A computer analyses the frequencies of metal music audio files. When the frequency exceeds a certain range, it triggers an intercepted electronic muscle stimulation (EMS) unit to send voltage directly into the arm, causing the muscle to contract and the arm to jerk. The writer’s elegant calligraphy is thus disrupted and imbued with the music, in fact resulting in text more similar to metal logos.
Ng Sheng Yong's PenMANship (2018) playfully hacks into the operation of the human arm, transmuting the mechanics of handwriting. The work was shown at Singapore-based gallery Supernormal as part of the exhibition —Technology in Art.
In this interview, we catch up with the artist who believes that questioning the future is more important than merely taking in answers presented to us.
Firstly, what got you into art?
Many years ago, I started questioning everything about my life. The experience with metacognition blew my mind wide open, which resulted in a sense of unending existential dread. Finding no purpose in anything I did and feeling very sick of rigid, regimental systems, I had to find some kind of release.
When I found no refuge in any sort of human systems, I turned to creating my own form of expression through art. It paved a way to fulfill my desire to break out of our restrictive shell; to not be restrained by the self — our human needs, capabilities or expectations.
I’ve seen your drawings on Behance. They seem to emphasise on the importance of hyperconsciousness. Would you say that’s a huge part of why you create?
Hyperconsciousness to me is about the heightened awareness of the self, and being in this state is definitely a huge part of why I create. It reminds me that I am a man of free will, choice and individuality. The desire to create is wholly arbitrary. It defies reason that bars and dictates our consciousness and choices. It’s liberating to act beyond our primal instincts and not just in reaction to contextual inputs or for evolutionary advantages.
Creating thus feeds the part of me that actively rejects the idea of ourselves as merely logic-driven robots, gears grinding away to keep the wheels of society turning.
It’s a constant struggle to feel human, despite not being certain of what even constitutes being one. And so, my work naturally gravitates towards a type of self-query; to question and explore the nature of human nature, mirroring it and sometimes parodying it. The use of technology, in itself a biomimetic reflection of nature, is the ideal way to represent this.
How, or where did you get the idea to create PenMANship? Is there a particular reason why the name is stylised as such?
It started with going to heavy metal gigs. Every live music experience is different and I wanted a way of recording them. Describing my experience in words or recording it in mono on the phone simply doesn’t do it justice.
Feeling the sound resonate through the entire body and having involuntary physical reactions, such as auditory frisson, made me think of whether it was possible to record these sensations and represent this tangible experience in a more first-hand and unadulterated way.
This transference of qualia is akin to the phenomenon of synaesthesia and the desire to manipulate audio data into a physical form birthed PenMANship. The name is a simple wordplay, because it looks into the relationship between the pen and man.
PenMANship seems to me a clever way of comparing the human hands to technological tools in terms of interaction. Do you personally believe that our body is merely a machine used to translate our mind language, and that both entities are completely separate?
The computational theory of mind refers to the human body as a machine. It compares the brain to a computer running a program known as the mind. The mind exists everywhere in the body but the two are completely codependent when creating experiences of value for the user. As experienced with PenMANship, the mind and body still function on their own but the results are void of the user.
Our multitude of senses or sensors continuously take in situational data and only through relativity and association with our own logged samples of previous experiences would we derive a narrative and be able to rationalise an objective reaction.
A simple example: when one sees a tiger, they take in the data with their eyes and, within a split second, their brain does a search through similar images from the past and associates the tiger with danger. That is when the brain fires electrical impulses through the neurons and body to activate the leg muscles and simultaneously trigger a cocktail of chemicals that cause fear. However, to one who has no prior representations to associate the data with, the received data will mean nothing to them.
The mechanical body are merely advanced tools used to do our bidding, enhancing efficiency to perform tasks computed by the brain. PenMANship disrupts and replaces the computing, intercepting the tasks to issue its own commands and electrical impulses directly to the arm. Showing yet again how there will be a disconnect when these entities are separated, and things will only make sense when they work together.
You mentioned that you went through hours of hard work to come up with the calligraphy sheets. Each handwriting, albeit disrupted, has a certain flow to it. Is there a particular approach to ‘tricking’ your writing hand from being majorly affected by the voltage?
It’s funny how people attempt to master or control this machine. The crux of this work is the lack of control – the loss of a sense of agency as well as ownership of the arm.
I spent some time on each sheet trying to execute each stroke as precisely as I would writing calligraphy, tracing over the light grey print of the lyrics. The trace acts as a control to allow the disparities in the script to be emphasized. I guess the only trick I can think of would be what David (the android from Prometheus) symbolically quoted, the trick… is not minding that it hurts.
Why the use of metal music in PenMANship?
Besides metal gigs being a key driver in what inspired the project, the subtle differences in the sub-genres and also the way people segment and label them was something that me spurred me to want to translate it visually.
As a graphic designer, I was attracted to the idea of creating a visual language to represent the individualities. For example, some may regard stoner metal as desert rock, while others argue that death doom and funeral doom are the same. I say, let the music write itself.
Seeing as your work at the show is largely made possible by technology, how do you see it paving roads for such experimentations in the next five to ten years?
I am no futurist but I’m certain this speculation holds true to many. Technology will continue to exponentially entangle with our lives and, how very interconnected it will be. Our minds will traverse through both the real and binary world, while our human sensory perception will expand globally. Look at how the World Wide Web and Internet of Things have changed humanity’s course. It made processes better, faster and wider.
We are dealing with things way bigger than us and are no longer limited to our human capabilities. What our body restricts, technology releases.
Five years ago, I would never have thought of using electronic components in my works. When I was exposed to how accessible and user-friendly technology is, my world view exploded. I was staring into infrared planes and quantifying the amount of humidity on my hands, all with dollar cheap sensors. The scope of my perception expanded. Lines were blurred, some even erased. With technology being able to bend and manipulate dimensions, the possibilities are endless.
Simple tech like photographs can stop and capture a moment in time, let alone a video that can allow us to reverse time. This was something people in the past would never have thought to have control over.
And now we’ve come further, our mortality in question, making attempts at preserving our minds by uploading the consciousness into a virtual cloud. Who knows what would be in store for us in the next five to ten years? Probably something unimaginable to us right now.
Do you think technology has the potential to distract modern artists, and how so?
Technology is just an umbrella term. If we look at it fundamentally, even a pencil is technically technology. From that wide perspective, technology has always enabled artists. It has definitely made art more accessible and less exclusive. Anyone with a camera phone can become a photographer. With this comes new fields and fresh perspectives. Technology will empower and allow for more creation.
However, what worries me about technology isn’t exclusive to only the artists but the rest of society as well. I fear that we will become too obsessed with the flashy LEDs that we forget to take a step back and get back in touch with the self. We will be so caught up that we will lose ourselves and forget to be mindful of the moment. With the vast amount of information at our fingertips, we will forget to take note of the unintelligible, the incomprehensible, the sublime…
We will become so attached to it that losing a gadget could hurt more than losing a limb. It will be bad when it becomes impossible to live without technology. We will be infinitely enhanced, but at what cost? The future gives us answers, but we must not forget to ask questions.
Finally, what’s next for you?
I’m looking into expanding PenMANship by attaching an EEG to capture not just music’s effect, but the effect of music on a person’s emotional and mental state itself. It will then showcase true intention instead and bypass all translational errors of the human body. What is impressed on the paper will be true to what one is thinking. In a way, showing how at times we trust technology to be more accurate than our bodies.
Beyond that and more theoretically, I’m further exploring the line between human and machine to discover my own meaning for being human.