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Installation view of JEFFREY SHAW’s The Golden Calf, 1994/2018, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable, at “WYSIWYG,” Osage Art Foundation, Hong Kong, 2019–20. Copyright and courtesy the artist and Centre for Applied Computing and Interactive Media, School of Creative Media, City University, Hong Kong. 

WYSIWYG

Jeffrey Shaw

Osage Art Foundation
Hong Kong
Also available in:  Chinese

Imagine being 22 years old and attending an event in London in 1966 called the “Destruction in Art Symposium,” organized by artist Gustav Metzger with members of Fluxus and Viennese Actionism. The Australian artist Jeffrey Shaw was there, and remembers coming away from the experience thinking, “Everything was still possible.” Just a few years later he was designing inflatable enclosures for experimental cinematic projections, and polyethylene tetrahedrons and tubes to allow people to walk on water, launching a career of exploring interactive technologies. 

Spanning half a century, Shaw’s exhibition “WYSIWYG”—a computing acronym for “what you see is what you get”—illuminates how far into the expanded fields of cinema and new media the artist has gone since the late 1960s, beginning with a digitized version of Continuous Sound and Image Moments (1966). A collaboration with artist Tjebbe van Tijen, the original animated film is composed of thousands of hand-drawn shapes, and has no beginning or end. Like many of Shaw’s works, it has been upgraded for “WYSIWYG”—the new iteration, Latent Embeddings (2019), generates shapes using a machine-learning algorithm and has a throttle bar in front of the screen that allows viewers to control the speed at which they are played.  

While working with film and slide projectors in the 1960s and ’70s, Shaw became interested in the emerging fields of cybernetics and computational artworks. By the late 1970s, with Theo Botschuijver, his collaborator at the Eventstructure Research Group, Shaw was experimenting with augmented reality (AR), using a see-through mirror to project ghost images onto locations in a physical space. In “WYSIWYG,” Shaw recreated the original machine of Virtual Sculptures (1981/2019) and placed it within a seven-meter-diameter circular enclosure wrapped with a 360-degree panorama (captured by John Choy) of a central Hong Kong intersection devoid of people. As the viewer turns the tripod-mounted monitor, shapes and forms, like a spinning rendering of the timely question “FUTURE?”, float in front of the cityscape. 

Combining the panoramic and interactive cinematic experiences, Eavesdrop (2004/19), co-authored with David Pledger, utilizes a 1995 system Shaw invented for 360-degree projection, in which the viewer operates a swiveling projector to reveal seven different vignettes of characters in dialogue with one another—a journalist conducting an interview, a band playing, bickering couples, a paralyzed woman—that over the course of the nine-minute film are interwoven into a larger narrative that pushes into absurdist territory. A button on the projector allows one to interrupt the film to play a dream or memory of a character onscreen, revealing more of their backstory. Though scripted and looping, the film is constructed by the viewer anew each time.

Influenced by the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Shaw utilizes technology to enhance forms of physical interactivity. Recombinatory Poetry Wheel (2018), for instance, created with Sarah Kenderdine, allows viewers to listen to the Singaporean poet Edwin Thumboo reciting his verses by using a dial on a pedestal to choose one of 27 miniature Thumboo figures from a clock-like arrangement on the wall. The Golden Calf (1994/2018) is a thoroughly engrossing AR sculpture that appears when holding up an iPad in front of an empty pedestal—it’s so convincingly rendered that you can even see your own reflection in the virtual object. While Golden Calf was advanced for its time (the original had a monitor attached to the pedestal by cables), perhaps the most fascinating of Shaw’s projects was his collaboration with Dirk Groeneveld, The Legible City (1989–91), in which viewers sit on an actual bicycle and pedal through virtual cityscapes in front of them. The buildings have been replaced with block letters that in later versions are perfectly to scale. So as you cycle through Midtown in New York City, for example, the buildings along a street or avenue spell out monologues by ex-mayor Ed Koch, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, a cab driver, or a tour guide—an exploration of an anecdotal geography. Like all of Shaw’s works, it is meant to be an unpredictable and embodied experience, a universe of possibilities created by the artist that is free for the viewer to explore and enjoy, on their own or with others.

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