“Surveillance: a issue rooted in our culture” - Hsin-Chien Huang (THE EYE & I)
Presented at South by Southwest 2023 (first chapter) and with a world premiere at GIFF 2023 in Geneva, Hsin-Chien Huang's latest immersive VR experience - and first collaboration with Jean-Michel Jarre - is a disturbing yet incredibly fascinating reflection on the theme of surveillance in its various manifestations.
Accompanied by hypnotic music created for the occasion by Jean-Michel Jarre - co-creator of THE EYE & I , he was presented with the Film & Beyond Award in Geneva in recognition of his outstanding contribution to music and the digital arts - and immersed in an atmosphere somewhere between the oneiric and the metaphysical, the user assumes the role of a prisoner and is called to visit the 12 cells of a global prison.
On this journey they will rediscover the multiple and sometimes forgotten meanings of the word 'surveillance', in its original French sense of 'eye in the sky', and become aware of how control - which we often take for granted - dominates us and allows us to dominate others in ways that are now an integral part of our daily lives.
We discussed the meanings of the work and reflected on the themes it presents together with its creator, Hsin-Chien Huang. Here is what he told us.
A chance encounter of art and ideas: a look at the origins of THE EYE & I
HSIN-CHIEN HUANG - Working with Jean-Michel Jarre was a great opportunity for me. In 2019, I attended the Directors' Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. There I presented the works I did with Laurie Anderson: ALOFT, CHALKROOM and TO THE MOON. Jean Michel's wife, Gong Li, was there and was very impressed by those pieces and told her husband that he absolutely had to try them. I think that was the first time Jean-Michel saw my work.
Then the following year I presented BODYLESS at NewImages festival where he was one of the judges and there I won the Golden Mask Award. The festival director, Michael Swierczynski, told me at the time that Jean-Michel really liked my piece and so I started thinking that it would have been great to work with him- I’ve been a big fan of his music since my college years!
I took advantage of this and asked Michael if a project with Jean-Michel would have been possible... and it was! This all happened during the Covid period, so Jean-Michel and I started to get to know each other mainly through online meetings. We talked about different possibilities and projects that we wanted to realise. But Jean-Michel's interest in the work of Edward Snowden - whom he also met - made him very passionate about the idea of developing a project that talked about surveillance and he told me about it.
At the time, I was following a documentary series on Netflix called The Great Hack, which was about the Facebook–Cambridge Analytica data scandal. One thing that stuck with me was the map of the world they show you, where you can see the level of presence of surveillance tools in different countries. I discovered that Taiwan had a very high presence and I wanted to know more. Surveillance is something that has really affected our daily lives in Taiwan, after all, so Jean-Michel's idea came at the right time and it was very meaningful for me to address it at that moment.
It makes me a little sad that technological advances and laws that can empower people actually become a tool to control civil society-
Surveillance as an integral and unavoidable part of our lives
H.C.H. - The more I think about it, the more I realize that surveillance is a key topic that needs to be addressed today. Technology is getting to a point where we can literally surveil everyone simply through cell phones or computer networks, and this is true especially in places like Taiwan, where the technology used (such as the CCD camera) is much cheaper than in other countries. The whole city is equipped with a large number of cameras. The good thing is that this has made the place very safe: if I lose something I just go to the police and, using the cameras, they find it for me immediately.
However, there are also less positive aspects: mainland China has electronic and digital surveillance that is extremely effective and is being used to somehow influence the political situation in Taiwan by creating content such as fake news that is extremely heavy on us. It's like a big brother constantly watching over us and the Taiwanese government’s reply has been to try and match this level of surveillance and even exceed it.
It makes me a little sad that technological advances and laws that can empower people actually become a tool to control civil society. I think that’s why I started doing some research around this topic- and I fell in love with it. Me and Jean-Michel spent almost a year and a half exploring it in fields like history, religion, science.
