Design Notes · · 15 min read

Vulnerability, Technology, and Art: Qianqian Ye, Artist & Creative Coder

Exploring our shared vulnerabilities—and shared futures—in ink and code.

Vulnerability, Technology, and Art: Qianqian Ye, Artist & Creative Coder

In this episode, Liam speaks with interdisciplinary artist and creative coder Qianqian Ye in her San Francisco studio. The duo traces her journey from wielding calligraphy brushes to building a hand-holding glove, unpacking the vulnerabilities we all share as humans, how creative intent is communicated, and the importance of imagining other futures.

Liam Spradlin: Qianqian, welcome to Design Notes.

Qianqian Ye: Hi, thank you.

Liam: To start off, I want to know about what brought you to your current work and how has that journey influenced the things that you’re making?

Qianqian: So, it has been a very interesting journey but I think it all starts with calligraphy ink and brushes. So, when I was a kid, my parents sent me to calligraphy school, because I was not a very quiet kid. So, I had my calligraphy s- practice for 10 years, but I know that I really hated. I, you know, had a lot of struggle with that but I guess that has embedded in my, my blood, literally.

And then, uh, I went to architecture school and for my Master I studied landscape architecture. At that time, I had this, like, kind of dream that I felt designing space for people is something I’m very interested in. And then I realized this kind of social interaction in groups is a main thing that I’m interested in. The form of the beauty, the material, or, you know, the o- other very architectural things I actually know are really my focus. I realized people is the thing I’m most curious about.

Then, uh, I moved to Bay Area. At that time I was working a Danish urban design company. The fact that I was leaving Silicon Valley really changed a lot of my life path. So, then I started to do more of technology-related design. Coding, those sort of things. And, you know, such a moment of my life, I start to go back to ink and water, and brushes. And I start to make paintings with them. And all the paintings that actually are talking about the vulnerability in human actions. And along that journey, I was making different, other type of works, but pretty much most of them are talking about the same issue. About how people are vulnerable and awkward, but still trying.

Liam: So, you mentioned that a theme of your work, kind of thing that you’re really interested in is the complexity of human social interaction, and I’m interested in the ways that that theme has emerged in all of the other media that you’ve worked with.

Qianqian: Yes. So, I think back in architecture school, when I was designing spaces, I always am thinking about, like, what kind of social story would happen here? Will people come here to break up with their partners? Will they come bring their grandparents? Like, what that is kind of potential social stories change the way I design a space. And last few years, I’ve been spending more time doing creative coding, community building. And that’s a huge people project for me. And it really opened a window for me to understand what does a group mean, what does community mean? What does human interaction even mean in a, in a group like that?

So, I feel like along the journey, my understanding of how human and humans work have been changing a lot. And I’m very curious to see how this exploration is gonna take me to.

Liam: So, focusing for a moment on a specific work of yours, I’m interested in the origin and the meaning behind the Alone, Not Alone works.

Qianqian: So, Alone, Not Alone project, actually it contains a lot of different part. It start with, actually, a set of robotic installations that I was working on. So, that was a set of installation includes a robotic hand that will hold your hand, and a robotic arm that will give you a hug. And those robotic hand and arms were designed to put into, like, a glove and a scarf. Um, so that was a project that I was thinking a lot about how humans are lonely, or not lonely with a companion of technology.

So, that was like the view one of Alone, Not Alone. While I was working that, I started to make a lot of paintings to discuss about the loneliness, um, and the awkwardness, and vulnerability in that sort of human, human, human technology, or human the world relationships. Um, so that kind of was a story of how Alone, Not Alone got started, and how it developed to a set of ink paintings that you see on the walls.

Liam: In a piece in The Offing, you mentioned that the minimal nature of these pieces combined with the narrative titles that you came up with let viewers make up their own stories. And I’m interested in how you think about that, and how it changes the interaction viewers have with the work.

Qianqian: So, I think vulnerability is something I talk a lot about in my work. I think it’s universal, but the story behind why you are vulnerable on certain things is different for everybody. So, when the show Alone, Not Alone was up, the curator asked me, “Who do you think will buy your paintings?” And I was like, “Maybe someone who’s awkward and lonely, and, you know, vulnerable.” And then she said, “Oh, you mean everybody?”

So, I was like, “Ah, okay.” So, that was time I was like how this thing, when I thought it’s like, uh, a personal character is actually so universal. But when I was thinking about how do the viewers embed their personal story into the work, there was one example that I remember really vividly.

