Cliff Evans, Citizen: The Wolf and Nanny (still), 2009; single- and three-channel HD video; 6 minutes, 15 seconds

Puppet Masters

Cliff Evans/Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung

Like the Dadaists and Surrealists who cut and collaged printed images, Cliff Evans and Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung configure fragments of the Internet imagescape into kaleidoscopic visions. Both artists apply digital processing power to the photomontage aesthetics of forebears John Heartfield and Hannah Höch, excising images from our collective media unconscious with an Adobe “lasso” tool, then assembling them as cinematic spectacles and animated sociopolitical satires. Meeting for the first time in their mutual home city of New York, Evans and Hung recorded a conversation about process, distribution and the political effects informing their deeply affective theater of images. You can find clips and copies of their work at and—KM

Cliff Evans The idea is we’re both working with photomontage, photomontage animation from images that we primarily find online.

Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung For me it’s a natural progression, because the Internet is the biggest image depository in the world now. And a lot of those things are so easily accessible. So it’s a natural form, what we both are doing now. I still think now is the golden era of the Internet because there’s not many regulations. In China there’s regulations, but—

CE But here we still have access to so much.

KH Exactly.

CE Yeah, I first started using images that I found online because of their accessibility. I was working on a science fiction adaptation, and initially wanted to shoot it all live action but realized that I couldn’t create the scale or the grandeur of the backgrounds that I wanted. So I went online and realized that I could do it that way. A friend had given me [Adobe] After Effects and it just seemed like a perfect match. But my process was such a roundabout way to go and find these images, and I had no idea what I was doing. Then there was Google image search and you could type in very broad key phrases.

KH Which is fantastic.

CE Yeah, so what you end up getting is this really bizarre cultural exquisite corpse. You type in “freedom” and of course you’re going to get eagles and American flags, but then you get the bizarrest things, especially if you turn SafeSearch off. That idea of a very surreal page of images became very important for how I would take those broad things and then collapse them into this environment or reality.

KH I really like how you describe it, one thing juxtaposed to another thing because it’s all connected with this one thing. And in a way I work the same way. Especially when I do political artwork. You type in George W. Bush and it takes you to center-right, leftwing, ultra-left, socialist, Islamic, whatever. Everybody in the world creates some pictures sooner or later related to George W. Bush—babies on top of a tank, or it can be he’s like a saint.

CE I don’t know if I’ve gotten used to what Google image search does or that their algorithms have gotten better, but I don’t feel as if I’m finding the absurdity on the page of images as much as I used to. I think, and you probably noticed this also, that after a while it becomes a skill in how you search. So the search process becomes a craft; it’s almost like one is a professional driver through the images.

KH And so you collect a lot of images?

CE An insane amount. I think it’s either control or an obsessive-compulsive thing, but if I’m looking for something like a moss-covered tree trunk, I will probably download a hundred different images of a moss-covered tree trunk and spend way too much time knowing that I’m never going to use them, much less even cut them out—maybe I’ll cut out a quarter of them, maybe not that much. And as I go through this process of image accumulation, I start to reflect more on how it actually constructs the scenes that I’m building and the pieces that I’m making.

What I’m doing—as probably a lot of people who interact with the digital do—is that I’m a consumer. I’m consuming these images, and one or two is not enough to fulfill that desire for that image. It actually could possibly be related to the same way that people deal with pornography on the Internet—

KH You will collect it. It’s interesting because I collect images, but I don’t collect probably as much as you. Mine is more based on information, where a search can bring me at the same time. It’s like consuming. I’m disappointed with the news in the U.S. So a lot of the time, when I type something in, it teaches me new stuff, how our country sees and is perceived. I consume new information and try to bring it together in my artwork. But access is more confined; the absurdity is harder to find. Once I used some images from some guys from India, or Pakistan actually. They created the Twin Towers but put some light on it. And they say, this is a fireworks piece. You can actually buy it online. It’s a joke, it’s a fake thing.

CE It’s like a box of fireworks?

KH Yeah, a box of fireworks, exactly.

CE Of the Twin Towers?

KH Yeah, and there’s a lot of things like that out there on the Internet. But now those things get more marginalized because there’s more people. But then you just search things in—

CE Different languages so you have more pictures to go through.

Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung, http://www.11111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111 (screenshot), 2001–present; website; courtesy the artist

KH And then you have many more things to go through and you start seeing how certain people from different places actually have different political views of the same images. So that’s also—different—consumers involved. Of course, it’s not only culture; they totally see things differently because of the media, too.

