“Unsettling Light” – Research in the Arts


I am a practice-based researcher. My practice and research is concentrating on New Media Art, especially in interactive media art that employ creative technologies to produces an artistic environment where the audience can be part of the work. Light is the main medium in my previous works. The following images are two examples; the left image is a large-scale interactive light installation that read participants’ heartbeat then drove animations across a hypercube that include over 8000 LEDs. The right image is an inter-media installation that used three nature elements – the light, water, and wind to investigate the topic of sensory overload.

This paper is an in-progress exploration of the methodologies and methods of my practice-based research, based on my retrospective practice works as well as the blueprint for my Ph.D. program in the next few years. This paper will gradually cover the following questions:

  • How I define myself as a practice-based researcher in the context of research-creation?
  • How to frame the methodologies of my research-creation?
  • How am I employ approaches to apply the methodologies in my own field?

I argue that I am using a methodology based on the tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Currently, this is appearing in my research as an investigation of Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of “Flow”[1] as the familiar and Heidegger’s concept of “Angst”[2] as the unfamiliar. This also plays out in the experience of the artworks I make, which aim to create an interactive experience where audiences also move between familiar and unfamiliar. I employ a practice-based research methodology, which is best aligned with Marlene MacCallum’s idea of “research-creation as linear-yet-circular and ongoing process.”[3] For me, this ongoing process is during the creation stage, I work back and forth between familiar and unfamiliar. I argue that as a practice-based researcher, I have the privilege to articulate where my work and research comes from, the ideas of the work does not come from anywhere/nowhere, it is grounded in specific choices, research and methods. At the same time, I think it is important to acknowledge that there are unspoken/unwritten qualities in my work, including embodied experiences, emotions, visual perception and the unknown quality of participants interacting with the work. That is the reason why – my final present of the program must be an exhibition rather than a thesis. The only way to receive the message from the work is to experience them.


A methodology is a justification and principles supporting a set of methods. In other disciplines this would be a peer reviewed set of processes for research design. In my interactive art practice, this means balancing developing my own unique artistic system (different to other disciplines where they have general, formal rules,) and also thinking about broader ways of living and how they interact with my art practice. My methodology has been developed through a combination of influences, models, ideas, theorists, artists[4]. In my work, I explore the tension between familiar and unfamiliar during all the stages of the art process. This is a paradoxical combination inside the research-creation context. My motivation for making creative art practice is the desire to create an artistic environment where people can experience Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of “Flow”[5] and Heidegger’s notion of “Angst.”[6] “Flow” is a fully engagement in an activity that ignores outside judgement with a lack of ego and no sense of time. I am using the notion of “Flow” to mean a comfortable status that people hold a sense of control in their own hands and do not fear the unknown; a status being in home. I am also employing Heidegger’s idea of “Angst” to mean anxiety, fear of unknown, uncomfortable zone, a status like not at home, but in Heidegger’s perspective, angst is not a totally negative feeling, rather, it is a place where even though people is facing unfamiliar environment but it is where people can feel “exist” in the world or “being” in the world. I argue that the artistic approaches, especially new media art, is the best way to produce this potentially “enlightening experience situation”.[7] As new media art can fully evoke five sense to achieve the unfamiliar experience during the interactive process. David Rokeby points out that interactive artworks could provide a “Navigable Structure,”[8] where the experiencing process for the audience is a self-orientated process from unfamiliar to familiar. In relation to my field of study, this methodology consists of four distinct aspects and ties into the literature: (1) Control – the tension of control and loosening control in relation to the participatory, which is linked to the notion of interactivity[9]. In his book “Aesthetics of Interaction in Digital Art”, Katja Kwastek points out that “Actors, the artist, the assistant, the recipient, and the technical system”[10] are the five main actors and parameters found in interactive media art. The collaboration relationship between artists, art assistant, factory worker, all different participants that ties to the work and affect its development. (2) Coding and Decoding – the nature of mixed disciplines that require the artist-researcher to explore the unfamiliar area and translate it into familiar understanding, this is what David Rokeby describes “…a process of refraction… in which the source and the translated result are put into dialog.”[11] (3) Spatiality – in new media art/performance – the works are not any more just in the white/black box,[12] but also in public space in the society. In my artwork, the spatiality is a significance aspect influence the internal and external of the artwork. I explore Anthony McCall calls being “site-sensitive”[13] to investigate how the fluidity and fixed qualities of site affect the present of the new media art works. Also, the ideas of the fixed site and the mobile site from Fiona Wilkie[14],  and Miwon Kwon[15] declared that as the container of the artwork, the history of the site brings in the richness meaning to the art work. (4) Endlessness – one of the natures of new media artwork is non-linear-time based but process based and without a certain endpoint, the audience is the collaborator and participant. By evolving familiar or unfamiliar activities in the artistic process, they can enjoy or be immersed in the freedom of exploration that could lead to new perspectives and gain new experiences and new understandings. In this sense, audience participation make the meaning of the work complete.


