Wen Yu is a multimedia artist who utilizes research to create projects integrating art, technology, story-telling, and tangible materials. She is currently Artist in Residence at Cambridge Community Television (CCTV), where she is working with immersive media technology to explore the migration of people, culture, and ideas.
Here, she discusses her latest project and the way it makes use of CCTV’s immersive media resources.
I call my research method Critical Node. It is a knowledge mapping process that enables me to construct a “sectional drawing” with the critical nodes to generate new knowledge, new knowledge structures, and corresponding actions that reflect a specific moment in time. I used this Critical Node method on one of my research projects, in which I use soybeans as the critical node.
I started the soybean project in 2018, which was inspired by the trade war spat. Under this umbrella, Tofu Company, the work I am currently creating at CCTV, is one of the sub-projects. CCTV is developing a new immersive media direction, and it provides cutting-edge tools for creation purposes. Thus, I have been trying out VR technology to showcases my focus on culture, technology, and human empathy. VR is a great empathy generator that builds the bridge between humans and technology.
The inspiration of Tofu Company came from one day when I was strolling around Cambridge. I caught sight of Chang Shing Tofu, a traditional tofu factory owned by a Chinese immigrant family. It was located in two brick buildings with a small entrance bearing a faded Chinese character Fu window sticker meaning good fortune and happiness. The buildings’ conventional color scheme and the quietness of the tofu company set a dramatic contrast with the many modern, high-tech pharmaceutical companies nearby.
That disparity seemed to be telling me stories that had once connected them. It led to my realization that there were two pairs of notions. The first pair is “alchemy” and “chemistry,” representing ancient technology and modern science, respectively. In an intriguing correlation between tofu/alchemy and the pursuit of longer life, the discovery of tofu 2,000 years ago occurred when a Chinese Han Dynasty prince tried to cultivate immortality pills. His efforts at immortality failed, but in the process, he accidentally created bean curd. In the 16th century, Western scientists were looking for gold. Frustrated by their fruitless quest, these scientists turned to more practical matters, such as the use of alchemy to create medicines. Therefore, one could say that chemistry, as a modern scientific discipline, originated from alchemy. The pharmaceutical industry uses chemistry as an integral part of the discovering new drugs that will extend life.
The second pair of ideas is “culture migration” and “human migration.” I have a strong curiosity and empathy for immigrant families, especially when considering the coexistence of humanity and assimilation of culture from a sociological perspective. Chang Sing Tofu Company was opened in 1988 by a Vietnamese-Chinese immigrant. Today the second and third generation of his family is part of the Cambridge community and beyond. In terms of culture migration, tofu was not well known to Westerners before the mid-20th century. However, soy source was brought to Europe by Dutch East India company in the early 17th century as part of their exploration of the world. Benjamin Franklin was the first American to mention tofu in a 1770 letter to John Bartram. Franklin, who encountered it during a trip to London, included a few soybeans and referred to it as “cheese” from China. In 1829, Prof. Thomas Nuttall, in a letter to the editor of the New England Farmer, states that he grew the soybeans in the Botanic Garden, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I will complete my residency by the end of March. The work will be a 3D immersive place that the viewers would walk into and sense out. I was planning to make an experimental video piece. However, after experiencing creating works in a VR environment, I learned it is a great way of expression that orchestrates all the distinct elements into one stage.
Wen Yu will lead a workshop, The Path to Elixirs, at Cambridge Community Television on Sunday, March 8, 2020, 4-6 PM. Drawing inspiration from Han imagery and MFA’s Han Dynasty collections, the participants will learn how to create animated Gifs on phones/iPads. In the end, the artist will put together all the spiritual creations on a scroll to make a whole video piece. The event is free and open to the public – email firstname.lastname@example.org to register.
Images: still images of immersive media by Wen Yu, courtesy of the artist; photo of of Chang Shing Tofu Inc, from Wikimedia Commons.