Yiou Wang is an experimental multimedia artist and game/interaction designer whose works explore the nonhuman agency, mind-body relations, myth, and the environment through games, video, extended realities, BCI, painting, and immersive interactive installation. Co-founder of Mixanthropy Art Tech Studio, Yiou is a Master of Architecture candidate from Harvard Graduate School of Design and received a B.S. in psychology at Duke. With backgrounds in social science and architecture, Yiou constructs picture worlds in the convergence of ancient mythology and future science fiction as dual but nonbinary modes of worldbuilding. Yiou’s research-based projects mediate artistic and technological interrogation of transhumanism and the production of bio-mythical cosmologies - organismal, machinic, and environmental. Up to 2023, Yiou’s works have appeared in art festivals and galleries in the U.S., Canada, and China including SXSW, and will soon be exhibited in Sweden, bringing her artistic vision to a global audience.
Q: First of all, tell us about your background and your practice!
I’m a multimedia artist of things without boundaries, living things, and animist picture worlds where emergent spirituality is revived through a posthuman techno-cultural lens. In the past two years, my works have been cross-pollinated by my obsessions with the science and mythology of nonhuman beings, maze and language, and mind-body-motion relations in video, installation, immersive experience, games, and various media. It took me quite a meander to get where I am. I was painting profusely during my formative years, almost became an architect, and then was attracted to explore the new frontiers in the Digitocene, only to find myself increasingly returning to what I had been doing since childhood – visual worldbuilding and myth-telling as a way I navigate the unknowns. For me, a medium is a tool for realizing ideas but not a boundary for what I am. I take a persistent focus on more-than-human cosmologies, re-enchantment, animation, and animism fusing mythology with cutting-edge tech and a commitment to caring for the planetary ecosystem.
The body in transition, visual, mythological, and behavioral - is the focus of this multimedia investigation incorporating motion capture, retargeting, metamorphosis, and machine learning. Mixanthropy, the capturing of a deity’s potential to glide between versatile body forms and multispecies ethnography, is a serial investigation of the lives and perspectives of other-than-humans.
Q: What drives you to become an artist?
It’s like following an animal instinct. Imagination is something very innate in me and being an artist has been natural to me. Now I just lie back relaxed and let my nature override me like the running creek overriding the movement of mosses underneath.
Q: You're obsessed with the notion of Mazes and Labyrinths, could you tell us why?
Since I read Borges’ “The Labyrinth Maker” in high school, I got an ecstasy – I knew I would become the labyrinth maker that he prophesied. Now I am, a maze maker, doing my master’s thesis on a series of methods to make mazes. The labyrinth in Borges’ “Labyrinth Maker” is used interchangeably with a maze; a labyrinth is unicursal, while a maze is multicursal – this is their distinction. I think of the maze as a nonhuman being that plays a game with you, since it is a space that doesn’t promote efficiency and security, but the opposite of them. Friedrich Schiller’s definition of a game is a voluntary act of overcoming unnecessary difficulties, and the maze offers you unnecessary meanders, obstructions, and misleading cues. In many ways, a single person is not alone in a maze; the maze is an adversarial agent to them. These hidden oppositional dynamics and the arising game balance are what attract me most.
Screenshots from Moving Maze, 2021, Game Design.
In Collaboration with Yujie Wang
A complex system synthesizing turn-based procedural computation with ludic architecture, the Moving Maze explores novel maze mechanics where indeterministic systemic complexities are governed by the simplest minimalistic rules.
I got training in architecture, but in architecture school, they never discuss the maze; in architecture schools, they talk about shelter, efficiency, modernism, and how for each design feature there must be a reason, but I love the fact that almost every culture in the world has had maze structures at some point in history. The maze does not make the world a better place, but makes it a more inefficient and riskier place, and I love that such spaces exist since the dawn of humanity but get rejected from the realm of elite taste. It is a very postmodern feature of the maze as it evolved from the labyrinth, sacred purpose descending to entertainment. I see a ton of relations here.
Mazes and Labyrinths, 2023
There can be infinite types of different mazes, and the type you usually picture is just one of them. For the two years from 2018 to 2020 when I was trained as an architectural designer, every project I made was, in retrospect, some kind of maze. It all came subconsciously to me that my way of thinking from local rules to global generation is the way of creating a maze. I am one of the maze makers that Borges prophesied. I’m also imbued with a sense of mission.
Q: You did a lot of research and experimental projects on nonhuman agency and posthumanism, what do you hope to achieve through your investigation?
We are not different nor more important than nonhuman animals, because, in many mythologies, our ancestors are hybrid chimeras. The motif of human-animal shapeshifting is familiar in many mythologies and thought systems over the world. It inspires interconnectedness, either biological or shamanic, between animals, forests, and waters, between the body’s circadian phases, and solar and lunar phases. But sadly, to most contemporary humans, shapeshifting only inspires fear.
