Daisy Bisenieks and Royce Ng settled down on Lantau Island in 2013 and established themselves as the Zheng Mahler collective in 2015. Their multimedia, cross-disciplinary, research-based practice mainly investigates the history of Asian commercial relations, trade routes and systems of power from economic, geopolitical, social and cultural perspectives. Recently, with their research about virtual reality and computational theories of mind, they focus on the possibility of human beings embracing non-human experiences and expanding their cognitive abilities.
Caroline Ha Thuc: Neither of you are from Hong Kong but the city, as a trading hub but also a unique ecosystem, is at the core of your practice. Royce Ng: I was born in Australia but my parents come from Hong Kong. Daisy is Australian with an Eastern European background and we met in Melbourne in 2005. We decided to move to Hong Kong as a starting point to working on a commissioned project for the Johann Jacobs Museum in Zurich about the economic relationships between Asia and Africa. We were asked to explore this topic given our background interests and experience: Daisy’s graduating thesis led her to do fieldwork in Kenya among artisans, entrepreneurs and inventors, and my mother’s family were Chinese immigrants who settled in Mozambique in the 19th century and were there until the 1970s and the decolonisation and independence of the country, so we were very excited about this comparative approach.
For this long-term project, we felt that Hong Kong could be a good location, as an important trading hub between the two continents. For the first part, A Season in Shell (2013-16),we chose to focus on one important nexus point of cross-cultural trade, Chungking Mansions. Through our research process, we discovered the trade in pink abalone taking place between Somalia and Hong Kong, where dried abalone are sold to local restaurants. At the same time, we investigated the trade in surplus empty abalone shells, which made their way to Chinese factories, where they are polished and sent to Switzerland, where they are used on the dials of luxury watches.
You work under the collective name Zheng Mahler: what does it mean? Daisy Bisenieks: The name arose out of needing to create a nom de plume for a sensitive meeting we needed to conduct during our research. As we worked closely with Somali traders who were engaged in the shadow economies of low-end globalisation, we wanted to add a layer of protection, a shell of sorts, as a smokescreen between ourselves, our informants and the work they were engaged in. “Zheng” refers to one part of Royce’s Chinese name, which transliterated into English is “Hong Sheng”, as well as a reference to a Chinese Muslim eunuch admiral during the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He, a notable figure in historical trade expeditions between China and parts of East Africa, what is now Somalia and Kenya. “Mahler” has an interesting history as well, as it refers to my Latvian great-grandmother’s suspected Jewish maiden name, which she changed to protect herself during World War Two; by using it, we felt we could re-empower it to provide me with a protective coating. We like the idea of encountering people who think Zheng Mahler is one person, some Chinese-German guy: it expresses a degree of ambiguity between fiction and fact, which is very much what our work is about.
CHT: The research component of your practice is paramount. What is your work methodology? RN: Daisy is trained as an anthropologist, and she applies rigorous ethnographic methodology to her research process. This is sometimes frustrating because she sometimes must leave aside some more emotional, personal or sensorially important aspects of her fieldwork. Working as an artist is a way for her to experiment with and materialise these parts of her research in a more expansive way, as well as having the research reach wider audiences with less didactic approaches. As for me, I studied art history and anthropology at an undergraduate level before studying fine arts, and I guess it still informs my approach to research and the articulation of my thoughts. I need to build arguments for the artworks I am producing, and I feel satisfied only when they are well structured. Yet I am not as systematic as Daisy, so I feel we complement each other.
CHT: Through this combination of academic and artistic research, do you aim to produce a form of knowledge? RN: Yes, absolutely. Brian Eno said that he saw art as a system of knowledge and I agree, although we might produce another form of knowledge which is not academic. We are used to separating makers from thinkers, but we’re interested in that bridge. I am currently a PhD student in Dr Alvaro Cassinelli’s Augmented Materiality Lab at the School of Creative Media [at City University of Hong Kong] as well. My academic research is different from my artistic practice, yet I am sure it will inform it at some point.
CHT: I guess that the challenge for artists engaged in research is how to transform your research outcome into a work of art that isn’t just an illustration of your findings. DB: Indeed. We approach research like scaffolding or architecture. It’s also a form of design: we build it until we feel we can just leap off and embrace the chaos of creativity. For A Season In Shell, for instance, we did not provide any map but chose to embody our research through the creation of certain relations as well as conjuring the physical presence of two metric tons of abalone shells that we collaboratively imported through the route we had investigated, and that were temporarily displayed like a mountain in the gallery space. This gesture offered a strong contrast between these smelly raw products, living sea creatures living quietly in the Red Sea that passed through the working hands of fishermen, traders and transporters; museum visitors [stealing] them; and the sophisticated field of jewellers and Swiss watchmakers. For the museum as an institution and for visitors, it was a very visceral and unsettling reminder of how we are implicated in global supply chains – of life, death, toil, hardship and labour that we are all removed from in one way or another.
