Born an Innovator, Lazarus Chan Educates Us on New Media Art

A new media artist who explores human experience, including life and death, consciousness and time, Lazarus Chan specialises in multifaceted mediums such as soundscape, electronics, data visualisation and generative art

Hong Kong educated and trained artist Lazarus Chan is on the rise. Having received his bachelor degree from the School of Creative Media at the City University of Hong Kong and his higher diploma from the Hong Kong Art School, his student work, “Stochastic Camera” was awarded the Best Graduation Work, Best Academic Performance from Hong Kong Art School and the Reaching Out Award from Self-Financing Post Secondary Scholarship Scheme in 2016. In 2021, he was selected as an outstanding student by Targeted Taught Postgraduate Programmes Fellowship Scheme to pursue postgraduate programmes at the Academy of Visual Arts at the Hong Kong Baptist University. 

During 2019 to 2020, he worked as a full-time Interactive Visualist & Soundscape Designer; his commercial work has toured in multiple cities. In 2021, Lazarus curated his first solo exhibition, “Auto.Mob”, in Hong Kong Art Centre The Gallery of Hong Kong Art School. During the same year, he was a Research Assistant at the Department of Cultural and Creative Arts in The Education University of Hong Kong. Meanwhile, he was the tutor of a digital art non-governmental organisation (iLOrk). Furthermore, Contemporary Musiking Hong Kong (CMHK) decided Lazarus as the iii Artist Exchange Program’s selected artist to create new artwork at iii (instrument inventors initiative) in The Hague, and he was commissioned by the Hong Kong Art Development Council for a solo exhibition “D^4” at Tai Po Arts Centre. In 2022, his artwork “Petri.Vista” was shortlisted “the 27th ifva Award, Media Art Category Finalist”, and his artwork “UnDIRECTED?” received the WMA Photography Award. He tells us all about his genre of work and his process of development. 

What personal experiences and cultural elements prompted you to move towards the development of new media art?

The process was actually very natural. My dad used to trade oil paintings as well as paint oil landscapes, and he used to sell his work in Chungking Mansions. Afterwards he changed his course of career into design, and is now still a watch designer. So naturally, from when I was young, I would observe everything he did - he would draw with me, we played with adobe together, accumulating a lot of experiences. You don’t want to follow in the same path as your father, so I would keep experimenting and trying things until it got to a point that the term ‘new media art’ was coined. It wasn’t that I knew about this and wanted to develop in this direction, but it turns out that when you love trying different things, then there’s a new field that develops. It was only till someone told me later that this was what I was doing that I knew - so it was all very organic. Especially in a place like Hong Kong, there isn’t much of a framework. When you cross the Shenzhen river into the mainland, there may be more of a framework in terms of culture, but we don’t really have that here. Learning about art and culture from a young age, the focus has always been the fusion of the East and West, so my generation will naturally think this is the norm. When it happened to me, then I started to understand what I was doing was this collaboration of influences from cross cultures - it didn’t hit me immediately at first, but gradually I saw an opportunity in this path and fell into it. When I went to City University, they asked me about my focus and said, we have this course, why don’t you join it? I envisioned I would have to paint a lot in the studio, very much like a fine arts discipline and every week I’d have to practice. But it turns out that working can be like this - new media art spans a very broad spectrum and there isn’t yet a very clear definition of it. I’m still figuring it out myself. 

Are the basic skills and foundation of the creator important?

One the one hand, there are some people that say that new media art is very commercial, yet on the other hand, there are others that say they have no idea what I’m doing. In actual fact, if new media art is to become completely commercialised, it would have to follow an artistic and cultural route, which will make things difficult for both the audience and the artists as the threshold will become very high. Is the basic background important? I will definitely answer, because in the new media department, they provide you with a lot of different technologies to help you create, then both the precision and the complexity of your process will be relatively improved. So how you create and what level of abstraction you want to realise - for example coding is all about logic, so how can you execute it to the scene you picture in your head? In traditional art, sculptures, perhaps, do you have an abstract mode of thinking that can be adopted? In the old days, even a sculpture machine may have been a kind of technology or there were printing techniques that had not encountered any resistance. People need to pay attention to aesthetic logic to use these tools wisely, and these tools are actually the same. From the examples around me, whether with training or without training, it seems that the differences can be huge. With the same brush, some people can paint wildly and freely but there are some who seem to lack the ability to understand the function of a brush and thus the ability to paint.

As far as you are concerned, how can new media art "elevate" or "change" the face of traditional art? Make the latter more three-dimensional and complete in front of the participants? What is the relationship between the two?

When dividing art into new and old, it’s actually very easy to fall into a trap, because there is new media art. I have always discussed it, but when I become a viewer, it is absolutely irrelevant. They are two different things, but they live together under the umbrella of art. They belong to a field. There can be a pure art frame, that is, to carry out both art in the form of pure craftsmanship, and to add artistic values ​​to the top of the craftsmanship, and then gradually derive different types - I think digital art and fine art can actually be arranged side by side. If fine art is a big category, and it can affect and influence far and deep, then digital art is actually the same. There are many categories under this umbrella, such as new media art, biological art or media art, as well as soundscape. So many things are happening in this space, and with the advancement of technology, we have the opportunity to discuss them side by side. How can they be compared equally? 

