| Genevieve Trail
 + Forsaken Landscapes HAO Jingban, 2021. Courtesy of the Artist and Blindspot Gallery. HD dual-channel video installation. 43 min. 45 sec.


Editorial | Genevieve Trail

The word history came into being, because our events were told and written down thereafter. Now history is being recorded in image or video. Therefore, from now on there is no more history but only Imagery or Videory.1

The exhibition Afterimage: New Media Art in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, proceeded from two premises:

The first, that history continues to act upon the present, exerting, as it were ‘afterimages’. Or, described another way as screen burn-in. Following this logic of the afterimage, the stronger or brighter the stimulant (how long one has spent staring directly into the sun), the longer and more intensely a visual impression might linger.

The second, an understanding that ‘all elements speak in their own language’.2 Given this, what is the language of video? How has it evolved through generations of technology? And, taking into account video’s linguistic specificities, how then does it act upon its subjects?

When art historian David Teh compared Hal Foster’s 2009 Questionnaire on “The Contemporary” with Asia Art Archive’s four-part rejoinder from 2012, An Expanded Questionnaire on the Contemporary, he noted that,

{I}n the October exercise, words referring to nation (nation/al/ism, country, government, state …) appear just 33 times; in the Asian survey, they recur 120 times, though none appears in its terms of reference … we can hardly avoid the conclusion that in Asia the state exerts a far greater gravity on contemporary art, and figures more in the thoughts of those studying it, than in Europe and North America.3

Teh measures a basic truth. For the global majority,4 modern and contemporary (art) history has been heavily shaped by the ruptures of war, de- and re-colonisation, extractive capitalism and the often-heavy hand of the state. Such traumas are the kind to burn brightest in collective memory. However, to avoid perpetuating a simple but pernicious desire that art from non-Western contexts coherently explain to us the place and historical circumstances that it emerges from, and further, that it acts as a locus of critical resistance or refusal to politics which we in the West deem to be illiberal, it is important to maintain that art is, to use Joan Kee’s term, a sovereign entity. As Kee describes it, the concept of sovereignty turns ‘not on the artworks independence from extra-artistic matters {as is asked by its autonomy} but on whether an artwork can exert authority uncoerced by such matters.'5 Holding video as sovereign to the distinct contexts in and through which it developed in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan asks that we understand it not merely as a document of history, but rather, as an active or live force shaping both reality and its memories. That is, as its own distinct forcefield. 


To grasp video's agency—what it, in fact, entails—we must first think through how video acts upon time, and therefore upon memory. Moving image technologies can, broadly speaking, be considered as technologies of memory, insofar as they deal with and indeed foreground ‘the technical condition under which the past is conserved in the present’.6 The distinct mechanisms by which different technologies conserve and recall the past, however, shapes their reconstitution in the present. 

Film works by creating a photochemical trace of its subject, that is, producing an indexical physical inscription of light. Analogue video, in contrast, uses electronic signals to magnetise particles into a pattern on a tape, which corresponds to the data, measured in frequencies of light, being recorded. So, where film creates movement by stringing a series of static photographic images together at speed, video is always a live signal.

In an age where the original technical differences between film and video are made merely aesthetic and rhetorical by their standardisation into a digital file, this may seem like an incidental fact. Early video artists were very aware that this liveness constituted a paradigm shift, wherein the manipulability of the signal allowed, for the first time, one to interrupt or intervene into what had been, up until that point, a one-way transmission. Thus even prior to the commercial availability of portable video cameras (beginning with the Sony Portapak from 1967)7 which is heralded as a key moment in the democratisation of the recording and construction of history (allowing for guerilla tactics), the basic materiality of video as signal gave artists a tool to talk back rather than only consume.

This sense of liveness was further accentuated by closed circuit technologies which allow one to transmit images from camera to screen immediately ‘without recourse to a magnetic support.’8 Bill Viola articulated this technical condition as ‘recording-simultaneously seeing-instantly playing-back’,9 an awkward phrase that sought to communicate video’s new relationship to the image in time. As Ina Blom has compellingly described, ‘Video quite simply seemed to blur the distinction between the forces of stimulus and retention, or an event and its representation.'10

Since film moving image technologies have moved further and further away from indexicality and its physical relationship to the real, their modes of retention and recall have become increasingly similar to the workings of human memory. Memory, as it acts within the human brain, is a dynamic process wherein the recall or reactivation of information initiates a process of reconsolidation in which the original memory is made transiently vulnerable to re-inscription. Recall, therefore, is a fundamentally destabilising force. No wonder video’s tendency away from narrative and toward interventions into or reworkings of narrative, of discourse, of one-way transmissions. Video has long been used by artists to subvert, parody and recontextualise existing stories or discourses, to undermine and reveal the medium’s apparent neutrality or disrupt its narrative force. While in Europe and North America, such subversions have most often been directed at mass media and commercial modes of communication, in the Sinosphere, they have more frequently been directed at the State as a mirrored discourse of ideology and persuasion.  

