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Art Based Research as Virtual Cultural Heritage

DOI: | Issue 3 | April 2020

Annie Wan


Virtually (Y)ours – Expanded Dialogues with an Archive (2017-18) is a conversational piece presented by three artists. It was developed by Annie Wan in collaboration with Amy Cheung Wan-man and Ng Tsz-kwan. The aim is for audiences to actively participate in a ‘dramatic’ digital encounter; artworks from a museum archive are ‘remediated’ and ‘reimagined’ within a web graphics library (WebGL) platform. The objective is to explore the interdisciplinary solutions best suited to inventing a ‘mnemonic cultural tool’ through remediation, in turn facilitating a form of collective identity through the shared memories of individuals as well as those of the institution (in this case, the Hong Kong Museum of Art).

Research Statement

The artist’s or researcher’s role in an Art Based Research (ABR) project can be characterised by its formative approach to the visual. The role of ABR, as a learning task, is to help us learn how to see, and thus learn how to feel (Rolling, 2013). However, ABR research does more than help us see external reality that has yet to be uncovered. It teaches us how to read images and actively form new visual realities by creating images. Eventually, it can generate renewed self-perception based on processes of remediation (Bolter and Grusin, 2000), which speak of the idea that all ‘new’ media always mutate from older media, and pay homage to older media, such as paintings, photography, video, etc.

Grounded in this ABR approach, Virtually (Y)ours – Expanded Dialogues with an Archive (2017-18) is a project commissioned by the Hong Kong Museum of Art. It remediates and reinterprets stories from the curators’ memories and museum archives as intangible cultural heritage. Audiences are invited to explore the museum’s collections and curators’ memories, being empowered to transcend boundaries across time and space. This article describes this project through the critical lens of an Art Based Research (ABR) approach, in which artists/researchers assume the role of the critic, with the purpose of educating and sharpening individuals’ perceptions. I will first describe my co-created artwork and the relationship between the artwork and the methodology. I analyse how this artwork relates to intangible culture heritage, and in particular the influence of digital media on the evolution of preservation, emulation and dissemination practices within the context of cultural heritage.


The artwork adopts a modular structure. The connections among the modules are imaginary, and the dynamism transcends what the audience is told. It is less about telling the audience directly about the story in each module and more about empowering the audience to discover by themselves. There are 14 interactive scenes (modules), which the artists created after studying the Hong Kong Museum of Art’s collections and probing the curators’ memories by interviewing and reading about them.

Each individual interactive computer animated scene has been inspired by different collections and curators’ memories, such as past collectors’ beliefs, historical events, important collections, and so on. The structure is like stars in a constellation. The audience imagines lines among the stars, forming shapes, and a relationship becomes defined in their minds. The modules are all created in form of 2D and 3D animations as animations are perceived as moving images based on visual perceptions and the time-lapse feature. The phenomenon is similar to how we memorize events in our everyday lives, and the way we link bits and pieces of information in our minds. It is akin to the ways in which curators selectively memorize stories about the museum and its archives. For example, in one of the modules, Coding Temple [1], tribute is paid to all art professionals, including the artist Xu Bing and art expert Geoffrey Bonsall. Xu and Bonsall are very different in their practices; however, both are interested in symbols (Chinese characters) and codes. In the animated scene, viewers first see a landscape built with Quick Response Code (QR code) and when they enter the temple in the front, they see ‘deconstructed’ Xu’s characters and a floating TV set with eyes on it.

The scene was designed as if the audience follows in Bonsall’s footsteps and ‘decode’ Xu’s characters. Geoffrey Weatherill Bonsall, the Museum of Art’s adviser, is an expert in Chinese export paintings and the 19th century expatriate artist George Chinnery. Bonsall decrypted the Gurney system of shorthand that Chinnery inscribed on his work and has served as the Museum’s adviser since 1976. He also contributed to the Museum’s research and publications. While Xu Bing’s most reputable works have involved new ways of deconstructing and reconstructing Chinese characters, likewise, Bonsall adopted new ways of decoding Chinnery’s inscriptions on The Roof of Chung Qua’s Hong, Guangzhou.