Human-animal shapeshifting is important to me because it assumes no boundary between humans and nonhuman animals. In accounts of shapeshifting, phase change, and relations become much more prioritized over fixed categorical identities. Yes, I consider “nonhuman” my label despite being aware that this word is also binary. But when dealing with the outside world, I still choose “nonhuman” as my label, not because it best communicates the nonbinary concepts, but because it most quickly and firmly differentiates me from artists and designers who are allegedly human-centered. The “human” in human-centered design, if you think twice about it, has been plagued by colonialism and speciesism, and human exceptionalism in the Western narrative. Ancient sources of thought didn’t position humans this way. People of color, women, and non-normative people are actually recent additions instead of all-time ingredients of the concept of humans. The biggest problem with anthropocentrism to me is the denial of subjecthood in organisms and environments, the denial of animism, a dreadful indifference to the living world. I have lived, seen, and felt mythology and the heavy stress my species currently impose on the living world, I seek to decentralize humanity and open up new, nonhuman perspectives.
Metamorphosis, 2022, Animation
In collaboration with Meichun Cai
Myths, indigenous religions, and shamanist religions often depict the transitional human body as a praxis of cosmological metamorphosis and plurality. Metamorphosis is a special relationship between the mind and the body. As the mind transforms, the body visually transforms from one being to another with force and character of the mind. The mapping of the mind and the body is non-linear and not specific to one individual as modern society takes for granted. Little by little, like a set of nesting dolls, the elusive human form disintegrates, and a new body transitions into a different shape every once in a while.
I love “nonhuman” also because it implies an otherness that I have deeply felt and lived all my life, navigating as a lone nomad in the Otherland, being viewed as an exotic, a stranger, and at the same time feeling utmost freedom and the gift of creative exuberance, and fluidity of the self, and an unspeakable kinship with flora and fauna.
A more recent pivot was when I worked on contributing to a book titled “Beauty and Monstrosity in Art and Culture,” in which I wrote on the sacredness of animal-human hybrid bodies in transition under the cyborg culture of this Digitocene, and since the book project directed my attention to the more-than-human realm and religion over the past two years, such themes reflect in my works too.
Q: What do you think is critical for artists at the moment?
It’s critical for artists at the moment to adopt art as social interrogation, something more than self-expression, something more than a private language. Certainly, in every artwork, there is a personal tint, but as contemporary art is gradually adopting the paradigm of interrogative research-creation, using art to investigate a question, or raise a question, maybe more meaningful socially and environmentally. Artists are people with huge energies, and to me, the best artists point their energies both outward and inward, between social interrogation oriented outward, and personal introspection directed inward. This is the meaning behind my logo too – I call it the two-way gaze. To think of art and make art as an interrogative approach, I think it is necessary for contemporary artists to have one or a few obsessions other than any artistic mediums. It is dangerous to not have any obsession; in that way, one becomes either too easy to flow with the mainstream, or too rational. But just having some non-art obsessions is not enough, I think as artists we need to know our relationships to the world and obsessions, and we need to be able to think in terms of relations, not ego. When artists think in terms of relations and relatedness, they tend to produce works that are related to the world, socially interrogative works.
Q: What are your future plans?
In the first quarter of 2023, I am working on my new project Morphai, a mythological characterization of sleep involving the sleeper’s spirit which drives a digital avatar’s existence and movement, through data. Morphai is a start of a wildly fascinating universe of projects. It is about dream embodiment, sleep performance, sleep choreography, and one’s dreamed self. Sleep is the fertile soil for the emergence of otherness because I live a parallel life in my dreams’ adventures. I’ve been working with EMG signals on an avatar that embodies vegetation states, and with sleep performers who wear a phosphorescent costume in their sleep performance, being captured by an overhead camera. Morphai will be shown as a two-channel video on an installation in the June-July exhibition “InSomnolence” in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal, as part of a research-creation group called Sociability of Sleep. In the Morphai universe, I’ll later incorporate mocap sleep as a daily performance as well as a collaboration with some Montreal-based performers in a CGI film currently in incubation.
MORPHAI Process Images, 2023, performance
Morphai, Full video, 2023
Mixanthropy (IG: @mix.anthropy) is a multidisciplinary art-tech studio creating ancient future myths in novel artistic expressions using emergent technologies. With its name referencing animal-human hybrid deities in ancient Greek, Mixanthropy aims to explore complex social and natural themes of metamorphosis, biomorphism, environment ephemerality, identity, and plurality in the interconnected world. Their first eponymous art installation in the form of an immersive hologram forest at SXSW 2023.
The co-founders are Chinese-born US-based multimedia artists and interdisciplinary designers Yiou Wang and Meichun Cai, who met while they were studying at Harvard Graduate School of Design. Since its birth, Mixanthropy has the goal of producing original, interactive, and provocative installations and commissioned projects, bridging ancestry, avatar, narrative, and sensual impact through mocap-based animation, holography, projection mapping, sculpture, and performance, to stimulate thought and imagination.