LA Artist Spotlight: Exploring Digital Identity With Carrie Chen

Carrie Chen is a Los Angeles based artist and educator working with computer-generated animation, simulation technologies and media installation.


Imogen Hare


July 12, 2023

LA Artist Spotlight: Exploring Digital Identity With Carrie Chen

Carrie Chen is a Los Angeles based artist and educator working with computer-generated animation, simulation technologies and media installation. Her passion for art started at an early age, inspired by her father, who is a painter and part of the generation of Chinese artists who arrived in the US in the 1980s. Carrie double majored in Applied Psychology and Art History at New York University, which eventually led her to careers in the traditional art world, working at Christie’s, Whitney Museum, and David Zwirner. Around the same time, she was introduced to 3D and real-time rendering by her partner who was working in architectural visualisation. Carrie saw these technologies to be new modes of image-making and says: “It quickly became clear to me that more experimental approaches would be the future, and that more diverse voices needed to be heard. I felt compelled to pursue my passion as an artist and explore emerging technologies as mediums of expression.” Drawing on her research-based background and newfound interest, she taught herself 3D software through online tutorials and then pursued an MFA in Design Media Arts at UCLA. Since then, she has been actively engaged in art-making, education, community organising, and exploring how technology can be used to process ideas about identity, embodiment, memory, and representation.

Imogen Hare: How has your background in studying Psychology influenced the topics that you explore in your art practice?

Carrie Chen: In my undergraduate studies, I delved into emotional psychology and child development, focusing on the comparison of parenting styles and gender roles in China and the US—which was simultaneously a personal inquiry into my own experiences growing up between the two cultures. As part of the Science of Human Connections research lab at NYU, I contributed to the analysis of longitudinal data, spanning 20 years of children's growth and development. Our team conducted interviews with students and parents in Nanjing, China, following their journey from childhood to adulthood. Being a part of this team was invaluable in helping me reflect on my own upbringing. This experience greatly influenced my perspective on my own upbringing. Recently, as part of my GAZELL.iO residency and the digital workshop "Memento Objects 纪念物" on the Beijing-based X Museum's X Virtual platform, I have delved into the exploration of standardised routines and behaviours, such as Eye Exercises, in mainland Chinese classrooms.

IH: Can you tell us a bit about your experience presenting your work at X Museum to a Chinese audience?

CC: Yes, it was my first time facilitating a bilingual workshop and showing work to a mainland Chinese audience, which was very exciting! The diverse backgrounds of the attendees, ranging from those who were born, raised, and educated in China, to others with varied experiences in the Chinese educational system, made the experience particularly engaging. The practice of “Eye Exercises” resonated with the audience, bringing back a lot of childhood memories and evoking a sense of shared nostalgia and collective remembrance.

IH: That must have been such a special experience, being able to share your work with a Chinese audience from LA. Do you often explore the dualities and complexities of your hybrid cultural background in your practice? Growing up between two ends of the world as a child, I always felt like I played slightly different roles based on my geolocation.

CC: I can definitely relate to your feeling of being torn between two identities and trying to merge them. Growing up between New York and Shanghai, I was always trying to navigate between different identities and figure out what being Chinese-American meant in different contexts and process questions about identity in our hyper-connected world. Even though I spent my formative childhood years in China, my accent is still American, and I was able to preserve that by watching American TV shows and cartoons like The Simpsons. The internet also played a big role because even though I was physically in China, I could still access online games in the US, popular films etc, and stay connected to American culture

IH: Can you touch further on how online games have played a role in your interest in avatars and exploring the self through video-game-like personas?

CC: I realise my early fascination with digital avatars stemmed from their intangible yet interconnected nature and how they relate to constructs of self. I enjoy existing and floating around in virtual spaces, rather than being physically located. Role-playing games such as Club Penguin, Sims, Second Life, Mole’s World (摩尔庄园), along with the advent of platforms like Tumblr and Qzone (QQ空间), enabled me to stay connected to the various cultures I was a part of. In these digital spaces, I constructed different avatars and performed multiple personas, each connected to distinct communities.

IH: I don’t often think about the role that video and online games had on the development of my identity and idea of self, but now that you have mentioned it, they were probably a reflection of how I identified and felt comfortable representing myself outside of my body in anonymous/semi-anonymous online spaces and communities. Perhaps this is partly why I feel so strongly connected to the characters in “Eye Exercises”, even though I cannot culturally relate, the avatar medium feels familiar and relatable.

CC: The not-quite-humanness and liminality of digital avatars is really intriguing to me. Their detachment from reality yet strange familiarity create a sense of ambiguity and uncanniness that is so fascinating. I tend to think of the avatars I create as contemporary forms of portraiture, which as a genre has flourished since the dawn of image-making. With the development of machine learning, 3D, social media etc, technologies are continuously and rapidly shifting our perception and representations of what it means to be human.

Last year, while working on "Temporal Portrait," I used AI-powered ageing face filters and old family photos to create 3D avatars of myself at different ages. I imagined a moment when transgenerational versions of my 3D selves gathered together to form a self-portrait that simultaneously served as a group portrait of selves through time.

The young avatar in my "Eye Exercise" series is, in fact, the same avatar from "Temporal Portrait." Although rooted in a culturally specific background, the work also harks back to art history and the genre of portraiture, with the notion that an engaging portrait is one that seems to look back at the viewer. I explored this idea further in an interactive installation of the work using body tracking and computer vision in collaboration with artist and friend Harvey Moon.

IH: Speaking of collaboration, how has the LA digital/web3 art community influenced your work compared to not feeling motivated to pursue art when beginning your career in the traditional art world?

CC: LA is home to an incredible network of artists and culture-makers who genuinely care about context, practice, curation, and the future of digital art. I would say my time in LA has been extremely transformative, from working with renowned faculty like Casey Reas and Jennifer Steinkamp at UCLA to being part of the media art community and meeting visionary people like Peter Wu, artist and founder of Epoch Gallery, and Alice Scope, Sinzi Velicescu, and Jesse Damiani, who are curators at Vellum LA. The sense of community, openness and support is a great departure from the traditional art world and very inspiring for me as an emerging artist.

IH: I can definitely say that I felt the incredible sense of support and community that you mention when I was last in Los Angeles. To finish, can you tell us about the technical tools you used during your GAZELL.iO Residency to create “Eye Exercise”?

CC: “Eye Exercise” came about looking at the youngest figures in “Temporal Portrait”. I then began to build worlds for those youngest avatars as a part of a long-term vision to create worlds for each of the figures until I'm old – hopefully.

To make the young avatars, I used AI-powered image manipulation apps that de-age you and make you look childlike. I was referencing the outputs from those AI-processed portraits and then looking back at my own childhood photos and mixing them together to use as the base of the 3D models. I then added hair and textures and I did some rigging. I created their clothing – also based on popular clothing that girls would wear in China and in the States whilst referencing my own childhood photos. In terms of software, I used Cinema 4D, Maya, Adobe Substance Painter and Marvelous Designer for clothing. I used a bit of facial motion capture for the character’s expressions however the eye movement I had to create the manually due to the sporadic nature of eye movement.

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