The Point of The Point of Departure


I suppose now’s as good a time as any to unveil the pieces that will be included in my solo exhibition The Point of Departure, which is opening this Saturday, Nov. 6. I just finished finalizing all the text for the placards in the exhibition last night, shared below; there’s a little explanation of each piece and a brief discussion of the point of the departure for the show itself. Enjoy!

I also just added the Chinese translation of the show’s press release to the bottom of this post; sorry not to have that up sooner!

Four days out, and I’d say we’re in pretty good shape. We’re constructing the frame for the big Self-Portrait installation, which I can now confirm is up to 18 channels from the originally advertized 15. I tweaked the sound component of the software yesterday and added some real-time color correction (at first I thought this would be cheating, but I checked, and no it’s not). The rest of the gear should show up later today, and then we just plug everything together and see what happens!

I also pulled my synth-pop set out of mothballs two days ago for the first time since my June 5 show at D-22 in Beijing, and it’s surprisingly rust free. “口口口口口口口口” always gives me some trouble, but I’ll have the kinks worked out by Saturday.

See you then!

OK, here are those promised placards…

The Point of Departure
Ben Houge Solo Exhibition

Where to begin? In addition to its strictly geographic connotations, the phrase “point of departure” indicates a conceptual transition. For an artist, “point of departure” is another term for inspiration. It implies a connection, perhaps one that didn’t exist previously. For years, the focus of my work has been to underline connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, disciplines, and people. This has led me to a diverse practice that encompasses classical composition, videogame development, performance, pop production, video art, and sound installation.

The point of departure for my gallery work is sound. Sound is where I started; I grew up singing in church choirs and writing pop songs, and my university studies were in classical music composition. Perhaps music, historically the most abstract art form, lends itself to thinking primarily in purely structural terms. Over time it seemed only natural to attempt to apply my sonic structures to other media.

For twelve years, until about two years ago, my full-time job was designing audio for videogames. Early on, I observed that the challenges of creating organization in this inherently indeterminate medium were prefigured by the aleatoric works of composers like John Cage, Earle Brown, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Ideas from their work, as well as from my own experience in videogame development, have in turn served as the point of departure for much of my recent music and installation work, in which I write software that incorporates real-time, algorithmic techniques to generate ambient, evolving environments.

This exhibition marks a transition in the physical, geographical sense as well, as I arrive at the end of my six month artist residency at the True Color Museum. I would like to extend my warmest thanks to Chen Hanxing and all the staff of the True Color Museum for generously supporting my stay here.

-Ben Houge


从何说起呢?除了它严格的地理学意义, “起航”一词象征着一个概念上的过渡。作为一个艺术家,“起航”在这里代表着另一个含义—-灵感。它暗示一种关系,或许先前本不存在的关系。多年来,我的工作重心是让表面上好似毫无关联的意见、原则和人,加强彼此之间的联系。这种行为让我的艺术创作呈现多元化的特色,包括传统的艺术模式,电子游戏开发,行为艺术,波普艺术,录像艺术及声音装置等。


有十二年,我都是全身投入到为视频游戏设计声音的工作中,直到两年前才停止。早期的时候,我注意到在这种本来就没有什么固定媒介的创作组织中工作是一种挑战,一些前辈人物,比如John Cage, Earle Brown,和Karlheinz Stockhausen等都在挑战这样的尝试,他们工作的灵感结合我自己在电子游戏方面的工作经验,成为我近年来音乐及装置作品的创作源泉。我运用我所学到的知识,去编写软件程序,把真实时间和算法技术合并到一起,去建立一个不断发展变化的周边世界。


-Ben Houge

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure 起航黄昏的自画像
Real-time audiovisual installation for 18 channels of video and 4 channels of sound

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure suspends a poignant moment in time and makes it last forever, in a way that is unique to the digital medium. Unlike a photograph, which freezes a moment, or a looping video, which repeats a moment, this work uses non-linear deployment techniques borrowed from videogame design to layer and offset a moment in such a way that it can never be said to be starting or stopping, ending or beginning. The rich texture that emerges from this multiplicity of independent images serves to homogenize the source video into a new aggregate that provides an ever-changing vantage point on that captured time.

Much of my work is meant to “emulate nature in her manner of operation,” to quote John Cage. Here, the complex patterns that result from 18 independent video channels evoke falling raindrops, the growth of cells, or the slowly shifting tree branches that are the video’s ostensible subject. The motion of the hand-held camera exposes the movements of the person attempting to hold it still, which can be seen as a metaphor for the effort to hold back time. The source video was filmed in St. Paul, MN, USA, last January, on the lawn outside my brother’s house, in the ten minutes before we got into the car, and he drove me to the airport.

Self-Portrait, Dusk, at the Point of Departure is dedicated to Nate, Jodi, Lydia, and Elsa Houge.



