The Promise of an Island

March 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Photo by Sean O'Flaherty aka Seano1 atwal singh, published on Wikimedia Commons.

It is easy to dismiss Michael Bay’s dystopian action thriller come road movie sci-fi romance “The Island” (2005) as a failed “Matrix” runner-up. In fact, most critics seem to agree on the point that the film wants to include too many classic action movie elements into a challenging story line on human cloning – and fails to satisfy expectations within the short time frame of 130 minutes (See And yet, for all its polished aesthetics, including the protagonists’ unisex surfaces called Lincoln Six-Echo (Ewan McGregor) and Jordan Two-Delta (Scarlett Johansson), the film also asks a fundamental question about individuality and its value in a consumerist society.

At first sight, all the elements of a classic action/sci-fi thriller appear in place: a dubious multi-billion dollar corporation cloning human organs and babies, run by an evil scientist with a god complex, who has created a minimal-stimulus, isolated, subterranean lifeworld to house his “products”. All of the inhabitants of this clinical environment lead identical lives, go to the same workplaces, wear the same clothes, live in identical cubicles, and are closely monitored by managing and security staff. Technologically overwhelmed and constantly under surveillance, all inhabitants accept their fate without doubt, dreaming of winning the daily lottery for a place on “the Island”, the last inhabitable spot on earth – as they are told.

But of course, the quarantine of this place is not perfect. Borders are permeable. And Lincoln begins to question “where all these tubes go” that he and his colleagues are filling with nutrients, day in, day out. His acquaintance with a maintenance guy from behind the scenes, James McCord (Steve Buscemi), makes him question the myth of the contaminated outside world. Now, surprisingly, the flight from the netherworld is not the climax of the film but appears with almost mathematical precision in the middle. What follows is another plot line, that focuses on Lincoln and Jordan seeking to “raise awareness” among the real humans, that they are getting their organs and babies from other human bodies, who are killed for the purpose. Although McCord cautions that “Just because people eat the burger doesn’t mean they wanna meet the cow” Lincoln and Jordan seek out their genetic doubles to confront them. The endeavor spins another sequence of car chases and explosives going off, which seems to start a new film altogether. Most reviewers focused on the human cloning aspect of the movie and its overbearing emphasis on the action sequences in that second part. And admittedly, here the films fails.

“It’s the New American Dream”

But going back to the beginning, the opening sequence gives the film an altogether different mood. In a dream sequence, Jordan sits atop a futuristic boat, surfing across the ocean. Lincoln approaches her from behind, and as they make contact, he is brutally gripped by two men and pulled into the water. Awaking from this sequence in his concrete, white-grey room, a computer diagnoses an “erratic REM sleep cycle”. The theme that continues through the sequences of the first part is individual aberration from the prescribed and accepted norms of the environment. The controlled environment for all clones homogenizes all elements, from clothes to drinks to work and social conduct, in order to allow only minimal sociality.

In the words of its chief engineer, the cloning of organs alone did not create the desired results. Bodies needed the feeling of being alive, even in such a reduced, sensual environment. As Dr. Merrick explains,

“After several years of trial and error we discovered that without a consciousness, without human experience, emotion, without life the organs failed.”

In order to achieve sociality (devoid of risk) and stability (devoid of alternatives), the engineers project a variety of life stories to their clone bodies at infant stage. While each body contains variants of a memory from a fake past, all of them together are bound together with a common threat, a threat that rationalizes acceptance of their condition.

“We control them with the memory of a shared event. A Global contamination. It keeps them fearful of going outside. The Island is the one thing that gives them hope. Gives them purpose. Everything we expose them to, their programs, their cartoons, books, the games they play, are designed to manage aggression and reinforce simple social skills. To avoid obvious complications they aren’t imprinted with an awareness of sex. We find it simpler to eliminate the drive altogether. In a very real sense, they’re like children, educated to the level of a 15-year old.”

Now, this entire plot immediately triggers a cultural-pessimistic perspective, a criticism of homogenization vs. individuality, control vs. freedom, Levittown suburb structures vs. historical bricolage chaos. The centralized facilities of the netherworld are the most efficient control mechanisms in which the human drives are contained in a post-histoire vacuum. Against the neon-lit caves, halls and laboratories, Jordan and Lincoln are bathed in sunlight once they have escaped. The whole film thrives on these opposition pairs in almost all of its sequences, and, admittedly, this is a fairly simplistic dramaturgy.

