Literature has long inspired other art forms. Nineteenth-century painter Sir John Everett Millais famously depicted, on canvas, the tragic death of Shakespearean character Ophelia, in Hamlet , in his eponymous painting. Many of the longest running Broadway shows such as The Phantom of the Opera , Wicked and Les Miserables were all inspired by literary classics. In 2010, a “sculptural” book called Tree of Codes was published, created by bestselling American author Jonathan Safran Foer, who cut up his “favourite book” by Bruno Schulz, The Street of Crocodiles from 1934, and removed words from it to carve out a new story. Foer’s work was subsequently adopted by contemporary British choreographer Wayne McGregor to create an immersive, free-form balletic performance of the same name. Imagination and creativity beyond words Artists closer to home are also using new media to create powerful experiences. Hong Kong-based installation artist Tsang Kin-wah , whose work was exhibited at the 56th Venice Biennale, for instance, creates immersive video-based installations in which provocative words from philosophical texts snake around viewers from floor to ceiling. Other artists take a more abstract approach, such as Chinese artist Wang Yuyang , who converted seminal writings by German philosopher Karl Marx into binary code and then used 3D rendering and modelling to transform this into an unusual 20-foot (6-metre)-high sculpture. This month, Hung Keung, Hong Kong’s multi-award-winning new media artist and academic, will continue that tradition by turning himself into a time traveller for his latest online project. Poetry influenced me a lot when I was young, but today new media and games are taking attention away from literature. I wanted to see if it’s possible to connect the past with the present Hung Keung, new media artist The 50-year-old artist has transformed stories and poems – written by some of the city’s renowned authors during the 1960s up to the ’80s – into digital artworks and interactive online games, which he hopes will transport audiences back in time to explore Hong Kong’s collective history. “Poetry influenced me a lot when I was young, but today new media and games are taking attention away from literature,” says Hung, currently associate professor of the Department of Cultural and Creative Arts at the Education University of Hong Kong, who is an avowed literature enthusiast and has spent years incorporating Chinese philosophy and writing into his work. “I wanted to see if it’s possible to connect the past with the present.” Hung, who was born in Kunming, China, and moved to Hong Kong at the age of three, is also founder and director of the city’s research lab, innov + media lab (imhk lab), which focuses on new media art and design research in relation to Chinese philosophy and interactivity. Technology can make the storytelling experience more dynamic. You can really be inspired. It can create moments of exploration and moments of awe Dr Harald Peter Kraemer, associate professor, City University His latest work, titled It All Begins with a Word – which will run over the course of a year across various online platforms, including a dedicated website, and Facebook, Instagram and YouTube channel – will be one of the highlights of this year’s ReNew Vision. Created to showcase newly commissioned online works by select artists, ReNew Vision is a streamlined, transitional platform of New Vision Arts Festival, which introduces Hong Kong audiences to pioneering, trendsetting and groundbreaking performing arts from around the world. The festival – first held in 2002 – was to have changed to an annual event this year to mark its 10th edition, but the plan was cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Broadly speaking, ReNew Vision consists of five online productions by both local and overseas artists, with the others being Aria , a 360-degree virtual reality (VR) journey through Hong Kong Park’s Forsgate Conservatory; Stones of Venice , a virtual reality video; Portraits of Hong Kong Experimental Musicians , a series of experimental music performances and a live-streamed mini-concert, and My Main Stage Online , with music videos and live-streaming sharing sessions led by celebrated music producer Chiu Tsang-hei. Take a walk down memory lane Hung devoted eight months to reading more than 100 novels, articles and poems by some of the greats of Hong Kong literature. Authors include the late award-winning writer and poet Leung Ping-kwan, who used the pen name Ye Si, acclaimed female novelist and poet Zhang Yan (known as Xi Xi) and the late fiction writer and poet Wong Shum-chuen, whose pen name was Shu Hong-sing. To retrace their footsteps, he collaborated with many people, including artists, animators, dancers, a Cantonese opera master, interior designer, musician, product designer and video production team. After filming and editing for three months, he assembled a body of multilayered digital video works. It’s not like going to the cinema, or watching something on YouTube. It’s a more complex viewing experience similar to reading … it allows the audience to use their own imagination Hung Keung One series focuses on nostalgic sites in the city featured in the author’s work, such as tram stations, ferry piers and the former City Hall. Instead of a linear narrative, however, Hung combines hand-drawn animations with video footage of actors walking through the