Transcript: Artist and curator in dialogue: Shirley Tse’s Sculptural Processes, Tools, and Objects

Shirley Tse’s Sculptural Processes, Tools, and Objects

Note: This is a raw transcription of an audio recording. Part of our mission is to release transcriptions as soon as possible, to improve access to M+ talks. Therefore—while we strive for accuracy—in some places, these transcriptions may be imperfect.

CHRISTINA LI: My name is Christina Li, the guest curator of Shirley Tse’s Stakes and Holders, Hong Kong’s exhibition from the 58th Venice Biennale that is currently on view at the M+ Pavilion. Welcome to our online artist and curator dialogue entitled Shirley Tse’s Sculpture Processes, Tools and Objects. Today, it’s my pleasure to speak to Shirley Tse.

In this conversation, Shirley will discuss her work with various tools throughout her two decades of her sculptural practice and unpacks some of her thinking processes placing particular emphasis on the ways in which technologies and the objects we use shape our realities.

Before we start the dialogue, I thought to spend a couple of minutes introducing Shirley’s practise as well as the current exhibition on view. In Shirley’s two-decade-long sculptural exploration and considering how plastic operates as a signifier of globalisation, in terms of the material circulations, standardisation and industrialisation. In her more recent investigation, she looks at plastic as an adjective exploring its resonance, movement and multiplicity, and carefully considers what individuals can learn from materials, processes and structures that shape up a pluralistic world. The Venice presentation Stakeholders and the current exhibition entitled Stakes and Holders in Hong Kong that’s currently on view at M+ Pavilion, are made of two site-responsive works, Negotiated Differences at the back, which you see is the rhizomatic wooden installation in the back and then the front, Playcourt, in front of the room. Both of the works are emblematic of Shirley’s distinctive use of sculpture to visualise her ingenuity, multi-dimensional thinking and negotiation. They featured new developments in her work, for instance, the use of wood as material as well as the use of the new techniques in her practices such as woodturning, 3D printing and amateur radio transmission. Here’s a different view of the two works. On the left, you see parts of Playcourt, and on the right, you see parts of Negotiated Differences. Playcourt features a set of existing and newly-made anthropomorphic sculptures on stands, and it was inspired by Shirley’s childhood experience of playing street badminton in Hong Kong. Different from the presentation in Venice, the Hong Kong presentation, the figures and the whole installation is deconstructed and represented in a guise of repose occupying a zone of potential action. You just— The previous view and this view, you can see the deconstructed features that were present in Venice, in the courtyard, and a radio cart receiving... that is receiving amateur radio transmission are picked up in the vicinity of the site. Also on the left-hand side, you see a 3D printed heads on top of a tripod which is a new sculpture that Shirley’s made for the Hong Kong presentation entitled ‘Triple Heads’. Here, the radio cart is also a new addition to the Hong Kong presentation, the inclusion of amateur radio technology in this particular case, we’re receiving, not transmitting it.

It really opens up the discussion of the heavily-regulated public domain and the potentiality of transforming and reclaiming public space both in a physical manner and also in an invisible way. And here, invisible meaning that these are kind of radio signals that are imperceptible but only made now audible through the installation. Here is a different view from where we were standing at, where the deconstructed features were, and you can see how the two works pure. Playcourt occupies not only the interior space of the venue but also the exterior space, so you can distinctively see three antennas that are now placed at the exterior, the foyer of the M+ Pavilion, and see these three functional antennas namely Yagi on the left, that’s mounted on the wall, that’s a new addition, a new antenna added to the Hong Kong presentation, and Buddipole that’s right next to it, you see it’s mounted on the ground, and Comet antenna that’s on the rail, and in here, in the inside space, you would see in the golden stand, that’s a new sculpture that Shirley’s introduced and brought to the Hong Kong presentation that’s called Zip-tie Heads. A lot of Shirley’s sculptures and how certain materials are employed or used in her sculptures really unpack a lot of the different histories and usages of each material and objects. As I briefly mentioned already earlier on, badminton, you know, the whole mise-en-scene of Playcourt really is evoking a sense of a badminton gaming process, and here, badminton as a sport, its colonial history is definitely eluded to, and in this particular element of Playcourt, which is a work that you see in the outdoors, Shuttlepod, really is a reflection of Shirley’s family history as labourers to rubber and vanilla bean plantations. As you can see here, the red part which forms tip of the shuttlecock is a rubber and then what would usually be the feathers of the shuttlecock are here made of vanilla pods, and there are five of these Shuttlepods throughout the exhibition which we will encourage the audience to discover.

Here is a view of Negotiated Differences. Negotiated Differences is, like Playcourt, actually, the entire exhibition is a very site-responsive in its nature, so meaning that change and kind of adaptability to the site are really core aspects of this presentation. So meaning that especially for Negotiated Differences, there’s no fixed form of how it looks. It really, the configuration evolves together in dialogue with the space. For the Hong Kong presentation, Shirley focused on really wanted to draw particular attention to the three pillars that are present at the M+ Pavilion venue and its exposed ceiling ducts here. So what you see here is another view of the work kind of somehow, like, crisscrossing or trapezing across the ceiling cluster. And Negotiated Differences is made of around 400 different wooden spindles that are turned using the lathe and different connectors that are 3D printed, and also around 400 of them, they kind of are in relationship with each other, and they’re really kind of have to support each other against the force of gravity, so no glue is used, so each element... The way the whole installation stands really requires a deep understanding and negotiation of the different elements that forms this whole. So I was just mentioning the ceiling cluster and together with the table cluster which you see here in the centre with these table legs, are two what we call a more pre-planned configurations that are particularly developed or presented are conceived for the Hong Kong presentation. Whereas other elements which you see on the left pillar, the whole rhizomatic cluster there, they’re are kind of more what we call freestyling sections which we were working together with the installers to present. Here’s a different view of the table cluster and you would see kind of everyday objects such as, here on the left and the top is like a soy sauce bottle and then a teacup, so objects that we often associate with, you know, use on tables. Here’s a different view, a closer view of the barricade cluster that’s on the left-hand side which was something that we worked together with the installation team to form. What you also see on the left, some of the bowling pins there so there’s a recognisable objects you can either see, sports equipment or different musical instruments, et cetera. And then here you also would see a gondola or in the centre that’s connecting the two different clusters which harks back to Venice, the history of Venice, so you can see many different kinds of references from different cultures, different geographies, all kind of blended into this installation. And here, you also see the cube that is kind of nestled here in the cluster, which really kind of emphasises the idea that the audience is really invited to walk around even, you know, spatially negotiate with the installation to kind of form different vistas, and each angle really opens up a different view of the installation.

