“3x3x6”: Shu Lea Cheang and Paul B. Preciado
Shu Lea Cheang, Paul B. Preciado, and Francesco Tenaglia in conversation
I had met Paul B. Preciado on a couple of Skype calls on the occasion of his work on the public programs for the most recent edition of documenta, hence I was familiar with the nimble, generous, articulated quality of the philosopher and curator’s argumentative style. It was a pleasure to see—in a long conversation at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum spaces—how complementary it was with the complex and precise artistic vision of the net-art pioneer and film director Shu Lea Cheang. The latter, with Preciado’s curatorial support, will represent Taiwan at the Venice Biennale 2019 with 3x3x6 , an immersive installation inspired by the Palazzo delle Prigioni exhibition space, dealing with architectural control and confinement technologies via “case studies” of people imprisoned because of their gender, sexual or racial nonconformity.
Francesco Tenaglia: From the very beginning, when I saw the pairing I thought: of course, this is a marriage made in heaven. There’s—I wouldn’t say overlap, but a strong sense of continuity between you two. How did you start thinking about the project 3x3x6 for the Taiwan pavilion at the 58th Venice Biennale?
Paul B. Preciado: We’ve known each other since 2000. We both live in Paris, and since the queer, trans community in Paris is quite small—even more so in activism and art—we readily connected and became friends. We’ve always been involved in different projects but wanted to collaborate on a larger scale. The opportunity fortunately came up when Shu Lea Cheang invited me to be the curator of this project.
Shu Lea Cheang: I’ve been living abroad since my twenties—in New York for twenty years, then I relocated to Europe—so I mostly work abroad. I did a commission for the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts in 2005 for a project called Baby Love, which was shown at Palais de Tokyo in Paris. But before this I had never actually done a work based on Taiwan—meaning, based on Taiwanese subject matter. But I got nominated and somehow got selected. I was thinking about which curator I would want to work with. After doing a bit of research, and deciding to focus on the prison and sex crimes, I immediately thought of inviting Paul B. Preciado as my curator. I figured, if Paul agrees, it will be perfect because he is one of the few curators working with issues of gender and sexual and body politics. In Taiwan, the media art scene is aware of my work because of Brandon (1998–99), the first Guggenheim museum web commission. But most people in Taiwan and China don’t know Paul’s work.
FT: I’ll understand if you’re limited in what you can say about the project, but do you already have sketches of the installation design? Anything you can tell me about your plans would be wonderful.
PBP: For me, one of the things that was interesting from the beginning, after working at Documenta with different artists, was that Shu Lea immediately got into the concept of the Palazzo delle Prigioni as a centuries-old prison. She didn’t consider bringing in work that was already made, or just using the space as a space for whatever work was to be exhibited. She wanted to explore the historical and political implications of this building. When you inhabit a building you are somehow possessed by its history, even when you ignore it. We began to realize how many buildings that are today art institutions were in the past prisons or factories. Instead of just using these spaces anonymously or as empty, neutral frameworks to exhibit in, we wanted to explore the historical and political links between, let’s say, the museum institution and the prison institution. Why is the Taiwan pavilion located in a former prison? What is the prison’s history teaching us about the contemporary art scene? Or about the gender and sexual binary regime we live in today?
SLC: The Taiwan pavilion has been in this location for a long time, but to my knowledge none of the earlier artists ever considered what the site means. I had already dealt with the subject of prison, particularly the structure of the panopticon, in my web work Brandon, and decided I’d connect the panopticon concept of surround-surveillance within prison confinement to the current-day data panopticon we live in. The readiest reference would be how China has turned the whole country into a facial recognition surveillance apparatus, using some twenty million cameras. And then, our Casanova discovery!
PBP: Our research revealed that there have been many, let’s say, outstanding prisoners in this particular space. For instance the philosopher Giordano Bruno. But for us, coming from the queer and trans politics traditions, we were especially interested to find out that the writer Giacomo Casanova was jailed in this building in 1756, then heroically escaped almost a year later. So now we had something apparently very solid, the architecture, and something very volatile, fiction. We decided to take the real and the fictional story of Casanova as a starting point to think about the relationship between sexuality and social discipline, and sexuality and confinement. Shu Lea wanted to explore how different political regimes, different historical moments, have considered different practices or how different kinds of subjects have been marked as pathological or criminal and then disciplined, normalized, or jailed. From that moment on, it became quite crazy and expanded up to a kind of planetary scale. We started moving across historical times, geographies, cultures. It added a lot of complexity, of course, in that we had to hire different experts, legal experts almost, in different parts of the world.