sites and old photographs of the city. Using various video effects he overlays and intersperses these scenes with dramatic black-and-white footage of dancers re-enacting the shape of Chinese characters, taken from the books, almost like a digital collage or mash-up. “It’s not like going to the cinema, or watching something on YouTube,” Hung says. “It’s a more complex viewing experience similar to reading … it allows the audience to use their own imagination.” He started his artistic career as a comic strip artist while still at middle school, and later studied fine arts, film and video in Hong Kong, London and Zurich. He has been working in both creative and research aspects of film, video and digital new media art since 1995. Hung’s work has won numerous awards in Hong Kong and abroad, including the prestigious BBC British Short Film Festival’s “Award for Best Short Ambient Video” in Britain, and the “Best of the EMAF Award” at the European Media Art Festival, in Germany, for his film, I Love My Country’s Sky , both in 1998. His acclaimed CD-ROM project Human Beings and Moving Images and interactive project, Dao Gives Birth to One , received many awards, including “The Prize of Excellence” at the Hong Kong Art Biennale in 2001. Technology takes storytelling to new heights Fast-developing technology seems to have vastly expanded space for creativity, allowing artists to transform text into ever more imaginative works to resonate powerfully with audiences in today’s digital age. Dr Harald Peter Kraemer, associate professor at the School of Creative Media at City University of Hong Kong, says that new media is a particularly effective tool for reigniting interest in narratives from the past. “There’s a strong need for storytelling,” he says. “People love to hear stories … but if you read it in the form of text, it may be more boring. I don’t want to spoon-feed audiences. This is like playing hide-and-seek. You need to dig out [the] meaning yourself Hung Keung “Technology can make the storytelling experience more dynamic. You can really be inspired. It can create moments of exploration and moments of awe.” To keep viewers interested, Hung will be releasing short videos every couple of days like episodes. He is also experimenting with displaying works on social media platforms. On Instagram, for instance, he will post animated GIFs which are about 10 seconds long. Viewers can then click into a YouTube link for an expanded version. “It’s a new way of experiencing artwork,” he says. “Oftentimes art is seen as permanent and unchanging, but this is like an amoeba that’s floating and transforming, depending on the features of various platforms.” Alex Mitchell, assistant professor at the Department of Communications and New Media, National University of Singapore, says: “Today, people are expecting easily consumable, quick bits of information. “By remediating old stories in a new medium, it can catch younger people‘s interest.” When audience becomes the artist Hung’s original plan was to create large-scale interactive installations and live dance performances alongside his online project, but the pandemic has led the physical artworks to be postponed until next year’s festival. However, he has still found creative ways to engage audiences. To pique interest in the literary texts he explored, Hung will place QR (quick response) codes, which can be read by smartphones, on the It All Begins with a Word project’s Instagram account, so people can find the library call numbers of the books of authors he mentions. But he will not be revealing which stories correspond to the various digital works. Maybe people aren’t reading novels as much, but they might be willing to play a game for 50 or 60 hours Alex Mitchell, assistant professor, National University of Singapore “I don’t want to spoon-feed audiences,” he says. “This is like playing hide-and-seek. You need to dig out [the] meaning yourself.” In a similar vein to Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan’s famed Cursive: A Trilogy performance , Hung will also work with dancers, who will use their bodies to create “body calligraphy” for video works and an interactive game. He plans to cut up moving images like a jigsaw puzzle, where each piece is a mini video and empower the audience to become choreographers who create new dance sequences. Similarly he will chop up pieces of text from poems and invite audience members to rewrite historic texts and become poets in their own right and share their writing on Instagram. “Today, people are armed with creative tools on their smartphones whether it’s Instagram, GIF makers or TikTok,” Doryun Chong, deputy director and chief curator of M+, Hong Kong’s museum of visual art and culture, says. “Interactive art has blurred the boundaries between artists and the rest of us … it’s flattened the playing field.” At a time when people are practising social distancing and spending more time indoors, Mitchell sees unlimited potential in new media art. “Maybe people aren’t reading novels as much, but they might be willing to play a game for 50 or 60 hours,” he says. Editor’s Note: The 2020 edition of New Vision Arts Festival has been cancelled owing to Covid-19, but in future it will be an annual event. ReNew Vision is a transitional online platform, which provides exciting new opportunities for artistic creation during the pandemic. Next year’s festival will resume regular programming.