For Rosalie Yu, the enclosing feeling of a hug was something she wanted to digitize. The Taipei-born artist utilizes photography techniques—and in particular, the practice of photogrammetry or 3D photographic scanning—to probe interpersonal relationships and create participatory experiences. While her work takes on myriad forms—from collaborative workshops, to resin sculptures, to data visualization—the core of her practice is documenting our interactions with tech and each other to work towards justice. And it’s all about doing this together.
We spoke with Rosalie about sustaining digital communities, the collaborative process that is photogrammetry, and the importance of quiet.
Can you tell me more about your childhood in Taipei? Was there something particular about that city that compelled you to do something creative with your life?
I lived close by a high speed overpass and large hospital. The part of Taipei I grew up in is pretty noisy, but I was raised in a household that was pretty quiet. There was a lot of empty space, verbally and physically. I think that informed a lot of why I’m drawn to interpersonal experience and physical intimacy—especially the platonic ones between friends and between families, and how different cultures feel them differently.
When I say ‘quiet,’ I speak of the interpersonal relationships between my family members. I always feel like language in general failed me in a lot of ways, even in Mandarin.
Would you say that film was a language that felt more native to you? What drew you to study that at the undergraduate level?
At first, I wanted to get as far away from fine art as possible. The arts program of the Taiwanese educational system gave me a very rigorous technical training, but at the time I was studying there, creative work wasn’t taken as seriously.
I had the opportunity to come to the United States and studied at UCLA for undergrad. I recognized the contrast in culture and language—seeing how different I am from everyone else and how to navigate that. That experience is unlike the experience of someone who migrated at a younger age.
For grad school, I attended NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) program. I started to think about how cross-cultural concepts shape our understanding of certain topics. I was especially interested in bodies and physical intimacy. ITP emphasized cultivating a creative community. The program director, Dan O’Sullivan, once said something like, “English might not be everyone’s first language, so speak slowly and listen intently.” I’ve been thinking about how brave it is to speak and write in plain English, and how to appreciate the beauty of broken language.
Was there a specific moment during ITP where you knew you wanted to work within this framework of participatory practice, photogrammetry, and intimacy?
It was gradual. I was always interested in photography as a way of making visuals, which led me to the technique of photogrammetry. It is a way of 3D scanning where you take photos from multiple perspectives and you’re able to turn it into a 3D model.
I became interested in photogrammetry because it offered a way for a lot of people to do something together. Conceptually, I was exploring platonic intimacy between strangers, between friends. I turned this idea into a workshop where people could learn how to create a safe space together. I wanted to explore how we could leverage the mechanics of photogrammetry to do something together.
This exploration of embrace through photogrammetry lay the foundation for your workshop and project Knowing Together. Could you talk about how that project came to fruition?
At the time, I was thinking about how an embrace can have this monstrous feeling—it feels like it’s taking forever. There’s this feeling of enclosure when someone embraces you. That was why I started to look at how photogrammetry could be a way to explore this. I wanted to explore how there are so many different ways to express movement in sculptural form—how can we apply what’s already established to photogrammetry?
I hosted a workshop with about 40 people. We first learned about how to give and receive attention from a complete stranger. The second part of the workshop was to embrace a complete stranger. Then, everyone would surround them. We all took turns with the camera, taking photos and then giving it to the next person. After the workshop, I stitched all those photos into a sculpture.
The length of embrace for two strangers depends on how long it takes for the camera to travel. Sometimes it will take 10 minutes, so you just have to imagine two strangers, not knowing each other, embrace each other for 10 minutes. The boundaries start to go away—not just the personal boundaries, but physically, you’re fatigued. And so a lot of things could happen.
Would you say that your process starts with a research question, or are you more interested in exploring the technology?
I do both; they come hand-in-hand. For example, the project I was just describing is a very iterative process. I try something over, but I think [my process is more about] setting up a perimeter to let a result come out. In other ways, it is similar to research-based art practice.
More recently, my practice has been more about planning and hosting workshops. I become the facilitator to create a situation or to create a space, to see how things evolve. I’m the person who designed the machine, but I don’t determine how things will turn out.
For Knowing Together, you facilitated a collective experience. This means that individuals involved will bring in their own subjectivities to the work. Have there been any surprises—moments of unexpectedness that have enriched your understanding of the project?
Once, there were these two men. They were embracing in the middle and then halfway, they let go. I always collect the photo image and I visualize how the camera travels in the end. When you look at the diagram, the right side of the model is empty. It’s an incomplete model; one side is broken.
I am trying to see how I can work with missing data, because I’m not as interested in creating photorealistic scans that replicate whatever we see in the real world. I’m more interested in involving people in the process and what we can create together. I want to be truthful to the process.
I spent a lot of time thinking, How can I print the model that’s broken? In the end, I chose to print in resin, and then I suspended thousands of cubes in the resin. With that material, I could print a model with a side that’s open, because that’s what happened during the embrace—they let go of the embrace of each other.
