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Shu Lea Cheang on making artwork deemed too pornographic for porn sites

Perhaps it makes sense that her work defies neat categorisation. Much of transhumanism is fixated on transcending the messiness of human experience; Cheang’s work delights in the messiness that seeps out of the collision of human and machine. Rather than seeking a sort of seamless perfection, her protagonists get their hands dirty. E-waste scavengers in Africa dig through landfill to find computer chips for recycling, augmenting their bodies with recovered implants. Grafted systems designed to track viruses are hacked to generate orgasms. Queer bodies are policed and find their space for rebellion, like wild grass sprouting between cracks in the sidewalk.

Like wild grass, they continue to grow, mutating new biomechanical defenses against pesticide, springing back after being trodden by the boot, their pollen clinging to that foot which tried to crush them, spreading their queer seed to a new host. Despite the challenges she’s faced, Cheang’s work continues to push its way through the cracks, transmitting its signal to the next generation of queer youth.

In the wake her Guggenheim award and Shu Lea Cheang: Scifi New Queer Cinema 1994-2023, the series of film screenings at Project Native Informant, we talk to the renowned Taiwanese-American multidisciplinery artist about 

Your work is preoccupied with transmission in many forms, transmission of data and viruses. What draws you to this kind of exchange?

Shu Lea Cheang: Living with the AIDS epidemic in New York City during the 80s and 90s shifted the focus of my work towards transmission. I’m conceptually interested in orgasms as data, in signals, airwaves and viruses. In the early 90s, I was creating large-scale installations with collectives of artists and performers, focusing on assembly, exchange, and connection. I relocated my work to cyberspace in the mid-90s. The accessibility and high bandwidth of online communication allowed me to embark on a series of networked projects.

How has creating artwork in cyberspace changed since the 90s?

Shu Lea Cheang: We have lost the internet. Net art was declared dead in 2002. I relocated post-net crash to the green outdoors with my project GARLIC=RICHAIR, which imagines a post-apocalyptic society that uses garlic as a currency.

Has it been difficult getting institutional funding for films that depict sex?

Shu Lea Cheang: Two of my feature films are considered pornographic and neither received any government or institutional funding. When FLUIDØ was released in Germany, we had to fight the censor board for an R rating so the film could be shown in regular cinemas.

FLUIDØ was produced by Jürgen Brüning, who started Porn Film Festival Berlin in 2015. Candy Flip and Bishop Black, the lead actress and actor, are active porn performers and make their own movies. I’m deeply rooted in the Berlin community of post-porn filmmakers/performers; they are changing the game of porno filmmaking. It reminds me of Sister Sledge’s We Are Family – we meet every year at Porn Film Festival Berlin in Moviemento Kino.

“Living with the AIDS epidemic in New York City during the 80s and 90s shifted the focus of my work towards transmission. I’m conceptually interested in orgasms as data, in signals, airwaves and viruses” – Shu Lea Cheang

Your work doesn’t only deal with the erotic content of sex – in recent work, you’ve explored the reproductive nature of sex.

Shu Lea Cheang: My study of reproduction technology, from low to high-tech, is fundamentally shaped by (trans)body politics. My project UNBORN0x9 started with an artist residency with EchOpen in 2017; they’ve been developing an open-source and low-cost echo-stethoscope. Following an invitation to hack this device, I dreamed up a collective sonic performance from retrieved ultrasonic data. As ultrasound was first developed as a sonar detection for submarine warfare, its use for the detection of a fetus inside of a body can be interpreted as a method of access and control. UNBORN0x9 explores the role of obstetric science in human reproduction, speculating on new types of bonding that may emerge with the use of artificial wombs. The project also involved three online group sessions hosted by Art Laboratory Berlin on ultrasonic politics, ectogenesis and surrogacy. These groups explored whether these technologies are liberation for women or an exploitation of hired wombs. 

What lessons should cis people learn about reproduction from trans experiences?

Shu Lea Cheang: For UNBORN0x9’s performance at Gaite Lyrique, a trans man spoke about a doctor’s refusal to treat his pregnancy. Traditional gender politics are challenged by the outsourcing of reproduction from women’s bodies.

Biomedical elements are a repeating motif throughout your work – fluids, waste, flesh, injections, artificiality.  While some forms of transhumanism focus on the elimination of biological ‘messiness’, your work seems to delight in the queer messiness that happens with bodily augmentation. What is it about the collision of human biology and technology that interests you?

Shu Lea Cheang: Certain trans-bodies may seek prostheses for ‘passing’ while others have departed from the gender binary. Reading about Samuel R Delany’s abandoned pleasure in golden showers inspired my interest in bodily fluids. Waste dumping is a circulated act.

Fluids from bodily emission now are controlled by condoms or dental dams, which are employed in sexual intercourse fraught with fear after the AIDS epidemic. In my films, I explore how living with a virus is to trans-mutate our bodies, teleporting these viral bodies into a brave new ecosystem. Bodies are packaged, made to be opened. Flesh is a synthetic construction, non-compostable. By injecting and ejecting, the body is now composed of ‘ports’ with input/output functions. These days, we’re living in a science fiction scenario with ever-advancing research on bio-informatics and bio-engineering. Our desire to connect is interrupted by lost signals.

Visit the gallery above for a closer look at stills from Shu Lea Cheang: Scifi New Queer Cinema 1994-2023.

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  • Source of information and images “dazeddigital

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