Representing Taiwan at the 58th Venice Biennale within the walls of a 16th century prison, artist Shu Lea Cheang tackles the issues of incarceration for sex crimes and the “digital prison” of our smart technologies.
For those who don’t know her, Shu Lea Cheang is a figure of Net art and the cyberfeminist movement that emerged in the 1990s. Living in New York at the time, she was also an active member of the activist video collective Paper Tiger Television (as was French filmmaker Nathalie Magnan). Since then, Cheang’s work has dealt with “concerns including sex, futures, gender, ecology, money, media, and food [to] encompass film, installation, online work, social processes, and direct intervention in the sociopolitical, technical and aesthetic systems, and the imaginaries which co-compose them,” writes Matthew Fuller in the catalogue of the Taiwan exhibition presented at the 2019 Venice Biennale.
Cheang has a particular knack for blending post-porn performance and cyberpunk science-fiction into films, as in her latest project 3x3x6 presented this year in Venice. Perhaps her pioneer work was I.K.U. (2000), in which orgasm data is collected by android hard drives and downloaded onto smartphone chips, merchandizing pleasure that can be experienced as often as desired. More recently, in her cypherpunk film Fluidø (2017), the HIV virus mutates into an illegal pleasure-inducing drug, creating a flourishing black market that Cheang portrays through a panoply of colorful characters. In the very post-porn world of Fluidø, standard heterosexual penetration is replaced by a wide diversity of sexual practices, with a pronounced fetish for fluids.
Trailer for Fluidø (2017):
Casanova in prison
Currently based in Paris, Shu Lea Cheang was invited to represent Taiwan at the 58th Venice Biennale by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum of Taiwan, which has been hosting the Taiwan Pavilion since 1995 inside Palazzo delle Prigioni, the famous 16th century prison connected to the Doge’s Palace by the Bridge of Sighs. Inspired by this venue, Cheang immediately decided to tackle the theme of incarceration. The title of her installation, 3x3x6, refers to the standard format of industrial prison cells for “sex criminals” and “terrorists” in the West: 3 x 3 meters, no window, under surveillance 24/7 by 6 cameras.
During an interview with Makery a few days after the opening in Venice, Shu Lea Cheang said: “It all began with the Palazzo delle Prigioni building itself, when I found out that the whole exhibition would be held in this venue, that I would have the whole space. Before my first site visit, I did some research on the history of the prison, on the beautiful or cruel memory of the place, and I discovered that Casanova had been imprisoned there. Then during that first visit, I thought it would also be good to go back to the panoptic interface that I used for Brandon.”
Brandon (1998-1999), as Matthew Fuller explains, is “one of the key projects of art on the Internet that stems from the explosion of activity in this field during the late 1990s”. The commissioned online artwork referenced the story of Brandon Teena, a young transsexual man from Nebraska who was raped and assassinated in 1993, while “creating a space for rebellion against the annihilating forces of social normality”. Versions of Shu Lea Cheang’s original web piece were subsequently exhibited on video walls at the Guggenheim SoHo in New York and Waag Society in Amsterdam.
“I gradually evolved the historical interface of the panopticon into a contemporary version, in terms of surveillance cameras, etc.,” Cheang continues. “These days, the prison has no walls, we live in a much bigger prison without walls, and of course, now it’s all about big data.”
Cheang invited Paul B. Preciado to join her as associate curator. In the catalogue, Preciado writes about contemporary digital imprisonment: “Developed over the last thirty years, a regime of mass incarceration now coexists with new forms of digital and biotechnological control; the arrival of the control society didn’t erase the architectural technologies of the disciplinary regime but rather established an unexpected alliance. New apparatuses of control are made of a juxtaposition of multiple (and often confronting) technologies of production of subjectivity, which come from diverse historical regimes. We are no longer analogical subjects of discipline but we are not yet fully modular digital beings of control. We are transitioning.”
“I’ve worked a lot on sexual deviance, but here it was about the incarceration of sexual deviances, so naturally, I brought in Paul B. Preciado,” Cheang explains. Thereafter, they had the idea of highlighting 10 cases of imprisonment for sexual crimes. “We quickly agreed on three historical cases—Casanova, the Marquis de Sade and Michel Foucault—and on the fact that the others should be contemporary but that we should define typologies of crimes. That’s why we added the X, as none of these contemporary cases corresponds in reality to a single person.”