You’ve touched on the tension between process and product in your work. Do you see one as more important than the other?
When something is aesthetically pleasing, it is easy to draw people to become interested in the project. Then they can get to know about the process. That is an entry point for people. In that way, I think showing the result or making some object is effective.
For me, the process is the integral part of the project. That’s why for Knowing Together, I printed out all data sets—all the photos that people have taken and where they’re taken, what time they were taken, how long they took, and whoever took the photographs. I put all of them next to the sculptures. I want viewers to take each project as a whole so that they can understand what happened during the process.
For many artists working with technology, there’s this responsibility to have some transparency. In the art world, there’s an aura or mystique around the artist or artwork that people like—you don’t want to know anything; it just magically happened. It’s mysterious in its secrecy.
I’m trying to make sure that just to let people see or to hold participant’s hands to say, “This is what we’re going to do. How are we going to do it?” That’s so important.
Generally, what is the importance of a feminist lens in your overall research practice? Do you see a link between a feminist framework and one that centers embodied experience?
There is this emerging field of Data Feminism—a book just came out by Catherine D’Ignazio and Lauren Klein. When they talk about feminism, is not really about gender identity; it’s more about, How do we work toward justice? How do we address the needs of marginalized people?
When I work with technology, I think a lot about that. Even the process of scanning is the extraction of information from a world—it can be seen as very capitalistic. I am always thinking about using technology in a way that’s ‘feminist’—a way that’s just not about extracting information, but about elevating the emotional or embodied experience.
What draws you to participatory experiences? We spoke with the artist Salome Asega, who noted that participation de-centers the role of the artist. Do you think similarly?
I liked that—’de-centering.’ I think the mechanics of photogrammetry is a way to decenter the solitary photographer—there’s no center or singular point of view. It’s like a multiplicity of different perspectives.
I had a opportunity to lead a workshop at the Teachers College at Columbia University. That was a longer term commission; adapting Knowing Together as a workshop. They said, “We’re a school for teachers, so we want you to think about how technology could be used in the classroom. I want you to engage with the student and I want you to bring them back to see the result in the forum and exhibition.”
The process was elaborate, and a lot of people were involved. After the workshop, students were generous to write to me a long paragraph about how they felt during the workshop, what kind of change it brought to them.
That was beautiful, and that kind of process is very different from one involving me solely in the studio, or even working on a project with a person I know. Here, it was like I was opening up to people. Doing something collaborative means a lot of labor is involved. Every time I always feel so exhausted!
That makes me think of how so many so-called ‘results’ of a participatory experience are immaterial—because they’re interpersonal, emotional experiences.
Many people in my periphery have so much empathy and care in their work and are trying to create communities that focus on collaboration and knowledge-sharing. I’m very much inspired by artists who use teaching as a creative expression such as Taeyoon Choi, who started the School for Poetic Computation. I think it’s true that if you cannot find your own community, then the best way is to create one your own.
I have a subsequent virtual workshop called Photographic Knitting Club, that has a similar emotional, communal aspect to it. I wanted to reframe digitizing technology as a digital craft, and to highlight the manual labour in the technological process. How can we digitally knit together—use it as a way to create community? That made me think of knitting circles, but in this case, knitting images into a room.
I spent a lot of time unlearning and rethinking ways to describe how technology works—to make it more personal and tangible; more rooted in our experience. We tried instructions like, “walk around and use the camera to paint in details of the space,” “overlap each photo like stitching or fish scales,” or “imagine the room as a mixing bowl and scrape out details from the walls.”
Although we don’t share the same [physical] room, there is something intimate about sharing the same bodily movement and doing this in a space we know so much about. The photos participants capture are knitted together in photogrammetry, but I am less interested in the 3D replica. I use the data to visualize how people move in their own spaces, and turn it into data portraits taken in isolation.
You’re working on a project that riffs on a camera obscura. This feels like perhaps another iteration of bringing photography into the realm embodied experience…in that you’re literally creating a room that operates as a camera.
I’ve been working with my friend and collaborator, Charles Berret. We worked on Knowing Together, together [laughs]. During Photographic Knitting Club, we saw a lot of people’s space. We noticed a doubling and distorting of the space happens when there is a mirror presented in participant’s rooms.
Mirrors are a known glitch factor in 3D scanning—you know not to include something that’s reflective. Also, mirrors are essential in the camera body—to create a perfect reflection, you need a very nice mirror inside the camera.
What would happen if we purposely put a mirror into a controlled environment? A mirror is a great way to reveal the process of working with technology, to reveal the labor. Usually when you do scanning, the person who is taking the photographs, or is scanning the scene, is not present in the final model or image. With a mirror, the data collector can appear in the final model as a phantasm.
That speaks to Knowing Together. We are interested in the personal limit of the so-called mechanical objectivity. How can we use the mirror as a way to refuse and break the algorithm—to take it apart in order to peek into the black box?
So, we are going to build a room with a side full of mirrors and then to capture inside. We don’t know what will come out, but I’m excited.