CA TALK｜David Gao: Human‘s Future , A Dystopian Fact
We never look just at one thing; we are always looking at the relation between things and ourselves.”
— — John Berger’s Ways of Seeing.
I’ve been thinking, for those who are addicted to mechanical engineering and even human-machine practice, what is the core that fascinates them? As David Gao said, human beings use machines to satisfy and expand their desires, but they always push themselves into corners. We are addicted to the beautiful life gained by technology, and we have to face various problems arising from opening up and production of technology. So, on a certain level, apart from filling the gap of desire, people are actually trying to explore the relationship between man and nature with the help of technology, and even between man and God-the traditional definition of God has been abandoned, or it should be a desired conception of becoming overhuman.
I first noticed that David Gao, a FX artist who has attracted much attention recently, was an accidental opportunity to see a visual content he created for the 88 Rising brand on the Youtube. In that video, with the advance of the camera, the neon signs hanging along the street have the texture of “Western food cafeteria”, which is magical and realistic. At first glance, it’s easy to remind people of Hong Kong, but it’s actually unreal, and it has a subtle use of collage. I tried to trace the geo-cultural reasons of the creator to explain it, but I didn’t succeed, and I didn’t find any clues in other works published by him. However, the collage style seems to be a kind of memory in unconscious cognition, which is mixed with the appreciation of Chinese and western cultural cognition and visual experience, not from the creator’s personal experience. So I wonder, as an Asian artist, how did the genes of geo-culture be eliminated in his personal experience, or was it actually buried deeply?
David Gao is a Chinese American artist originally from Wuhan, China, and was born and raised in San Francisco. His father is a Chinese official working in the financial sector, and his mother is an acupuncturist. He was the only artist in his family, but his parents were very supportive of his decision since childhood. Perhaps they were influenced by the living atmosphere in San Francisco, a cluster for both high-tech industries, and a new starting place for modern American art. The family provided David piano lessons at an early age and professional art courses since elementary school. It’s hard to say whether he benefited from his early thinking. Even at that age when he was ignorant of the word career, David firmly believed that engaging in artistic and creative work was his ideal.
After graduating from middle school, he applied to the famous Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts in San Francisco, an art high school named after Ruth Asawa, a famous Asian-American modernist sculptor. As we all know, Ruth Asawa is a core figure who walked through the concentration camp in World War II, experienced cruel racist discrimination, but promoted the art education reform in San Francisco by herself. Therefore, the background of this art high school are self-evident, and the social landscape of Asian culture created by the efforts of several generations of expatriates in San Francisco since 1960s can also be imagined. Therefore, in David’s growing experience, the influence of Asian culture that he was exposed to not only came from his family, but also the popular Asian music culture there. He admitted that he was a supporter of this culture and was encouraged by the creation and achievements of Asian musicians.
But the choice of being a visual artist may be traced back to around 2015. This year was David’s last year studying in media art design UCLA, perhaps the synaesthesia potential of learning music was stimulated, meanwhile, he was impressed by the comprehensive stage sound vision. During his studies in Los Angeles, David was at an underground warehouse party. After experiencing the perfect interaction between VJ Art (Visual Jockey of ART) and music in stage performances, he was deeply attracted by 3D and sound effects design, and aspired to be an artist who created vision through sound effects.
After finding his career direction, David quickly mastered the 3D design ability through self-study. After graduation from college, he cooperated with artist GMUNK on a robot device, and successfully joined SB Projects, a music brokerage company, doing graphic design. Around 2019, to improve his visual design ability, he went to Canada’s Lost Boys School of Visual Effects for further study. After obtaining the diploma, he now lives and works in Montreal, Canada.
At this point in the chronology, when we look back at David’s upbringing, several points are clear: 1) his Asian background and family environment of high intellectual culture; 2) the experience of studying art from a young age; 3) growing up in a social environment where Asian culture was prevalent; 4) leaving San Francisco to study in Los Angeles and set his personal career path.
On any level, David Gao’s identity and Asian cultural perspective are integral to his work, and as a second-generation immigrant, the Asian community’s claim to identity should also be reflected. However, it is surprising to see that David’s visuals, as posted on his website and social media platforms, do not contain much of the Asian experience. Instead, the constant presence of aliens, space-time caves or disparate spaces in his works reveals a Western science fiction aesthetic. Not only in visual terms, but also in terms of the individual identity associated with ethnicity, which has been transformed into an exploration of the relationship between man and machine in his series. It seems that the existence of ‘identity’ has been transformed into the correspondence between biological and mechanical communities in his thinking and experience, and that standing opposite to individual identity is an orderly definition of mechanical and native identity.
In fact, I agree that with the continuous expansion of human desires and the development of science and technology, one day people will be assimilated by machinery, leaving only the awareness of consciousness and thoughts. However, the recognition of a view is different to obsession with this vision of a futuristic landscape. I wondered how this sci-fi aesthetic was internalised, even though David was born in San Francisco, where Silicon Valley is located, and grew up in a post-scientific era. How was the genetic awareness of Asian community replaced? Was he using the visual presentation of extreme special effects to observe something?