10 films for 10 typologies of sex crimes
The main room of the exhibition features 10 screens on which are projected the 10 films shot in 4K video that reinterpret in a queer and fluid manner the 10 defined typologies (and often inversing genders, as when Sade is played by a woman, for example).
Preciado describes the reasons for Casanova’s incarceration in Venice: “Casanova, who engaged in multiple sexual encounters yet tried to avoid both syphilis and pregnancies, was the main promoter of the use of the condom at the end of the 18th century (together with Jeremy Bentham)—a view very much against that of the church and of the state. Cheang, against the Western representation of Asian masculinity as castrated, creates a hypersexual, gender-fluid, Asian CASANOVA X, embodied by Taiwanese performer Enrico Wey. She depicts not the Western icon of male heterosexuality but an image for the first sexual educator: a pioneer of safe sex, who went beyond the stereotypical differences between straight and queer sexuality.”
The film 00 X tells the story of an HIV-positive man incarcerated in a Taiwanese prison for 10 years for spreading the AIDS virus during chemsex (sexual relations under the influence of drugs) with homosexual men he met online. Preciado: “Cheang creates a fictional tale in which 00 X together with his eleven sexual partners and legal witnesses, all dressed in the traditional pink outfit of the Taiwanese prisoner during the years of martial law, dance under a rain of pills like an army of lovers.”
While the film on Michel Foucault (played by French actor Félix Maritaud) shows how, as a young researcher in 1959, he was seduced by a Polish agent in order to reveal his sexuality and trouble the French Embassy with his imprisonment, the film on the Marquis de Sade deconstructs the usual cinematic and literary representations of the divine marquis.
“The real historical Sade weighed more than 180 kilograms, and his most consistent sexual practice was not heterosexual but rather anal self-penetration,” writes Preciado. “Embodied by contemporary performer Liz Rosenfeld, SADE X in Cheang’s rendition is given back both his materiality and femininity. A queer ode to resistance via writing and expressing sexuality in prison, the film portrays the salvation of the manuscript 120 Days of Sodom; thanks to Sade’s idea of hiding the twelve-meter-long manuscript in a hollow dildo he used for anal penetration while in his cell at the Bastille in 1785; after the Bastille was looted on July 14th, Sade thought the work had been lost, yet it was eventually found and finally published in 1904.”
In another film, SADE X encounters MW X, a man sentenced to life imprisonment for contractually killing (and eating) a man he met in an Internet cannibal café. Preciado: “Stressing the key role that Internet technologies play in this form of sexual relationship, Cheang has transformed the sexual partner of MW X into a computer and the act of killing and eating into a process of disassembly and cyber digestion.”
The five other sex criminals depicted in the film series include a transsexual man accused of having sexual relations with a woman without revealing to her his gender status (D X), a woman sentenced to four years of prison for simulating fellatio on the Internet (L X), a woman sentenced to life in 2013 for emasculating her husband and throwing his penis in the trash (B X), a Muslim academic arrested for sexual assault and rape in 2018 and held in preventive detention for 10 months without trial (inspired by Islamic scholar Tariq Ramadan, R X), and three women incarcerated in the high-security Harare prison for raping and harvesting the sperm of men to sell for profit (FSB X).
Panoptic blind spots
Masturbation in prison is another recurring theme. Cheang: “In these films we wanted to talk about what we call pleasure. When you watch the 10 videos, you realize that there’s a kind of thread, as if there were always a certain pleasure, in all these situations in prison. I discussed it with Paul: How, within a system of surveillance, in a prison, do we find a way out? When Bentham conceived the panopticon, I noticed that he designed an invisible blind spot for the guards. What could it have been for? For me, it must have basically been for masturbation. I see in it a humanistic approach, and I initially wanted to include a blind spot. Not particularly because I wanted to promote masturbation, but rather as a space for escape. But after discussion, we decided to include a control room.”
Although Preciado had worked on the control room of Playboy Mansion in his book Pornotopia, a source of inspiration for 3x3x6, Cheang didn’t try to recreate a pre-digital control room. Instead she chose the form of a giant cube to house the complex server controlling the entire exhibition, which better corresponded to the image of contemporary digital control. However, she gave the cube a 30-degree incline, in order to weaken its authoritarian effect and “give the impression of its possible collapse, a bit as if it were gradually sinking into the lagoon of Venice.”
The age of sousveillance
In the main room, the 10 characters of the films are introduced to the public on 10 vertical screens through an initial sequence, which includes a facial recognition interface. The projectors remain still during the introductions, then other sequences begin as the panoptic tower starts to rotate, bringing out the images that were up until then contained on the screens.