So I think I’m just gonna quickly stop here because we’re going to get back to these two specific works in the dialogue. So, yeah, okay. So, to start, as I mentioned earlier, Shirley, in your practice, for a long time, you were working with plastics and polymers, and in the recent year, you’ve introduced new elements such as studio equipment, other ready-mades which we see, and, in the current exhibition, woods into your sculpture work. I wonder if you can talk about your creative process, such as the relationship between concepts, materials, and the types of tools and technologies you employ.

SHIRLEY TSE: Thank you, Christina. Thank you for the introduction and the overview of the exhibition. To answer your question, indeed, I think through sculpture, or I make sculpture in order to work for questions I have about what I know and how I experience things. As a matter of fact, in between my undergrad and graduate school, I almost study— I almost wanted to go for a PhD in philosophy. Well, I thought, language is too linear for the kind of philosophy I’m drawn to. So I wanted to do philosophy for body and object in addition to words. So I went for an MFA and studied and used sculpture as my medium instead. The world, for instance, you know, is phenomenon to me. And as I go around the world and look at things around me, I saw a kind of machine aesthetic in objects surrounding us. And then... Especially Styrofoam cast-off because they are so widely available around us and, you know, people use it once and throw it away, and they kind of, it’s brand new trash, and, you know, they were really curious to me. So I started to investigate Styrofoam cast-off and begin my journey on the semiology of plastic. And I was really into the way that— how do Styrofoam have a kind of function, but then you kind of don’t know, there’s a mystery of them. And as I work on manipulated Styrofoam, eventually, I want to make my own packaging, so to speak, you know. So instead of using packaging to package product, I want to make my own Styrofoam to package my own desire and my thinking. So it came to a point when I had to machine my own Styrofoam. Because it’s very hard to use a... to do, you know, in a kind of regular artist studio. You don’t have, like, injection mode technology to really mould Styrofoam. So, instead of using a substitution method, which is mould-making, I resort to subtraction. So I would get insulation foam and then I will use a router to carve the Styrofoam, to make my own Styrofoam sculpture.

So this is an example, some of the early work that I used a hand-held router to carve Styrofoam. And then I was also really intrigued by the process because I am using my hand, holding a router to draw on Styrofoam. So, in a way, my hand is mediated by the machine, but then, I’m like holding a pencil to make drawing. The machine comes with router bits, and the router bits are manufactured items, so they come in a certain dimension. So there’s a standardised shape and size to the way that I am drawing, so to speak. So I’m also really interested in the mediation using the hand through a machine with a given, with the manufacture aesthetics. So, in my mind, that is actually convergence of all these different subjectivity, and so that’s kind of how I started using... Actually, the router is a woodworking machine. So that’s actually the first time I used a woodworking machine on material. But unlike wood, Styrofoam has no— has a lot of give, it does not have this grain. So, in a way, I’m not limited to a certain direction of movement as in wood because you have to work with the grain, work with the feet of the router. So, here, I can go freehand, I can go back and forth. So, in a way, at that time, I’m actually not really familiar— I mean, the router was a new machine to me, so I just picked it up. And I was quite an amateur, but at the same time, I thought, this gives me a lot of freedom if I’m working on Styrofoam than on wood, and I also see me as a woman artist messing with her father’s tool, so to speak, you know. So I don’t, you know, I don’t need to be very sophisticated with the machine in order to make something. So that actually gives me a lot of freedom.

CHRISTINA LI: Great. Well, thanks for that very go— Well, that’s a really... It was great that we were able to see some of the images from the exhibition catalogue, actually. Perhaps, audience might not be aware. The first two images in the slide was actually juxtaposed with some of the existing kind of lectures and writings that, Shirley, you’ve written and delivered throughout the two year— 20 years of your career. So I found it quite fascinating that the word ‘negotiation’ already was, like, mentioned there and also the idea of, you know, your work being an intellectual exercise. I mean, these two things are also, I feel, very kind of the crux of your practice very much so, but only that it’s probably evolved in a different manner. And I loved that you also talked about the router being a woodworking tool, so it’s like all these things, you know, kind of find a different manifestation, you know, at this point in the presentation’ Stakes and Holders’ in Hong Kong. And... Anyway, I think perhaps my next question would be, you know, since you already talked about the router, you talked about, you know, machine kind of aesthetics, and how, you know, it’s creating all these different kind of objects, how would you define, you know, or relate to tools and technologies, or even the term ‘craft’ itself, in your own sculptural practice? I mean, you talked a little bit about it just now. But how— And also, how has your understanding of these two terms have evolved in all these years in relation to your practice and also to the changes of society?

SHIRLEY TSE: Thanks for the question. Indeed, I have a very complicated relationship with tools and technology and craft.

If we define craft here as practices that associate with the mastering of certain techniques and tools. In fact, craft in sculpture is often the man’s stronghold, not woman’s.

On one side, there is the idea-based art. On the other side, the stuff making, you know, making things. And of course, within stuff making, there is a hierarchy of sculpture, especially if you see it in a more traditional woodshop.