The reason is that the two display models are completely different. In fact, in the past few years, dark box cubes have been developed for exhibitions. The white cube, perhaps, may not work again. In this way, people will tend to discuss traditional art (I call it fine art) and digital art at the same level, but I don't want to make the two fields seem like binary oppositions, because in fact, the two are related to each other. When a fine art artist views digital art, he will have his reactions, just like how I will have my reaction when viewing fine art. Simply put, the two mediums are too different and the interaction and synergy between these two fields will be the most interesting to see in the next ten years. Fine art artists may slowly step into realms of digital art, and those with design training who did not previously have much exposure to culture and craftsmanship may start to use their own ways to interpret this. For example, some artists will go into 3D print and sculpture when their main medium is clay. 

What is the opinion of the local audiences you have come into contact with about "new media art"? What is the acceptance level? You have the good fortune of interacting with many in this field but you also mentioned earlier, there are many who are confused by it all?

I actually interact with both sides, but I see it this way. It’s not because of my work that they don’t understand, maybe even if you put a piece of artwork in front of them, they would still not understand. It’s just that in this society, there are many art lovers, who do not think art needs to be understood. This is also the way of thinking of modern times - when you ask them what they think, they will have their own philosophy and not necessarily agree with what you tell them it is.  But there is also some linkage, and this directly responds to the concept that ‘the author is dead’. So in understanding what they think, it’s best to leave it to them to express. I will ask the viewers, why did you come and see this exhibition?  And they’d reply they are bored of looking at traditional paintings so came to see something new. They will use very layman terms to describe and explain their ideas, and look at the screen and listen to the sounds. They are actually looking for their own entertainment and they find their own meaning in the art. I don’t need people to understand the art for me to be happy. As for artists already in the industry, they will understand the work as soon as they see it, which instead, makes them more easily bored. Regardless, I feel fortunate that all spectrums of society are taking more of an interest in different art and cultural activities and exhibitions, which has enhanced awareness for our sector. 

Personally, do you visit more exhibitions in independent art galleries or do you visit public infrastructures to stimulate creative thinking?

I like to attend exhibitions, but for creative inspiration, I read a lot of science magazines, and even prospectuses. I pay attention to unicorns and start up companies to understand where their vision is coming from, how they shape the world and what their plans are. Each of their decisions will affect the tools that I use. For example, I pay close attention to all the dynamics and movement of adobe, the development of their software, the research and development and their distribution points and decisions for next year. This will affect a lot of my planning as well as there are many things I want to do, and the technology needs to support this. Taking reference from the natural science journals and published papers, the latest is on brain nerve scanning - now they are talking about being able to scan the path of each neuron’s transmission, and they can even monitor the whole brain. That paper suggested everything could be done in much more precise detail, which means there’s the chance even our thinking pattern could become a set of set data in the near future. So in this realm, these are inspirations - for me, it’s about the observation of life, especially new media art, to notice that paying attention to daily life is not necessarily a relationship with nature. What we see now may be the cosmic planets and molecular structures, and not just the mountains and seascapes.  When looking at exhibitions in museums, I observe how different artists present their works and the importance of the curator behind them. How will they present their artists? There’s so much to be learnt from this. 

What do you think of the local atmosphere with regards to art?

I don’t think it’s possible to underestimate the local audience, the younger ones. When I’m talking about the youth, I’m talking about those half my age, the teenage group. Their field of vision is so broad and exaggerated due to the limitations in our policies and the relative backwardness of our situation. Even if we can’t catch up fully, we should at least try to slowly make steps in this direction. So sometimes when I do commissioned work, I will need to add educational elements, and I can do this quite presumptuously. It turns out they understand the subject matter, so perhaps we are the ones underestimating their standard? Some people may think that “ordinary people” are not relevant, but I think we can perhaps have different levels of appreciation and divide an exhibition into different areas? Different age groups and sectors will have the relevant exhibits to appeal to them. We can only do our best to achieve this. Should the funding requirements be somehow changed? How should it be assessed? Must social welfare always come first? Can we put more weight on artistic values and is there a professional assessor/ panel who can achieve this? The meaning of art depends on its audience and what they can get out of it and not us blindly writing what the meaning is. 

Have you thought about taking the development outside of Hong Kong?

In fact, this week I have a creative project in The Hague and upcoming, I’ll be doing video shootings and streaming. But because the epidemic has not passed, and Hong Kong is my base with a globalised reach, sometimes it seems only this city can handle this type of speed. Perhaps I don’t need to give up Hong Kong and can go back and forth between different places. Ultimately I am used to the attitude and the people here - they are adaptable, fast and straight to the point. And when it comes to doing practical work, everyone is efficient, and these qualities make me very reluctant to leave.

Words: Emily Leung & Nikey Cheng
Published on July 29, 2022