Sue Huang is an artist working at the intersections of new media, installation, and social practice. Her current work investigates our complex techno-cultural relationships to nature, exploring the ways that tactile, sensorial experiences are mediated through emerging technologies. These explorations draw connections to the socio-political power structures that shape our environment, suggesting a way forward through collective imagination and action.
Her past solo and collaborative works have been presented at national and international venues, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, Ohio; Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria; Kulturhuset in Stockholm, Sweden; the Beall Center for Art and Technology in Irvine, California; and A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton, Massachusetts. Huang received her MFA in Media Arts from the University of California, Los Angeles and her BS in Science, Technology, and International Affairs from the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is a co-founder of the media arts collaborative Knifeandfork and an assistant professor of Digital Media and Design at the University of Connecticut.
Tell us a little about your background and your trajectory as an artist/ scholar.
I have a kind of mixed-up life and work/study background, and it has contributed to a professional and personal outlook that is both global and cross-cultural. I think this background has driven my artistic interests in the collective consciousness, in language and societal narratives, in history and memory, and in the environmental and technological imaginaries that bind humans together across disparate boundaries.
I was born in Saudi Arabia and lived there until I was sixteen. I later went to boarding school and college in the US. In addition to growing up as a ‘third culture’ kid, I also traveled a lot as a child and that greatly influenced my adaptability to different places and people. When I attended Georgetown, I had this idea that I wanted to be a diplomat and it was there that I became deeply engaged in what was at that time a new field of emerging technology studies in international affairs, studying how these new technologies—at that time email, listservs, the Internet—were altering long-standing power dynamics between society and government and breaking down the boundaries of the nation-state.
After working for a few years in Japan, I attended an eclectic art and technology graduate program at Chalmers in Sweden, which was made up of an international mishmash of artists, designers, and programmers. I had learned how to program earlier when I was in college, but it was at Chalmers that I became really immersed deeply in the world of programming and media arts. My early projects in this realm were interactive narrative pieces and I was very interested in how technology could facilitate mobility of the audience body that was both performative and communal.
I went on to attend UCLA, where I received my MFA in the Design Media Arts department. I had an amazing time at that program; fabulous professors and a fantastic cohort of classmates that focused my earlier interactive narrative interests. It was during this time that I became more expansive in my thinking about the specificity of sites and the audience experience. During these years, I showed work at a range of institutions, galleries, and festivals—the Beall Center, the Stockholm Kulturhuset, the early Conflux and Images Festivals. All of this work eventually led to an invitation from MOCA, Los Angeles to show as part of a new program focused on socially engaged art. My collaborator Brian House and I created three new works for the museum. That was an amazing time working with a lot of special people both at the museum and from the Los Angeles community. Those led to more shows at other places, like the Contemporary Arts Center (CAC), A.P.E. Gallery, The Mount, Ars Electronica, etc.
What are some of your main influences?
In my research, I’m interested in experimental theater pioneers who explore audience-performer relationships such as Augusto Boal and Antonin Artaud. I’ve always been influenced by structural ventures in literature and film—my mode of thinking is informed by the work of Raymond Queneau’s literary group Oulipo, Jorge Luis Borges, Maya Deren, and Akira Kurosawa, innovators who invested in nonlinear configurations using repetition, variation, and recombination. I watch a lot of popular films in this realm as well. My favorite is Groundhog Day. I am also influenced by artists—such as Nam June Paik, Ann Hamilton, Dan Graham, Ant Farm, and Blast Theory—who have engaged in installation and performance-based inquiries into audience dynamics.
Currently, I’m reading a lot of stuff about clouds and the atmosphere. I’m particularly interested in John Durham Peters, a media theorist at Yale. His work is fascinating, a crossover study of communications theory and environmental phenomena. He delivers an incredibly unique look into the history of random materialities as they’re tied together by linguistic commonalities.
New Media is …
…about the future. For me, new media is about imagining what is to come, so there is a process of discovery there that’s exciting and that keeps me interested. And because the artistic field parallels what’s happening in our society—with computationally driven changes in how we communicate, how we conceptualize, how we live our socio-cultural lives, and how we form bonds across different kinds of boundaries—it takes on an even greater resonance for me
What is your typical day like?
Right now we are in isolation due to the pandemic, but my daily schedule is not so very different from my non-isolation life schedule. I wake up early and answer about four hundred and two emails. I drink tea and eat Swedish hard bread or oatmeal.
I teach at the University of Connecticut, so I split my week into teaching days and research days because I have trouble doing both on the same day. On my teaching days, along with lecturing and critiquing, I also spend my time answering student questions and advising. On my research days, I write proposals or I make work. When I am in making mode I will just “make” for several weeks/months straight. And when a project or some major milestone is finished, I switch gears and work intensely on writing proposals for grants and exhibitions for several weeks or months. It goes back and forth, like a seesaw. Both are necessary components of my artistic practice. I don’t make anything commercial or sellable, so grants are very important to keep the wheels turning. Therefore, I also spend a surprisingly large amount of time on Excel sheets managing budgets for both proposals and projects. Two of the most useful things I ever did for my future artistic practice without realizing it, were to 1) take an accounting course and 2) take a tax course.
What are you working on now?
I am currently preparing my most recent work In the Time of Clouds for exhibition at ISEA 2020: Why Sentience? in Montreal. The work responds to the disappearance of clouds due to climate change and systematizes a cloud archive using terracotta, networked video, generative poetry, and ice cream. I am also working on proposals for a follow-up to this project that’s centered around a performance/burial that converts the cloud archive into archaeological artifacts for an alien civilization.
Do you have a collaborative idea that you want to get off the ground?
I’m currently working on a project called Freshkills in Eight Movements with Brian House and double-bass performer Robert Black for the Freshkills Park Alliance in Staten Island. The project creates an immersive data soundscape that explores the ecological temporalities of this past landfill. The sound is massive and I’m really excited for us to develop and show this project to the public one day. It’s currently part of the On Our Radar program from Creative Capital, and we’re really thrilled to have their support.
I also have a project that’s been sitting on my back burner for a few years now, but which I would really like to do if I can get together with the right organizations and folks. I’ve been researching my paternal great-grandfather Huang Yiren, who was a Chinese botanist in the early 1900s. When I first learned about him, I was really interested in both the fact that he obviously loved classification systems, which I also have always really loved (genetics!), and the fact that this deeply personal family story intertwined narratives about environmental biodiversity, classification systems, immigration, and ancestral memories. In its specificity, I felt that there was a universally relatable story. We think of family histories through typically very concrete things—photos, mementos, trinkets. I’m interested in thinking about how we can trace a story of the environment through our collective family histories. What would that look like? What would that tell us? About ourselves and the interconnectedness between the past and future of the planet? I would like to go visit the herbarium in Shanghai that holds my great-grandfather’s early specimens and connect with botanists in China to trace those narrative threads from the biodiversity of early 1900s China to our current environmental conditions.
What is the most recent thing you’ve learned?
I was listening to a podcast about Tom Silver and hypnosis the other week. It was really interesting and kind of a perfect topic for these pandemic isolation days when you’re alone with your thoughts more than usual. One of the curious things that I learned was that the more intelligent and imaginative the subject, the more hypnotizable they are.