There’s always welding on top and then maybe wood second, and then mould making, and then clay, and then fabric, and paper. So there’s this sort of unspoken hierarchy contained within sculpture.

And in fact, the way I see it, there are actually three biases against craft. The way that how are we using craft right now. And there is the Cartesian bias against body, so you favour idea over body. And there is a patriarchal bias against craft, which is that hierarchy I just talked about. And there is an elitist bias against labour. The last one often cause men to go against men. For example, the well-to-do will frown upon conceptual artists saying they can’t make anything. And the minimalist will frown upon the well-to-do, a mere fabricator. Quite like the way that da Vinci once insulted Michelangelo as a mere stonecutter. So— But the way I see it, I think craft can be weaponised to counter these biases which the feminist movement has shown that it is possible to do that and...

But the way that I see it, when you weaponise craft to counter this bias remains to be of a conceptual-based thing using craft, but not craft for craft’s sake. And then now, between craft and technology, actually, I think all tools are technologies. Craft is technology. But if in everyday language, we define technology as something that is high tech. Then craft, maybe, is referred to low tech. So there is this binary again of the machine-made versus handmade. And the way that I understand it, there is actually a capitalist and patriarchal bias against the handmade. And in my work, I try not to fall into any of these preconceptions.

CHRISTINA LI: Well, thanks for the really, you know— Well, that was really interesting kind of breakdown of how you see yourself and, you know, how to, how you define those different terminologies.

And indeed, like how you treated, or you started your exploration in plastic. I mean, you— I feel like your work is rich, always trying to problematise categories.

I mean, kind of mess things up a little bit. You know, this kind of like things don’t seem as what they are because there’s always something else you dig into and it’s full of contradictions.

So I think what you’ve laid out right now is also really demonstrates the way you think about objects, concepts, technologies, tools and how it’s full of different, you know, multiplicities involved. So I totally understand and it makes a lot of sense when you say you don’t want to fall into any of these kind of like categories. And, you know, I find it also very interesting when you say that, you know, it seems like craft is such a gendered kind of terminology here and segueing to your Venice presentations, I mean, you know, there is a sense that there—

The different technologies you use here like woodturning or even, you know, amateur radio technology seem to be gendered as a very kind of male activity. And, yeah, I think maybe it’s interest— It would be good to kind of go into the Venice works and kind of under this kind of umbrella or probably kind of unpacked a little bit more on how you worked with woodturning, for example. So, actually, for the Venice Commission, when I first met you in your studio, you began to do—

You began to explore woodturning and, you know, you weren’t very sure where it was gonna be, you know, kind of, you know, both of us would have no idea it’d become this kind of shape and form. Two, three years later, and it has grown into a very beautiful and complex body of work in Negotiated Differences. Can you talk a little bit more beyond what you’ve just kind of outlined? What drew you to this specific technique, woodturning? And how do you see the interrelations between, you know, concept material and process in this very specific work?

SHIRLEY TSE: Yes, so I just want to, since you mentioned the Venice show, Stakeholders, I just want to show this images of one of the installation view of Negotiated Differences. You can see that’s how it’s installed there. And about your question of using the lathe to turn wood, indeed— Here’s a lathe. It’s...

You know, people ask me, ‘You’ve been using Styrofoam and why wood?’ And usually, the way I answer is, it’s less about wood but it’s more about the machine—the lathe.

You know, like what we just talked about the router. And then I’m thinking about working, you know, I teach in art school and then we have a really big shop. And in the woodshop area, there is, you know, also the machine like table saw, and panel saw and whatnot all cut straight lines, you know, and... But then in the corner of the shop, there is the lathe that was from the 70, is a Powermatic. And it’s sitting there, no one, no one uses it, and I’ve been having my eyes on it. It’s like, wait, wait a minute, that’s an interesting machine that’s sitting in the corner, and no one uses because unlike the other machine in the shop that cut straight line, this machine is rendering straight item usually, you know, the blanks that you can buy from supplier.

It’s rendering a straight block into a body. So I was really drawn to this idea of this machine. We— I like to, you know, with all the research I’ve done on, you know, mass manufacturing and standardisation, the machine is always a tool to render things that are stackable and transportable. And then you know for shipment and for trading and so forth so and— But with the lathe, it is something that, you know, you actually turning something into a body and it’s not readily available for stacking and for, you know, mass quantity of shipping and so forth. So there’s something really curious to me. So I starting to want to learn it and coincidentally, there is a place in a well-being centre that offer a course called nonviolent woodturning. And the nonviolent part actually come from a technique, a communication technique of nonviolence communication which I have heard about it and I use it sometime in my teaching. And I went to the workshop, was like, ‘Wow, you know, what is nonviolent woodturning?’ And it turns out that it’s about working with the grain of the wood and not fight it. Because when, you know, on a lathe that would turn at high speed, you’re holding a chisel to it, and then you really cannot...

[clicks tongue]

You have to respect the material, so to speak. And I was really drawn to this practice of being really cent—It’s actually really centring to see the wood turn, and then you hold your chisel steady to it. You can see an image of me working in my studio. And then there is, you know— It’s very meditative, you know. And then when I first picked up this tool, so this method, I wasn’t thinking so much about, ‘I’m gonna use it in my artwork’. It’s actually more of, you know— It’s part of my curiosity of going through the world, and, like, discovering things. And at that point, I didn’t really know what this is— Where this was going. And then I actually find a lot of, like, mental or health benefit in doing this practise because we’re centring, you know, it calms me down, and it’s magical, you know. With a square block, within seconds, it turns into round things, so... And then, but as I worked more on it, I realised that this could be potentially a new process in my own art practice. And then I’m thinking about the lathe could be the, you know, it could be the router 2.0, you know. So because in the years, in the intervening years, I’ve been using a lot of found objects, and then I’m doing a lot of manipulation of found objects. So when the lathe came along, I thought it will be really good to return to using a specific machine to do an installation. And the 3D printer actually came later. And I wasn’t the only one who is involved in the woodturning to produce the Stakeholders, and Stakes and Holders show, but also because of the generous support for the commission, I’m able to get an assistant, Jin Choi, who helped me in doing what most of the woodturning. So he did a big portion of the woodturning himself. And then I also have another assistant, Ivan the Terrible. But he didn’t want to work on the lathe, so he ended up working on Optical Net that is one of the piece in Playcourt. And he’s very alert when he’s at work.

