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Wantong Yao expands artistic audiences through simulations of family, identity

Wantong Yao sits in an orange chair at a table surrounded by shelves of books. The design media arts MFA candidate said her digital art helps her better understand power dynamics and her own identity. (Courtesy of Chia-Yu Liu)

By Ruwani Jayasekara

June 10, 2024 12:14 a.m.

Blurring the line between game design and art, Wantong Yao is delineating her artistic identity through digital simulations.

Challenging perceptions of new media, the design media arts MFA candidate said she utilizes 3D coding and machine learning to craft simulated experiences, translating her personal realities into a digital format. Although her art is embedded in the language of game design, Yao said her simulations are less reliant on the engagement of the player, instead exploring a computerized representation of human nature. Yao said she builds parallels between the characters within her simulation and her interpersonal relationships, encouraging her self-reflection and the intertwining of psychological concepts into her work.

“I think simulation is really like making a sandbox or this miniature version of reality, that you can better look at it from a holistic perspective and try to understand it from a third-person perspective,” Yao said. “It’s really trying to help me understand who I am and how I feel and how I think in certain situations.”

Yao said role-playing games were a primary source of inspiration for her roots in simulation design as she reflected on the reciprocal relationships established between the player and character. As role-playing characters are dependent on the time and monetary input of their human players, Yao said the relationship becomes mutual as players are able to depict their own realities virtually. Since she sometimes struggles to understand the complex dynamics of relationships in her own life, Yao said developing simulations rather than playable games allows her to give agency and independence back to her characters.

One of Yao’s pieces, “if caring becomes owning, and owning becomes tiring,” starts as an interactive game before gradually transitioning into a simulation, which gives the virtual character full control over their actions, Yao said. Through exploring systems of attachment in player-character relationships, Yao said the imbalance of power dynamics has become a pivotal focus in her work.

“I think in some way, they (the characters) also own me, and they also care for me in a way that this relationship becomes more complicated,” Yao said.

[Related: Hua Chai explores modern identity, queerness with boundless digital media art]

Yao said her MFA thesis project examines generational trauma through her family tree, centering around the psychological concept of life scripts to foster a deeper understanding of how a person’s upbringing affects their development. Through a pure simulation of a three-legged race, her use of machine learning parallels the role of the parent in a child’s upbringing, unraveling how unhealthy habits are learned, Yao said. As parent-child relationships also resemble a form of unbalanced power dynamics, Yao said the simulation became a tool to separate herself from her reality and instead examine those relationships in a controlled environment.

“The reason why I have to make it a simulation is also because it’s so difficult to unlearn things for a human being,” Yao said. “It’s a lot easier to program the machine to unlearn certain things. We just have (to) tweak the parameters and the inputs and the environment.”

Chia-Yu Liu, a collaborator on Yao’s MFA thesis project, said Yao remains steadfast to the intention behind her art and is not easily influenced by the perceptions or expectations of others. While this tenacity can be challenging for the collaboration process, Liu said it ensures that each piece maintains its integrity to Yao’s lived experiences. While Yao’s unconventional portrayal of relationship dynamics are initially catered to her own reality, Liu said the approach invites audiences to question the significance it holds in their own lives.

“She wants to be herself, and she understands all the expectations that others may have posed on her,” Liu said. “It made me feel like there are a lot of unknowns to myself that I still yet haven’t figured out.”

[Related: Avant-garde exhibit ‘Only the Young’ explores artistic rebellion of Korea’s youth]

Prior to the start of her MFA program, Yao said she co-founded Key Elements Studio, a nonprofit organization, to help eliminate some of the physical and financial barriers to engaging with art exhibitions. Yao said the accessibility of her work remains a priority, as she hopes to integrate art into the public sphere.

As a founder of the organization and peer during Yao’s undergraduate career, Keyi Zhang said she was drawn to Yao’s organizational and artistic skills and wanted to support the increased presence of virtual showcases for underrepresented artists. The platform previously curated a group exhibition of artists across the world, incorporating conversational interviews with artists and building a space for artists of color to connect over their craft, Zhang said.

“I think our mission is to create a space for artists, by artists,” Zhang said. “We want to increase the accessibility of arts to more audiences, … and we try to advertise and deliver those exhibitions to people from all kinds of backgrounds.”

Ahead of her graduation this fall, Yao said she hopes to further explore an interdisciplinary approach to her art by intertwining concepts of psychology and cognitive science into her simulations. Yao said the MFA program encourages her to discover not only her identity as an artist but also as an individual. As her artistic journey continues to evolve, Yao said connecting with art requires a certain level of vulnerability, but that openness also holds innate value.

“I have now become less worried about uncertainty,” Yao said. “I realized, instead of having clear answers to every single question, maybe the process of finding the answer is the answer itself.”

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