There are three main methods for applying my practice-based research.

First, exploring the boundaries of technology, art, and nature. I am using what Zheng Da calls “Low-tech”[16] to define the technologies include various hardware, software, tools and platforms that I am employed in my new media artworks. This term is relatively compare with what has been called high-tech, for me, high-tech is specifically means the most advanced technologies that being used in military, aeronautics or other similar area that focus on the accuracy, analysis, calculation aspects of the technology, while low-tech are the technologies that have been generally used in the industry. It also indicates the nature of DIY and MAKER methods for working across disciplines.

Second, gathering knowledge from unlikely places, including informal and formal knowledges. Marquard Smith argues the possibility of “research itself as a subject of critical concern,” which distinguished the boundary between formal and informal knowledge, and the possibility that experience-based informal knowledge can be transformed into formal knowledge, by observing, doing, assuming and proving. I consider both daily activities (Communication – chatting with people who are working in an unfamiliar area/unfamiliar generation/unfamiliar culture background; Exploration – Unfamiliar ways/paths/places) and formal academic education paradigms are all my sources to learn new knowledge. For me, I am always on my way from unfamiliar to familiar of new knowledge. In a sense, new knowledge plays a role as constantly stimulate creatively input in my art practice, and this transforming process is also where I link the way of my living and my research-creation together and interact with each other.

Third, the living nature of dissemination. For new media art, the documentation and dissemination plays an important role than other types of art, as new media art normally has a process of construction and take down. Forms of dissemination become a framework to continue examining the creative activities. For my interactive practice as well as practice-based research, it is also a way to involve the community in the conversation by create living platforms, such as website, forums.

To sum up the approaches I employed to apply my methodologies. I exploring and experimenting the relatively advanced technology (but still in the context of low-tech) that is rapidly developing by science. For me, not necessarily becoming proficient in the technology but knowing enough that I could grab or steal ideas from that unfamiliar field and then incorporate them into the art creation. In this sense, the unfamiliar technology/knowledge and the familiar art transcoding process intertwined together, shaping the unique character of the artwork.

Two examples of the work: Getting lost in all destinations, and Unsettling light; these are two projects that I just started proposed and experiment. These two projects both presented my methodology – the tension between familiar and unfamiliar. Getting lost in all destination is to encourage newcomers to actively explore the city by embrace the risk of getting lost in it. By actively explore the unfamiliar space and environment to knowing more about it, then the individual could gain a sense of belonging and accessibility of the city. This is also a process that individuals increasingly lost their ability to get lost, a process from unfamiliar to familiar.

The second project is trying to explore the topic of site-specific and the spatiality of art and performance. In this work, I am using a theatre where has its own meaning, it is a place where people-centered, audience come to the site with the expectation of seeing a people acting performance, and all the action and emotion within that space in some senses could be legitimized – scream, kill. For me, I want to explore the other side of the site, where there is no people acting, but all the instruments living in that space – the machines present a performance. This project is trying to explore the unfamiliar functioning of the site, where it is not knowledge in a usual or normal way.

