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Needful things

by Hong Xinyi

What are the forms of the future? It’s a question that has beguiled many artists, whose answers inevitably reflect their own moment in time. The human gaze on imagined technologies is a mirror, capturing history for unborn eyes.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, these technologies have majesty, calibrated at that distinct temperature of Kubrickian cool. This 1968 film is perhaps best remembered for the sinister AI entity HAL, whose unblinking all-seeing eye is a camera of smooth obsidian-black embedded with a glowing red pupil. Indeed, the material aspects of HAL – the dimensions of its typefaces, the colour gradients of its screens – are quite beautiful, as are the other machines in this movie. Spacecrafts are framed as objects of sculptural grace, their stately movement through the galaxy underlined, famously, with a score of Western classical music. The enigmatic monolith at the heart of the story borrows from the delineations of ancient totems. A voyage into a vortex is expressed as a kaleidoscopic dance of psychedelic shapes and colours. Even HAL’s voice is beautiful. Canadian stage actor Douglas Rain’s performance imbued the supercomputer with personality, revealing the passive-aggressive (okay, quite aggressive) neuroses beneath that unflappable calm. And what could be more human than that?

Man had gone to space in 1961, and would land on the moon in 1969. But the only cutting-edge technology of that decade which truly interfaced with everyday life was television. Everything else had not yet arrived. Seen from the vantage point of 2022, the forms of the future that appear in 2001: A Space Odyssey reflect this alluring distance. It’s easy to regard something with a glamourising eye when it’s not really real yet.

Cut to Her, directed by Spike Jonze, and released in 2013. By then, of course, computers and the Internet had already become commonplace, and a much more sinister temperature was being calibrated. In 2009, Facebook launched its “Like” button, and Twitter introduced its “Retweet” button, which was then followed by Facebook’s “Share” button. These are not elegant sentences, but the banality of these lexicons belie their technologies’ brutish powers. These buttons enabled the collection of data about the kind of content that was most likely to trigger more user engagement. You already know the ending of this story, because you are living with its consequences — content that traded in strong emotions, like outrage, turned out to be best optimised for virality. In 2011, the intelligent personal assistant Siri debuted on the iPhone 4S. That same year, Apple replaced Nokia as the largest mobile handset vendor in the world by revenue, a milestone that signposts, more or less, the moment the smartphone moved from novelty towards ubiquity.

This was the world that Her was made in. And though it comes from a very recent past, you can already see how this period of history was distinct. In the near-future of Her, the material world aches with nostalgia. The protagonist wears high-waisted trousers and vaguely vintage glasses, and dwells in spaces furnished in an approximation of the mid-century modern style. He falls in love with an AI whose interfaces comprise a hinged metal-edged leather case, cursive script that resembles human handwriting, and a strenuously soothing shade of retro coral-pink. The AI is voiced by actress Scarlett Johansson, whose honeyed husky tones occasionally sing and explain the wistful music it creates. Everything is soft, sad, tender-twee. This movie’s expression of futuristic forms is beautiful, yes, but also deeply troubling. It masks the devastating implications of powerful technology with faux-artisanal surfaces that ape the forms of the past, like a traumatised child who cannot stop reaching for cold comfort.

Which brings us to The Once and Future. This expanded cinematic experience was made during the pandemic, a monolithic milestone in human history if there ever was one. And from this distinct spot in our shared timeline, it stakes out a surprising position. In the future, this production suggests, the machines may well have taken over. But they will be so curious about us, these fragile and flawed beings of flesh and blood. In other words, this is not just a work about the human gaze on technology, but also one that imagines the machine gaze on humanity. Its optimism sneaks up on you.

Consider its AI. In the universe of The Once and Future, earth is no longer able to sustain the human race. To escape and survive, all human experiences were uploaded into an AI, and now exists as a singularity. This narrative trigger flips the script on the current pop-culture understanding of “singularity” in the tech framework, which refers to the hypothesis that at a point in the future, an artificial superintelligence will surpass all human intelligence. In contrast, The Once and Future’s AI is singular because it has absorbed humanity’s memories. And it doesn’t quite know what to do with them.

This all-encompassing entity is embodied on stage by vocal soloist Anandi Bhattacharya, dressed in fabulous patent leather-glossy black and often surrounded by lattices of red laser lights — a mise-en-scène that somewhat evokes kicky Matrix-y dominatrix-y vibes, while also being reminiscent of good old HAL. There are more refracted echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey in the production’s music. Performing the score by Eugene Birman is the ZeMu! Ensemble Berlin, which emerged from the Berliner Philharmoniker. The latter, incidentally, performed two of the most iconic classical pieces in the Kubrick film’s score — “Thus Spoke Zarathustra" by Richard Strauss, and "The Blue Danube" by Johann Strauss II.

Conducted by Stanley Dodds, ZeMu made its debut at The Once and Future, and it was founded to perform contemporary work, with a particular focus on cross-media productions. These musicians, Bhattacharya, and the laser display (designed by Flex Chew) constituted the live elements of this work. Taken together, they gave the forms of the future a tangible presence, making technology subject rather than object. Besides lending her warm and supple voice to the AI, Bhattacharya also wrote the libretto for the work, in collaboration with the Microsoft Azure Computer Vision and Google Cloud API programmes. While it’s not entirely clear how this creative process unfolded, it is striking that technology was roped in to depict itself.