This mutability of the past has only escalated through technologies of the digital, which no longer rely on any physical trace of their own subject matter for the construction of representation. The disaggregation of the past into datasets has collapsed the linear movement of time into the command of a cursor moved forward and backward at will. The minor technical distinction that made the before and after of an event and its memory almost indistinguishable in analogue video is brought into a new kind of interdependency: where the past is a resource from which the future is regurgitated, differently each time. As others have expounded upon at length,11 the ostensible dematerialisation of AI does not make it float free from history, memory or materiality. Rather it is bound to their biases, exclusions and blind spots, continuously reifying and reiterating them. Repeating us. AI is a technology which has perhaps best internalised the knowledge that memory is the tool that the past uses to speak to the future,12 and that memory (as a materiality and as filtered through technology) has always been a malleable thing.

There is insufficient length here to elaborate on the ways in which video has functioned as an agent of social memory in the distinct regions and cultural spaces of China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, where it was folded into existing modes and discourses of visualisation specific to culture and place.13 Afterimage and its (past and future) archives, presented here, aim to offer some ground to begin to think through such a relationship.

Combining archival materials and newly commissioned work, this collection is not an attempt at a narrative account of the exhibition, nor of the histories which it sought (only very partially) to represent. It might instead be described as an array of materials orbiting the original exhibition Afterimage; magnets which pull at and distort the pattern of the signal.

The writings gathered here offer a series of short and idiosyncratic departures from Afterimage and the artworks that it exhibited. In contrast to the exhibition’s retrospective and art historical approach, these texts instead point to current work being done in this field in diverse modes. Ellen Larson writes to Cao Fei’s use of video in response to the endless cycles of a temporality particular to China’s contemporary urban reality, one that she describes using the term ‘concrete flux’. Leah Jing McIntosh thinks through the screen as a surface for projection, and the way in which the act of placing something onto a surface has the capacity to rupture its received perceptions, or institutional veneer. Writing on the recent and critically acclaimed VR work of Hsin-Chien Huang, Duncan Caillard frames the disjunctive forms of embodiment that are enacted by virtual reality—its digital seams and ruptured materialities—as an expression of Taiwan’s historic and contemporary ontological uncertainties. Finally, a visual essay by Nikki Lam speaks (softly) to the loss of images in transmission, inviting the ghosts that did not make it to the other side into gaps of the narrative.

Timelines draw from archival material to document and enliven key events in the development of new media art in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, respectively. Here I am indebted to Asia Art Archive, Videotage and Ying Wei, specialist librarian at the University of Melbourne, for their rigour and their generosity. Finally, a reading list of essential primary and secondary materials provides both the research from which the original exhibition was developed, and key resources for future inquiry.

Aiming to move contrapuntally towards expansion and consolidation; the archive of Afterimage seeks to at once to historicise the basic materials of these underrepresented (art) histories and, at the same time, to generate something new. This can be thought of as a narrative act, one that is core to the discipline of art history. It is a narration that seeks to retain a sense of the liveness of both video and of memory, wherein each recounting has the capacity to remake its own history. This is an acknowledgement of video’s ambivalent relationship to the narrative form, and its capacity, as such, to interrupt art history’s preference for heroes, stories and canons. To speak back to the histories to which it is sovereign, to ‘reconsolidate’ them, or make them anew.


1. Nam June Paik, “Binghamton Letter,” January 8, 1972.

2. Richard Schechner, “6 Axioms for Environmental Theatre,” The Drama Review: TDR 12, no. 3 (1968): 59, https://doi.org/10.2307/1144353.

3. David Teh, Thai Art: Currencies of the Contemporary (NUS Press, 2017), 1.

4. As described by art historian Joan Kee, ‘a term commonly used as shorthand for all nonwhite peoples but that also includes the 90 per cent of the world's population living outside of the G7 countries that have dominated the global economy since World War II.' Or, as described by Indonesian president Sukarno to open the Asian-African Bandung conference 1955, 'the unregarded, the peoples for whom decisions were made by others whose interests were paramount, the peoples who lived in poverty and humiliation.' Kee, The Geometries of Afro Asia, 4.

5. Ibid, 6.

6. Ina Blom, The Autobiography of Video: The Life and Times of a Memory Technology (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2016), 279–80.

7. Julia Murphy, “In Praise of the Portapak,” ACMI, February 2, 2020, http://www.acmi.net.au/stories-and-ideas/portapak-history/.

8. Blom, The Autobiography of Video, 2.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid. Italics own.

11. Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan, “Orientalism and Informatics: Alterity from the Chess-Playing Turk to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk,” Ex-position, no. 43, (June 2020), doi: 10.6153/EXP.202006_(43).0004; Syed Mustafa Ali, “A Brief Introduction to Decolonial Computing”, XRDS: Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students 22, no. 4 (June 2016): 16–21, doi: 10.1145/2930886

12. Richard Powers, The Overstory (W. W. Norton & Company, 2018).

13. This enfolding is reflected in language. The lu录 in luxiang录像 (video) which on its own means to ‘record’ or ‘copy’ a xiang 像 (image), contains the character for carving into wood, connecting the medium to histories of memorialisation and inscription. The alternative term for video luying 录影, literally to record shadow, relates to photography’s preferred term摄影, ‘seizing shadow’.

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