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Speculative Fiction, Post-Humanism, AI, Memories, 3D Animation, Game, Video, Machine-Nature Interaction


Phantom Sugar

Phantom Sugar, Cao Shu, 2023. 3-Channel 3D Rendering Moving Image Installation. 15'10''.

In "Phantom Sugar," the A.I. algorithm enables vertical farming, monitoring and predicting every plant's growth. The narrative follows an A.I. drone nurturing sugarcane even after humanity's extinction. Its memories are triggered when an ant appears, recalling an era after 20th-century collectivism's collapse, where a local sugar mill failed due to globally predictive technology. The cultivation and industrialization of sugar, along with global futures trading, termed "Phantom Sugar" due to its unpredictable value, has disrupted its own ecosystem...

Roam Simulator

Roam Simulator, Cao Shu, 2021. Interactive Game. Dimensions Variable.

This project combines a video game with a photo-taking function. Time in the game has stopped, and players can use the "Recall" button as a "photo-taking" action.

The audience, as players, can recall time through different family albums scattered in a real-time rendering desert world.

"It has been 15 years since I left the north, and my existing life has been divided into two almost equal parts. No matter how the city space is demolished and reconstructed, the original geographical structure and impression of my hometown will always be stored in the depth of my brain. Some reduction and reorganization occur in deep dream. I follow the clues of the family album and return to its location by 3D digital simulation."

Originally in a game, the spatial combination continued the long-term recording of the dream map. In the exhibition hall, scattered photos are also available. They serve as clues to the game. The game involves walking alone on the surface of a subconscious planet covered with a mental map. Moments from years ago, a few years ago, and yesterday converge simultaneously. This work is a continuation of the self-questioning from many years ago: Can people understand history through geography and time through space by means of changing technology?

The work originated from my own thinking about the Dyson Sphere. Under the Dyson Sphere's train of thought, if everything can be regarded as pure quantitative resources and energy, what does existence in memory mean to individuals?"

Artist Interview

Q: In this new edition of the UAAD online magazine, we're exploring the theme of "[Matrix] of the [Not-Yet]." How would you interpret these two words, and how do you see your work aligning with the concepts of [Matrix] and [Not-Yet]?

I think "Not-Yet" implies that a perfect utopia will never exist and that the most precious moments are found in the process itself. The perfect outcome is often suspended ahead as an ideal for humanity to strive for. Promising a perfect future suggests cruel violence and authoritarianism. "Matrix" means the set of conditions that provides a system in which something grows or develops, but in the digital world and the current era of algorithmic governance, the term "Matrix" implies the manipulation of everything.

In my recent works, I explore algorithmic governance and the predictable future. In one piece, I examine the control of life through vertical farming, while another delves into the relationship between digital technology and memory. These explorations highlight the complexities and potential dangers of a future shaped by algorithms and technological control, emphasizing the need for critical engagement and thoughtful governance in navigating these developments.

Q: We are very interested in the trajectory of your creative practices and their connection to the theme. Could you provide us with a little more information about your background?

In my recent work, there is indeed a contradiction between the relationship of "Not-Yet" and "Matrix." It tells a near-future science fiction story. Since ancient times, humans have been obsessed with predicting the future, and artificial intelligence born from ant colony algorithms has made precise predictions possible, akin to Laplace's demon. In the future, vertical farming will allow for algorithmic control of all crop growth, predicting every second of a plant's respiration. The story describes an AI drone nurturing the growth of sugarcane, its duty being to eliminate all accidental factors and support plant growth, even though humans have long since become extinct. At this moment, the appearance of an ant suddenly reminds the drone of its first patrol, in an era after the collapse of collectivism in the 20th century, where a sugar mill was destroyed by globally precise predictive behavior. The cultivation and industrialization of sugar, along with global futures trading, is referred to as "Phantom Sugar" in the futures field due to the unpredictability of its value. The value of sugar itself is also a disruptor of the "ecosystem" of sugar factories.

The work explores topics such as swarm algorithms, future agriculture, Laplace's demon, and humanity's obsession with predicting and controlling behavior. In ancient China, including records in Sima Qian's "Records of the Grand Historian," there are numerous accounts of using sugar to guide the walking patterns of ant colonies to predict the future and alter history. Classic ant colony algorithms are also present in AI neural networks, used to simulate blueprints for the future. The work revolves around research on the Shunde Sugar Factory in Guangdong, China, drawing inspiration from the electronic industry mass movement in 1970s China, as well as Project Cybersyn by the government of Guillermo Allende Gossens in Chile in 1970.

