar to being overwhelmed by online images, or scrolling through a Facebook feed. The feeling of being inundated by multiple photos, by the sheer quantity of content, is an integral part of Wong’s work. It raises the question: what is the point of all these images if it’s not possible to interact meaningfully with them?
Wong’s outdoor video installation, Year of GIF (2013), was created from the content he generated during his first year of GIF-making. Originally constructed as a site-specific piece for the Surrey Urban Screen, it was adapted for projection onto the brick wall outside Montreal’s Saint Laurent metro station. The work is a five-minute loop of 350 GIFs, all made on a smart phone. The content ranges from selfies, photographs featuring technology, individual portrait studies, art references, artworks, travel images, and architecture.
At his exhibit launch, Wong described how there is an interesting, yet tragic, link between his fascination with GIFs and his family life. Wong’s mother, who currently lives with him, suffers from dementia. In describing the situation, he said she lives in a “magical, abstract world” of non-linear time. Adding that her memory can play in constant loops, replaying certain events, while completely losing others. The poignant link between the nature of GIFs and his mother’s memory is not lost on the artist himself.
Wong’s third work, Solstice (2014), is a 24-minute video, which captures an infamous Vancouver street at intervals over a 24-hour period. Made using the pixel motion filter tool in After Effects, it evokes surveillance imagery, and shows the comings and goings of an area known as “Crack Alley” – a popular place for drug consumption and trafficking. The pixel motion filter makes it seem as though figures are continuously appearing out of, and then disappearing into, thin air. They materialize as if conjured by some external force.
Finally, Wong also presents Flash Memory (2010-2015), a four-channel video showing the iPhone photos he took over a four-year time period. Each channel is divided by year: 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. The channels scroll through each image at a rapid pace like when uploading photos from a cell phone onto a laptop. Wong said he came across the idea by accident when he was watching an upload onto his own computer. He added that he finds the way we look at images now, the way we scroll through them rather than closely examining each file, is very different from in the past. All images – good, bad, different, useful and not useful – are merged together chronologically, and awarded equal value in terms of the space they occupy in our mental memories, and in our digital memory systems. This complete blurring of amateur, professional, personal and public, is something Wong wants to convey with the work. The excessive accumulation of images is also a key idea explored by other artists involved in the biennial.
Wong is based in Vancouver, and works as a practicing artist, and curator. He is also the co-founder of several artist run organizations, and the director of On Main Gallery, which has been operating since 1985. His work is included in public exhibits at the National Gallery of Canada, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), and the Canada Council Art Bank. His current exhibit, Multi-Verse, will be on display until October 10, 2015, at Galerie Joyce Yahouda.