This scene is an interesting exemplar of the ABR methodology, given that it is analogous to how many media artists work nowadays. We study, experiment, fail, try again, and turn codes into visuals and interactivity, a form of decryption and encryption. The featured artist and art historian in the scene share similar ideas in terms of creating and analysing artworks. Xu Bing’s famous work, A Book from the Sky (Tianshu), composes of 4000 ‘traditional Chinese characters’, all being so well-designed that they appeared to be real characters (Tsao and Ames, 2011). Bing carved imaginary Chinese characters, turned them into movable wooden blocks and produced the largest installation in the Museum’s collection.

Each module within my project adopts the same structure, i.e. the interactive animation scene is first presented to the audience, with a short artist statement and remediated description of the artworks following. However, unlike the scene Coding Temple, 2D animation was created for Cruel World because Feng Zikai’s paintings were remediated and his 2D cartoon characters share in the universal appeal of purity and innocence. This kind of pureness and innocence has arguably been remediated if they were myths (Geremie, 2002). This ‘myth’ reminds us of Egyptian art and mythology, one of the most classical cultures in world history. The interactive scene bridges these two art styles by redrawing Feng Zikai’s work in the style of ancient Egyptian wall paintings, thus illustrating this idea of the loss of innocence.

Cruel World was designed in form of handscroll [2]. Handscroll painting is one of most classical styles in Asian paintings; it is usually presented in horizontal form and viewed from the right. Feng’s paintings in the Museum’s collections are remediated in the scene and one of them was originally presented in form of a 4-panel manga. Feng, as one of the most important artists in contemporary Chinese art history, ‘invented’ his own signature style which in fact borrows from Japanese manga. Cruel World bears a resemblance to Feng’s remediation of Japanese manga and advances handscroll paintings through 2D animation. Despite the simple interaction in the scene (audience navigate themselves either to the left or the right and view redrawn animated Feng’s paintings), the background music, which is a piece of well-known funeral music, underpins the aforementioned theme of innocence lost.

Regardless of the methods used, this project is all about attempting to communicate with the audience through adopting technologies that afford a remediation of older media forms. Remediation implies that older media is preserved as new media manipulates certain elements in the older media. Although this creative project is not about digital preservation nor conservation, it borrows ideas from this field, which certainly formed the basis of it.

The Artwork and Intangible Cultural Heritage

I will now move on to consider the methodological questions at stake in Art Based Research. I do this through discussion of the Virtually (Y)ours – Expanded Dialogues with an Archive (2017-18) project, further unpacking ideas of remediation, media technologies, museum collections, and curators’ memories (as intangible cultural heritage).

In some fields, digital media has become intertwined with questions concerning new ways through which cultural heritage can be preserved, emulated and disseminated. Digital culture has had a significant impact on objects and processes of social memory, changing the way that we might experience the world and supporting recognised aspects of social memory. Libraries, archives and museums are no longer unique symbols of authority or facilitators of culture. Further, digital culture can be understood as a reaction against traditional heritage practice, with its sole emphasis on collections and the conservation and static displays of cultural artifacts from a single and unquestioned cultural perspective (Yehuda, 2008).

Some argue that we are now in a ‘post-digital era’ (Hall, 2018), which describes the way that we are now coming to terms with the effects of change associated with the rise of personal computers and network technologies that were so pronounced in the 1990s. Within the arts and humanities community, digital methods were initially developed and deployed by a relatively small number of individuals. However, they are now becoming standard practice and can thus no longer be treated as separate or specialised. Moreover, research questions, primary materials and interfaces are becoming increasingly intertwined, which among other things, means a shift in emphasis from presentation to interpretative tools.

Generally speaking, art preservation and conservation usually adopt technologies to maintain the original ‘look and feel’ of a particular work of art, as was seen in the case study of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City [3]. However, the aim of my project is to go beyond the preservation of archives. In the scene Eternal Narcissism, a Web Augmented Reality (WebAR) technology tool is presented for users to deliberate innate narcissistic desire, which was originated in the genre of self-portraits but has since evolved into contemporary selfie culture. The WebAR technology adopted in this scene overlays two oil portraits from the Museum’s collection, and in real time captures the facial images of the audience from the cameras in their computers.