In this CA TALK, we talk to David Gao, a Chinese American visual artist from San Francisco.
CA: As an Asian-American artist, I think the eastern cultural tradition should be buried deep in your genetic blood, not just in your growing experience. However, in your creation, it is difficult for me to actually find this cultural connection. Why? Are you avoiding it or it has been completely westernized in your life experience?
David: I think the word you used, “buried”, describes the feeling that many Asian Americans, including myself, feel towards cultural traditions. It’s something that still feels a bit foreign and far away, but as I discover more and dig more up, I feel more connected to it.
CA: Do you subconsciously look for your cultural root, or do you think it is necessary to look for it?
David: I do not think it is necessary, but I think it is quite inevitable as an Asian American artist, because race and culture becomes such an unavoidable part of our lives.
CA: Were you influenced by your family in studying art，I remember that your father was an officer in the financial sector？
David: On the contrary, I am the only artist in my family，and my parents are quite opposite in this regard. My dad is retired, but yes，he used to work in the financial sector and has mostly assimilated to western culture. My mom is more traditional, and works as an acupuncturist.
But when I was very young, my parents sent me to learn piano, and I was taking art classes throughout elementary and middle school. Even at that age, I think that art was the only profession I could see myself doing.And I have been obsessed with handcraft since I was a child. I often use my lunch break to fold paper or create some gadgets. After graduating from middle school, I chose to apply to Ruth Asawa Art Institute (RASOTA), which is the only public art institute in San Francisco. In fact, the school was originally called School of the Arts (SOTA), but in 1982, the Alvarado College Art Studio, founded by Ruth Asawa and architectural historian Sally Woodbridge, had been working to establish a public art high school in San Francisco, and in 2010 SOTA was officially named after Ruth Asawa. This happened after I was enrolled, and I’m very proud of it.
CA: So did Ruth Asawa have any influence on you?
David: I am deeply inspired by Ruth Asawa’s art and activism. As you know, she is the most famous Asian-American artist in San Francisco, who has promoted the development of art education in San Francisco. I remember experiencing her work at our local museum and being in awe of how otherworldly and immersive they were. To me, they represented something in nature that seemed too perfect and surreal to exist. I also noticed that her sculpture’s shadows were just as meaningful as the work itself.
CA: But you weren’t influenced by her to start creating, it was the visual shock of VJ art that got you interested in visual design?
David:Yes, in high school we only studied traditional art classes such as painting, but my interests were not there. Because I really liked the work of Asian musicians and grew up learning piano myself, I once wanted to major in piano. However, I soon realised that my interest was still in visual composition and returned to exploring the visual profession and enrolled in the Media Arts Design program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) . It was during my time in LA that I was introduced to the popular dance culture in the US. In my final year, I encountered VJ art for the first time at a local underground warehouse party, and was struck by the stunning visual and audio effects of the interplay between visuals and sound in a live performance, and I was hooked on 3D creation and sound design after that. Like many other self taught artists who were looking online for inspiration, I was inspired by the big artists at the time like Beeple, Ash Thorp, GMUNK, and others. And also，my work is very inspired by the visual effects in movies, games, and even anime.
CA: VJ art originated in the early 20th century. Its first concrete case was an artistic work called Nourathar (meaning “the essence of light” in Arabic) created by piano soloist Mary Hallock-Greenewalt. It was later spread to the United States, and became popular through the clubs and the multimedia live party “Exploding Plastic Inevitable” organized by Andy Warhol. Have you ever thought that you will be interested in this art form, perhaps because you have learned piano since childhood, and have formed a synaesthesia relationship between sound and vision? Like Kandinsky (Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky, 1866–1944), he saw colors and patterns in the symphonies of Richard Wagner (1813–1883).
David: Possibly. So far, my interest and passion for music never faded away.They are the source of my inspiration.Today, I am mostly influenced by electronic music because of how well it goes with 3D visuals. Whenever I need inspiration, I would put on my headphones, play music, and imagine what visuals would go with the music.
CA: So your first creation is a robot device that you worked with the artist GMUNK in 2017 after being inspired by VJ art?
David: Yes,VJ art was a really cool niche that bridged my interests in visuals and music, and it also inspires me to create my own works. One of my graduation projects is to construct a virtual reality world where players can fly around and listen to the sounds made by alien plants in different ecosystems. After I taught myself 3D and visual design for about a year, I met some music producers by chance, so I had the opportunity to show my works at parties of artists such as Joji, Martin Garrix, and others..
And the work with GMUNK was one of my first jobs out of college，that was assisting on the robotic art installation “Telestron” by VT Pro Design. It was a ‘dance’ between two KUKA robots holding lights that premiered at Day For Night festival in Houston. The artist GMUNK helped direct the project towards the end as well. I was most impressed by the animators working on the project, as they had so much technical knowledge. I would love to do more installations in the future, even virtual ones.