CHRISTINA LI: It’s nice to see the different, you know, images and people behind the scenes of, you know, this quite also ambitious and laborious presentation. You know, I— When I met you at that time, you were just starting off, and I really thought about sometimes this idea of, you know, you from the amateur woodturner, to now becoming, you know, gaining so much knowledge, you know, like, and also different techniques and understanding of the wood itself. You know, I think, you know, this idea of— It having to take such a long time almost becomes also part of the whole idea of understanding different subjectivities, and, you know, the qualities of the wood, and the qualities of everything that kind of really puts the whole installation, Negotiated Differences together, there’s no fast way of doing it. It’s almost like it takes that time to embody, you know, the necessary, you know, all the kind of, you know, trials and tribulations in the making of it, to also think about the installation of it. So, yeah, and, indeed, this whole— The notion of negotiation takes very different turns here. You know, it’s not just a conceptual idea, it is really manifested in how you’ve chosen the tool. Because I think all of these different— The idea of concept process, and the tool, and, let’s say, ‘the outcome’ are so intertwined in your practice, and I think this is... It’s a really beautiful way of seeing, you know, in Negotiated Differences, how they all come together. You talked a little bit about the 3D printer, but maybe we can spend a little bit more time to talk about this. Because, you know, in Negotiated Differences, you know, you bring together the lathe, which is considered something more kind of archaic or ancient. I mean, in... You were just mentioning, you think that that also counts as technology, obviously, but then, in our kind of categorisation, that’s kind of seen as a little bit older, or ancient, and versus a 3D printer, which is kind of very state-of-the-art, new technology, as to different sculptural methods. Is there a specific reason why you thought it would be interesting to bring these two quite different processes together in Negotiated Differences?

SHIRLEY TSE: Oh, absolutely. First of all, I want to say, I agree with you, the term ‘negotiation’ does function on many different levels. And, you know, people like to see the word as referring to the kind of human process between humans. But then, sure, you can read any kind of interpretation on the work, and then by metaphor, or by analogy, that is one form of negotiation. But then, at the same time, you know, as a sculptor, I often see objects has to negotiate with each other, you know. And then also, you know, as a maker using tools, I’m definitely having a negotiation with my tool. You know, from the router to the lathe, to the 3D printer. And especially, if it’s something that is new to me, as a learner, I’m learning how to work with a machine, and sometimes may not be using — because this is an art project. I may not be using the machine in its intended purposes, so I might mess with it, I... [laughs] Like, purposely turn, you know, error into something that is usable in my work. So... [clicks tongue] And I just want to share an image of the 3D printer with you now. And so this is— I have two 3D printers now, and one of them is this. And, you know, in the beginning, actually...[clicks tongue]

3D printer was a gift from my husband, and he actually worked in emerging technology in his work. And he was like, ‘Shirley, you make things. I can’t believe you don’t have a 3D printer.’ You know, ‘I’ve got to buy you one for Christmas.’ And so he did. And then actually that printer was sitting in its box for over a year. I never even opened the box. Because as someone who works with material and with my hands, and sometimes using some machines, this is like a really alien thing to me, and then... I do work with machines, but this is not just a machine in the twentieth century sense, this is like, more like a twenty-first century machine that requires using software. Using digital file. And it’s something that I am not familiar with. I mean, I just don’t, you know, I’m not, you know, anything in the digital realm is not my expertise. So it was sitting there and... I started, you know, turning wood and then at some point, I have a collection of all these different spindle. And like I said before, I’m starting to consider, ‘Well, maybe this could be turning into an installation in my art practice that goes beyond a meditation practice.’ And then I thought in that way, in order to connect these... So this spindle need to be connected. And then I thought about using the 3D printer. And that will be something that I can use. And I also discovered that on, uh, on the Internet, there are a 3D print makers community. And there’s all this, like, file available for download. They are open source. Like using a Creative Commons Licence. And then I thought, ‘How interesting.’ So these files of objects exist in the world. So it’s a kind of virtual ready-made. And all you need to know—

All you need to do is to download them and use a 3D printer that actualise it, right? So in my mind, these files are the twenty-first century ready-made. And for someone like me who’ve been manipulating ready-made in the actual physical sense, this is kind of like a new avenue for me to play with. Now I can manipulate virtual ready-made. And so I downloaded this file, and oftentimes, this file will allow you to customise them. And then there is this sort of joinery form that I base on, and then I will customise it and turn it into different angle instead of just two ways connection, I make it three-way, four-way, five-way, and then, you know, Negotiated Differences was born at that moment. it was like, ‘Okay, use this and connect the spindle.’ So as I’m describing how this come about, I felt like the convergence of this thing just kind of happened, but however, I know it’s not—

It’s actually not random. The interest in bringing different things together, merging industrial with the organic, using the given, the found, are always guiding principle in my practice that finds its ways through this new process. And my process, especially regarding to technology, is often research-based. For example, uh, this is an installation from 2004. It’s called Power Towers. And at that time, I feel we’re burned out and needed some energy and I took the idea literally, that you don’t have energy, you don’t have power, just make some power. So I started to build Power—