CHT: Yet you kept some elements of this scaffolding: there is always a large part of documentation in your work or a verbal dimension that expresses your research findings. RN: Documentation presents an interesting chance to experiment with design and communication. The challenge becomes: how do we convey all this fascinating research in an interesting way that ignites an audience’s curiosity rather than communicating some dry data? Actually, this is where we find we can play with the data and include more fictive elements as a framework. So for example, besides the short video in A Season in Shell, Daisy also produced a 10-part poem that wove together multiple narratives playing out during the research process – the life cycle and the trade biography of the abalone, the migration story of our collaborator, the working relationship we had together – which we found mirrored each other in their dramas at certain times, and which ultimately we found resonated closely with the French surrealist Arthur Rimbaud’s infamous poem A Season in Hell. This framework, we felt, presented to us the best way to convey and document this research.
CHT: In your presentation, you highlighted alienated labour: how do you reflect on that aspect of the trade, artistically? DB: What we initially found so interesting about this trade was that after our collaborator recognised the cultural value of abalone in the Asian region as being opposite to the low value ascribed to abalone as “cockroaches of the sea” in the Horn of Africa, he sought to set up a sustainable abalone farming business in some coastal communities in Somalia, helping to train divers using multi-translated Japanese ama diving manuals. It was key to bring attention to the many hands or spaces a trade product moves through as it travels along in this value-adding chain or process. And this is why we decided to implicate the museum in the very process – it very much joins the process by asking this exhibition to be staged. And for a museum audience to get a sense of this, they must also be implicated in the process, by being confronted with the smell of decaying flesh, a reminder of living creatures central to the trade, connected through this desire to touch the shell that’s passed through many working hands; and overwhelmed by their suffocating presence, which conjures feelings of a ships belly overladen with goods, or engorged bank vaults; and with shells strewn across an enormous banquet table, like the excessive detritus of some gluttonous feast, which together suddenly make trade look absurd, or at least our sensory connections with it. After the exhibition, we ended up grinding some shells into a powder and using it at a temporary studio we had in Jingdezhen, China, where it became the base of a porcelain glaze for numerous deconstructed, porcelain watch pieces for Mutual Aid (2016), as well as an extensive banquet tableware set for an iteration of A Season in Shell in Suzhou and Hong Kong.
CHT: For your most recent exhibitions, you displayed a series of Jingdezhen vases with enlarged, almost ghostly representations of minerals. DB: We were curious to follow the trade route, which led us to exploring the history of trade and production of Swiss watches and clocks, and inevitably [the west’s] trade relations with China, notably its link with porcelain. In short, during the 18th and 19th century, China was not interested in buying any European products and not willing to adopt new European technologies of that time. As a result, and because Europeans were so keen on porcelain, trade was unbalanced. This is how the Opium Wars began. However, there was one exception, which were Swiss clocks that the Kangxi Emperor during the Qing dynasty was collecting. For our second chapter, Mutual Aid, we delved into the parallel labour organisation between the traditional Swiss watch-producing villages in the Jura Mountains and early porcelain production in Jingdezhen, and looked at mutual influences between the two industries, including political legacies like mutual aid. Today, the region around Jingdezhen is also known for its extraction of rare earth elements, which in recent years have figured in developing trade wars. So for the third chapter, Mountains of Gold and Silver are not as Good as Mountains of Blue and Green (2020), we address this new dimension of the current trade war and the politics of power between China and the west, in which objects of trade of the past and present are engaged in a ghostly opera centred around a conversation among them, conspiring to break out of current modes of extraction and production, and speculating on creating new types of economies of care.