The Great Hack gave the impression that the problem was to be identified in the evilness of the corporation it talked about... but in my opinion that's too simple an interpretation of things. I think surveillance is actually rooted in our culture. Take Eastern religions for example: in many there’s the concept of the Karma mirror. When people die and go to hell, the ruler of Hell, Yama, raises this mirror and shows them all the good and bad deeds they have done in their lives. It is therefore for all intents and purposes a recording device and a surveillance tool. Something we find in Christianity, too, or in the Islamic culture: because how can you judge if someone has been good or bad if you do not have a way to watch them and maybe record what they’ve done?
But it’s not just religion. Even in science, one of the central concepts is surveillance. When Galileo observed a planet, he had to record its position and everything else so that he could find its orbit and its mathematical equation. So the foundation was still one of surveillance.
Nowadays, the medical records or the blood pressure values that we constantly monitor--they are all the result of surveillance activities. This is, in short, the central belief of our culture: we all, for better or worse, believe that if we have to make a choice, the only tool we can use is surveillance. It doesn't matter whether we are talking about science or religion or politics or economics.
One of the sequences in THE EYE & I talks about surveillance in the area of money: the U.S. $1 bill has a pyramid on the back on top of which is the eye of God, because it was believed that God should use his power to monitor the stock market so that things like the Great Depression would not happen again! Then again, when it comes to fighting crime, the first thing the police do is control the flow of money, which is even easier now that it is digitized. Really, today, the first surveillance problem is money.
Twelve cells to reflect on the cult of surveillance
H.C.H. - THE EYE & I contains 18 cells but the ones we show the user are only the first 12-the remaining six will be revealed later. Each addresses a different aspect of surveillance: of these aspects, some are more openly acknowledged as negative by people in general, others less so.
One of the rooms is about my mother, who unfortunately has dementia and has stopped recognizing her relatives. To make sure that she is okay, we have installed several surveillance cameras in her house so that we can check she is not hurting herself. My sister, who now lives in the United States, so far away from her, checks the camera every day. So, I think, a lot of surveillance activities have good intentions, but underneath there is always a desire for control that sometimes we don't even realize is there.
The 12 cells:
- Cell 01 : You Are Here
- Cell 02 : The Original Surveillance Camera
- Cell 03 : Tree of Life
- Cell 04 : God, Watch Our Money! (related to monitoring of digital currency)
- Cell 05 : The Belief in Surveillance (related to science)
- Cell 06 : Ménagerie royale de Versailles (related to climate change)
- Cell 07 : Shutter Control (related to war)
- Cell 08 : The Parenting Game
- Cell 09 : The New God (related to the surveillance of social network and world wide web)
- Cell 10 : Love Under Surveillance (2)
- Cell 11 : The Fun of being Watched
- Cell 12 : The Last Judgment
H.C.H. - This concept also applies to the cell titled Parenting Game, which talks about the desire to monitor your children's activities in relation to media, so as to make sure they don't see things that might upset them.
My son is starting to use his cell phone now and I realize that it is very difficult to control what they see. It made me realize that surveillance is very much about control, which is also something that Jean-Michel wanted for us to emphasize. Monitoring what our descendants can watch or not watch is a very powerful form of control, and I often find myself thinking about whether there might be better ways to parent … I think we probably need to have more faith but also find a better way to understand the truth of surveillance. Anyway, it is something I am still pondering and who knows if I will ever find an answer!
A lot of surveillance activities have good intentions, but underneath there is always a desire for control that sometimes we don't even realize is there-
Music as a tool to inspire reflection
H.C.H. - Having to work remotely, Jean-Michel made me an interesting proposal: to download his application, EōN, to start thinking about what I wanted from a musical point of view.
EōN was developed in collaboration with Sony Computer Science Laboratories and consists of an algorithm that generates an endless flow of ever-evolving graphics accompanied by a never ending, nor repetitive music. It's a kind of music engine and every time you open the application it returns a completely new initial music. The output is never the same, each time something unique is offered to you.