This Power Tower, power transmission tower form in my studio. And that led to my research in electricity transmission. And, um, and strangely that electricity transmission has something related to the invention of synthetic polymer and insulator. So even though I started with Power Tower, it had nothing to do with plastic. At that point, I was like, ‘So how am I gonna—’

I mean, in 2004, I was still using plastic, a synthetic polymer exclusively. So when I started doing my research, I didn’t know how it was going to funnel through into my practice. But there you go. You know, it actually has everything to do with the invention of plastic in terms of large scale transmission electricity. And another example is this show back in 2007; it’s called Sink Like A Submarine. And then it has a title piece that had the same, uh, you know, this is the title piece for the exhibition. Also called Sink Like a Submarine. And in this exhibition, I investigate military technology from the ancient time till today. So in exhibition like in this piece, they are sword form, the ancient weapon that combine with actual submarine parts that’s purchased on a junkyard. And then in the same show, there are tank trap form. So here’s the example. And then also there are a bunch of loom forms in this exhibition as well. Because, you know, when—

If I’m thinking about the different kind of military technology that moved through the ages, they used staff and sword to tanks to submarine. And then I see the twenty-first cent— Or twentieth—

The late twentieth century and twenty-first century, military technology are actually computer, information technology. And the loom, the Jacquard loom, is actually— The loom is programmable. It has a punch card technology to them. So that the punch card inspired the invention of the first computer. So that’s how I oftentimes start with something, you know, a phenomenon, an object, and I started doing research and then all these things kind of converged, and then that would be the beginning of a new project.

CHRISTINA LI: Wow, I mean, I think it’s almost like, I mean, everything— I mean, it’s an accumulation, right? It’s like one thing leads to another. It’s definitely not like pure coincidence. It’s almost like an informed intuition that you kind of accumulate a way or a methodology to look at either a technology, a tool or even a material itself. And I think, what, you just kind of outlined your entanglements with technology or the thinking about it here just really kind of shows that it [doesn’t] come out of the blue. You know, it’s really, kind of, really following through the way. You really are very rigorous in exploring ideas and looking it throughout the history of one thing, how it evolved from one thing to another. So the fluidity, the progress, the evolution of objects, I mean, that’s something, you know, you don’t take it as a given. You’d say almost very kind of— Yeah, like very, very forensic, I guess, in a way. You really kind of trace it, you know, where it goes. I mean, I think that’s also seen and Negotiated Differences where, you know, it is really of different spindles that are there. You know, it really kind of goes through different hist— you know, different times, different cultures. You know, you’re bringing all these things together, objects that could be turned by lathe, obviously, here I’m talking about. I mean, we kind of touched upon it a little bit before, but as, you know, time and skill are actually obviously very important elements here when you talk about, you know, how you honed a craft of woodturning. I mean, I almost, almost even see— Because I’m so, you know, kind of familiar with the work now. You know, I have a timestamp of everything that’s in, you know, in the installation, I’m like, ‘Okay, that was done first, and then you went to the off-axis.’ You know, woodturning. So it’s really kind of a diary of your, you know, how you’re acquiring and honing your skill in woodturning. And whereas, you know, technology kind of what we understand, or how we kind of understand, or, yeah, we kind of think it signifies, like speed, efficiency, you know. Also, all that kind of things that seem to be at odds with a kind of the process that, you know, negotiate differences, and, you know, the whole exhibition in itself kind of seems to signify. I know you spent quite some years with the lathe, and then the process of even making a 3D connector can take somewhere between, what, 6 to 12 hours per connector. So I see your work not only as material or even just process driven, but, really, concept plays a super crucial role. So how has, you know, working on this project or the two different installations further thinking about these different kind of concepts?

SHIRLEY TSE: Well, indeed, to carry on with the 3D printer and, you know, that you described that is very time-consuming, and, yes, it is. You would think that it takes, you know, ‘Oh, just let the machine do all the work.’ But this is— Especially this is, you know, quite a new technology. There are still with— Even within the community, there is still a lot of trial and error, especially with newer filament. And then I’m using a filament that is considered experimental. It’s not just plastic; I’m using a composite of wood and metal. And oftentimes, you know, the printer may throw an error. And then you can see in the image here that is something happened. It’s going awry. And, you know, and to respond to your timestamp, this is an image to show you sometime for like a simple print of 90-degree two-way printer, two-way connectors. I need to try five times in order to get the, you know, a usable connector that I can use. And then later on in the project, I realised that if I’m only using a printer to print this curved surface that’s sitting on a bed, then I’m losing some of the resolution of the bed. So I have to use a substrate, a supporting material to— I have to print that first before the connector can sit on it so that I can have a perfect curvature at the bottom. And that required even more time because I have to use a soluble supporting material. And then after it is printed, I need to soak it overnight, and, you know, I feel like— You know, I joked to you that at one point, I’m sitting by my 3D printer as if I’m a mom watching the baby in incubators. And then after the baby is born, I have to wash it, you know. So that’s the kind of labour that involved even though, you know, we are talking about a machine here. And indeed sometimes after I’m doing, you know, I experience a few of these so-called print error. And since I’m not using it in a really... [clicks tongue] you know, functional way, this is part of an art project. I actually embraced this print error. And throughout the exhibition, you will find some connectors that look like they have not finished printing or some of them look like there has been an error that’s made, some of them literally looks like there was an earthquake and it shifted. And we nicknamed that the earthquake connector. And so at one point, I was like, ‘You know what, actually, why don’t I just make a... purposely make a connector that looks like it’s a mistake?’ So I thought about using the Siamese twin as a way to do it. So this is kind of faking the effect of a print error. And you can see that that connector if you have a chance to go to the M+ Pavilion, look for the middle pillar, it’s right here. It’s kind of like magical that one connector is not— is attached to the other one. It’s not falling down. And to respond to your questions about technology and how it conceptually related back to my practice... [clicks tongue] indeed, I— The way I used tools and technology, I always emphasise the non-uniformity. So like I said before, the machine oftentime like to cut straight line. It likes to produce things that are exactly the same, so it can be rendered into stacking and stalking and standardisation. You know, have this sort of uniformity. And the way— When the machine comes into my hand when a technology comes into my hand, I’m trying to use it as many different ways as possible, you know, because of the difference. And this is no different, you know, in terms of the 3D printer and for its— Because the file is customisable, so I would change the file a little bit because it allows you to have different setting in terms of temperatures and speed or certain things, so I would change the setting a little bit for each different file. So we have like, I don’t know, 480 connectors in the show, and I would say, you know, there are as many as at least 300 different files for all the connectors, they are all slightly different, and they— Why do I go through such great lengths to do it because conceptually, I want this non-uniformity to counter the idea of efficiency. I want to resist being subsumed by the system by the sort of capitalistic patriarchal system that we just talked about earlier on, and I want to emphasise the sort of, kind of— I want to slow it down, you know, the slowness to me is a kind of meditation for our well-being, and perhaps, I am bracing myself for a kind of technocratic dystopia that is happening. And— And I’m hoping in my work, I can destabilise or problematise this sort of technocratic machine. And so— But on the other hand, I will also say that in my embracing of digital technology thinking about zero and one. And this sort of coding, it also gave me great revelation, for example back to the, you know, my interest in heterogeneity through plastic. And actually, at some point, I stop using plastic exclusively and I opened myself to other material, because one day, it kind of dawned on me that plastic is not a substance, really, because it’s a petroleum-derived product, and when you look at it, it really is plastic, it’s made of carbon molecule. It’s just made of molecule that has a structure that is so complex that a chemist is able to code this carbon molecule into a complex chain called polymer, that they’re not able to unwind it, that explained the non-biodegradable part, and so when I understand it, all of a sudden, to me, plastic is no longer a substance, it’s a code, it’s a formula, it’s a syntax, it’s the organisation principle of some natural material. And so from that point on, I want to move away from plastic as a substance and move to plastic as in— and its quality of being malleable, of being a code, of being an organisation principle, so in other word plasticity. So I hope that answer your question. 

