Eddie is an artist, researcher and educator who splits his time between Malaysia and New Zealand. He has always been interested in the potential of new technologies to create experiences that engage audiences on a more personal level. What particularly interests him is how these mediums could be used to re-create experiences that allow viewers to explore forgotten or erased histories.

When he did his Masters in Computational Arts at  Goldsmiths University in London, he began experimenting with machine learning as a way to further explore the idea of absences and silences. He considers himself an ‘anamnesiologist’, taken from the Greek root word anamnesis—a concept of the recollection of a previous existence.

During his upbringing, ideas of karma, reincarnation, and fate were usually used in the framework of Chinese philosophy and culture. This concept of memory, recollection, and previous existence intrigued him, and how it relates to his family story and his diasporic background. 

 

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Eddie’s family story is one of entanglement with colonial history. His grandfather was a guerilla who fought the British government in the Malayan Emergency, and the colonial army killed him in 1950. His grandmother had to move to escape harassment as she raised his father and five other children.

His father grew up poor in the rubber plantations and experienced racism firsthand, getting sent to a juvenile detention centre at 16. He picked up a trade during his time there and moved his family to Kuala Lumpur to seek a better life. His mother was a housemaid at the luxurious homes of colonial officers and foreign bankers in the 50s and 60s. There she learned proper etiquette on how to serve the British officer-class. 

He grew up hearing stories about his family’s past, and these stories shaped his understanding of who he is and where he came from. Eddie believes that our memories from previous lives influence our present lives, and that we are all connected through our shared history.

This belief has been a source of strength for him and his artistic explorations as it has helped him to make sense of his own experiences of displacement. 

How did the idea of Portrait of the Jungle People come about? 

My earliest memory of my grandparents was during the Ching Ming festival. It was then that I learned about the empty tomb on my grandfather’s side. I heard an anecdote about how the portrait on the gravestone could be wrong. Nobody seemed to know or care what he looked like because he had left his wife and young family and ‘entered the jungle’ to become a Communist guerrilla during the Malayan Emergency.

The figure of my grandfather remains an enigma for me, as the empty cemetery plot represents the forced disappearance of my grandfather from the world and from the collective memories of his closest relatives. 

This memory of a family tree with severed roots haunted my practice. Only recently did I learn more about my grandfather’s role in the violent uprising in Malaya, and how my grandmother had survived the traumatic ordeal.

After learning of my grandfather’s past, I created an installation, The Unknown Person (2019), to speculate what the machine of the future would see in an unknown person. That project was about interrogating the surveillance apparatus of the empire, and how it has the potential to make a revolutionary subject disappear from the records.

In Portrait of The Jungle People, I try to invent new records that embrace the slipperiness of memory and construct new ways of inheriting its myths. It got me thinking about the destabilising nature of the individual in service of the greater collective struggle. It also made me reflect on the Malay Emergency and the colonising power of Great Britain that has shaped the distinctive myths, identities and memories of Chinese culture in Malaysia.

How long did it take you to complete the piece/ video? 

This piece took me about six months to create. I started with sketching and mapping out the connection of the story, one fragment at a time. Then I quickly began scouring the digital archives, reading about the histories of the Malayan Emergency conflict and unearthing first-person accounts of who my grandfather might be.

I interviewed friends and family, and collated audio recordings, videos and notes on his involvement in the communist rebellion. That aspect of research took around three months, but by that time I had already spent months thinking about this story and writing up an outline of how it would be told.

Then, I  built a library of sentences and phrases to be transformed into a prompt that the AI model can understand, generating any images it could imagine. During this time, I was accumulating art styles and visual references to use for prompt references.

It was an unnatural way of working because  it’s not so much that I was manipulating the program to satisfy my vision but rather allowing the machine generated visuals to guide me on how this story could evolve. Once I got some of the core prompts of the narrative in place, the generation of visuals really picked up speed. 

Besides that, I spent a lot of time daydreaming by actually being in nature, conducting field recordings of ambient sounds and trying to get into the spirit of ‘being in the jungle’. But mostly, the process demands long hours of learning, curating, experimenting with the technology,  instigating the model to conjure up surprising outputs. And failing a lot! 