So, that was one buyer, and she contacted me on social media. She said, “Hey, I really like your work. But your paintings, uh, the show just, uh, finished. Can I come to your studio and buy some work?” And I was like, “Oh, sure.” So, she came, and she bought three pieces. And I asked her, I was like, “Oh, why did you buy these three?” And the reason was, she, the reason she gave me was completely different from my intention behind those works. That was a moment that gave me a lot of feelings. There was some feelings of, ah, as an artist, I’m not ready to sell my work. Because when I sell this, they will belong to other people. The narrative will belong to them. And then I was feeling like, I am glad that the narrative of my work is not that narrow. It could be translated to a lot of different feelings.

So, in one of the pieces that she bought was, was just me drawing three people, that I called that as, um, three is half of the infinity. Because it’s kind of half of the infinity sign. So, that was actually a project that I was exploring about, uh, polyamory, or, you know, open relationship thinking. Like, what does it mean to have a regular relationship? Can we think about different type of relationship interactions? So, that was actually my intention behind that work. And then I ask her, “Why do you buy that piece?” And she said, “I have three kids. This totally reminds me of them.” And I was like, “Okay!” Of course, I didn’t share with her about my intention behind it, because, and the title itself, I think, works for me and worked for her, both ways. So, that was a moment that I remembered that really, really vividly.

Liam: And do you think that that’s changed how you relate to the work? This kind of balance between, like, the intent that you’re putting into it, and the way that it’s received.

Qianqian: Yeah. I think that’s sort of like, when I start to sell my work, and start to hear people’s understanding of it, that was a time I realized I need to do more internal work to make sure that I’m making the pieces for myself. Because sometimes, I know that the buyers or collectors opinion will affect the way I do things, and I know you will, I will probably get affected. But I really want to protect my inner self that I don’t want to make work actually for other people right now. I think a lot of work I have to do is just like, I need to let them out. And I really don’t care if it’s going to get sold or not.

Liam: Within this work, how you harnessed the interaction of the materials that you’re using, so ink, water, and paper, in shaping these pieces, and there’s, I would say, maybe like a slightly unpredictable nature about that sometimes, and I’m interested in the unique interactions that might be afforded by the other media that you’ve worked with, particularly the digital or technological ones.

Qianqian: Yeah. I think ink and water, paper, this combo is really organic. It’s really unpredictable. Which is something I really like about it. And the technology, or digital medium have something that is always so precise. So, I was always being thinking about how can I combine these two things. So, there is one project with a science fiction book illustration that I did for a museum in China. They commissioned me to use ink and water to pain a dystopian future of a Chinese city when technology takes over, and when people are really lonely and isolated. So, that was the one time that I discovered this power of ink and water in the futuristic and technology technical context.

Another experiment that I been done with ink plus water and other technologies were, there was one piece on my to-do list that I want to go back to China and collect some smog to make some ink, and then using that ink to paint some works about the environmental issues. So, that’s kind of like alter the ink element in this sort of work using technology.

And some other type of work that I have done is using, alter their water element in this combo. So, for instance, I did a work that using ice instead of water to produce work. So, water is really unpredictable when I work with it, but actually, ice is even more unpredictable. And that has been fun, like, exploring different mediums. But I know there’s some other type of explorations that I want to do, that bring this kind of Chinese-ness and the future-ness together in some sort of format.

Liam: Yeah. And speaking of that, we were talking earlier about your work on Other Futures. For the listeners, I’m interested in what is that project, and also what was the motivation behind that?

Qianqian: So, Other Futures is an event that I’m producing right now at the Gray Area of Grand Center in San Francisco, California. So, that is a night of audio visual performance, include a piece by Chinese artist duo, Miao Jing and Jason Hou, called Zep Tepi. Zep Tepi means first occasion in Egyptian creation mythology. That piece talk a lot about what is the type of alternative future we can create using mythological and, uh, historical figures. And, that piece itself was the reason why I actually started producing this event. So, when I saw that piece, I realized, wow, I really want to bring that to the Bay Area. Because that piece currently is touring right now in China, and I felt that kind of future narrative is something I really want to add to the conversation we’re having in the Bay Area right now. Especially in the electronic music scene.