CHRISTINA LI: Yeah, I just wanted to pick up on, you know, this whole, when you were saying, you know, the technocratic kind of dystopia and you know, the slowdown, and I just— I mean, I wonder— I mean, maybe this is just me drawing some lines here, but the next question I wanted to ask was connected to Playcourt, you know, Playcourt uses this more kind of old-school transmission technology, you know, like— I wonder if, you know, there is an additional element you added to Playcourt, which kind of evokes a sense of a badminton game that’s in process, and, you know, also adds to it a site’s responsive kind of element, because it kind of opens up the narratives that are, you know, in the vicinity of the space, were you interes— Why were you interested to add this to this piece, was it somehow, if I was just kind of, like, responding to your previous point about having a form of resistance to kind of this technocratic dystopia, is there that kind of like, you know,... this kind of sentiment in that? Can you— Yeah, can you also talk about why this might be important to your idea of negotiation, you know, in this piece and the public sphere?

SHIRLEY TSE: The radio and ham radio or ham amateur radio, actually, the— I think we need to go back to the form of sculpture on stand. And that sculptural language of putting sculpture on stands or tripod and whatnot, actually developed out of a solo show I did back in 2017 or actually 2016, and it’s called ‘Lift Me Up So I Can See Better’, and quickly in that show, it’s about seeing from different perspectives. So some of them were inspired by Oscar Wilde’s... children’s book called ‘The Happy Prince’, and I’m not going to go into details of that, but it’s about the ability to see from a point higher up, and from that point on I had wanted to make an installation where sculptures are placed on all different kind of level in terms of, of seeing a perspective. So that’s how I first developed using tripods. And then in Venice, because the— because Playcourt was or still is a site-responsive piece, and when I first did the site visit, I saw that this is a very residential area, and you can still see laundry line being strung across the courtyard, and you can hear people talking because people are still living around the venue where we had the Stakeholders, and I can hear washing machine running, and so the idea is also to make something more vertical in order to draw the viewers’ site line towards, you know, the laundry line, and hear the sound. So I immediately think about, first of all, I need to use the telescopic sculptural language that I developed a few years ago, and secondly, I need to incorporate sound to echo the soundscape that is so rich in that courtyard in Venice already. And because I was also thinking about having an element of Hong Kong history and then Hong Kong history in a large part to me is colonial history. So I thought about using badminton as a part of this imagined scenario for Playcourt. And to me, playing street badminton is an act of claiming public domain. You’re sticking your claim on public space. And then immediately, I think about, you know, using ham amateur radio because, like badminton claiming physical space, the amateur radio is claiming air space. And what it is is actually, you know, just think about, you know, on the— In the Internet, there are chatroom, there’s online forum, and you are having conversation— two persons having conversation in the chatroom, but other people able to see it or hear it. Most would read it, you know, in the Internet, and so the ham radio is basically the chatroom or the forum before the Internet time, and it’s still ongoing. But ever since the— after the Second World War, a lot of these frequency of our airwave has already been used by government and corporation. The range of frequency left that’s available for ham radio operator is really, really narrow. And so— but they are still doing it, and to me, this Ham Radio operator is actually claiming public space, public domain. And it is also— this is a shot of the Discone. It’s sort of an umbrella shape because it’s able to receive signal from all different angles. This is installed at an outdoor area at M+ right now, and I also want to say, and there’s another view of the other two antennas opposite Discone. It is— Ham Radio is still the person-to-person communication without the mediation of government or big-tech firm platform. So even though we’re doing this right now, Zoom, you know, we are communicating through a tech firm platform. But radio— amateur radio does not— you just need to get your own equipment and a license, and you don’t need to be mediated through all this big, giant tech firm. So that is one way of resisting.

