Date Published

Written / Edited By

Nikhil Shah

Photography

Cat Chang

Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong

Keith Lam is a self declared New Media Artist, and the artistic director of Dimension+ & Creative Space Lab. Blending the space between art and technology, Keith works to engage with his audience in new ways by focusing on the interplay of the intangible and the real, traversing media in search of things foreign and familiar alike.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, Keith has split his time in and out of education and commercial endeavors, and his philosophy on new media speaks to both worlds in the same stroke. Keith is wonderfully open about the challenges of the creative process, whether working for big brands or reimagining the creative landscapes in that shape his community and approach. Throughout, he stresses the importance of chance encounter in developing perspective, and the power of inquiry in the process of creating new media art.

Tell Us About Yourself?

My journey between school and now has been an interesting one, and I'd say it has provided me with a lot of opportunity to explore the boundaries between technology and art.

I went to high school in Hong Kong to study art, and by the time university applications came round I ended up getting placed into an accounting program at the University of Hong Kong. I rejected the offer in hopes of transferring into an Art & Design program and had no such luck. Instead, I opted for seat in The Department of Information & Technology.

During my second year there I was offered a scholarship to study computer visualization and 3D animation at NYU, and at that moment things started to get interesting.

I returned to Hong Kong to finish up my degree, and out of school I picked up a job as a copywriter at Oglivy, an established advertising agency. Less than a year into the job I was offered another scholarship for a Masters Degree in New Media Art, and used this moment to invest time into personal projects, which later led me to start Dimension+, a trans-media design studio. Luckily enough I was able to start the studio with a close friend, and our early projects in both arts and commercial work allowed us to develop our own approach across both physical and virtual installations.

So You Prefer Something More Tactile In Your Art?

It’s not that we don’t like or appreciate Virtual Reality, we just wanted to resist the assumption that anything virtual immediately becomes special. We understand that something touchable, something real, something tangible, adds an entirely different aspect - something direct, real, and perhaps a formal way of communicating with our audience. There's also a disconnect between content for VR, and how it’s being used at present. There doesn’t seem to be a point in making something in VR unless it’s a form of reality you couldn’t possibly experience otherwise. What warrants taking something out of reality and recreating it on VR? To me, virtual reality should be used out of the of necessity in creating un-real things, and that, in loose terms, defines how I approach my work.

Would That Then Be Your Working Philosophy, Your Personal Mantra?

The drive and passion for my work comes from creating things that communicate with other people in interactive ways. I like to take things and re-work them to explore other senses, and uses their interplay to involve and engage audiences on a deeper level.

I recently did a tribute performance to Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Bicycle Wheel.’ My interpretation involved an interactive music and light sculpture, and I think these kinds of interplay really define the frontier of new media. Not just the immediate sensory experience but shaping and crafting interaction through relations of art and technology.

For most people art is a static idea; just a painting, a sculpture, maybe cinema. Nowadays I want to work with art and technology in dynamic ways. You could say that this is result of my background, and I think having both sets of experiences - technical and artistic - allowed me to explore ideas still unfamiliar through what I did know, and each turn then opened up another dimension of expression.

Do You Think Different Kinds Of People, From Different Disciplines, Spark Better Ideas?

Yes, of course. When I was still teaching at University I proposed the idea of wearable art and technology lab in hopes of blending two distinct worlds. By no means am I into fashion, but I figured that if we could find teachers from a fashion design school, and pair them with a Fine Arts teacher and an Engineering teacher, there was the potential for an amazing exposing students to interdisciplinary ways of thinking.

At present I’m working with a design museum that focuses on the topic of ‘emotion-detection senses.’ I get to work with an Associate Professor who focuses on researching brain activity using mechanical engineering, and we're exploring the ways in which we can gather information from an audience, through emotional gestures presented within a space or performance.

Designing these experiments require both a good deal of creativity as well as scientific rigor inorder to create feedback loops that can then inform future iterations within the project.

I love being able to reach an international audience, however, like most people in Hong Kong, I stay because I want to make things better here, whether socially, politically or economically.

What Is Your Perception Of Creativity In Hong Kong?

Growing up in Hong Kong, I can say that it is a place possessing an array of strengths and weaknesses. Politically, Hong Kong is not a place that supports the arts, but it is the diversity and the mix of cultures that make it such a crucible for art and ideas.