作品《起航黄昏的自画像》献给Nate, Jodi, Lydia Elsa Houge。

Transportation Is Getting a New Look 交通战线换新貌
Real-time, single channel video installation


Transportation Is Getting a New Look is a continuous, algorithmic reconfiguration of a 1970’s propaganda poster entitled “Safeguard the Orderliness of the Revolution: Transportation Is Getting a New Look 革命秩序维护好,交通战线换新貌”. It suggests the kind of public collage that emerges when posters are anonymously applied to a city wall. Old posters are covered up or torn down, images fade with time, and the present becomes a canvas for the future, depicting the process history. As the original poster disintegrates, its pieces give way to a formal play of rectilinear forms such as one might find in a Soviet propaganda poster by Kasimir Malevich. The work thus creates a tension between two different modes of meaning: one is representational and textual; the other is structural and experiential.


Shanghai Traces上海轨迹
Real-time, single-channel video installation

Shanghai Traces 2010119120335

Shanghai Traces was a response to the massive beautification campaign that the city underwent in preparation for hosting the World Expo this year. The falling objects are the colorful wares of Shanghai street vendors, a reminder that every person who passes through a city leaves a trace, however fleeting. The resulting patterns and combinations evoke the movements and exchanges of city dwellers, in the same way Merce Cunningham once explained what his choreography was about by pointing out a window at busy Manhattan traffic and saying, “That.”

《上海轨迹》是对上海为了举办世博会而进行的庞大的城市美化工程的一种反映。画面中坠落的物体都是上海街头小摊的颜色,它寓意是每一个从城市经过的人都留下了痕迹,大家看到的动态图案反应着城市居住者的生活动态。某种程度上类似于Merce Cunningham对他舞蹈含义的描述他指着窗外曼哈顿街头繁忙的交通说:看吧,我的舞蹈就是这样的景象。

Giraffe 2009791224 长颈鹿 2009791224
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 3/20

Giraffe 2009791224

Giraffe 200971712495 长颈鹿200971712495
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 2/20

Giraffe 200971712495

Giraffe 200971315148 长颈鹿 200971315148
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 1/20

Giraffe 200971315148

Giraffe 2009628223541 长颈鹿 2009628223541
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 1/20

Giraffe 2009628223541

Giraffe 2009714105550 长颈鹿2009714105550
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 1/20

Giraffe 2009714105550

Giraffe 2009719145217 长颈鹿 2009719145217
Algorithmically generated digital print on archival paper
30.5 cm x 30.5 cm, edition 1/20

Giraffe 2009719145217

The series I eventually dubbed 29 Giraffes was my first foray into visual art, a process I quietly investigated over a period of more than two years. In the initial tests of my software, I used as source material a photograph of a giraffe I took in Kenya in 2006, but in the prints I finally exhibited for the first time in August 2009, the source material was a set of photographs of neon lights I took along Shanghai’s Nanjing Dong Lu pedestrian walkway. The resulting images are reminiscent of the compression of the urban experience Kurt Schwitters achieved in his Mertz collages, conveying something of the disorienting and exhilarating overstimulation of life in one of the world’s largest and fastest evolving cities.

这组叫做《长颈鹿》的作品是我首次影像艺术的尝试,整个过程大约两年多。在最初的软件实验中,我使用的是我在2006年肯尼亚拍摄的长颈鹿照片。但是用照片来展示这种艺术形式的时间是2009年,那时的原材料已经换成了我在上海南京东路步行街拍摄的霓虹灯照片。这些图片表达着这个世界上最大最繁忙的都市的城市景象的压缩。有点类似德国艺术家Kurt Schwitters表达的对城市快速发展的疏离感。

I, Too, Became a Dissident

Here it is: the ambient, algorithmic art video the Shanghai Cultural Bureau doesn’t want you to see!

Transportation Is Getting a New Look from Ben Houge on Vimeo.

This piece was first exhibited as part of the “Re-Visioning History” show that opened on May 22, 2010, at OV Gallery in Shanghai. Less than a week later, representatives of the Cultural Bureau came in and shut down the show, walking off with a print from my video.

It’s not clear why my work was singled out for confiscation. The show was centered around the work of Zhang Dali 张大力 and Ren Hong 任虹, with several other artists (myself included) invited to present new work based on a collection of historical propaganda posters on loan from Madame Mao’s Dowry. Most analysts agree, and I wouldn’t argue, that my work was probably the least politically oriented in the show. It may simply have come down to my work being most portable and closest to the door. Oddly, they only took one of the two prints I made from the video, ignoring the video itself.


The principle objection seems to have been to the work of Zhang Dali. His work was drawn from a 7-year project called “A Second History,” in which he used his connections to gain access to the national archives in Beijing. He managed to locate the original, historical photographs that were used as the basis for various propaganda posters, which he then incorporated into work that presented both versions of history side by side, in digital prints, silk screens, and paintings. He had already exhibited this work several times without major incident, most recently at the Guangdong Museum of Art, though the rumor is that after the Guangdong show he was pegged as someone to keep an eye on. The most plausible explanation I’ve heard for the OV Gallery show’s closure is that the powers-that-be didn’t want to come across as enemies of culture by officially censoring the show (especially with heightened foreign attention during the Shanghai Expo), so instead they got the gallery on technicalities like selling catalogues and exhibiting foreign artists without a license. So it in all likelihood had nothing to do with my art (which does not mean I’m not mentioning it in every grant application I write from this point forward).