So I started to record these sounds, I think 100 different songs, and I started to work on the cells I wanted to create, choosing the music that best suited that specific cell. This first prototype was very good, but obviously the intent was to use those pieces as a placeholder for the final music. So in March this year, I recorded some videos for Jean-Michel, and he, based on that inspiration, started to develop completely new music that we then substituted for what I had recorded through the app.
It was a very interesting way for me to work, making the most of the positive potential of artificial intelligence.
Right now we have many ways of using it, for example to create music, as I did, or images. I see both sides - the negative and the positive - of AI. Many people and companies collect sources without permission to train their artificial intelligence, and I think this is deeply unfair. But it's also true that I see a lot of people who have started to create things that they couldn't do before. So I think we are really facing a double-edged sword. Maybe in 10 years, when we go back to what happened now, we will have a better understanding of what it meant .
THE EYE & I in Geneva: a brief insight by line producer François Klein
FRANÇOIS KLEIN, producer of the physical installation of THE EYE & I at GIFF 2023 - Thanks to the support of the Geneva International Film Festival (GIFF) and the expertise from Digital Rise, we were able to present The EYE & I with an immersive installation that uses the same onboarding mechanism that we then live in the VR experience.
The audience first enters a tiny cell with walls full of graffiti that introduces them to the purpose of THE EYE & I. Attentive viewers will find some hints hidden in those graffiti to orient themselves and freely explore the virtual reality program. Then, they will enter a large space where eight laptop PCs with VR headsets are located to dive into our virtual panopticon prison world (a/n: the onboarding part blew me away... it creates a sense of expectation and a deep curiosity for what we will find that is sometimes lacking in other immersive works of perhaps equally excellent value. Definitely a plus point that users will really appreciate)
Future plans for THE EYE & I
HSIN-CHIEN HUANG - The choice to openly present 12 cells as opposed to the 18 created came after discussing it with Jean-Michel Jarre. Eighteen cells take two to three hours to go through, and we both believe it was asking too much of our audience, at least at first.
So we would like to take the strongest and most convincing cells and show them from the beginning. But then we want to give the opportunity to those who are already familiar with them to get a new version of the product where these six hidden cells are present and can be discovered. This version will be available soon on Steam for PCVR users.
When I encountered VR, I suddenly felt that this was the device that most of all could allow a creative person to share their vision with others-
In THE EYE & I we tried several new things. The most significant one is the multiplayer experience we designed: when you go into each cell, you will have a way to leave graffiti on the wall, and if you are connected online, these will be uploaded to the Internet, and other people will find them and have a way to upload them in the cells they visit.
The idea is to create a connection between people who have visited those cells, kind of like in real prisons, where you find the graffiti of people who have been there before you and somehow you can share with them a moment in time and space. I wanted to bring that very feeling to THE EYE & I, too. This graffiti feature will be available first on the PCVR version.
Using VR to show a different world to those who cannot see it
H.C.H. - At 14 my right eye underwent a corneal transplant thanks to a cornea I received from a person in Sri Lanka. So I’ve always had the feeling that when I see the world, half of what I see is through a deceased person’s eye. I think that made me feel like my life was very special, because my purpose was to show this cornea-this person-what the world I am seeing looks like.
When I encountered VR, I suddenly felt that this was the device that most of all could allow a creative person to share their vision with others, just like that person who gave me the cornea did with me. That’s why I feel that VR is the medium for me.
It's also one of the reasons why I love to include astronomical elements in my work: we are so small on this planet, and if only we had the chance to go into space and observe ourselves, that would be a dream! It's something that has always been part of my imagination and something that I love to share with what I create.
THE EYE & I is a work created by Jean-Michel Jarre and Hsin-Chien Huang,
Coproduced by EDDA, IN ART Gallery and France Televisions.
With the financing support from Taiwan Creative Content Agency (TAICCA), Kaohsiung VR Film Lab, Centre National du Cinéma et de l’image animée (CNC)
Presented in Geneva in sponsorship with MSI France and PICO France. Installation design by Digital Rise in collaboration with Jean-Michel Jarre & Hsin-Chien Huang.
Find out more about it on Hsin-Chien Huang’s official website.