CE This idea of information consumption—you’re talking about bringing all this stuff together and bringing it into your art. And so what is the necessity of that process?

KH I never really have a set ending or starting point in my work, but maybe I have a starting point; I have an idea. Through reading all this stuff I slowly compress all the things I’ve read, which I think is interesting because a lot of things may not even be real on the Internet, but people think it’s real. And I want to say something. I want to say, “Okay, Obama, you need to fix this, need to fix that.” I also ask, how does the world see him?

So you observe all these things around the same issue being compressed, in the same scene. And I also wanted my artwork to reflect what you can actually find on the Internet at the same time. Because there’s a lot of details, and if you’ve seen my work as a YouTube video you can’t see all this stuff. But if you see it on an HD projection, huge projection, you can actually find the little details. It’s all the small things that link all these things together.

CE I feel the same way—you’re better at it than I am as far as going across multiple platforms, not only with animations and also video games, and then the earlier HTML pieces. You have this ability to go across all these platforms—put so much detail into it that it is important to have it shown in really high quality. So there is this connection of all the little small details that are occurring to create the more complex idea that we may be working with.

KH They’re a different thing, yeah. The way you show your stuff is much more complicated, actually, than mine—you have multi-channels, where you must look at different things at the same time. I actually keep it pretty simple. I attempt to just make mine like a commercial, or something that can pop up in a lot of different places. I never really have a preferred viewing platform as long as people can see it.

CE Right.

KH I spent a lot of time getting my eyes blind while making it, but I don’t mind if people even show it to each other on their iPhone or wherever. For me the distribution of it is more important—how much viral marketing can actually get your things out there.

But sometimes I show one of my old pieces, Because Washington is Hollywood for Ugly People (2007), because it looks really fantastic and ultra sharp in a large projection. Also because there’s a live audience and you can actually see and hear how people react to it, and that’s something of course the Internet can’t give you. If I think about it, the most preferred thing probably is redoing those old outdoor car theaters.

CE Oh yeah, the drive-ins? I agree, especially for The Road to Mount Weather (2006), which ends at an abandoned drive-in. I always wanted a three screen drive-in to show it, like a permanent installation somewhere in the middle of North Dakota. I think this idea of this sort of abandoned drive-in is also reflective of how I see the work. I want a lot of people to see it, but I don’t want it to be that accessible to begin with. I want people to be drawn to it for a reason. Even though it is a bit elitist, there’s something about having the work—especially because we’re working in a popular form of video and we work with popular subject matter—there’s something about having it in a museum or a gallery space that gives it this air of art. So people will go into this space more readily to see art, not just to see entertainment or something weird online or a YouTube video or whatever. It’s a different way of consumption.

KH Because you basically have a group of people who are really interested in it already. But I actually strongly believe art should belong to the masses, like propaganda—it’s one of my favorite forms of art because it’s really just designed to persuade you. That’s all it is.

CE So you’re saying your work also functions as an advertisement or as a commercial.

KH I hope it can be. I think my goal eventually, what I really want to do is actually become the outlet for media. So it’s not only within the museum.

CE Well, it’s completely reflective in both our work the ways that we use the forms and the aesthetic. With yours, you can see your attraction to the idea of propaganda, and advertising. I probably wish I was Tarkovsky making films in the ’70s and projecting them in the large theaters of the time. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of the cinematic—the camera moves, the tracking shots, the pacing of sort of slower, more avant-garde film.

KH So do you write, do you envision the movement frame by frame and then put your subject in to create your movies? Like Alfred Hitchcock, have everything mapped out?

CE A storyboard? You can’t because—

KH There’s so many images.

CE There’s so many images. Of course, Alfred Hitchcock had a lot of supposed collaborators, but he could tell them what to do. I—my collaborator is the Internet and all the people involved with posting images on it, but I can’t tell them what to do and I never quite find exactly what I need for the scene. Whatever’s out there completely influences what the final scene looks like. By reverse, do you ever feel like you’re abusing your power by manipulating the images at all?

KH Not really, I’m just retelling the story and probing certain things. Like hip-hop, you break everything down to elements and then you create your own sound. Although I think a lot of that is artists are kind of lazy now, you know? Just play a track and then you sample that much.