CA: VJ art inspired your interest in audio-visual art. What about movies? You said earlier that you were deeply influenced by the movie Annihilation.
David: “Annihilation” was very much an uncut gem visually. There were so many amazing ideas of nature merging and mutating together in beautiful and grotesque ways. The idea of genes mutating together from “Annihilation” has definitely been one of the most inspiring themes to me to date. It appeals to me because it can be both disturbing and beautiful to see something that is so abnormal, and disrupts your reality. I have really grown to appreciate this “ecological horror” genre of film. Another great one is “Into The Earth”, directed by Ben Wheatly.
CA: Is your Sentinel series also influenced by Annihilation?
David: Yes, it is inspired by the theme of Annihilation, so the Sentinel is also about deformation.
CA: At present, although each sentinel has its own unique details, it is not attached with a clear identity and culture. Why? Is it for the reason that people in the future world identify themselves by deformation?
David: The Sentinel series started during my studies at Lost Boys School of VFX in late 2019. It was originally inspired by Mystique’s transformation effect from X-Men. Eventually, I expanded the series over different themes throughout the last few years. I began by using basic elements, such as ice and magma, as themes, but they certainly may evolve to have more complex and abstract characteristics in the future. It also became my NFT series, that I minted. The next series I created was ‘Four Portals’, but I will revisit the Sentinels in the future.
CA: When it comes to the era of man-machine integration, I like the concept you mentioned “dystopian integration of technology and human body/organs”, which is full of romanticism.
David: The essence of human beings is to fill their unsatisfied desires. While realizing their desires through the development of science and technology, they also push themselves into a deeper abyss. We can neither predict the outcome of what will happen nor change what is about to happen. Therefore, a dystopian future may be more in line with the factual results. From the aesthetic point of view, it is easier to find beauty with tension and resonance in disasters, just as Annihilation makes some grotesque things extremely beautiful, and so is dystopia.
CA: So why are you fascinated by the relationship between humans and machines? Is it because of this catastrophic beauty?
David: Yes, and it’s both fascinating and frightening to think about how we could be creating a new super species that would be superior to our own. I think this relates a lot tor the idea of dystopia too. So much technology is created for the betterment of mankind, but ends up backfiring or being used for destruction.
CA：Man will become subordinate to machines, and one day even not only his behaviour but also his will may be dominated by them. Or, to some extent, certain wills are already being dominated by machines in the human race today.
David: Yes definitely. We sort of backed ourselves into a corner, haven’t we? We have to keep advancing technology to solve our problems, but it creates even more problems in the process.
And also, I think this potential future stokes both fear and imagination, and that’s why so many artists explore this concept. Artists of the retro futurism movement in the 1900s have been trying to predict the future with drawings of flying cars, and I think this is our version of that.
CA: In the era of man-machine integration, there will be no essential species distinction between humans and machines, and they can even fall in love across ecology, just like the work “Are you me? Am I you？”, right?
David: The creation and use of robots will surely become popular in the future. Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine the intimate relationship between humans and machines in the future, including the love and sexual relationship with machines. I believe it will also appear in the near future. However, whether we can achieve cross-species love depends on the general cognition of the society, relevant laws and regulations. As I said, the machine is actually an extension of human will on different levels. It helps us to create, and it also helps us to destroy, and even destroys us.
CA: As you think, Transhumanism will eventually come. So, do you think there will still be cultural traditions or cultural differences in the era of man-machine integration? This question is actually related to the first question I raised on cultural identity.
David: I think that is a very interesting question. But I might be more willing to ask，can machines have “traditional culture” as humans do? Maybe they would derive their culture from modern human culture, or create one of their own.
CA: Well, you answered my question about your cultural identity with a good rhetorical questions! Back to your creation, you are good at highlighting your intention through details. Is this the reason why you often intercept organs or partial torso of the body as subjects in your creations?
David: Human trunk and organs, such as face, hands and eyes, all have their own symbolism and unique emotional expression. Artists in history often use body parts to create expressive works. In my works, I try to capture the beauty of the human body and the complexity of movement, and see if I can fully express these feelings in 3D.
CA: Body parts and organs are just carriers. What you are actually trying to present is “variation” and “destruction”. So whether it’s “deformation” or “fission”, it’s just a technique you use to present the visual tension and express the possibility of “after destruction”.
David: Thank you for noticing this! I always try to have a transformative effect in my work, such as those you mentioned. Being an FX artist really pushes me to think of how something can transform and change, and then create my own rules of nature for it.
CA: When did you enter the NFT art?
David: I first entered the NFT world with my sentinel series in early 2021. A year later, I released my newest series, ‘Four Portals’, which were four original visual animations with scores composed by the electronic musician Rinzen.
CA: As a visual artist, what does NFT mean to you?
David: Encrypted art has the ability to create rarity and prove ownership of digital art. Some artists create work that incorporate the blockchain into their work, and some artists just use it as a way to distribute their work. I see it as one of the biggest revolutions in the digital art world, and I am very excited to see what the future brings for the technology.