Pearlyn Lii examines narratives about female identity through performances and installations. Crafting surreal stories and confronting archetypes, she merges physical and sensory experience with digital, typographic, and code-based media. She is also the founder of nonstudio, an art and design practice that investigates mythologies through transmedia. Fully embracing new media art, in much of her new work she takes on the performative role of a digital female character, and she is currently continuing her second year at NEW INC as a member in the Art+Code track, an effort of their partnership with Rhizome. As the art world embraces technology on a whole other level – btw Pearlyn has just dropped new NFTs – we spoke with her about tech, performance and female archetypes.
When did you first know that you wanted to pursue a career in art?
I started drawing when I was about four years old. I’d drag color markers along the walls, with obsession—often hundreds of times—of our humble apartment in Kowloon, Hong Kong. I would take the first page out of a fresh box of continuous stationery and dart around the apartment. I’d zig and zag furiously, leaving endlessly accordioned paper trails in my wake. By the end of the day, the room would be teeming with color from the layers of carbon paper in between that separated in the process. A sight for my parents to come home to. I loved leaving things to chance. At nine, I began to tinker with code on our shared family computer. I’d later end up on someone’s public Xanga blacklist because I lifted their CSS to play with.
Can you tell us about nonstudio?
nonstudio was founded as a transmedia studio that creates interactive installations, exhibitions, performance art, and branded experiences. Today, along with collaborators, I experiment with sensorial experiences that re-examine the female identity. I essentially run my solo art and design practice through nonstudio, often merging physical and sensory experience with digital, typographic, and code-based media.
Your work incorporates a lot of tech, can you tell us about that?
I’ve always been infatuated by the notion of the future. I have intricate dreams at night. Sure, I like AR, code, physical computing. But, I’ve always believed that tech is only a tool that reinforces the narrative behind my work. I care about the human experience. That said, it is important what tool I choose for each piece I make. I live by the McLuhanism that the medium is the message.
Among other things, you explore female archetypes and identity in your work? How do they differ between the digital and the IRL space?
Yes, I like to craft surreal stories that confront archetypes. We know of the female archetypes in the physical world, but ones in the digital space are not in the forefront. We know of the pregnant woman, but not much of FinDommes & TechDommes, for example. The women behind screens. The ones who stream casual conversations on Twitch, and so forth.
You’re taking on a performative role of a digital female character in much of your new work, what is that experience like?
It’s ephemeral. Like inhabiting an endless set of identities, faces, people. It’s pulling out various parts of my personal identity that I didn’t know existed. I treat each new piece like a charette. I start with a simple thought for each character, or Girlfriend. I think about her backstory. I layer her with quirks or qualities that deepen her complexity, then let her naturally unfold when I embody her. Because even though she is digital and seemingly pristine, she wants to be human, imperfect. It comes for my love of creating Sims a decade ago. Every strength of a Girlfriend is met with a direct or indirect flaw. When I’m ready and feel like I understand her, I put on her outfit, turn on my laptop camera, and pretend to live stream to sink into character. I like to work naturally—start with light improv then move into refining nuanced expressions.
What kind of ways do you think artists will be using new media in the future?
The stories told overtime that keep are ones that resonate with the human experience. In terms of the medium itself, perhaps it may evolve to the point where IRL and URL become one. To speak to the now, I am an avid video gamer, often immersing myself in the digital world. Maintaining an avatar and the transience of an avatar fascinates me. That was my inspiration to mint the Girlfriends as NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, where collectors can own fractional shares on a Girlfriend. That makes her transient.
Are there any digital artists you think we should have on our radar?
If you are seeking inspiration, I’d say draw from lived experiences. My friends Tin & Ed do this in their work, drawing directly from nature. I am also a member of NEW INC, New Museum’s incubator under the Art + Code track that partners with Rhizome. The artists in our cohort are worth noting.
What are your plans and hopes for the future?
Do as I am now. To continue to create work that weaves lived experiences with the surreal. To tell stories that viscerally transport us out of the corporeal experience.
As for the near future, I am working on expanding Real Girlfriend into a solo show curated by Elisabeth Johs and Mara Schmiedt. We are excited to bridge the art and NFT worlds with this show.
For the even longer term, I am working on Reverb, an installation that takes the form of a large-scale chamber in which visitors can listen to personalized genetic music derived from their own hair. Reverb looks to penetrate the glossy surface of hair to connect with the origin story of the female identity within all of us.