CE Mash-ups oftentimes end up being an excuse not to really get into the material enough. If you’re going to appropriate material, my belief is that one should really get into it, dissect it.

On the other hand—and I think maybe because I’ve started using many more personal images of people that are not necessarily in the public realm to begin with— during this process I almost feel as if I am the CIA with barely any resources. I go into people’s private—what they think to be private collections of images, even though they’re accessible by the public for the most part, and take them and put them into this world I’m creating and manipulate them to do what I wish them to do. The woman I used that was running in Citizen: The Wolf and Nanny (2009) with a stroller was doing a yoga pose. And because she was posed where a lot of her arms and legs were exposed in profile I could use that. It wasn’t because of who she was or necessarily even what she looked like. But I take that image, a figure like her, and I cut her into—this is where it becomes reflectively kind
of creepy—fifteen different pieces. And then put her back together and reanimated her.

So there’s something very Frankensteinian that’s occurring; I still don’t know the personal or political implications of it. Alone in my studio, I perform as if I am this dictator or the NSA because maybe it helps me reflect on the justifications of those people that have that type of power and manipulation in reality, or supposed reality, how they may come to terms with that type of manipulation, invasion, manipulation, coercion. And these are the people that, as political figures, we’re looking at, and to me, now it seems like the world is so separate from where I am and where they are. I have no way of understanding them.

KH That’s a great, interesting point of view because I never really think like that. I never—maybe most of the time the people who I juxtapose or rebrand, more often it is politicians.

CE Yeah, exactly, they’re a logo themselves in their personage. They’re religious or cultural icons. When you do cut out these politicians in their context and reappropriate them into your own context you gain power over them for a brief moment of time.

KH Very true. Yeah, I never really realized that. Actually, I get a lot of gratification putting, let’s say, Osama Bin Laden on Jesus Christ’s body. It’s a really simple operation, but it creates a very powerful icon.

CE To get to this idea of the cultural figures being melded into the religious figure, it’s an obvious question, but why are you using religion in your work?

KH Because it’s an easy way to actually make people think, because a lot of people already understand what I’m trying to say. I try to retell the story. By using cultural icons you can instantly just make people understand what you’re trying to say, especially when you tell a story. It’s kind of like Monty Python.

Cliff Evans, Empyrean (installation view), 2007; at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA; five-channel HD video projection; 6 minutes, 33 seconds; 3600 x 1280 pixels; edition of 5 + 2 ap; courtesy the artist; photo by Stewart Clemens

CE You connect to this cultural consciousness that already exists where someone may not know about the Night Rider, Mohammad, but they know about the Passion. They recognize a lot of the figures that you’re using. Probably not all of them, actually. Sometimes you get really complex in the hierarchy of who’s related to whom. But you also solve that to a degree because you had the list of connections—

KH —in In G.O.D. We Trust (2009), everything’s all written out because I’m trying to make it where basically every visual element, including the cultural figures, everything, even the pattern in the back, even a certain cloud that I use, came from a certain place which related to the story I’m trying to tell.

CE Is it important for your viewers to know all that?

KH I think so. When you go on the website you’ll find all the description and we have links. So you click on it and you understand why Britney Spears is next to Mike Huckabee being the Stryker guitar player. Because he does have a quote, you know, saying—

CE I didn’t know it was Stryper. That’s funny. So it’s the Christian hair band from the eighties?

KH Exactly. For me it is important, as how I see it, a lot of people are not really political. Like my work, I don’t want to really make it for intellectuals or people who actually are really liberal or conservative. I make it for people who maybe don’t even care about those things. So by putting those things inside, for example, Kucinich being like Spock. People ask, “Why is he Spock?” You know why, because once he said he was abducted by aliens. You can find this speech.

CE That’s just because he sort of looks like a miniature Spock.

KH If you show them those kinds of political facts—and it’s still facts, because people say this kind of stuff—you might reach down to explore why I’m doing this, why I’m telling the story in this way. You put in all these political stories but real peripheral gossip at the same time. And people look at it very differently and explore, and hopefully people try to understand what you’re trying to say.

For me, using popular icons is the threshold to gain people’s attention—people might not recognize Berlusconi, but they might recognize Jabba the Hutt. For example I just can’t resist watching Brangelina traveling through all the bombs and protest in your Empyrean (2007). In our information over-loaded era, people’s attention span is very very short. Using pop and religious icons is an efficient way to get your message across since your message is sort of half-digested already. It is like my version of enhanced fast food.

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