Sougwen Chung on Us in Another Form

Multidisciplinary artist Sougwen Chung delves into her unique contributions to the exhibition GEN/GEN: Generative Generations, the evolving discourse on human-machine interconnections and more with Peter Bauman (Monk Antony).
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Sougwen Chung, Study 23 (detail), 2023. Courtesy of Gazelli Arthouse and Verisart

Sougwen Chung on Us in Another Form

Multidisciplinary artist Sougwen Chung delves into her unique contributions to the exhibition GEN/GEN: Generative Generations, the evolving discourse on human-machine interconnections and more with Peter Bauman (Monk Antony).

Peter Bauman: As one of the artists featured in GEN/GEN: Generative Generations, how do you see your work contributing to its themes and, thus, the broader discourse around human-machine interconnections and generative art's evolution over decades?

Sougwen Chung:
 It’s been fascinating to see this recent swell of interest in generative art. I'm honored to be a part of GEN/GEN, which highlights a handful of practitioners in the space. I find myself engaged with its evolution as a bit of an outlier, as my work is, in part, systems-based in that I’ve programmed a series of physical robotic units to create painterly gestures, like Akira Kanayama from the Gutai collective or Harold Cohen’s seminal AARON. However, I extend the work beyond architecting the system to propel a sensibility and I take the work further to implicate myself and the system within the space of a canvas.

The systems are built upon a dependency on my own gesture and the artifacts that result from the engagement with the system, which I call D.O.U.G.1-5, center my adaptation to the system and its adaptation to my own. By bringing my own painting back to the process in this way,

I’m exploring a mode of working with human-machine interconnections beyond mere extension to more of a feedback loop, a call and response that is made visible. I want to think about ways we embody systems and vice versa.

It’s a process that foregrounds uncertainty at its very core and maybe a sense of playfulness too. Over the years, I’ve seen not only my technical knowledge expand but also my sense of drawing. My muscle memory has evolved alongside my generative practice. In each work of generative art nests a question – what is the role of the human hand? In my work, I wonder – how do we steward its evolution?

Peter Bauman: I'd like to return to the "human hand" later but can you talk about how the new work you're showing at GEN/GEN is stewarding this evolution? How is it in dialogue with Cohen’s AARON and how does it blur the lines between human creativity and machine intelligence?

Sougwen Chung:
Cohen’s AARON is such an important part of the canon of generative art. AARON’s extension of Cohen’s painterly sensibility through translation to code and machine readable positions invokes a sense of porosity of the system, in which the artist is in a sense embedded by the system. 

The painting studies shown at GEN/GEN are part of a larger, continuing project in which I explore co-authorship with a robotic unit – a process beyond extension and towards a gestural relation. In the D.O.U.G._1-5 project, I explore processes of being embedded in the system through my own neural network data, biofeedback and so on. At the same time, the system is impacted by my response to what it produces. I find this exploration engaging because of its heightened temporal demands of myself as a drawer and a painter creating the artifacts while simultaneously heightening my own technical ability through systems development. Creatively and conceptually, the work is a practice for self-centering in the midst of what feels like a groundswell of technological advancement over the past decade, a way of recognising the ways in which these systems affect our daily lives while also creating a sense of agency within it. Perhaps it can be seen as a practice interested in adaptation – to living with and creating with machines.

Sougwen Chung, Study 21, 2023. Courtesy of Gazelli Arthouse and Verisart

Peter Bauman: You mentioned a search for agency in these times of rapid technological change, which is embedded in your work's tension between traditional painterly techniques and advanced AI technology. How do you find balance in this tension and what draws you to this intersection of digital and physical realms?

Sougwen Chung:
As many who grew up with digital communication and its tools, the line between the physical and digital realms are not so demarcated for me.

I’m driven by curiosity – not cutting-edge for its own sake but the realization that new technologies have broad applications and implications in culture, including how we experience and see ourselves and the world around us.

Often it's a challenge to reconcile what that can mean. I believe by engaging with technology that shapes culture through the practice of art, through the design of systems, the work becomes a kind of research practice. My work becomes a process of building tools and technologies that engage with the subconscious as expressed through artistic mediums. It is art practice that shapes the technology that shapes us.