You said that you’ve contacted old family relatives that came from the same village and the same colonial rubber plantations where his grandparents began their life in Malaya, have they seen the entire 15 minute piece yet? What did they think of it?

Unfortunately, they haven’t had the chance to see the film yet. I hope to bring the film to Tangkak, Johor, where my grandparents began their lives in the plantations. I’m toying with the idea of perhaps there’s a way to build screen installations at the rubber estates and new villages itself as a way to interact with the ‘spirit of the place’ and continue the conversation with the villagers.

Incidentally, the British had mobile cinema units that go around new villages and in the indigenous jungle settlements to show their propaganda films. It was one of their strategies to win the so-called hearts and minds. 

My mother, who stored the family history through memories of chats with my grandmother, saw the film and was visibly moved to tears. She may not completely understand the medium, but she gets the core idea. A handful of other relatives have seen the video, too.

How do you define success as an artist?

There’s a lot of talk about the ‘Good Life’ and what that means. To have a good life, one must have a certain level of financial stability, good health, loving relationships and so on. But what does it mean to lead a good life and be a successful artist?

Is it about making beautiful things? Is it about pushing the envelope and taking risks? Is it about having your work shown in galleries and museums? Or being able to support yourself financially through your art?

I think success as an artist is multifaceted and can mean different things to different people – the curator, the writer, the buyer, and the general public all gauge an art piece in their own terms. There is no one-size-fits-all answer.

To me, success as an artist is not just about making money (although it’s not cool to be a ‘starving artist’; a sustainable income from art is crucial) or having my work shown in prestigious institutions. It’s also about using my art as a tool for social change, for creating empathy and understanding, for starting important conversations, and for connecting with people on a deeper level.

But most importantly, I think an artist’s success is defined by their ability to problematise their position within society and the art world. I think the role of an artist can be to the status quo what spies are to the enemy; they can see the system from within and subvert it from within. And in doing so, create space for others to do the same?

This reminds me of a quote that can be related to how I think about My art practice. “The question is not: is it true? But: does it work? What new thoughts make it possible to think?” (Brian Massumi, Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 3).

 

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In an interview, you’ve mentioned that you used a VQGAN +CLIP model—a text-to-image machine learning model that allowed you to translate the stories of the community into images through a selection of keywords or prompts. In your opinion, what does this mean to the world of art and how will technology impact how art is made?

To be precise, the technology I used in Jungle People was an AI image generating technique called CLIP-Guided Diffusion, a text-to-image machine learning model that allows me to translate the stories of the community into images through a selection of “text inputs” or prompts.

CLIP is a neural network that labels images, and diffusion is a mathematical process that removes noise from an image. When used together, CLIP can guide the diffusion process to create an image that closely resembles a text description. The basic idea is that of digitally painting but with concepts, a storytelling process through human-machine sense making.

I think the proliferation of natural language processing like GPT3 and text to image generative models (Dalle-2, Midjourney foundation models) and the increasingly larger datasets is certainly a game changer.

They affect how we think visually, our linguistic structures, and how we pass on information online. It’s hard to predict what will happen because technology advances exponentially. I don’t take a utopia view on this transformation, but as an opportunity to embrace it as a tool for art making.

We have access to incredible tools, but we must remain critical of the technology that controls us. Current AI models are a black box to the public; as an artist without a technical background, I can’t poke around in the insides of this black box, but I should still attempt to interface with the technology and engage with it critically.

Most of the AI models that are available now can change the world for better or worse. I’m conscious that I need to use technologies in a poetic, provocative, and artistic way to bring hope during dark times characterised by division, oppression, and environmental instability.

 

PHOTOGRAPHY BY SAUFI NADZRI; ART DIRECTION BY JOYCE LIM; GROOMING BY ERANTHE LOO; LOCATION COURTESY OF ILHAM GALLERY

written by.
Melissa Foong
Writer
Born and raised in the beautiful city of Kuala Lumpur, Melissa is a writer that hopes to offer a fresh female perspective on the world of men's luxury fashion. When she's not busy chasing deadlines, you can find her tucked in a blanket rereading her favourite series of fantasy novels, Harry Potter.

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