Mengtai Zhang is a multidisciplinary artist. Employing sculpture, sound, and simulation technology, his work creates ambivalent allegories of power, where personal and sociopolitical factors encounter each other. Mengtai’s works have been presented internationally, including IDFA (Netherlands); Sundance Film Festival, New York Fashion Week, NYCEMF, ChaShaMa, Humble Arts Foundation, and Fridman Gallery (US); Times Art Museum, Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture (China).
Lemon Guo is an interdisciplinary artist, composer, and vocalist from China. Drawn to the visceral and evocative nature of the voice, she creates voice-based performances and installations that explore things that haunt her and wouldn’t leave her alone. She has performed and exhibited her works internationally, in places such as Rubin Museum of Art, Oregon Shakespeare Festival (US), BBC Radio 3 (UK), and International Computer Music Conference (KR).
Together, Mengtai and Lemon created and produced the VR film Diagnosia. With direction by Mengtai and sound and music design by Lemon, the immersive short takes viewers through Mengtai’s own memories of being incarcerated in a military-operated Internet addiction camp in Beijing in 2007. Diagnosia played in the New Frontiers section of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
What’s the last thing you saw that sparked an idea?
Mengtai: I was reading “The Invention of Morel”, the sci-fi novella by Adolfo Bioy Casares. It was a striking early imagination of mixed reality, published in 1940. The author imagined a recording and projection machine capable of perfectly reproducing physical reality in not just sight and sound, but also touch, smell, and temperature. The result is a simultaneous existence of past and present within the same place. I was interested in the power of image reproduction in this layering of multiple timelines and the blurring of different realities.
Lemon: I moved to California last year, and my eyes and nose have kept drifting to the bushes of fennel that grows along hiking trails and random roadsides. They seem to thrive everywhere. I feel a jarring discrepancy between my joyful encounters with these exuberant plants and the often violent and rather xenophobic language that is associated with fennel’s status here as an “invasive species”. That got me curious and started to research the history and politics of invasive species.
What music can you listen to on repeat but never get tired of?
Mengtai: William Basinski’s ethereal and haunting track “O, My Daughter, O, My Sorrow”. With repeat plays, I find myself discovering new layers and nuances from the slow and stretched-out melodies. The repetition is strangely soothing, where time seems to stand still.
Lemon: I go through periods when I listen to the “Le Mystere des voix Bulgares” (“The Mystery of Bulgarian Voices”) albums almost every day. There’s something expansive in those shiny female voices and densely packed intervals that always pulls me in. I used to sing in a Bulgarian women’s choir called “Yasna Voices” with lots of fierce women when I was living in New York. So the music also brings back good memories.
Do you have any brainstorming rituals?
Lemon: I improvise with my voice and electronics in my home studio or go on a walk with my field recorder to listen to my surroundings or have a long conversation with my friends. If I get stuck, sometimes I would jump into the shower or go to a very loud concert and somehow full-body immersions like these can often shake the stucked-ness out of my head and allow fresh ideas to emerge.
Mengtai: I brainstorm in short bursts, usually no more than 15 minutes at a time, at random points during my daily activities. I have small notebooks for jotting down passing ideas quickly. After a while, perhaps a week or two, I will look back at them and try to piece a more coherent picture together, based on similarities between the thoughts or a topic I’m working through.
What areas of emerging tech & media are you interested in exploring?
Lemon: I’d love to make more VR. It took Mengtai and me three years to make our first VR film Diagnosia. It felt laborious and frustratingly slow at the time, but in hindsight I am glad we gave the time the work had required. I hope to be able to continue making slow and patient work.
Mengtai: I am interested in continuing exploring the medium of VR, particularly its ability to reconstruct past events and imagine alternative paths out of what could seem like the dead ends of history.
What are you looking for in entries to the Davey Awards?
Mengtai: I am looking for explorations of digital technology that can challenge our understanding of what interactive media could be and point to different possibilities for our everyday life.
Lemon: Stories and experiences that can shake us a little bit perhaps, out of the habitual modes of existence within our technological culture, and reveal something unnoticed or ignored.
There’s still time to enter your big ideas. The Davey Awards Extended Entry Deadline is this Friday, September 15th.