CHRISTINA LI: Not to kind of draw to literal, kind of, comparison to Negotiated Differences, but it is kind of like having subjectivities in direct contact with each other, that it’s not like, it’s not top-down, you know. It’s really kind of more bottom-up, right? It’s like really kind of trying, you know, really asserting that you know each of these entities, I mean, I’m talking about, you know, the Ham Radio operators. They have their own agency, they want to communicate and they’re seeking communication with each other. So I’ve seen— I see a lot of, kind of, resonances also with, you know, the way you look at society, the way you see how everyone’s interrelated to each other in Stakes and Holders, I really see it, kind of really very intertwined. It also kind of talks about in different way. I mean for those— Yeah, I think also it’s important— It’s important to know that in, in the Hong Kong presentation, there’s two different radio, radios that are being— receiving different signals. The one indoors are just receiving, are receiving like Ham Radio operators, kind of transmissions we’re just receiving. And then, in the exterior space with Discone with the kind of multi-angled antenna, it’s receiving non-commercial kind of transmissions. So there’s kind of two different types of, like, audio, kind of, histories or you know or realities that are presented at the Pavilion here.
[clicks tongue]

So kind of moving I mean, we, we were— I mean, it was really throughout your work when you talked about even Sink Like a Submarine, you know, even for Power Towers. I think, you know, narratives... I mean, be it very personal, could be social, historical. I mean, what you just— Previous, the past, you know. Yes, you were— The past couple of questions really showed how, you know, it’s so multifaceted. You know, different narratives, you know. Personal, social, historical, or even cultural histories behind the materials and forms... I mean, the way you mine it from everyday life and use it in your works, I mean, they’re very complex. Can you share some of the notable objects that you’ve included in Stakeholders or in the Hong Kong presentation Stakes and Holders, that you would, you know, wanna highlight or—? And would you say that your selection and decision what to use or include has differed to how you treat or handle these objects in the past.

SHIRLEY TSE: Yes, actually, back to the radio a little bit. The radio— We, we have two radio in the M+ Pavilion, and they both are non-commercial, so to speak. But the technical terms is, it’s just amateur radio reception. And in the indoor space, we have it set up, so you can receive signal from closer range and, and farther range. So in the indoor space, you’re able to hear transmission that take place from a distance from Hong Kong, in the more regional reception. And in the outdoor foyer area, we have it set up so that you can hear more local transmission, so you have the closer and the farther in that. Indeed there are [clicks tongue] many narratives in, in this show, as well as in Venice and— Well, first of all, I wanna say that— Again, I wanna emphasise the work is always open to different interpretations. So different people come in the show, come with their own experience and what they know about a certain object. They might have a different interpretation, they have a different read, and that is, that is all part of the work to, to be able to allow for all this converging narrative, to come together at the same time so—[clicks tongue]

And I would say for Stakes and Holders because of certain objects I use, that my— And in the context of Hong Kong, that might conjure up a more specific narrative and that is more direct than, you know, perhaps in Venice or in my other show. And I was— The last time I was in Hong Kong was in August 2019, and we were doing some public programmes, and then you know, I’m also preparing for the Stakes and Holders show, and usually when I do that I would go around the city and collect visual information, and try to incorporate a new component into the installation. So just as in Venice, you know, when I did I walked around in Venice I, I thought I could use a gondola oar, and this sort of, like, pier mooring post. So we incorporate that in Venice and then in August in Hong Kong, it was during the time when there was a lot of protest going on. So on the street, I see safety helmet, I see traffic cones, I see barricade, you know, umbrella stand. So, and I would just thought that— You know, when you— Especially, with the woodturning, you know, when you’ve been turning wood for a while, you become hypersensitive to an object that could be turned on a lathe so. . . And if I may go back to traffic cone, so like, you know, for example, I saw the traffic cone in the street, it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, you know this is an object that had a central axis.’ So that means I can put it on a lathe and turn it. And so yes, indeed some of this object has a more direct read to it, you know, and then you can form a narrative about it, more specific to Hong Kong during that time, than in other times of my practice. The narrative may be a little bit more convoluted, you know, I’m thinking about Quantum Shirley. You know, it has a very [laughs] multiple narrative, like, kind of converge together into the Quantum Shirley series and is oftentime not directly accessible, so to speak, from the viewers’ perspective.

CHRISTINA LI: Yeah, I mean, speaking about it being directly accessible, I remember when I was in Venice, you know, because we were giving some tours and then, it’s really interesting to see people from different, you know, cultural contexts respond very differently to the objects. You know, like, I remember a Banksia pod, and I think most people didn’t really recognise it or had different— Someone told me, ‘Oh, they saw it in South Africa some sort of like incense holder or diffuser.’ And then, a group from Australia just pointed at it and said, ‘Banksia pod’, you know. So it’s like people kind of— I think what’s really beautiful about the work or actually, the fact that you bring in these ready-mades because it kind of evokes everyone’s personal imaginations behind it, or their personal associations and that’s why it’s so— That’s why it’s the narratives that you bring together are not the only ones that you bring, you’ve affixed it to the works. It’s like, there’s all, there’s possibilities of other ways of, kind of, you know, putting different images or narratives together.

[clicks tongue]

Yeah, I mean, I guess this kind of, like, goes— Well, I think probably, it’s, it’s— We don’t have much time left and I think it’s good to kind of move to the last question. I mean, the fact that we’re talking over Zoom and not face-to-face, and you know, [chuckles] really tells us you know, the the— You know how technology is so important during these times, during the pandemic, you know. Speaking of the technology, of technology itself, I mean the setting up of the show relied very heavily on it and as we were not able to come to Hong Kong to oversee the installation. I know it hasn’t been an easy process for everyone involved and I just wondered could you share some thoughts that you might have had that, you know, this whole process might have triggered. Any kind of further reflection about the uses or limitations of technology for you.

