Ballet lover Wendy Yu became a street artist, using creative coding to devise her mesmerising projects. Glorious talks to the multi-tasker about how she works
By Ashleigh Kane
In Australian artist Wendy Yu’s world, dancers are larger-than-life, floating twenty feet above the ground. Their movements spill down the facades of buildings like water overflowing. Dancing on an infinite loop, it’s poetry in motion. It’s the result of a mesmerising practice that sits at the intersection of choreography, creative coding, and projection art.
At 24-years-old, Wendy already has an extensive list of galleries and museums where her work has been exhibited across the world – from Beijing to Russia, Berlin, Switzerland, Sydney, and Melbourne. But last year, her work caught the eye of the adidas basketball team. As a piece of art, the video was perfect for social media: an intoxicating loop of a breakdancer slowed down, his movements thick and syrupy, filmed in black and white, and projected onto a building. To date, it has over 24,000 likes and a quarter of a million views.
It’s that post Wendy says led to a collaboration with a basketball legend whose reputation lives up to the epic scale of her vision: James Harden. For the Harden Vol. 6 signature shoe launch, adidas Basketball commissioned Wendy to envision the Brooklyn Nets point guard through her artistic lens. The video was then projected onto walls in five locations near the team’s home arena, the Barclays Center, as the team went head-to-head with the Boston Celtics last week. As an artist whose expertise lies in dance, Wendy was aware that working with a basketball player was going to be a different process. So she observed Harden’s habits, choosing to zone in on a few of his signature moves: his famous step-back shot, cross over, and the Euro step.
“James Harden doesn’t move like a dancer, so we wanted to focus on the intricacies and the very articulate characteristic movements that he has as an individual player,” explains Wendy on the phone from Australia. “He’s known very much for his step-back shots, which is when he has the ball, steps back and then shoots. We wanted to accentuate this very personal movement habit he has, and that was the conversation we had for the launch of the Harden Vol. 6 sneaker.”
Wendy has translated her “waterfall” effect from the city streets to the hardwood court for the remarkable projection. James Hardens’ blue shoes called Highlighter melt down the walls of the building and pull the focus to the superstar’s feet. “The clarity of the shoes is a big feature in the work,” Wendy adds. “So I focused on the colour of the shoes specifically.”
Sydney-born Wendy’s love for dance runs deep and takes many forms. Although a lifelong ballet dancer – and now also a choreographer – her true love actually lies in research and academia. It’s made her way of seeing the world incredibly expansive, and she’s constantly looking beyond pure movement to the meta-narratives surrounding dance and the places it can happen. In fact, it was thinking about the exclusionary nature of theatre that pushed her work onto the streets and into sprawling urban spaces. “I saw that dance was quite elitist and that only people who can access theatres can enjoy it. Even if a dance is site-specific, you have to hold the interest in dance (to be there), and, to some degree, having a body in a space is quite aggressive,” she says. Even more so, accessing the theatre, (a patron) might need childcare, or perhaps the space doesn’t work for people with different needs. In my mind, the theatre brings dance away from this primal form of viewing dance, which is meant to be communal, community building and integrated with music.”
It was with this frustration that she found a gap and a means to disrupt dance – it became her raison d’être. “That’s why I wanted to bring dance into urban media art”, she continues, “to distort dance into a form that removes reality and limits the presence of a live body there. One that lends itself to having dance viewed by a broader and more diverse audience.”
Because Wendy’s projects are usually accessible from the public street, it removes the need to have an interest or a knowledge of dance because you can stumble on it. Instead, it merges what has historically been deemed elitist with something every day and coincidental. “That’s what I love and have an interest in, making projections for a public space and producing placemaking, which connects the individual with the place and also ties into theories of subverting meta-narratives and governance in public space – how people operate near to a space.”
Last year, while showcasing a projection series at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Wendy experimented with projecting on the floor and the unexpected happened – people started breakdancing. She was thrilled. “I view projection as a source of fire for which people gather and tell stories,” she says. “Like early humans who gathered around a fire to tell stories, gathering around a light in the middle of the night to tell stories is something that I aim to conduct through dance and projections.”