In fact, I believe its greatest creative strength is the bevy of materials available in Hong Kong, for all artists. You can picture that within a 20 minute walk, say from Sham Shui Po to Yau Ma Tei, you could find everything you could ever want to create with. One shop might sell fabrics, next door there could be electronics and wiring, and down the road scrap metal. It’s these juxtapositions that make it vibrant yet affordable, and coupled with its history and culture it feels like a truly interesting place to work as an artist.

There Seems To Be A Certain Kind Of Standardization In Asia That Often Stifles Creativity. Do You Feel Like That’s A Challenge You And Your Students Often Face?

As I said, the government in Hong Kong isn’t one to support the arts, and in teaching we focus a lot on concept, theory and development. As goes, our students must all complete a thesis, and one could say there is an element of standardization even in something like an arts program.

What really opens up the horizon, I think, is a focus on more hands-on exercises and practical workshops. I personally always try to emphasize to my students that you have to walk around and explore the materials yourself in order to really know your limits and know what you can do.

Beyond that I encourage my students to just go for it and do whatever it is that they’re thinking of. I truly believe that the process of trial and error is vital to the creation of something new. Even as I’m creating something a concept in my head will keep changing, and often times it’s the errors and mistakes that keep things looking good. It is only the process of doing’ that leads to creation.

Can You Discuss The Process Of Creation In Relation To Your Project For Shiseido?

Well, Shiseido came to us with the idea that they wanted to let their customers connect to their products through technology and emotion, even though those seem diametrically opposed.

They wanted to try and incorporate brainwave sensors, but right off the bat I could see that that wouldn’t work unless they were willing to invest in all the medical equipment required to analyze and manipulate the data properly. What they needed was a way to integrate emotional data with technology, and through much trial and error we began to investigate different means of reproducing bodily emotions, whether physically or virtually.

After a few rounds of ideation we settled upon the heartbeat stood out as a correlative means for the customer to associate their own emotions with a product, in this case lipstick.

Shiseido at the time had 16 shades of red lipstick, and they wanted to let the customer choose a shade that not only fit their skin tone, but reacted to their emotional response to color. We called this campaign “Meet Your First Red,” with the goal of helping customers find their perfect shade through their own rhythms. It fit not Shiseido's own systems for matching shades and skin tone, and provided a fruitful concept from which to design a pop-up store.

The next step was then to present the heartbeat in an experiential way that the customer could see and appreciate, and we created an organic wall with projection art that showed the real time heartbeat of the customer, and mapped their physical and emotional responses into different shades. The final output of the sensory apparatus rendered something like a painting for each customer, and attached a sample of the color the customer had reacted to.our real world.

What’s Been Your Most Challenging Project?

There are two projects that come to mind - the first a huge mechanical sculpture in Taiwan, and second an interactive project with a dance company.

The sculpture required the collaboration of a large team, combined with a rushed timeline, and wrapping something of that scale in just five days was no easy feat on purely logistical terms. I'll chalk that one up to the state of commercial world.

The second project was tough because I was working with a famous contemporary dancer while designing for an international audience. The piece required me to incorporate Chinese philosophy, specifically through the creation of a symbolic bamboo pole that also had to support the weight of the dancer while housing a reactive LED lighting system inside. What made it particularly challenging was the juxtaposition of technology and art while keeping the mind to the cultural gravity involved in such an undertaking. On the flip side, this is the exact reason why I love working in new media. I don't think I'd ever have the opportunity to cross so many boundaries in any other profession.

Would You Ever Consider Leaving Hong Kong For Someplace More International? If So, Where Would You Go?

I love being able to reach an international audience, however, like most people in Hong Kong, I stay because I want to make things better here, whether socially, politically or economically.

Hong Kong needs us all, and all of us who live here can do something small to try and change it bit by bit. The first person to help us in our studio was our cleaning maid, and once we started getting more orders we asked her if she had friends who could help us. It became a community for me, right where I had grown up, reminiscent of our family hand-manufacturing operations from back in the day. We found people in the community to help, and it felt like we were making a difference. If we could provide just one single opportunity for them, then maybe we’ve made a difference. I hope to keep making a difference in Hong Kong through my work in times to come.

Keith, we know how intense your schedule is so thank you for allowing us the interview. We are excited to see the seeds of change that you instill into asia’s new youth and the work that will emerge from it.

#DOEVERYTHING