SHIRLEY TSE: Yeah. Well, let me quickly respond to the different interpretation of the narrative again. You know, people are reading, especially in Negotiated Differences, they, they point out, ‘Oh, this is a soy sauce bottle, and that is a baseball bat, and that’s a traffic cone’. But, mind you, they are not ready-made. I make them. I carve them. You know, they are sculpture. They all come from wood. You know, when we say a soy sauce bottle, it’s not like you can pour soy sauce and put it in your food. So I just love that people, you know, starting to talk as if they have real thing, but they’re not. They are sculpture. They’re still sculpture. And the most amazing thing is it all come from, you know, the woods. You know, the wood species family. You know, from one thing, it’s kind of sprouted at all, like, the whole universe. So that is kind of something that I, I find a lot of pleasure with. And let me get to the remote installation part now.

SHIRLEY TSE: This installation that we’re doing at a distance and also asynchronously is indeed really challenging. For me, it feels we’re mediated. You know, I’m mediated through the screen, and we’re disembodied and... Because, you know, in order to get the visual information of how the sculpture look or feel in the space, if I were to go there, it might only take me 20 second to get the visual information I need to know what to do in the next move. But in our process, it’s... [Laughs] This is the slide of both of us at work. You know, you’re seeing that we are, we are using multiple screen-based way to inform our three-dimensional navigation, so in order to get that information when in, in life, I could do it in 20 second, but... but doing it this way from out to multiple screen, it might take me 20 minute to look through all the live cams, all the pictures, all the recording all the video or to instruct... Olivia, the assistant curator, to move around the space for us, so it’s very time-consuming. And then also, mind you... when we say remote installation, it’s not like I have very specific installation instruction and just deliver to the install team, and they can just execute it. It’s not so straightforward— Some part of the show is like that. You know, some of the sculpture in Playcourt is rather fixed, and you just have to instruct him where to place it and how to adjust the angle, and then it could be done, but the interrelations between the object is a lot more complicated. And on top of that, with Negotiated Differences, as you talked about, some part of the installation is pre-planned, but most— a lot of the— Well, we call them cluster. But the connection between the clusters are meant to be improvised, meant to be freestyled at the site. So... and just imagine that it’s not exactly remote installation. I’ve been calling it guided improvisation at a distance and asynchronously. So, so it’s really— it’s not just a straightforward thing. And, and because of this sort of disembodiment that I’m feeling, sometime I, I have to actually use analogue means to, to communicate how I want a certain object angle tweaked. So I end up actually using paper sculpture, you know, holding it with a tweezer, and then, you know, I put it in front of my laptop, and then I use my, my, my cell phone to, to make the video tutorial to show how it should be adjusted. So... And there’s really is a big disconnect between the differences between analogue and the digital. And even though we try, I still think that there’s no substitute for presence. And... But that is what we need to learn to adjust to in this era of uncertainty and with social distancing. But I will say, despite all the challenge, maybe you can share with the audience too. So despite, you know, the the challenges, you know, we thought this is kind of, like, impossible, but we did it, you know, for something not straightforward... no fixed instruction, involved improvisation and adaptability, we’re able to do it. So I think that’s very encouraging, you know, for, perhaps for other artists to embrace it.

CHRISTINA LI: Well, I mean, I have to say, I mean, it’s almost like we’re entering the whole process with you. I mean, in a way, you’re always troubleshooting in your work. You know, it’s almost like you want to use a tool, and you want to figure out how to use it. It’s almost like we’re given this tool called technology, like, called remote installing. And we’re all figuring it out together with you in a way, I think. You know? Like, ‘Oh, it doesn’t work. Okay, let’s try to find this way with the tweezer and showing, you know, this’. You know, it’s like— it’s like your kind of artistic approach is very much felt, I think, in how we’re trying to somehow hone or, or streamline the process of working together.

  -So I thought that was super interesting.
  -This process— Sorry to interrupt... Indeed the process, it’s Negotiated Differences, right? So we’re negotiating. One is multiple screen and across distance and time.
  -And it’s Playcourt too. You know, it’s very playful.
  -And then— Yeah.
  -Yeah. So— And then there’s a lot of back and forth, like the badminton. So it indeed is the— it is an apt metaphor.
  -But I also want to show you a couple more images I have
  -Yeah. Is that, you know, in this sort of figuring out.

SHIRLEY TSE: We... I also have, make drawing for the crew, and then sometime the drawings, it’s just showing direction of where the spindles should go. You know, this is a kind of how the bowling pins should fall, but I actually didn’t give them exact direction of which spindle to use and what angle connector to use, and, and another one is the cube area that you might remember from the slide.


SHIRLEY TSE: And I only have roughly an idea of where the cube should be, but it’s... with this so long penetrating spindle, but I don’t have exact direction of what spindle to use and what connector to use.

CHRISTINA LI: Yeah, I remember you were saying that your— Yeah, making these sketches seem— was very an interesting process for you. I think— I think beyond the word— being, feeling disembodied— I think the word ‘tactility’ is so important here because, I mean, you’re trying to find a way to have that tactile touch. You know, across the screens, you know, like how do you, you know, feel that you’re moulding this thing. And then I think you’ve found these sketches as a means to do it or one thing to bridge that lack of tactility, fundamentally, I feel. Yeah, I think maybe we should end here. Well, thank you so much, Shirley, for being so generous and, you know, giving us so much of your time and to share with us the thinking process that goes behind these throughout your practice and in particular these two installations that are so laboriously and, you know, thoughtfully put together. If, for the audiences, if you want some more information, both online and offline public programming, or to get a copy of the catalogue, which there are some pages that was featured in this presentation, please feel free to go to the M+ website. I hope that everyone will have a chance to see the show in person. The show Stakes and Holders is open at M+ Pavilion till October 4th.

-Thank you, everybody.
-Thank you.

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