But on the other side, this film is not so banal as it seems. Human cloning as a way to extend life is firmly anchored in a consumerist setting which privileges those able to pay horrendous sums for “owning” a genetic duplicate of themselves while keeping those copies in a monotonous environment of self-sameness. All the clothes are white, all the Nike- shoes that Lincoln finds in his drawer are equally white, all the drinks are optimized for their levels of vitamin and nutrients. In this aesthetic monotony the missing differentiation of products only covers up the apparent self-sameness of product categories in real life. So, if the de-individualized array of products in the film plays out a powerful (yet predictable) metaphor of homogenization, it leaves the seeming differentiation of Nike shoes alive. It even affirms the schema of identical mass produced fare as a rational basis for individual choice. The film (along with its corporate sponsors) thus offers a vision of a near future, in which homogenization serves as the (visual) mechanism to leave the belief in product differentiation, freedom of choice and individuality based on consumer experience intact. The “new American Dream” of owning genetic copies of oneself is then the old American dream of “making it,” of extending life through wealth, fame and possession.

In his book Archaeologies of the Future, Fredric Jameson argued that the task of science fiction was not to deliver a plausible, detailed vision of the future but to “demonstrate and to dramatize our incapacity to imagine the future” (288-89). Because a detailed account of future live forms would soon appear banal in face of the present, science fiction can “serve the quite different function of transforming our own present into the determinate past of something yet to come.” Representations of the future were a function to create an awareness of the present, which is “untotalizable and hence unimaginable” (See further my article on “Images of the Cybernetic Body, or, The Banality of the Future“). In “The Island” the regulation of drives reflects the sedating power of consumption, which privileges the immediately available over the unrealistically utopian. The island in the film is an animated vision of a common hope, a constantly actualized common reference point for all entrapped in the netherworld of daily doses of moderate consumption. In keeping with the dream structure of a joint vision the film delves into a fantasy of escape that can only function within the narrow limits of the action genre. Jamesons’s perceptive analysis of the temporality of science fiction, raises the point as to how such a vision of an escape can relieve the stress of accepting that in real life such an escape is less than probable.

From the beginning sequence, “The Island” plays out the dream-like dimensions of a common fate sustained by individual ambitions. The shocking grip of the assailants who submerge Lincoln under water is at the same time a shock to prepare the viewer for the de-individualized netherworld, an environment that is aesthetically and functionally homogenized. But only through this demarcation can the film question the homogeneity of consumption that thrives on menial differentiation. The promise of an island becomes then less of an empowering vision but stands in for the unchanging (and inescapable) structure of regulation.


Bodies and technology

February 6, 2011 § 1 Comment

Ei Wada (和田 永様, *1987), a Japanese media-musician, is becoming a regular appearance at new media festivals outside of Japan. He appeared in Linz (Austria) and performed at the 2010 ISEA Ruhrgebiet, where he won the Nam Jun Paik Award. Wada exhibits a keen interest in the physical workings of outdated technology and how it can be turned into a creative tool. A prototype for a proactive media archaeology.

The”Braun Tube Jazz Band“, presented during the recent Transmediale Media Festival in Berlin this February, is an assembly of several classic Braun tubes (short for: Television), which are short-circuited by Wada through his body. All tubes are connected to his body, his feet serving as a grounding for the circuit to function. Probably everyone knows the sizzling feeling at the fingertips, when you approach a classical TV screen. Wada exploits this everyday phenomenon for his music. The electric/magnetic field is the source  to produce sounds by using two screens as antennas and interfering with his hand in the field of the other tubes. Each tube is variously tuned to a different timbre or octave, related to a umber of effects panels and the usual audio-distortion equipment. For anyone sitting in front of the speakers during the second part, this resulted in quite unpleasant low-pitched noise, while for others further in the auditorium the spectrum was much wider. Image became Sound and vice versa.