Conclusion and Discussion of My Ideas for my Graduating Exhibition

My methodology is based on the tension between the familiar and the unfamiliar. This is anongoing process that actively explore unfamiliar in practice, research, and life, embrace the potential risk of failure. It also provides a joyful flow status where people can have the freedom immersed in artistic environment. As a practice-based researcher, I combine conceptual and abstract ideas within the work, highlights that the nature of understanding the research is through doing to knowing; trying to use verbal or written words to articulate the aesthetic aspect of the nature of the work will always deduct the meaning of the work.

I will conclude this paper by talking about my plans for graduation. For the final exhibition, as a practice-based researcher, I positioned myself not only being the artist of the show, but also as a role of co-curator of the show, I will bring out the concept and theoretical support of the exhibition from my side, and involve all stage of the exhibition, in a word, I see the exhibition, not as a place that is a collection of the works, but the exhibition itself, will be a work. Using the same method of making artwork to present the exhibition.

Daydreaming of graduating exhibition, say 2 years later, those are all my goals, and I don’t know how it will work out or will never work out, but here are my thoughts, I will have two same exhibitions that one happens in Canada and one happens in China.

1. Works are everything, but it works with every other things.

I think it is an exhibition that conducted all the works that I have been experimenting during my Ph.D. program. But I do not frame this exhibition as a university context exhibition, it is an exhibition that the artworks will be the main production, the process of how it growing which means the practice process, trying the process, making process and the theoretical support will be provided by me. These will be a side aspect of the exhibition, but necessary. I would consider all the space that I am going to be used as a pixel, the final outcomes-how the audience see everything in the space will be thoughtfully designed. (space design, audience path design, lighting design, graphics design)

2. Pixel Design

Time and space, online and offline, national and international, individual and community, all these aspects conbined this complicated contemperary digital era world, as well as the interwined aspects of my practice. I would consider all of the elements as part of the exhibition, which I using the unit “Pixel” (the smallest unit of screen-based platform) to design the whole exhibition.

3. Sponsor

Funding – I will be apply the SSHRC scholarship and China Government Scholarship for supportting the following stages of my program.

Commission – I am seeking sponsors from outside the university or government institution (like commercial company or art foundation) which is interested in collabrate of commission project.

4. Collaboration

I am hoping to be able to collaborate with Low Tech Art Lab in China. I also plan to attend competition that hold by Art Museum or Art Foundation to gain the opportunity to have the solo exhibition.


[1] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life.” Basic Books, (1997).

[2] Martin Heidegger, “Being and time. 1927.” Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper (1962).

[3] Risa Horowitz, “Introduction: As if from nowhere… artists’ thoughts about research-creation.” RACAR: Revue d’art canadienne/Canadian Art Review 39, no. 1 (2014): 25-27.

[4] These artists are influencing and inspiring me and my practice: Olafur Eliasson, James Turrell, Kimchi and Chips, Bill Viola, Anthony McCall, Zheng Da, Golan Levin, Joanie Lemercier, Ryoichi Kurokawa, Aaajiao, David Rokeby, etc.

[5] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life.” Basic Books, (1997).

[6] Martin Heidegger, “Being and time. 1927.” Trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper (1962).

[7] James Magrini, “”Anxiety” in Heidegger’s Being and Time: The Harbinger of Authenticity” (2006), 77.

[8] David Rokeby, “Transforming Mirrors: Subjectivity and Control in Interactive Media.” Critical Issues in Electronic Media, (1995).

[9] New media artists David Rokeby and Scott Snibbe’s idea and their artworks of interactivity.

[10] Kwastek, Katja. “Aesthetics of interaction in digital art”. MIT Press, (2013): 89-99.

[11] David Rokeby, “Challenges in the Intermodal Translation of Art” (2011).

[12] The white box refers to gallery or museum; the black box refers to the theatre.

[13] Interview with Anthony McCall.

[14] Fiona Wilkie, “Site-specific performance and the mobility turn.” Contemporary Theatre Review 22, no. 2 (2012): 203-212.

[15] Miwon Kwon, “One place after another: Notes on site specificity.” October 80 (1997): 85-110.

[16] Zheng Da, Lin Xin “Low-Tech Art Project + Zheng Da”, Wuhan University of Technology Press, 2014.


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