So, when I go to audio visual nights in SF or in Bay Area, I was seeing this very Western, minimal, geometry style. Then, when I saw this very mythological, oriental images from the Zep Tepi piece, I was like, I want to bring that here. Because when we talk about the future, when we talk about music, electronic music, can we have some other voices? Can we bring the otherness there? And then I’m working together with three local artists as well. Their work are talking about how can we challenge the mainstream future narrative using some non-western music and visual. Or, even some other piece a-about, like, can we imagine a future that’s 100,000 years from now? How could that be?

So, discussing the otherness in the future, or other futures, are something I’m very curious to explore right now. And I want to bring more of this kind of conversation to Bay Area.

Liam: In your conceptualization of these futures, do you think that otherness continues to be a concept?

Qianqian: I think, uh, otherness, or futures, the, the parole is something I’m heavily believed in. Because I don’t want to see a singular future. I don’t want to see a future that’s pictured by one group of people. I want to bring different voices at least to that conversation.

Liam: Going back to talking about the fact that your work touches a lot of different media, in an interview with Forth Magazine you said that the medium doesn’t necessarily matter, and that the important thing is the message, or the story you want to tell. And because your work expands many different media, I’m curious about your process for deciding which medium, or which tool is right for the story that you want to tell.

Qianqian: Yeah. I think it’s really a interesting question, because I’ve been asking this to myself a lot as well. And, I think sometimes it depends on what is the story I want to tell. The story, usually, is more important than the medium itself. So, I was making a lot of ink paintings. And at that time, I was actually working on a creative coding library called P5.js, the translation for it. So, I was helping a fellow that year called Kenneth Lim, to translate that library to Chinese. And then the creator of P5.js, Lauren McCarthy, was like, “Hi, Qia, can you actually make some work that we can feature on the home page?” And I was like, “Okay.” And then she was like, “You, you did some ink work. Can you just use P5 to maybe do something about ink?” And I was like, “Mm, interesting. I never thought about it.” Then, I was [inaudible 00:15:57] for her encouragement, and then I made a piece that just, very simple, 50 lines of code, to just draw a inky landscape, that code Shan Shui, using P5.js.

So, that was an example that how different medias got translated, or transformed in a way. The other main story that I’m thinking about, regardless of the media, is, like, what I mentioned before, is I’m just so curious about the vulnerability of people, the soft side of them. Because I think I’m, in general, slightly, or pretty much socially awkward. And I’m very curious about that part of myself, and I want to go dig more. When I meet people who are kind of awkward and vulnerable, I just find this kind of comfort. So, I kind of just want to render that sort of story in different dimension.

So, I have done, like, these sort of stories using ink and water, and using, you know, robot installations. And even using, you know, just HTML, and JavaScript. So, I think a lot of times, stories comes in first, and then the media will come, and a lot of times the media actually will just, you know, they are fluid. You can transform from the ink work to web work sometimes.

Liam: Yeah. I’m interested in that idea of differences and similarities between the kind of unpredictable, organic nature of the ink work, and the very structured, and structural nature of code. You mentioned in that same interview that technology could just be another way to create art. But I’m interested in those differences, like, what might make technology unique among this pure media. Does it provide new capabilities for expression, and if so, how do you think about that?

Qianqian: Yeah. I think the fact that I’m leaving Silicon Valley make me a really tech savvy person. So, technology for me, I think, really brings the accessibility and scalability to works. So, for instance, the ink that I painted on the web, uh, bad joke, that actually can be accessed by my parents in China. They can go see the interactive work in the website. Like, when you move around, the mountain moves and stuff. So, they were, like, impressed by that. But they were not really impressed by any of my ink work on paper. Because they can’t really see them, they don’t know how [inaudible 00:18:31]. So, the fact that technology really helped to, to make a lot of works really accessible is very magical moments.

So, there was this project that I was working on, it’s called Portrait of City. So, because of my background in architecture and urban design field, I’m always very curious about how a city could look like. So, I was working to collect a lot of influencer images in certain cities. And ironically, a lot of them look very similar. So, I was trying to use [inaudible 00:19:03] to train the machine to draw how the city could look like if we’re all using that set of influence images. Like, will we be able to generate a portrait of the city using that sort of database? So, this is something I felt like I’m so grateful that there’s a lot of open library out there that I can use, and give me this potential to think about a new way of giving a city a portrait.

