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Culture

“I Don’t Understand Art”: Teom Chen on His Unorthodox Route to Becoming a Digital Artist

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Club Seen shines a light on the artists, VJs, and designers providing a visual dimension to after-hours underground culture in urban China.

Teom Chen doesn’t take interviews too seriously. Accepting his words at face value, it appears that the self-taught, Taipei-born artist develops much of his creative juice from a reclusive, almost otaku process of shut-in magical realism. “I keep a diary every day and often stay at home,” he tells RADII.The diary has become more and more unreal the more time I’ve spent alone — it became a text separate from myself.”

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Reticent to speak too much about the nuts and bolts of his craft, Chen seems happy to let his work speak for itself. Anyone who’s caught his live A/V set with Beijing-based producer Howie Lee since the two began performing together in 2017 will confirm the uncanny blending of virtual and real, anthropocentric and disembodied that shudders throughout Chen’s jaggedly evolving corpus. Chen talks of Lee’s influence as giving “a shot to my amygdala” — a telling phrase, as the duo’s standout 2019 collab, “Tomorrow Cannot Be Waited,” plays out like a virtual brain-scan rendered in jittery game engine schematics.

More recently, Chen has directed a far more low-tech and retro music video for breakout Taipei neo-soul singer 9m88, and collaborated with the brand-slash-concept Guerilla-Group on an evolving audiovisual project called Ocular Sounds : Visual Intelligence (OS:VI). Read on for a somewhat elliptical interview with him on all the above:

RADII: How did you first become interested in making art? Did your parents support you in this, and did you have access to resources to study art in Taipei growing up?

I don’t understand art. When someone talks to me about art, all I have is naked impulse. I have a dog at home. For the last eleven years, my parents have supported him, and he has supported me. I never received a formal art education. I’ve taken an unorthodox route which has eaten up a lot of enthusiasm, but this route has also revealed some amazing sights.

What were some important influences on your aesthetic when you were first starting out?

Anything can affect me. Once when I went to Thailand to perform, the young guy who picked me up from the airport was very anxious. I wanted to get a SIM card — he snatched my phone, and the casing broke. He took out his own phone and showed me a photo of himself posing with Jackie Chan and said, “Ah ~ Jackie Chan!” It felt like that photo was enough to forgive all the crimes he’d committed against the Chinese people. Really though, I laughed for such a long time, that experience deeply affected me.

What is the meaning of the alias you sometimes use, THOIID?

Every time I begin to work in a new medium, I change my name, always starting with the letter T. But no one actually called me by any of these names so I stopped changing it.

Can you talk about your creative process? How much time to you spend drawing, vs how much time coding? How do you balance the technical and creative elements of your work?

I keep a diary every day and often stay at home. The diary has become more and more unreal the more time I’ve spent alone, and it became a text separate from myself. I am interested in experimenting with new technologies, and to create new content is my metabolic process. There has never been a balance between these two processes.

What is the ideal exhibition environment for your work? For example, in a physical gallery or museum space, or hosted on a video streaming platform like Vimeo, or as a playable game/modifiable game engine? How does the platform or venue for exhibiting your work affect your creative process?

Grand temple halls and wild temple buildings all house immortals; life exists in high rises and broken down ships alike. A given environment or platform has been refined over a long period of time — ultimately the more important point is who’s watching. If the relationship between people is right, everyone is happy, everyone understands.

You’ve been working with Howie Lee for several years now, VJing and creating visuals to accompany his A/V set. How do you think your aesthetic, visual style, or philosophical interests overlap with artists like Howie?

Howie is my brother. When I fall and the blood doesn’t stop flowing, he will brush his teeth, brush with a mouthful of blood, share with me, give a shot to my amygdala and recharge my energy.

How does making visuals for a live/club setting differ from making them for a virtual setting?

At the performance site, the content is more focused on how to communicate — communication with viewers, as well as between people performing on stage.

You were previously scheduled to perform with Howie in Melbourne this year, at an event organized around the theme of “Sinofuturism.” What do you think about this phrase?

This word is not precise — we don’t pursue technology and speed. We can only work with current technology, and our performance is about now [as opposed to the future]. But now we can’t go to Melbourne.

One of your more recent directorial works, “Airplane Mode,” is a more traditional (in fact quite retro) and cinematic music video for 9m88. How did you connect with her? How did you decide on this aesthetic for the MV?

We are good friends. The year before I filmed that, I watched a lot of martial arts films, which influenced me.

In another recent project, “Endless Rain,” you blend this retro aesthetic of ’80s and ’90s cinema (and video game design) with harder, more futuristic sound design in a “correlation of noise, visuals, identity and future Technologies.” Can you talk about the concepts behind this project, and your relationship with OS:VI / Guerrilla-Group?

What “Endless Rain” wants to show is the feeling you get when you watch Blade Runner, or some of the more moody films of the same era. The rain in the scene keeps falling, and you start to wonder if it will be falling forever. The film is over and you still feel wet.

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Andrew, the manager of Guerilla-Group, is my brother. I bought a Guerilla-Group T-shirt on Taobao and gave it to him. He told me, “Damn you! Idiot!” He didn’t even take it, just left it in my house. Yussef, another partner of OS:VI, is also my brother. We hung out, talked about doing this, doing that, and then just started doing it.

What are you working on now? Any future plans to collaborate with Howie or other musicians/DJs? Anything else you want to add?

Originally the plan was to go with Howie Lee in Melbourne this March to perform a new “Sinofuturism” set, but now we have to postpone this due to the outbreak. OS:VI will premiere a brand-new performance in Taipei from August to September this year. I also have some experimental projects in progress.

Josh Feola
Josh Feola is a US-based writer and musician, and RADII's former Culture Editor. His coverage of Chinese music and art has appeared in The Wire, Dazed, MIT Technology Review, Artsy, Bandcamp Daily and more. He's been active in China's underground music scene since 2010 via his booking platform pangbianr.com, and is a former member of Beijing bands Chui Wan, SUBS, and Vagus Nerve.