SLC: The design of the exhibition derives from panopticon structure and the media control room that Hugh Hefner installed in his famous Playboy mansion. There are also ten cells/monitors planned for housing ten prisoners/cases. Paul calls it a sexopticon.
PBP: Well, I wanted to underline how the contemporary digital panopticon is working with sexual and gender data. Or to put it in a different way, how gender, sex, and sexuality have become crucial parameters of any internet interface.
SLC: Then we decided to focus on ten cases who were incarcerated at one time or another. The installation with its four galleries creates a consecutive narrative for visitors as they progress through the galleries. From gallery A’s inverted panopticon projection tower, to gallery B and C’s ten cases and ten films shown on ten separate monitors, to gallery D’s control center, which reveals the surveillance apparatus.
PBP: Of the ten cases, three are historically based, and more connected to the history of the building and also the panopticon device. One is Casanova, of course. The second is the Marquis de Sade, who spent some thirty-four years of his life in prison. The third is Michel Foucault. All three contributed to thinking history and fiction together, to fictionalize history or to historicize fiction. This is almost a Foucauldian methodology, one could say. Most people don’t know that in 1958 Foucault was a cultural attaché at the French embassy in Warsaw, and he was denounced for being homosexual, which was prohibited at that time, as it was a Communist country, and he was expelled. They said, “Either you stay here and we put you in jail, or you leave.” Here was someone who had dedicated all his life to speaking about a theory of the prison, and even at that time was writing the history of the disciplinary regime. How shameful it would have been for him to be publicly out as gay at that time in Poland. We thought it was quite interesting to have as one of the cases this important historian and political theorist, who has also been so influential for queer studies.
SLC: All our casting is very nontraditional. The Marquis de Sade will be played by a woman, Liz Rosenfeld—a large woman and queer performer and writer. Casanova is played by Enrico Wey, a Taiwanese dancer and performer who lives in Madrid.
PBP: We’re also messing around with gender identity. The statement of the project is not gender identity but gender disidentification.
SLC: The filming will happen in Berlin.
FT: The production of the ten films?
PBP: Yes, we’ve been writing the scripts, and then we will shoot the films in Berlin. Then all of this material will become part of the installation. All the visual and discursive material will be mixed with the information gathered through the installation in the pavilion and the app. So another question for us was: Where is the Italian pavilion? I mean, it’s located in Venice, but it’s kind of also in your pocket if you have the app, so it’s delocalized as well, just as surveillance is delocalized today. Shu Lea’s methodology is unique in its way of connecting two ends that are usually not connected at all—on one side queer history and politics, queer trans activism, and on the other side the digital geeks, the hack activism—bringing them together through fiction and poetry. We are working with a lot of people from the Taiwanese, Chinese, American, and European queer and trans communities, but also with a large group of experts in cyber technology and 4K special effects.
FT: Who are the other cases, besides these three?
PBP: These three are in a certain sense less problematic because they are no longer alive; they belong to history and fiction. But then we have more controversial cases of people who are still in jail.
SLC: I thought we needed to have someone who is in prison because of sexual assault, whether innocent or not innocent. We ended up taking one case of a Muslim scholar of Swiss origin who was put in a high-security French prison without trial. He was just recently released, with a high bail. We also have cases from South Africa.
PBP: Our idea was to study in depth some of the cases, but at the end, the style will not be strictly documentary—meaning, not fully based on their real lives. But certain things became quite clear to us. One is the complex relationship between gender, sexuality, and race, in that most people who are in jail for gender or sexual reasons are really there because of either race or religious discrimination. For instance, in cases of sexual harassment or sexual assault, most men in prison happen to be nonwhite or non-Christian. At the end of the day, out of the hundreds of men who have been denounced within the Me Too movement, basically only nonwhite ones are in jail. Interesting, right?
But we’re not trying to make judgments at this point. We’re trying to understand how the legal system is working, how gender and sexuality and race are constructed through the legal and surveillance systems. Doing this cartography also showed us that very few women are jailed because of gender or sexuality. Women are historically the objects of violence, and rarely considered as agents of any kind of sexual gender violence. As if they do not exist as a sexual or gender subject for the legal system.