Q: The creators participating in this magazine work across various mediums, including moving images, interactive installations, music composition, etc. What factors influence your choice of medium for your works?

The medium has continually transformed my understanding of the world. I believe that artists do more than just express themselves through a medium; their expression is shaped by the process of interacting with the medium itself. My exploration of digital technology over the years has provided me with a fresh perspective on various aspects of life, such as memory, photography, life, and time, among others. The evolution of technology means that artists must evolve and grow alongside it.

Q: How does your work reflect or actively engage with the cultural and social dynamics of your community or the communities you interact with? Are there elements in your art that seek to bridge, disrupt, or transform these dynamics?

Most of my works focus on the past century, initially driven by the impulse to reconstruct personal memories. Over time, I've discovered that everything is closely interconnected, including hometowns and distant places, multi-species coexistence, and human fate. I re-examine these seemingly settled histories from the perspective of current technological and philosophical thought. There are many new angles to be explored, all of which are closely related to how we face contemporary society.

Q: What real-world strategies or methodologies do you employ in your art practice to manifest your visions of the future? How do these tactics serve as forms of resistance or intervention within the current socio-political landscape?

Art or exhibitions are like simulated rehearsals for the future. We can simulate more radical experiments in our works, but in the real political environment, humans cannot endure such turbulence. I think this is the greatest significance of art or exhibition strategies: they provide us with many different perspectives to view the world, rather than only one possibility.

Q: How do you hope your work impacts its viewers or participants, particularly in terms of rethinking potential futures or alternate realities? Who do you perceive as your audience?

In most cases, I actually present my work in a physical gallery space. I believe that the experience of the body is enhanced by the five senses — breathing, temperature, sound, and the progression of time are all essential. This holistic experience makes the work more tangible and multidimensional. On the other hand, I've recently been exploring speculative narratives through video games, which is an entirely different approach. I hope that one day, every audience member will have the tools to create their own speculative narratives, rather than just being a player in a predetermined game with limited possibilities. When more people develop their own technological branches based on their perspectives, the potential for creating alternate realities becomes quite intriguing.

Q: As a creator, what do you see as the threats or uncertainties we will face in the coming decade?

The technological explosion in artificial intelligence or bioethics won't threaten art itself; rather, it will create new artistic ethics and knowledge experiences, as well as new artistic forms and value systems. I think the threat comes from the spread of political correctness and the cancellation of free speech, self-censorship, and persecution from authoritarian powers (of course, new technologies will also play a role in this process).

Q: What motivates you to continue creating as an artist?

An artist can have a career without a clear goal, not bound by quantifiable value systems. When I am old, and when many business owners or government officials around me lament the meaning of life, I can at least leave something behind to communicate with people a hundred years from now, which is quite comforting.

Q: Are there any theories, books, or artists you would like to recommend in your current areas of interest?

“The Mushroom at the End of the World” by Anna Tsing.

Q: If you could possess a superpower, what would it be? If you could create an art piece with unlimited resources and no constraints, how would it look like, and why?

If I could have a superpower, I would want the ability to manipulate time, allowing me to travel to the future or the past at any moment.

If I could create any kind of project without limitations, I would want it to be one that could be executed on the moon.

About the Artist

CAO Shu lives and works in Hangzhou and teaches at the China Academy of Art. His artworks primarily focus on narrative 3D digital moving images, video games, and site-specific installations, which are based on local practices and intricately weave together the complex production mechanisms behind computer graphics technology, mythical metaphors, historical archives, and social issues. In recent years, Cao Shu has won awards such as the 2022 OCAT x KADIST Emerging Media Artist Award, the 2021 Exposure Award of PHOTOFAIRS Shanghai, and the 2017 BISFF Award for Outstanding Artistic Achievement. He has been a residency artist at Atelier Mondial in Basel (2017), Yokohama Koganecho Bazaar Art Festival (2019), and Muffatwerk Munich (2023). His works have been exhibited in art museums around the world, such as Kunsthaus Baselland, Matadero Contemporary Art and Culture Center, UCCA Dune, White Rabbit Gallery Sydney, BY ART MATTERS Hangzhou, Macao Art Museum, Power Station of Art Shanghai, Sleep Center New York, Beijing Minsheng Art Museum, OCAT Shanghai, and Die Sammlung Falckenberg Hall Hamburg. His works are collected by institutions including the Kadist Art Foundation, Australian White Rabbit Art Gallery, Blue Mountain Contemporary Art Foundation, and Zhejiang Art Museum, among others.

©2024 Underground Art And Design LLC | ISSN 2835-284X

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