But this more academia-driven approach to dance wasn’t always the path Wendy was walking. Raised in Australia by actor parents who encouraged her creativity, Yu dreamed of becoming a ballerina. However, her parents were reluctant to have her leave her studies to go to ballet school. “I always knew I was going to be a dancer,” she recalls. “So, from 13 to 17, I did full-time ballet in high school, and I was planning to go to ballet school, but my parents were like, ‘No, you have to finish high school.’” While frustrating at the time, it’s a decision she’s grateful for now. “I’m thankful that they had that determination because, in that period of your life, you might not be able to see so far into the future for yourself.”
This diversion led her first to consider studying dance through the lens of academia. “I went to Victorian College of the Arts and studied dance for a BA degree. I’m now doing a Masters at the University of Sydney in Interaction Design and Electronic Arts. I wasn’t interested in pursuing dance and research at a Masters level, I was more interested in re-skilling and upskilling,” she explains. “Having these two disciplines is going to support me in my further academic goals, which is ultimately to do a PhD in dance’s position in urban media art. I feel like having these two foundations, I’ll be more equipped to conduct that research.”
A few years ago, Wendy moved to Germany and found a community in creative coders, which she had started teaching herself at 19. “I built myself a very intimate and tight group of friends,” she says. “As they were very accomplished creative coders I took influence from them, and that’s how I started evolving my work through projection.” Wendy was looking for an opportunity to push her dance practice outside of doing works for the theatre and site-specific installations, and coding was the answer.
“We’d sometimes have six hours in a space, and the idea was just to sit there and code together, and then share what we’d made at the end of it,” she recalls. “At the time, I was working with this programme called MaxMSP, which is node-based coding and programming, and it has interactive elements to it. I had these touch boards outside of the computer so that every time you made contact with someone else, something would happen on the computer. I thought it was a great way of communicating touch and intimacy.”
When Wendy decided to push herself outside of her comfort zone, her community rallied around her, lending their studios and equipment to help her create her work. Most importantly, someone offered her a projector. “I’d never worked with a projector before,” she says. “But I knew it hit something that I was fascinated by, with projecting digital design and interactive art. So I spent two days in the studio with this projector, and then I started to build a portfolio. A residency programme accepted that portfolio – and that’s how I ended up working with projections.”
From there, she began to scratch deeper beneath the surface of dance. “I wanted to indulge in the chaos of being in your twenties and embrace this feeling of phenomenology,” she explains. “Cosmologists think that within the first four seconds of exposure, a person will already impose meaning and symbolism on whatever they’re seeing. So I wanted the audience not to think about theories, but to be very shaken to their cores, firstly, and visually overcome or overpowered by the phenomena or the feeling of the piece.” Wendy cites pioneering Japanese audio and visual artist, Ryoji Ikeda – who employs creative coding to realise immersive installations – as a significant source of influence. “You don’t really need to understand the work, but you can feel how intense it is,” she says of Ikeda’s projects. “That was an inspiration. I didn’t want to make a piece that could be overlooked easily, I wanted a piece where you could feel the power emanating from the work. I wanted it to be legible.”
Since her initial tests with a projector, Wendy has spent the last few years developing her recognisable “waterfall” signature effect. Although she’d prefer to remain “hush hush” on how she executes it, the digital manipulation causes her subjects to trickle down whatever surface they’re projected on, just like James Hardens’ Volume Six sneakers. “Each time I feed a new dance into it, I’ll adjust the creative coding slightly so that it enhances the dance itself but so it doesn’t overpower it. It’s just really about complementing what the dance brings in and of itself,” she explains. And while the technique has been so popular, and pushed her work into new realms both internationally and commercially, Wendy is looking forward to testing out new waters. “I want to develop more creative-coding focused work,” she admits. “The waterfalls have been welcomed, but it hasn’t given me much time to develop new works that focus on generative and creative coding. So that’s something I would like to bookmark and focus on in the future.”
However, if there’s one new technology that Wendy is looking to explore sooner rather than later, it’s NFTs. In 2021, NBA’s Top Shot creators, Dapper Labs, announced the NFT trading cards featuring NBA highlights had grossed over USD 230m in sales, and Yu believes that her James Harden’ moment for adidas would lend itself well to the medium. “Because it’s associated with James Harden and his sneakers, it really can become like a collectable basketball card, which is very exciting,” she says. But, of course, if that were the case, James Harden wouldn’t be performing his famous step back to shoot baskets; he’d be using it to leap into the metaverse.