Transforming The 2016 Election Into A Hieronymus Bosch-Like Video Game
#ShitWars is both obvious and incredibly dense, each page layered with hundreds of design quirks and references—users can play with a Walking Dead-esque Ted Cruz Wrecking Ball while listening to the strains of Queen Ifrica’s “Daddy Don’t Touch Me There,” Putin does the Carlton to DMX, and in the wake of Pussygate, a flag that once read "Grand Ole Party" now states "Grab Our Pussy." You can grab money emojis and spin them around a Cersei Lannister-style Hillary Clinton, have candidates’ half-desiccated faces swirl around you. It’s like an 8-bit Hieronymous Bosch work set in the hellscape that is 2016.
The site is a continuation of the work Hung has been making for years. He was raised in Hong Kong after his grandmother and father fled Mainland China during the Great Leap Forward, and as such, he feels a certain amount of social responsibility; #ShitWars is in line with his internet art, videos, and installations that have criticized censorship, global surveillance, and the War on Terror. For his Make It Rain project, Hung created his own currency, available for purchase in bundles of 50 notes; 50% of the proceeds are then donated to kiva.org, an organization that lends money to entrepreneurs in the developing world. He gifted me one, with the money going to the Jubilant Kenya Mariakani, which distributes clean cookstoves.
It’s hard to picture Hung working offline-he even named his dog Wiki. "She's an open source," he says. "She eats everything." He is constantly pushing for new ways to work with tech, saying that there’s always, “new ground to be broken.” But he also owns a wine shop, The Winey Neighbor, near his home in Brooklyn, where he volunteers on a neighborhood cleanup crew. So over a glass of Crémant, we sat down to talk about his very funny, very prescient work.
Tell me about #ShitWars.
I’ve been making this kind of art for a long time, and it’s not necessarily political criticism, it’s more like a documentary—like a time capsule. I’m trying to get all the ugly stuff and squeeze it together to create political eye candy. With #ShitWars, I’m making fun of Donald Trump, but I’m also making fun of Hillary Clinton. And there are all different elements, from Internet memes to political phrases. So I try to squeeze things together from both sides of the argument, and in that way [all people] can relate to it.
So people shouldn’t read into your work as in support of one candidate in particular?
I’m personally a Bernie Sanders supporter.
Makes sense. He is shown as Yoda.
[Laughs] Yes. I’ve never seen a politician with so much integrity when it comes to a campaign. He didn’t take money from a Super PAC, or big corporations.
You’re from Hong Kong, but are you a US citizen now?
So who will you be voting for?
At this point, there’s no way I’m voting for Donald Trump, and I don’t think I’ll vote for Jill Stein because that would give Donald Trump an edge. This is one of those classic things, where you have to vote for the “lesser evil.” Not that I think Hillary’s evil, but I disagree with her on a lot of things. For example, her support of the war in Iraq, being pro-fracking, NAFTA deals, her connections with Wall Street—these are reasons I wouldn’t vote for her, but obviously I have to, because of Donald Trump.
Do you have a personal favorite page?
My favorite is the first page, which says “Make America White Again.” It’s so timely now, because those tapes just came out where Trump says “grab them by the pussy,” and so I made a page that lets everybody grab him by the dick. [Laughs] And the page gives me chills, because a lot of his supporters, like the KKK, the NRA, David Duke, you name it, they really believe [this rhetoric], and make so many racist comments against minorities.
So, obviously this work is interactive, and it feels very now, but also very Web 1.0. Do you have favorite video games that you played when you were a kid?
Some 8-bit stuff, like Mario Brothers, Double Dragon. I like video games, but the web is a really interesting thing. I had this website, way back, called 111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111. And back in the day it was really popular. It got to a point where it was hacked so many times that my server didn’t want to host it anymore. They told me at the time that I was the most trafficked website on the server, and we got like 30 million hits. At the time, the internet only had 200 million users, so it was huge. So for me, this new website is like an homage to that earlier one. When I first started creating websites, it was just for fun, and then September 11th happened. I wasn’t here, I was in San Francisco, but it prompted me to learn about a lot about American foreign policy and political action. It made me head in a more interactive political direction.
With my other work, I do video, installations, things like that, and it’s really tough to show in a gallery, because obviously a big part of that is that things are for sale. But with something like [#ShitWars], I worked really hard on it, and I’m not asking for any money. I just want people to see it. I’m really passionate about it; because of this work I got a pinched nerve, I couldn’t move my finger, I was just working like 16 hours a day to get it done. I’d definitely get cross-eyed. [Laughs] But for me, it’s really important, because we can’t have Donald Trump be our next president, there’s no way. So I’ve got to keep adding and working on this. I’ve really designed it to work anywhere—phone, tablet, computer, anywhere in the world. Anyone can use it. I tried my best for everybody.
I love the way your work plays with puns and homonyms protesting internet censorship in China. Could you tell me about your series with Mao?
That’s a big series. I’m Chinese, and I follow a lot of the human rights issues in China. People just disappear. A lot of things happen. And in Chinese culture there are a lot of things about saving face, and people just don’t speak up. I’m proud that I did it, but it’s evolved so much from then to now. For me, the most intriguing thing is how people create a secret code, a secret language, to avoid censorship. There’s the “Great Firewall of China:” you type in “Tianamen Square” and nothing shows up. So for me, what’s most fascinating is how people use references and mythological creatures to avoid censorship. And it’s really funny, too. For example, you can’t say “fuck you.” So people will use a picture of a French-Croation squid, because [the word sounds like] “Fa Ke You.” It’s a homonym. It’s a secret code, and I’m fascinated by it. I want to document it, because not a lot of people know about it [in the West].
The choice to depict Chairman Mao is because, to be honest, people in the Western world don’t know much about Deng Xiaoping. If I put him in a video, people won’t actually know who he is. So Chairman Mao is interesting, because I’ll talk to Chinese people and they’ll say, “Why Chairman Mao? China is not the same anymore.” I totally agree, but at the same time, you can still use this iconography to convey the message. Kind of like what Andy Warhol did.
What was the reaction like from people in China?
I think it’s actually banned in China, or at least it was a few years ago. You can’t see most of those images there, or “scale the wall,” so to speak. And I read some of the reviews, and someone said that I’m “consumed by Western ideology,” and that I’m “selling out my country.” I guess he thought that I was being a puppet for the West. But I don’t believe it, because you have millions of Chinese using the same imagery, the same memes. I’m just documenting it for the West. I’m proud of what I did.
It’s quite a critique.
It was. But I love China, and that’s why I did it. You have to highlight human rights issues. There was a case where a principal [abducted and molested students], and a teacher delivered them to him. That’s fucked up! And things like that happen! And you have human rights lawyers trying to defend people, and they go to jail. It’s terrible. Cases like that happen all the time. The system is crumbling. Because of the Cultural Revolution, people don’t trust each other, in a way. There’s a lot of scandal, a lot of corruption. But I believe that China can be bigger. It’s already getting stronger, the population is more educated now. But the thing is that exercising justice by the people is different from here. Here, you have a voice. There, if there’s a big gathering, they send the riot police.
So for me, it’s very important to show the West how it works there. There are all these villages that are being taken over with eminent domain—although that’s not the right way to say it, because they don’t [have that exact law]. All these things are happening, but locally there’s no voice. The internet is the only voice for Chinese now, so I want to document it, and show people the power of it. There’s not one person behind it—there’s a collective force. Think about five fingers. You have one finger, it doesn’t do anything; five fingers, it’s a fist and you can punch something.
Interview by Jocelyn Silver
Images courtesy of Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung. Check out #ShitWars - The Shit Awakens here.