UCL East


Q&A: Meet Yifan He, student artist in residence

27 September 2021

Yifan He, one of the two 2021 UCL East student artists in residence, shares an insight into their inspirations, art practice and the work they are developing on the residency. 

Artwork from Yifan He

For the past few months, two UCL student artists in residence, Abi Ola and Yifan He, have been working with the UCL East Project team, to observe, comment and creatively reflect upon this significant development for UCL.  

The residencies are supported by the UCL East Programme and are Part of the UCL Public Art Programme, these residencies are one of the ways that UCL East supports future generations of artists, through providing opportunities and exposure.  

Here Yifan shares an insight into their inspirations, practice and the work they are developing on the residency. 


How would you describe your practice? 

I would describe my practice as interdisciplinary, taking form in video making, gaming and web designs.  

It is collaborative and participatory for audiences, focusing on situations where people can play and experience some conventional conceptions of technology, bodies, border, and spaces differently. I have created an online zine, Crybaby Manifesto, which demonstrates these. It was a Google Doc link I shared on social media to create a collaborative piece.  

My practice also explores queering the body in digital spaces. This means applying queer theory to bodies and analysis of the body, allowing for more intersectionality and fluidity between gender identities and sexual orientations.  

By disrupting the ‘normal’ body, my practice maps its interactions with a virtual dream realm. It challenges and plays with the dichotomy of natural and artificial.  


Do you have some ideas from the residency so far?  

I started the residency at the beginning of this year and have been mainly concentrating on how to overlap physical space with digital, using Augmented Reality and QR codes to send people into a retro game space.  

Our physical space is already covered by WiFi, we are organic bodies living in an environment mapped by digital. So in a way, we are digital-organic hybrids, we are all cyborgs.  

Whilst working on outcomes, I am particularly inspired by Glitch Feminism - a movement that empowers queer bodies and incorporates race theory into digital spaces. 

Although I am still in the general ideas stage, I am trying out different tools to create this digital portal and how to embed this into physical architecture. I am thinking of how to project digital into physical spaces, and then what this will look like and how it will be experienced.  


How has the UCL East development influenced your thinking and what have you learnt so far? 

As my residency is linked to the Sustainable Physical and Digital Spaces for Education and Research Project (SPiDER), in the meetings for this I have really learnt how many requirements different people have when it comes to designing a space.  

You must consider how much to assign to whom, how collaborative it will be, how much space will be used as public space. Different departments have diverse needs and use spaces differently.  

It has been interesting to hear a variety of positions and experiences, what is lacking and what needs more focus. It can be overwhelming at times but in a good way! 


How do you want to use your practice for public engagement? 

Hopefully, engagement would happen through my work itself, given the collaborative and interactive nature of it.  

For example, I have a rough idea of a project that uses awkward situations and challenges the idea that a place cannot be both public and private. People could accidentally scan a QR code whilst in a toilet cubicle and be connected to a chatroom. Using phones on the toilet has become normalised now, and it would connect the physically private space of the toilet and the digitally public space of the chatroom, connected with WiFi. 

I want to use my practice to create a situation or a tool which enhances engagement and interactions with communities. I am not sure of what the final outcome will be, but I would love to create something that the community can finish the work for me. 


During your residency, have you been able to reflect on how the digital can inform the real?   

Absolutely, this is my whole research interest! I want my work to reflect and embrace the fact that we are already cyborgs. We need to stop using ‘irl’ in real life, as we are already existing in spaces mapped by the digital.  

The residency is making me explore further how we extend our physical bodies into digital, and how this can cause exhaustion and frustration. I want my practice to help us develop more agency in deciding how our bodies are digital, and how to queer our bodies in digital spaces. 

For example, when looking at how to map rooms at UCL East, I have been using the gather.town free platform, where I can create 2D game spaces and avatar interaction – creating confusing situations where you can be closer digitally than physically. 


What are some key lessons you have learnt so far in your residency?  

I have tried to talk to everyone I can from diverse backgrounds and lived experiences to ensure my work is accessible and inclusive. The feedback I receive from the community is completely different from departmental needs, but equally as important.  

I also try to put things into practice! It will always be different to how you conceptualised it, but that is ok. Lastly, I would say to play a little - do not be afraid to incorporate gaming into working with digital spaces! 


Lastly, how do you think your experience on the residency will inform your future practice?  

The UCL East Residency has really helped me to think about the world offline, and how I can “upload” my whole practice. I have been reminded of the gravity of physical bodies and the need to address this in my work, whilst being able to navigate political issues by engaging in a virtual rather than physical world.  

I am aware how both data and technology are very material mediums with a foundation of exploiting labour and natural resources, and this is changing my practice already. 


Explore the work of the other student in residence, Abi Ola, here