Chong Yan Chuah combines machine learning, visual arts, and storytelling in this existential investigation

The Kuala-Lumpur-based digital artist blurs the line between physical and virtual realities. Here, he explains more about his identity-led approach to the digital scape.

13 May 2021


Machine learning, visual arts, the written word and storytelling merge together to inform Chong Yan Chuah’s latest project, FAC3D. A digital exploration led by the Malaysian digital artist, the project questions the idea of the digital self. It started out as an interactive exhibition at The Back Room in Kuala Lumpur, where the artist exhibited other recent bodies of work as well as a printed publication that reveals the nuances of the complex relationship between human identity and the virtual realm. Bringing together writings and interviews by both human and machine writers, the collaborative project also includes the work of Aahan Prakash, Bethany Edgoose, Ellen Lee, jo l, LALUNE, Mikhail Hilmi, Ong Kar Jin, Sebastian Tiew, Lim Sheau Yun, Skylar Ang, and Ubermorgen (Prof. Hans Bernhard & Prof. Lizvlx).

Chong’s work as a digital artist is highly influenced by his background in architecture. Born in Malacca and now living in the Malaysian capital, the artist’s practice is heavily based on world-building. Creating intriguing digital environments, he explores how digital identities are constructed and nurtured. The work is expressed through a number of hyper-real, meta video works as well as texts. In turn, the work questions what and how this universe of digital identities might exist. Chong tells It’s Nice That of his fascinating process: “I treat the digital space as a blank canvas, sketching and sculpting it slowly, adding one 3D element and another to my satisfaction.”

The artist uses digital platforms to “freely experiment on different configurations and landscapes as a form of escape.” In Untitled_N, specifically, a video work that completes a major part of the FAC3D exhibition, frozen silicon-style renders of bodies are bonded together in a kind of battery-powered, futuristic ship; set in the pouring rain of what looks like a grey floating sky. The camera traverses the computer-like bodies, revealing intriguing details which hint at Chong’s research into digital identities. “The experience of floating around inside this particular world is made to represent a journey towards becoming a digital self,” he adds.


Chong Yan Chuah: Untitled_D, 2021, Video installation, 20 min, loop, 10 Editions + 1 AP (Copyright © Chong Yan Chuah, 2021)

Working predominantly in the mediums of digital image and installation art, Chong’s work is positioned to intersect “virtual reality and simulated space, fictive narratives and imagined bodies.” He uses numbers and dimensions to build his unique fictional worlds and notably, “everything has a certain value and is quantifiable”. Leaning on his architectural background to realise these highly technical calculations and executions, Chong then similarly applies this mathematical logic to the way the lens moves in the video art; the zooming, scaling and multiplying are all pivotal to the artist’s structural vision.

“The iconography of this cosmos is likewise cryptic, with the prevalence of circles – in the form of round lights and metal studs,” adds Chong on the speculative details. “A private reference to new beginnings, while evidence of an idiosyncratic script is derived from a language created for a different project that also involved world-building; 27 Years of Lazarian Delights.” This project, as well as FAC3D, are seen by Chong as experimental exercises that he envisions in “a brave new world in the digital realm”.

Chong believes that “everyone has a journey in the digital world” and his work expresses this. By creating his environments, he challenges the perception towards the coexistence between a physical and digital self. Interested in automated learning processes based on datasets, Chong realises that OpenAI technology has developed “a certain strength in mirroring human beings down to the intangible aspects that shape them”, which includes qualities such as preference or taste. In turn, Chong questions the identity of these intelligent machines and the places they occupy throughout FAC3D and its various offshoots.

In one part of the work, for instance, he created three digital identities trained on Generative Pre-trained Transformer (a learning-based technology that enables the auto-generation of text). Then, each identity was fed a set of literary works, picked to match their fictional character which consequently affects their verbal expression. Blurring the lines of physical and virtual realities, Chong’s multifaceted works question the fundamentals of human nature and whether this can be authentically mirrored by digital entities. Reality is flipped, pulled apart and played with throughout Chong’s existential investigations. Combined with astounding aesthetics, this thoughtful artist is bound to make you think twice about who we are and what made us that way.

GalleryChong Yan Chuah: Untitled_D, 2021, Video installation, 20 min, loop, 10 Editions + 1 AP (Copyright © Chong Yan Chuah, 2021)

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Chong Yan Chuah: Untitled_D, 2021, Video installation, 20 min, loop, 10 Editions + 1 AP (Copyright © Chong Yan Chuah, 2021)

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor.

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