You can read more about the incident in That’s Shanghai, Shanghaiist, and the Wall Street Journal.

And then suddenly on June 22, one month after the original opening, the gallery was permitted to reopen. They even returned my piece, which is actually a bit disappointing; I kind of liked the idea of it hanging over some Cultural Bureau functionary’s desk somewhere. There was a little reopening party on June 26, and the show’s run has been extended through August 5, to make up for the period that the gallery was closed.

All of the hoopla surrounding my piece’s confiscation and the gallery closure has somewhat deflected attention from the work itself, with which, in fact, I am quite pleased.

Transportation Is Getting a New Look is a real-time, algorithmic collage of snippets from a 1970’s Chinese propaganda poster entitled “Safeguard the Orderliness of the Revolution: Transportation Is Getting a New Look 革命秩序维护好,交通战线换新貌.” The point of departure was the idea of a city wall covered with posters. Old posters fade and are torn down, new posters cover them up, and a new, unpredictable form emerges from the remnants, an evolving public collage.

Safeguard the Orderliness of the Revolution: Transportation Is Getting a New Look 革命秩序维护好,交通战线换新貌

My video employs custom computer software (developed in Jitter) to algorithmically emulate this process. The program excises sections of the original propaganda poster and pastes them onto a new digital canvas in constantly varying configurations. The composition unfolds in six overlapping “phrases” of about one to two minutes, each of which define an area to be statistically filled with snippets of the original image in varying sizes and densities. Sometimes the program focuses on one part of the source image, resulting in a consistent shape or repeated gesture. Sometimes the differences are greater: a small detail may be enlarged, or an image may be reduced to a texture or color. As new images are overlaid, the foreground is constantly receding into the background; the present forms a canvas for the future.

As with Shanghai Traces, I feel this is a particularly good pairing of subject and medium. The theme of the show, and the subject of this video, is the process of the present becoming the past, forming history. The medium of generative video provides an apt opportunity to evoke this process by means of another process. The video explores the unique properties of the digital medium; you couldn’t obtain the same results (the repetition of images in varying sizes, scales, and degrees of fadedness, not to mention the systematic evolution over time) using traditional paper collage or any other medium.

The video explores modes of propaganda. Slogans on posters, plastered in profusion, represent perhaps the most common form of propaganda: persuasion through sheer repetition, with no attempt at a reasoned argument. You see that happening in this piece, as the program tends to pick from roughly the same area of the source image for stretches at a time. But while working on this piece, I was also reviewing the work of the Russian Constructivist and Suprematist artists of the early 20th century, who were using pure, abstract forms to convey ideas about relationships and society: structural propaganda, still very much intended to alter society. The blocks of images that comprise my video at times resemble some sketches of Kasimir Malevich. The fragmentation of images in my work can at times feel violent as figures are chopped in half and hand-holding friends are sundered. On the other hand, one figure from the source poster can be cloned indefinitely to form an anonymous crowd or disintegrate into an abstract texture.

I don’t deny it: this is a long excerpt to post on Vimeo. But I also wanted to showcase the large scale ebb and flow of the piece. The pacing of this work is slower than other works of mine, such as Shanghai Traces, and things can take longer to come into focus. The viewer must constantly reevaluate the evolving, emergent structure of the composition. There’s a constant fluctuation between foreground and background as the images slowly fade out, and the rate of fade itself is constantly varying. Independent elements may suddenly coalesce into a balanced structure, only to be ruptured by some new element, which may seem out of place until it becomes a key component of some new structure, or it may simply get covered up and forgotten. The eyes and brain are constantly popping between phases of meaning and order, continuously addressing what to me is one of the most important and fundamental structural questions (something I grapple with in audio as well as visual pieces): “What makes things the same, and what makes them different?”

This is not to say you have to watch the video for a long time to appreciate it; part of the point of the piece is that its generative nature allows you to make your own beginning and ending as you enter or leave the installation, so feel free to start the video somewhere in the middle and watch for as long as you want. The piece also works in an excerpt as brief as a single frame, as you can see in this Flickr gallery.


The video was originally exhibited without sound. For this excerpt, I’ve added some ambient light traffic, recorded from my rooftop studio at True Color Museum, Suzhou, China, where I’m doing an artist residency through the end of July 2010.

BTW, if you read Chinese, you’ll spot some odd characters popping in from time to time. These are from the second batch of simplified Chinese characters (known as “二间”) that were announced in 1977 and then rescinded in 1986, which indicates a time frame in which this poster was originally published. 皃 has since been reverted to its original form 貌, 乙+心 is now 意, 尸+一 is now 展, etc. 片 is also now written slightly differently. For an exhaustive accounting of which characters were changed when, check out this site!