Liam: You mentioned that technology can make your works a lot more accessible in the sense that the things that you’ve created for the web can be accessed by just about anyone, and experienced that way. But, that your ink works may not be the same, in the sense that someone can’t, like, really see it physically and understand how it feels. So, is there still something that technology can’t capture in that case? Is it the physicality of the work? Or, I guess I’m interested in the gap there.

Qianqian: Yeah. I think the physical and di-digital relationship is something I’ve been thinking a lot. With some of my work, uh, very primitive, and physical, and some of my work, uh, really digital. And, currently, I felt those other elements sometimes can transform. So, for instance, the ink paintings, after I did a lot of ink paintings, I can’t resist the urge to start to paint them in 3D. So, I used VR sculpting tool to start to paint, like, when I was doing ink on paper. So, I produced a set of my very blobby, lonely people in VR. And I then exported them, and 3D printed them. And then, of course, I did render, and, uh, the 3D printing, so that was a set of work that I have the ink painting, that in 2D, on paper, and I have this virtual sculpture that I made in VR, and did the 3D printed version of that.

So, that entire process, it kind of like a ritual for myself of, how can I transform the vulnerability or awkwardness from the paper to the physical world? And you will see, actually, that some people, there’s some of the sculpture that I did afterwards. So it always feel like this sort of different media can assist each other in a way, and create a flow of work, and then maybe on the flow, you would see different potentials of new type of work. But right now, a lot of this work has to account in their prototype, or experimental stage.

Liam: Yeah. But, something new was perhaps revealed by the process of translating something from 2 dimensions to 3.

Qianqian: And, or to physical world to digital world.

Liam: Yeah.

Qianqian: Yeah. It’s some question that I keep asking myself. But, maybe I can answer that question with a observation my friend told me. She told me, “You know, your work actually really resonated with a lot of people in Silicon Valley particularly. Because here, you know, technology is so advanced that everybody is talking about [inaudible 00:22:15], and AI, and, you know, self-driving car. Then you work about, oh, actually, if you were vulnerable on Friday night home alone, petting cats.” So, that capture actually really resonate with a lot of people.

So, that kind of vulnerability that I express in the physical work resonate with a lot of people who spend a lot of time in the digital technology world, in a way.

Liam: Yeah. So, although we always have Friday morning, and Friday afternoon with the technology that’s shaping our lives, there is still Friday night.

Qianqian: Yeah.

Liam: I want to close by asking about the future. I’m interested in how you see your work and your pursuits continuing to evolve as technology continues to change, and perhaps as human vulnerability continues to stay the same.

Qianqian: Yeah. I think alternative futures are something that I’ve been thinking about a lot, particularly single futurism. Like, because I think the fact that at least you’re trying to figure out why did I pick up my ink and a brush in the first place, and second place. So, I’ve been thinking about how does that affect where I am right now in my life. And I think the Chinese-ness of the ink, the water, the paper, is something so embedded in me, and I really want to understand more about my root, meanwhile, understand more about how this root will guide me to the future.

I can share some books that I’ve been reading a lot. One of them is called Techno-Orientalism. It’s about alternative future in the oriental world with a lot of science fiction and futuristic writings. So, this sort of future reconstruction is something that I find very interesting. Meanwhile, in the future of my work, I know that I want to do a lot of things about China, about technology over there, about social justice over there, about gender inequality over there, about how I am as just one single human being in that grander narrative.

Liam: And what are your plans for that?

Qianqian: Um, so, right now I’m working as a fellow at Processing Foundation. So, my project is about to make P5.js, which is a library that I mentioned earlier, more accessible in China, particularly in the under presented woman and non-binary group. The reason why I want to do that, is because most of the education resources in the Western world are not very accessible in China, because most of the social medias and, uh, video sites, are not accessible there. So, the fact that I learned coding by myself watching YouTube videos is actually a huge privilege compared to a lot of my friends back in China.

So, in that project I am working on right now, I am recording myself teaching quick coding in Chinese, and I’m going to release some on Chinese website so everybody can have access to that. So, my goal of that project, like, my personal goal for that project, is to teach my mom how to code. She doesn’t speak English. She has never seen anything from YouTube, so I’m wondering if there’s something that I can teach her to do. And I always felt if I can teach my mom to code, I can probably teach a lot of people how to do that. So, this is one of the project that I felt like I’m working right now about the key words China, technology, feminism, woman, new type of future. Yeah. Thank you.

Liam: All right, well thank you again for joining me.

Qianqian: Thank you for having me.

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