Before closing his performance, Wada advised the audience on the proper uses of television. Like McLuhan once philosophized that a TV screen could also be used as a light source for someone reading a book, Wada said that it’s better to hit the screen than watch it. We agree: Hit it. Here. Now. Every day. がんばって、ね。新音楽を見つけるよう。

Patterns of Moving in Space

November 9, 2010 § Leave a comment

Global Drive

Enclosed in this space is the frame. The walls and bolts, plaster and tapestries. Here is a door. A transition occurs. From the enclosed space to the open space of the city. But the city is not mere chaos, it’s structure, pattern, possibilities and impasses, gates, fences, thruways, alternate routes. Their number is limited. For the duration of five minutes my movement succumbs to the pattern of the street. This crossing, that street light. I don’t need to decide.

That door is locked, another is open. I pass by without noticing. The street commands my attention. The bus stop is crowded with people all assembled in more or less the same distance to the side of the road. Waiting. I wait, too. Now, I wait, don’t need to make decisions. TXL, M29, U9, U2. Prepare for the bus, get the ticket, move in with the crowd. Minimal distance, maximum aversion. Acceleration. For the duration of the ride, I don’t care for the detours, blocked passage ways, construction sites, alternative routes. Even the others remain outside to a degree, similar in their desire and yet different altogether.

Another corridor, exchange of data, documents, smiles and reassurance. The gateway is open. Terminal 1, I34, A19, 36G. It’s all structures, patterned, predictable. Drinks and snacks. Papers. Behind the counter, a welcoming and exchangeable smile of local color. This seat is now my home, the wall becomes a friend. Regulation of bodies suspended in space, removed from the ground. Extreme acceleration. But for the time of the flight, I don’t need to worry about weather conditions, airflow, pressure variations and the thousands of expert controls which regulate the passage.

Ueno Koen (上野公園)

Corridors, hallways, counters and transitional spaces: TXL, NRT, BA 365. The shapes change, the structure remains the same. 8:45, Platform 4, destination Ueno, JR Lines Express, 1,000¥, one-way, this coach, this seat, a view of the landscape. Exit 4, Uenokachimachi, Uenokoen. The pond looks like three years ago in spring. The bench could be any bench, anywhere else. But this is Tokyo. A city built around the vast homogeneous structure of moving smoothly in space. On all levels of the city, the patterns remain stable – to secure the passage.

Material come Motion

September 17, 2007 § Leave a comment

Hana Usui, a Tokyo-born and Berlin-based artist, has been learning the strenuous task of calligraphy the hard way. Starting in her childhood and becoming master student of Undo Inamura at the age of 14, she became acquainted with the aesthetic conventions of one of Japan’s most elaborate arts at an early age. In 1998 she graduated from Waseda University in Tokyo with a Thesis on The Influence of Avantgardist Calligraphy and Wester-American Art.

Since those days her skill as painter has prompted her to explore the ways in which the paper reacts to the ink and brush. As in many Japanese arts, from carpentry to lacquer ware, developping and exploring the limits of the material has been a traditional concern brought to fruition.

Usui/Farabegoli are positive about “Negative”

The recently opened exhibition “Negative” at Galerie Oko proves once again, how Usui’s knowlegde of washi (和紙) interacts with the aesthetic conventions of calligraphy and contemporary art. At the same time her works are reminiscent of the late Action Painting by Jackson Pollock. The crucial difference is that her paintings lack, despite their measure, any pretensions of aggressiveness. They seem to be suspended in midair, softly attached to the wall, as if a frame could keep their motion from spreading. But as the video shows, these pictures (especially “Untitled, No. 1”) are to be perceived in motion. It’s motion come material, where the paper softly answers every call of the brush, every drop of the ink with a bend and a tilt in all directions. The impression is an extremely forceful one (concerning the motions) and a fragile one (concerning the material).

As every artist spreads the boundaries of his given medium, Hana Usui’s fascination with the flexibility and responsiveness of paper, is revealed especially by her stylistic inversion of a negative, black background. The use of alternative tools, e.g. screwdrivers, and the combination of oil colour and black ink illustrates her search for new ways of making the surface talk. Since your flat screen won’t reveal any of the intimacy of colour, material, or the flying birds, see for yourself at Schroederstrasse 12, Berlin, Germany.

Birds in flight?

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