CHT: Last year, you exhibited a multimedia sculpture at Para Site that portrayed a local buffalo and was also an entry point for people to discover what it living like a buffalo could be like. Why this interest in this specific species? DB: When we arrived in Hong Kong almost 10 years ago, we were instantly drawn to living on Lantau Island because, among many other reasons, of the unique coexistence people had with free roaming cattle and water buffalo. I found these particular human-bovid relations an incredibly interesting case study for my master thesis in anthrozoology. Besides water buffaloes’ physical relationship with the land, through their wallowing and terraforming of abandoned farmland into viable wetlands, and how their constant movements favour the transportation of seeds and the growth of specific plants that help with water filtration, the marshy ground also become an important medium to aid with their communication and navigation. Buffaloes’ hooves can pick up a multitude of frequencies, while their hearing range, between 16 to 40,000Hz, enables them to locate or communicate with other herd members through their calls, which the valleys and plains of Lantau also assist with as they freely roam across vast spaces. For Bubalus bubalis 16 – 40,000Hz (2021), we recorded and turned visible the ultrasonic sounds they produce using two cymatic water speakers to visualise the frequencies humans cannot hear and to grasp a sensory perspective on the buffalo, functioning as a reminder of humans’ own often visual-centric perspectives. Visitors could also experience hearing as a buffalo might, with a binaural “buffalo ear” set up, made of two particularly positioned microphones. Overall, the aim was to decentralise a certain anthropocentricity of experiencing the world and our material relations by acknowledging our sensory limitations.
CHT: However, it seems that we will never be able to understand or feel what it’s like to be a buffalo or a bat. DB: Yes, but the empathetic imagination makes it fun and worthwhile, and even more so these days an important exercise to try while realising the futility and accepting the impossibility of never fully knowing. It’s an enterprise of kinship or kin-making with other creatures we share our spaces and world with.
RN: For decades now, scholars have been influenced by the work of Thomas Nagel, who wrote in 1974 a seminal article entitled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” He shows that, indeed, we might be unable to know what it is like to be a bat, and in particular what it is like to use echolocation and sound waves as a cognitive tool. However, with the recent development of embodied theories of the mind, we are thinking anew about consciousness: that consciousness, rather than emanating from the brain, might be an emergent phenomenon of our bodies’ complex and interdependent interaction with its environment. Now, thanks to virtual reality, your body is able to feel what is virtual and, perhaps, it could also learn different skills. In turn, that would expand our brain and cognitive possibilities, including feeling what it is like to be more than human. At this stage, we are interested in finding the threshold that limits our ability to experience life just like bats. This is the long-term project we are working on. Just like for the buffaloes, we are observing bats over a long period of time living in our neighborhood. The project will unfold over four phases that began with a short text and a field survey, and will end with a multisensory exhibition including a VR or AR experience.
CHT: This idea of using virtual reality to explore the possibilities of expanding our physical cognitive experiences and multiplying our presence is also at the core of your recent work. RN: I am exploring the possibilities of a teleportation of our physical presence, something I have just experimented with in my performance Presence (2021): while I was still in Hong Kong, I tried to give people in Europe the collective impression that I was on stage with them. It became a question of: how can I stimulate the very specific relationships that connect the audience and a performer? What is the minimal threshold of presence that I can conjure by simulating my face and my voice using various technologies? How much can I feel present before a crowded theatre in Europe while I sit in a hotel room in Hong Kong surrounded by laptop screens, controlling my avatar via a keyboard?
CHT: In parallel, you are also addressing the development of artificial intelligence from a more satirical perspective with The Master of Algorithm (2019), a holographic projection of a newsreader synthesised from a human being. RN: This installation belongs to our investigation of the relationships between Europe and Asia that I already mentioned. With this work, we show that China is not eager to follow these historical experiences and be left behind during the fourth industrial revolution. As a result, the country embraces new technologies in order to take the lead in that emerging field. During his new year’s eve speech [in 2018], which was scrupulously staged, President Xi had several books in his bookshelf, including The Master of AlgorithmbyPedro Domingos, a 2015 treatise on machine learning. We combined different stories about this fourth revolution that are narrated through computer-generated voices. The piece was produced at the beginning of the US trade war with China, so the premise of it is: what if technology in the east and west evolves divergently and exponentially as a result? What sociopolitical scenarios would emerge from this? At the same time, we are using a low-tech holographic design as a reference for the cyberpunk aesthetic that we found in Shenzhen, so the commentary is somewhat ironic.
CHT: There seems to be always irony in your choice of title: Mutual Aid for a form of capitalist trade involving inequalities, A Season In Shell in reference to Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell, The Master Algorithm for a critique of AI fantasy. Should viewers also take humour from your work? DB: We really like to play with the language involved with each work. Often it’s a way to temper the more weighty content, which can be intense at times. Comedy functions as a great pressure valve.
RN: Sometimes whether we are being serious or funny in what we’re doing becomes indistinguishable. At the same time, to present or perform something which is clearly ridiculous in a dry, deadly serious manner makes the work even funnier for us. For example, the buffalo work involved us hiking around the wetlands of Lantau carrying huge 3D printed buffalo ears on a binaural microphone, often connected to a camera and mimicking the physicality or gait of a buffalo – and we would have looked mad to anyone passing by.