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Searching for the Smart City’s blind spots – resistance, respite, and “New Romance”

It’s easy to default to dystopian visions of the future when the present feels so bleak. Surveillance and data tracking technologies are firmly embedded within the fabric of our culture. The dire, mounting effects of climate change are all but inevitable at this point. However, envisioning the future as a facile dystopia, or a shining utopia, can be dangerous. To accept the future as conclusive is to accept that it can never be changed, escaped from, or just lived within once we arrive there; whether viewed through a utopian or dystopian lens, it is not fixed. And when we imagine the future, it says more about our current moment than it does about how the coming years will actually unfold. It is a constant negotiation between the passage of time and the people who live through it. The nuanced complexities of everyday life are often missing in capital ‘F’ futures.

In “New Romance: Love Stories from the Machine City” the Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery at Columbia GSAPP (NYC), speculative architect-cum-director Liam Young and screenwriter Tim Maughan portray, through three short films, humans carving out interstitial moments of hope and euphoria within darker, more pessimistic possible futures.

In each of the films, technologies that are just now beginning to take hold of our lives are commonplace. There is no more resistance or preemptive critique, they are just part of day to day life. Two of the films, In Robot Skies and Where the City Can’t See, are entirely shot from the perspective of surveillance technologies as if they are mere extensions of the city the films take place in. The first depicts two lovers living in nondescript, monolithic projects surreptitiously sending each other notes with a stolen drone. It is the first film shot entirely with a drone, putting the audience in the ironic position of the city observing the more human story unfold. Its sight scans the residences and the people residing within, attributing violations to individuals from an aerial view. The protagonist, a woman named Jazz is stuck inside due to a house arrest. Every action is scrutinized: giving the middle finger to the drone is cited as a minor infraction. While she is viewed sending out her own UAV, the one monitoring her detects an unregistered device marking her actions as dangerous. In commandeering the same technology that would otherwise inhibit her movement, she finds freedom, however contingent, in a brief moment of subversion.

↑ Techno Rebels: continuing a time-honoured Detroit tradition, Where the City Can’t See’s protagonists find rhythm outside the hum of automation

Shot entirely with LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) in the speculative “Detroit Economic Zone”, it feels haunted. The city’s sight is like a cyber-specter whose vision collapses all individual elements, whether they be buildings or people, into the same pointillist data portrait. Its vision is so all-encompassing that it’s impossible to know how it can see so pervasively instilling it with a sense of creeping dread. Here too, the characters carve a niche for themselves against this surveillance, leveraging technologies to deflect and disorient the city’s vision. In a city where everything is seen, individuals are forced into an ongoing negotiation with their surroundings figuring out new ways to hide. In these cases, it is a way to escape from the monotony of semi-automated labor through dancing, music and celebration. While, presumably, from the point of view of ‘the city’ and, in turn, us, they are still seen, their spoofing of its vision transformed into an expressive array of pulsating jagged formations exploding the otherwise flattened landscape. They are punctuated with a liveliness that provides counterpoint to the hollow ghostlike textures draped across the city by its vision.

Often the same technologies that feel the most oppressive are the ones that let us escape and feel human again.

The all-seeing city is even more omnipresent in Where the City Can’t See. Often the same technologies that feel the most oppressive are the ones that let us escape and feel human again. Surveillance is so pervasive in both In Robot Skies and Where the City Can’t See that it appears as if it would be impossible to be expressive in any way without it being suppressed by those who control their attendant technologies. While the former doesn’t necessarily have a simple happy ending, it portrays a willingness to take a risk in defiance of the implications, revealing a humanity that continues to persist despite the grim circumstances.

In Renderlands, Prakash, strangulated by the monotony of his day job in an outsourced renderfarm in India, escapes into a virtual reality to spend time with the digital model of an actress he has spent numerous days working on. Forced to spend countless hours working tediously on a single project, he reframes his spent time designing the digital surrogate as a budding romance. Scenes of the solitary developer wandering the hallways in the after-hours of his office wearing a VR headset are juxtaposed with bittersweet moments of mechanical intimacy in the hazy-neon of a nameless city. Emerging from the detritus of scrapped projects and forgotten games, Prakash crafts his own private utopia out from the remains of his otherwise mundane reality. In another context, this would seem pitiful and the ending points to this assumption. Here, though, among the generic cubicles and the neon-desolation, his desire to simply escape and to find meaning in his work renders him sympathetic.

During a panel with both artists preceding the opening, responding to a question (full disclosure: I asked it) about the efficacy of fiction qua activism in an era of “alternative facts” and “fake news” when the general population doesn’t know who or what to believe, writer Tim Maughan said that he was skeptical of the idea of fiction as a form of activism, which is commendable. It’s hard to imagine a short film or story being the catalyst for change when what is needed is more active political engagement. That being said, what these films should do is offer hope, or at least a blueprint for it. It is better to conceive of a future that acknowledges its human element as a source of resistance or negotiation.

Maughan also said that, when it comes to knowing what to trust or believe, that the honesty of a good story always shines through. In each of these films hope cuts like a knife through the darkness to offer a glimmer of optimism, a way out, or at the very least, a respite. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be careful, or critical of the politics of new technologies that could have detrimental effects on humankind, or the globe more generally. Only that to be able to fully comprehend their effects on people and the culture in which they reside they must be understood from a perspective that emerges from being lived with and within them.

Through the framing of these moments of activism as a kind of romance, it lets us see human ingenuity not through the lens of sterile innovation-speak, but through the messy banality of everyday life. These are futures that have been worn-in and worn-out. People live in the futures we create. Technology isn’t always new. It disappears into the fabric of the everyday and becomes another fact of life. Regardless of whether they are defined as ‘desirable’ or ‘undesirable,’ forthcoming futures and their accompanying technologies are complicated through lived experience. People learn to live with, subvert and transform their surrounding realities to match their urges and desires. No matter how bleak a possible future looks, we can still imagine ways to bend it to our will or escape from it through tiny acts of resistance.

Exhibition Site | Liam Young | Tim Maughan
New Romance shows at The Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery (NYC) through June 9th