BMO Financial Group has announced the winners of its 18th annual BMO 1st Art! competition celebrating outstanding achievements in visual arts among undergraduate artists from coast to coast.
The award recipients will receive cash prizes of $15,000 for the national award and $7,500 for each regional winner, spanning Canada’s diverse provinces and territories.
Tian Cao was named Ontario’s regional winner for her original work entitled 2020 Surfing the Internet. Learn more about Cao and her winning piece as she takes part in my 5 Questions With… series.
HM: Congratulations on winning the Regional Award at the BMO 1st Art! competition for Ontario! Before discussing the award, could you please introduce yourself… For instance, how did you decide to focus on art and animation?
Tian Cao (TC): I came to Canada four years ago, before that, I was living in a city in the central part of China. I’ve learnt art since I was a kid, from drawing to paintings, and then painting on a computer with a tablet by interest, so in the previous 20 years, I never thought about doing anything other than that. Well, I also never thought [that] I would be a pure artist; in the meantime, I always believe [sic] I will work in the industry, either film or game.
Later, the study in OCAD made me start to enjoy the art creation, my program is very integrated, the animation is just a part of it, I’m more into the digital content that involved in my courses. Art creation for me is very different from the work of game developing (I’m a technical artist in a game studio currently), the former one is very pure expression, I can make anything I want to convey my observation and thoughts, while the latter one is more about solving problems and completing requirements for the team. I love both and my ideal future practice would be to use techniques that I learn from work to create artworks.
HM: Your submission for the BMO 1st Art! competition, 2020 Surfing the Internet, was inspired by your own observation of ‘poor images’ on the internet, like static memes, low-resolution short videos, manipulated self-images, and so on. Can you tell me more about what themes you are exploring in your interactive 3D project?
TC: Well, the project was motivated by a very early observation that I found young people in the Chinese internet started to fascinating [sic] about the low-resolution fuzzy meme stickers, this retro phenomenon makes me start to think critically about why this happens and how these images influence us. That is the prototype of this project. The ‘poor image’ concept originally comes from Hito Steyerl, and I think it derived and expanded a lot in this crazy internet era, as we’ve had so many different ways of sharing and so many different formats of the images/videos, we started to be reshaped by those overwhelming information.
Some of them are positive… The popularization of smartphones, 4G networks, affordable rise broadband prices, and the short video platform together provided ordinary people with opportunities to output cultures to change their lives and enrich the conversation that happened on the internet, which even brings them stream and money. That is one of the important features, ‘accessibility’ of the poor images.
I also talked about the negative side of ‘poor images’… The internet technically expands the way of consumption, and we are currently overwhelmed by the high resolution and visually sophisticated commercial images, although they are rich in pixels, the contents and spirits of them are poor and boring; they are promoting single and standard value towards especially beauty. When the value is deeply rooted in, consumers become as culture curators, they start to create this kind of image, such as manipulated selfies.
As a multi-cultural international student, ‘surfing’ in the bilingual environment of the internet, and usually feel the culture of each side is contrast and conflict, which is shown in the part of the merged hilarious virus video clips with Queen’s song [Don’t Stop Me Now]. In the Chinese context, Queen’s song represents the high end, western culture, while the virus videos I collected are native, ridiculous and even vulgar, these two are so incompatible, but I edited to make them correspond somehow, that is just like my internet experience as a bilingual.
HM: I understand you created 2020 Surfing the Internet by using the game engine Unity. How did this engine help you decide on the ‘retro’ look for the project?
TC: I use game engines very often in my daily work, the two main are Unity and Unreal Engine. Unreal Engine gives you a complete feeling when you start a new project — it places the skybox, the light, the reflection capture cube already to make a well-rendered realistic scene, while Unity is not, it gives you an empty, raw scene and you need to add those assets to make it looks ‘sophisticated’, apparently, I don’t need a sophisticated effect. Also, Unity is a very early product that many old games I played when I was a kid developed by using it, I have special emotions with this engine, just like the Windows98 operation system, a nostalgia feeling.
HM: How do you envision people interacting with 2020 Surfing the Internet… Are there different levels or experiences since it is [suppsed to be] 3D?
TC: This project was designed to be presented in a physical space originally, it should be in a space with a widescreen TV, a PC case, a mouse and a keyboard. People go into it, involved by the space and play. However, we know the COVID-19 changed everything, the project is only able to present in a virtual way. So in late March, I was trying to find an alternative solution, I built a website of this project and put the download link on it, just like those old offline games can download from web pages.
The aesthetic of this project is a vaporwave style. When we talk about vaporwave aesthetic, we think of the iconic retro Windows98 operation system, and those varicolored images such as Greco-Roman statues, 3D classic font texts, distorted liquid, 3D rendered objects, glitch arts, etc. All of them are so iconic elements that could suddenly lead viewers to think of the world wide web, and visually attractive, therefore 3D format would express that in obvious advantages compared to just flat 2D work no matter time-based or not.
HM: Now that you have created 2020 Surfing the Internet, will the public have access to it online?
TC: Well, this game was built for displaying in a physical space, so I didn’t write and design it on a WebGL platform, besides there are lots of video assets in it, it is too bulky and expensive for a web browser to run.
Although the whole project is about the internet and various virtual things, I still insist that art needs public physical space. A public space can bring more conversation into it, while online things often happen in personal and private space. Although today’s technology is trying to make people closer in the virtual world, I still think that’s not enough, I believe a physical space could give more impressive and participatory experience about artworks. So hope the COVID-19 will pass soon!
I agree with Cao wholeheartedly, in that experiencing art – any kind of art – in a large physical space makes it more meaningful to some extent. Since we are still living through the COVID-19 pandemic and for the safety of its artists and patrons, BMO 1st Art! is taking its annual gallery exhibition virtual. Hosted by the Art Museum at the University of Toronto on their Virtual Art Museum site artmuseum.utoronto.ca, the exhibition will showcase all 13 winning works from September 15 to October 16, 2020. Be sure to explore the entire exhibition to find out more about Cao, see her video, and the winning works from the other BMO 1st Art! winners.