For the following sequence, Cheang connected the projection tower to a 3D camera surveillance system that scans the body of each visitor in the stairwell leading to the entrance and saves the image. Cheang wondered: “If we want to show that we’re living in the age of surveillance, should we reproduce the same actions? In what way can we show that a new form of resistance is possible?” To do this, she crossed motion and facial recognition image captures with morphing software in order to mix and metamorphose the images with hundreds of others. The results are later projected in the form of hybrids on the same surface as the incarnations of sex crime prisoners. “The way to show a possible resistance to digital monitoring is to hack your recognition software to perform new actions,” Cheang explains.
Preciado: “The exhibition consciously uses gender and racial morphing as queer digital strategies to disrupt the tradition of colonial and anthropometric identification techniques that extend from 19th century Alphonse Bertillon’s criminological photography to contemporary AI facial recognition. […] The surveillance system is hacked by an anti-colonial, transfeminist, and decentralized guerrilla: the faces and bodies of those criminalized by sexopolitical regimes are mixed in and combined with the image of the visitor to create a single visual universe, where one is both reflected and transformed collectively. By connecting the exhibition to an internal network of 3D surveillance cameras but also to the open flow of exterior online data, Cheang transforms the panopticon into a tower of sousveillance.”
After the sequence of local cameras, the installation opens to remote contributions. “We designed this motion recognition application, which we decided to make available for Android and iOS two days before the opening, inviting people to send us a smartphone video of themselves dancing, in a tribute to Maedeh Hojabri,” says Cheang.
The Iranian teenager was arrested in Iran in July 2018, charged with posting videos of herself dancing on Instagram. Hojabri had filmed herself in her own bedroom, dancing to pop and rap music without wearing the hijab. For Tehran’s cyber-police, what was punishable by law was not the dancing itself, but rather the online posting of these “indecent videos”. A few days after Hojabri’s arrest, dozens of Iranian and non-Iranian women posted videos of themselves dancing in solidarity, with the hashtag #dancingisnotacrime.
Cheang’s mobile app 3x3x6 invites people to upload a one-minute video, which is then processed into a three-minute sequence. Cheang: “The first minute is your own dancing video, where we start to track your movement through the app, then we keep only the vectors, then finally we reanimate these vectors as a dancing avatar.”
Preciado writes: “In one post, a woman argued that ‘she would rather go to jail than be ‘imprisoned’ in her bedroom,’ acknowledging the continuity between the prison regime, the gender norms that enclose women within the domestic sphere, and the Internet.” Her argument has no better example than the digital prison without walls highlighted by Cheang to underline the necessity of defending our sexual freedoms as well as our digital freedoms in the face of the cyber-control of the so-called “smart city”.
We’ll let Paul B. Preciado have the last word:
“If the French term ‘sur-veillance’ refers to the ‘from above’ location of the physical or technical eye in the panopticon system, ‘sous-veillance’ speaks of the shift from the vertical and radial architecture of the prison to the horizontality and vulnerability of the personal computer device. Although the miniaturization and digitalization of surveillance technologies creates a dispersed, decentralized, and limitless watching regime, which densifies the network of control, it also opens the door to the possibility of an inverted surveillance move, one in which the users become agents watching the regime’s eye. Within the contemporary complex of interlocking panopticons and billions of personal smartphones, there is political leverage not only in the position of the watching device but in the collective capacity of users to trigger a strategic movement of dissent, resistance, even rebellion. First, this requires being able to unveil the technologies we use as apparatuses of control and resistance (instead of mere means of communication or entertainment), and second, to understand the way they function and then dare to intervene into their operative system.
“By opening up the possibility for the visitor to use personal smartphones and apps differently, by constantly uploading data from the visitors and entering it into the image flow of the exhibition, Cheang extends 3x3x6 outside of its physical location, blurring the limits between the museum and the Internet, but also between artist and visitor, between producer and receiver. She is also questioning individual freedom and intimacy, collective agency and participation. 3x3x6 shows us that computers and smartphones are miniature portable prisons, and museums that confine, constitute, and exhibit our sexual selves only give us the impression of independence and privacy. At the same time, the exhibition invites us to use both sites for possible action and resistance in times of cybernetic sur(sous)veillance.”
More information on the Taiwan Pavilion by Shu Lea Cheang at the 58th Venice Biennale