This practice is especially relevant to interpreting the Museum’s archives as intangible heritage. The two portraits are comparably inexpensive; however, they marked a long-lasting impact on local art and cultural history. Chinese export paintings were popular in south China in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (late Qing period); Chinese export painters usually adopted western painting techniques or even imitated western oil paintings, often attempting to capture ‘every aspect of Chinese life from Birth to Death in order to satisfy the Western curiosity of the country’ (Wen, 2015). One of the portraits in the Eternal Narcissism scene is a self-portrait of a famous export painter Lamqua, while the other is an unknown Chinese lady. They are inexpensive in terms of monetary value, as mentioned, but the heritage ‘preserved’ is intangible because of its cultural value and the absurd, yet captivating, hybrid paintings style. Undoubtedly, there is discrepancy between preservation and remediation in this instance, with the remediation of the portraits offering audiences a playful experience, while equally capturing something of the history of Chinese export paintings of that era.

In this project, archives and curators’ memories are essentially treated as data. Given that they are being remediated, it has become increasingly important to shape how we curate, analyse and translate both ‘big’ (i.e. curators’ memories) and ‘small’ data (i.e. the Museum’s collections and archives). Data manifestation and information visualization have broadened the potential ways through which digital data can be made visible, and as a result, such data can be communicated to a broader audience in the post-digital era. As with the Chinese export paintings example described previously, two historical paintings in the Museum’s collections have been remediated in the scene Hackers and Poison. The paintings in this scene illustrate what is quite possibly the only ‘terrorists attack’ case in Hong Kong’s history, which took place in 1857 (Lowe and McLaughlin, 2015). During the early colonial period of Hong Kong under the British’s rule, a bread poisoning case stunned both Chinese and the colonial officials; the estimated number of victims was between 300 and 400. The prime suspect was Cheong, the owner of the reputable Esing bakery (one of the paintings illustrates the shop of the bakery). He was first arrested and interrogated at the Central Police Station, a scene also represented in another historical painting. Cheong and other suspects were accused of administering poison with intent to kill and murder James Caroll Dempster, a surgeon, and they were mysteriously released but later banished from Hong Kong. To do this day, many still suggest that the case might be related to political unrests or conflicts between the Chinese and the colonial government. In response, in the aforementioned Hackers and Poison scene, a code-generated animation of lines and dots is mapped to an array of cubes. The mapped cubes ‘behave’ as if the computer screens are crushing, like a computer suffering from a virus or malware attack. Remediation in this instance is about re-conceptualising two paintings concerning terrorism in Hong Kong – themselves significant artefacts of cultural heritage relating to Hong Kong history – in the form of a visual, mediatized analogy: one of hackers and their manipulation of computer virus to ‘contaminate’ widespread networks.

This, it seems, exemplifies the post-digital age of cultural heritage. It is a shift that I have only just begun to consider in this statement, but one that can be seen through the remediation of Xu Bing’s work in Coding Temple, of Chinese export paintings in Eternal Narcissism, of Feng’s work in Cruel World, and indeed of the twisted representations of historical drawings in Hackers and Poison. Going forward, design methods, remediation processes and further transdisciplinary thinking will all continue to form the bridge between the physical and the digital, between old media and new media, and between the people and the digital. The official institutions specializing in the preservation of cultural heritage (namely, museums, archives and libraries) are well aware of the realities and indeed the challenges of bringing heritage to life and making it meaningful to through ubiquitous forms of new media.


It is clear that preservation today must meet the needs of a new digital society. It is now clear that at the intersection of Art Based Research, museum archives and cultural heritage – while dealing with computer technologies – it is time to reconsider new methods of inquiry and new forms of knowledge production. By creating a virtual ‘dramatic encounter’ through the use of Art Based Research in the Hong Kong Museum of Art, artists are redefining the boundary lines of artistic creation, first through reference to digital preservation, before then borrowing multifarious ideas producible by older media that create a multifaceted model of remediation. Through collaboration with the Museum, such transdisciplinary and computationally engaged research has given new life to their archives and cultural heritage.

Visit the Hong Kong Museum of Art website to learn more about Virtually (Y)ours – Expanded Dialogues with an Archive (2017-18).


This project was commissioned by Hong Kong Museum of Art.


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  • Geremie, B. (2002) An artistic exile: a life of Feng Zikai (1898-1975). Berkeley: University of California Press.

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