Director Yeo Siew Hua’s film portrays vignettes of human experiences — a wedding party lit by fairy lights, some trysts, a few glimpses of solitude. Nothing extraordinary; but nothing banal either. In his film A Land Imagined, Yeo depicted a Singapore of alienating constructed spaces, where characters reached for fleeting moments of communion through music and dance. In The Once and Future, he lenses a material world (Argentina, in real life) where ordinary spaces bear the marks of past aesthetic histories even as they accommodate contemporary generics. Transcendent moments are stretched thin, until they attain the translucence of everyday life. Meaning is everywhere, the film suggests; connection is always possible. Faced with these memories, the score adds weight and tension to quotidian moments, at times attempting a sort of harmony with the scuffling dogs and lowing cattle that appear onscreen. The laser lights trace the curves of the film’s geographical and physiognomic terrains with what feels like a lingering bewilderment. Bhattacharya sings: “I see myself,/From the outside - looking in?”

Is this hubris? Judging by current real-world trajectories, our fascination with ourselves, at the expense of everything else, is probably what led to the need for planetary exodus in this production’s imagined universe. And how convenient that no memories of ecological devastation were uploaded into the AI. Still, it is hard not to be touched by the gentleness of the gaze the film casts on humanity, and it is undeniably refreshing to see a different take on the sinister robot trope.

Science fiction artist, body architect, and film-maker Lucy McRae’s performance film Delicate Spells of Mind is another pandemic-era creation that expresses an agility with tech tropes and a gentleness of spirit. McRae portrays The Self/Seeker, who uses different ways to try and minimise emotional damage. She learns how to come to terms with The Other, embodied by a group of dancers. The choreography charts the path of interaction between The Self/Seeker and The Other as it shifts from tension to harmony.

McRae’s body of work explores the interactions that are possible between technology and the human body — she has created a dress that can sense its wearer’s emotions and a swallowable perfume, and probed the ways the human body can be trained to survive space travel. In Delicate Spells of Mind, there are shades of Her’s nostalgic inclinations in the artist’s choice of props, which include a dashboard of old-fashioned levers and buttons that wouldn’t be out of place in a particular kind of hipster hangout. But technology here is primarily a metaphor. The Self/Seeker explores how to shed its ego, described as “the inherited artificial intelligence” — another flipping of the script, an invitation to us to reacquaint ourselves with ourselves through the language of machines.

In a talk about this work, McRae describes the dancers in the film as some of the best in Los Angeles, who have not been able to perform for the better part of two years. The whole cast wears “inoperable motion capture suits”. Even the most casual viewers of contemporary superhero movies may find these garments familiar, as behind-the-scenes featurettes these days often showcase superstars clad in these sensor-dotted skin-tight leotards, which enable the creation of computer-generated spectacles in post-production. But in Delicate Spells of Mind, it’s the word “inoperable” that fascinates. It sticks in your head — why inoperable? Unable to capture motion, the suits then simply highlight the bodies of the dancers, their lines, their form, their mastery of their craft. McRae herself is trained in classical ballet. In this re-centring of the artist body and its powers, this performance film seems to rest on a most delicate, defiant joke. It chooses not to connect the circuit between the human and the technological. It says, look at us. Curled up in a foetal position at the end of the film, The Self/Seeker, poised between different timelines, seems to find a kind of peace.

So, what to make of these two works? Despite their endearing gentleness, The Once and Future and Delicate Spells of Mind are quite conceptual, cerebral creations, with some resurfacing of the artists’ longstanding preoccupations that don’t quite land, or perhaps may only come into clearer focus in the long run. Yeo’s interest in the animal-human hybrid body, for instance, reappears here, in the form of a minotaur figure, but its appearance doesn’t quite tie the production’s thematic threads together and so remains a shadowy rather than potent enigma.

But, in the spirit of the looking on the bright side, these creations do present an answer to a question that’s been in the air for a while now — how will the past two years change art? They suggest that in isolation, a fruitful introspection is possible. They propose a little more tenderness — for our machines, and ourselves.

In The Once and Future, the widescreen is at times divided into smaller squares (like Instagram tiles), each depicting a different perspective of the same scene. Yeo remarked in an interview that the technique was a little bit like a Cubist cinema. Cubism, of course, was born in 1907, following decades of rapid technological change that introduced the world to skyscrapers, the train, telephones, and electric lights. Consequently, the human experience of everyday time and space transformed. Cubism fractured the single-point perspective into myriad simultaneous points of view. “Its subject, in some ways, is the beholder who is looking, not what is being looked at.” Its powers of expression grew as the world it refracted became more traumatised — a troubling thought. For now, in this little pocket of something resembling peace, we turn the mirror on ourselves, making time and space for some self-reflection before the future bears down. Who can say what tomorrow will bring?






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