Mingyong Cheng MFA EDA ‘21: “Water or More”

This is part of a series showcasing the work of the MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts Class of 2021. Learn more about the program and its graduating cohort here. For this installment, Pedro Lasch, research professor of art, art history and visual studies, interviews Mingyong Cheng MFA EDA ‘21.

Why does water interest you as an artist?

I think water interests me from two different aspects. The first aspect is the role that water has in Chinese poetry, relating to and reflecting human emotions and also the power of nature. Another aspect that interests me is that water is also related to current environmental issues that we are experiencing. I’m using the artwork to explore the different forms of water and to reflect the different images and emotions that water can prompt in humans.

All photos courtesy Mingyong Cheng MFA EDA ‘21.

Can you tell us a little bit of how this interest in water manifests physically in your artwork? Some artists make drawings of water, others make paintings, but you’ve decided to use a very different medium to explore a water.

I decided to use new media and interactivity with this installation because I find there’s a very interesting relationship between human body movement and water. I was also inspired by dancers, and the exhibit is related to my collaboration with the MFA in Dance students. Their flowing movement is really like the flowing of the water: humans inspired by and reflecting nature.

What interests me about an interactive installation is that an audience can go into the space and enter an immersive environment, generated in real time, not just programmed images or “Sims” that people maybe watch once before recognizing a pattern. The generative media, or instructive media, is something that is different every time, and when you stand in different positions you see different results.

What made you arrive in these specific visual forms? Can you perhaps describe a little bit of the methods how you discovered these different ways of representing water?

With real-time generative graphics, it’s more like a visual programming. Every time I started experimenting with a new visual form, I had a draft in my mind. But actually, generative media has a way of surprising you. Playing with variables and creating different effects would reveal control of some aspects, but surprises in other aspects.

For example, the water blooms experience—the waves are actually created by a particle system. They look like waves, but are actually particles with feedback. The particles respond to gravity as well as a data set that you use with the sensor to try to control all the variables. It’s a very interesting process for exploring data and variables and how to build a relationship through experimentation.

How many experiences are part of your installation, and how would you describe each one?

I created five different experiences for the final exhibition. One features colorful bubbles. Another takes the form of waves, where I was more focused on the weather, and the impact of human activity on climate change. For a black-and-white experience, I use 3D-model pens to render waves and water, to emphasize the relationship between time and water in a circular way. And the last one has the color changing according to audience positions in the space. It appears abstract, but again refers to human impact on nature, with a subject of pollution.

When storytelling moves from the documentary tradition to interactive and experimental media, I’ve observed that the human figure moves outside of representation. But there’s this intermediary space and style transfer that I hope you can talk a little bit about.

The style transfer is a method I explored in interactive media, where artists would usually base their models or data sets on something like Van Gogh paintings. So I just started this experimental process and created a web application that uses webcams to make real-time style transfers out of images the webcam captured. I wanted to see how different patterns and sources that were inputed would evolve and “learn.”

I tried many times, and finally I just created my own patterns for it, which led me to think about how machines learn from art and how machines could begin to define and impact creativity. I recently have even heard that people are starting to purchase art created by artificial intelligence.

Water or More

On View: May 7–June 5, 2021 at the Rubenstein Arts Center (Agora Gallery)
In-person viewing is available to Duke students, faculty, and staff.
Please email mingyong.cheng@duke.edu