SLC: Although there is the genre of castration—a crime in which the woman severs the husband’s penis. Roland Barthes focused for example on Sarrasine, a novella by Honoré de Balzac about a famous case of castration. She wasn’t ever put in prison.
SLC: No. She pleaded insanity, I think.
PBP: She was put in a psychiatric institution, though. We are also interested in the overlapping of disciplinary and control institutions: sometimes you are considered dysphoric, sometimes you are seen as criminal, other times as mentally ill.
SLC: In this case we combined a few characters together. That’s why I say there’s a genre called castration.
PBP: We’re mapping the limits not just of genre, sexuality, and race in relation to modern disciplinary institutions but also of what can be said within the art world.
SLC: For example, we have one case from Taiwan, a gay guy who was doing drugs and having sex bareback—you know, without a condom—without revealing that he was HIV positive. We wanted a case about HIV and sex.
PBP: In Taiwan you will not see a straight person in jail for having sex without a condom. Because in reality, what is being heavily punished and criminalized is being publicly homosexual. In this particular case the guy was a teacher, and therefore the thinking goes that he should be a model of behavior. It’s been fascinating to work on this. When we started, I was much more used to working on a very European and North American genealogy and archive of the history of sexuality, and then suddenly Shu Lea is bringing me to a radically different context. It’s such a learning curve. We can’t use the same old Western notions of sex, gender, and sexuality, and this forces us to rethink the whole history of sexuality. I approach this project with Donna Haraway’s “speculative fabulation” in mind. We are thinking history with the tools of science fiction, using radical imagination to question hegemonic narratives. For instance in Taiwan we see the meeting of a very conservative regime in relation to sex, gender, and sexuality and an extremely sophisticated technological set of devices that are controlled by the state. At the same time, in Europe we are seeing the organization of a neo-fascist regime, what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari called the return of “Oedipal forces,” so maybe there’s something we could learn from the Taiwanese context. Maybe we are heading to something similar.
FT: What exactly do you mean?
PBP: We are heading toward a new hybrid configuration where neoconservative, nationalist, hetero-patriarchal, and colonial technologies of power come together with high-tech devices in terms of new media, digital technologies, and biotechnologies.
FT: Brandon was one of the pioneering moments of what was then called net art. It’s very interesting to talk with young people—like twenty-five—who idolize that moment of the 1990s, the early 2000s, because they come from a different set of assumptions. Like the so called post-internet scene, for example, which in many cases was just a set of references from the consumer world—the digital marketplace—thrown, with various means, into exhibition spaces. Whereas what you were doing, Shu Lea, was using the web to exceed it, not tech in general, to do something radically different.
SLC: I am post-internet. In the 1990s I declared that I would homestead in cyberspace. Currently I have relocated to the BioNet inside an appropriated human body held hostage by the Biotechnology corporation, [science] fictionally speaking. My cycle of work at the moment focuses on viral love and bio-hack. 3x3x6 operates in this genre in terms of hacking facial recognition, gender configuration. Techology returns to the body, the body is programmed, and it has an expiration date, like a redundant electronic device to be one day dumped on an electronic trash landfill. In my work, I apply 3D reconfiguration into body (re)formations.
PBP: The question is, what is the body today, right? If we look at the political history of the body we understand that anatomy is not an empirical reality, but just one of the modern discourses about the body, a discourse to which the power to “fabricate” a materiality has been granted by a series of institutions. This discourse makes us think that the body is an envelope inside which you can find a set of functional pieces, a set of organs. The modern body is constructed through textuality, through information, through visual and media technologies. Shu Lea is helping us look critically at some of these technologies of body construction. It is impossible to think about the body today without thinking critically about the internet and social networks, which are inventing a new aesthetics of neoliberal capitalism. By bringing together hacking and gender politics, Shu Lea is teaching us to take seriously how the internet is working as a technology of gender production. Her work is about cracking the code, both the cybernetic algorithm and the gender code. At a point when discussions on the internet became depoliticized and completely ignorant of feminist, queer, and anticolonial politics, she is bringing these two ends together. People were already discussing issues of copyright and privacy and things like that, but she’s thinking about what kind of body and subjectivity is being produced by internet technologies.
Also, if we think about this issue of the invention of the aesthetics of capitalism within the internet after the 1990s, Shu Lea is creating dissident interfaces. As I say, prison architecture was clearly producing the subject of the nineteenth century; today, interfaces are producing the subjects of contemporary society. She’s inviting us to crack the code, reinventing interfaces.