The work is constantly invigorated by the idea of new modes of relation and creative expression, which is energized, in part, by sharing the moment of creation as a performance. In a communal space, it invites the audience to witness the tension as an ephemeral community, a witnessing that becomes part of an ongoing inquiry about the role of technology in our lives.

Peter Bauman: Few groups in the last century were as bold in their exploration of theses new modes of creative expression than Gutai. We mention in our Generative Art Timeline how impactful and ahead of their time they were in 1950s Japan. ​​How does your work build on Gutai’s traditions of uncoupling and unlearning from cognitive patterns of the past? What is your work looking to uncouple from the past?

Sougwen Chung:
I’m indebted to the radical expressions of the Gutai Art Association. In a sense, the tradition of Gutai is really an anti-tradition. I think of their movement as a contemporary Japanese art collective whose energetic performance-paintings amplified mark making to a heightened level of embodied action. Against the then established canon of post-war painting, it engaged with matter in a novel way. By "matter," founder Jiro Yoshihara meant the "paint, cloth, metals, earth and marble" of the "art of the past." From the manifesto:

“Gutai Art does not alter matter. Gutai Art imparts life to matter. Gutai Art does not distort matter.

In Gutai Art, the human spirit and matter shake hands with each other while keeping their distance. Matter never compromises itself with the spirit; the spirit never dominates matter. When matter remains intact and exposes its characteristics, it starts telling a story and even cries out. To make the fullest use of matter is to make use of the spirit. By enhancing the spirit, matter is brought to the height of the spirit.“

Gutai cemented drawing as a whole-body action with the audience brought into the space of performance. Akira Kanayama was groundbreaking in his use of mechanical apparatuses even then and in his use of the most primitive machines. He showed the ways in which technology can be its own materiality, its own nexus of creative inspiration.

GEN/GEN: Generative Generations by Gazelli Art House and Verisart

Peter Bauman: I'd like to return to your previous comments on the "human hand" and how your work extends the concepts of Nicholas Negroponte’s SEEK and Cohen’s AARON. How do you see D.O.U.G. contributing to the discourse on the role of technology in decoding the artistic process and participation?

Sougwen Chung:
 If Negroponte’s SEEK was based on constraints, control, and order and Cohen’s AARON extended the embodied painterly mark through plotters, D.O.U.G. centers relation with machines, collaboration without control, human agency and embodiment. If the grid in SEEK Is a metaphor for the city, the arm in D.O.U.G.1-5 is a symbol for an anthropomorphized human subject, the mechanical double. 

All the drawing operations are extensions of me to ground a relational practice, and our perception of it being other is a deeply human one.

When we can start to see that the systems we build are actually us in another form, in another mode of temporality, then we're heading in the direction around a multiplicity of intelligences and approaches to intelligence.

We're headed to a place in which materiality is foregrounded and co-inhabitance is the aim, in which the human hand is always present.

Peter Bauman: By injecting this materiality back into the digital, you seem to emphasize the importance of visual outputs (aesthetics). Yet your work has such process-based and conceptual depth as well. How do you think about the relationship between concept, aesthetics and process in your work? Where does the art lie with you?

Sougwen Chung:
 The relationship between concept, aesthetics and process is a bit of a mystery to me – it’s blurred and ambiguous.

Iteration is at the heart of my generative exploration, a rejection of needing to control the outcome or have a road map.

I’ve been building this idea that maybe the future of creativity is in new ways of making. By regarding art as research and creative expression as a mode of inquiry, it allows for a porousness in which any dedication to a particular medium comes after. Maybe the art lies in the belief that there are many ways of knowing and the point is the sharing of the journey and the questions that arise.


Sougwen Chung is an internationally renowned multi-disciplinary artist and researcher, whose work explores the dynamics of humans and systems. Chung is a former research fellow at MIT’s Media Lab and a pioneer in the field of human-machine collaboration. In 2019, she was selected as the Woman of the Year in Monaco for achievement in the Arts & Sciences. In 2023, she was included on the TIME100 Most Influential People in AI.

Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) is Le Random's Editor-in-Chief.