A theater curtain provides a backdrop for an adult, presumably a teacher, instructing students seated in a single row of desks. The students all wear matching blue socks. The image captures a behind-the-scenes moment from Su Hui-Yu's "The Space Warriors and the Digigrave".

Su Hui-Yu, The Space Warriors and the Digigrave, 2023. Behind the scenes image.

Courtesy of the artist.

On the occasion of the 5th  VH AWARD—which supports emerging media artists in Asia—art critic Dawn Chan sat down with the five finalists to discuss what inspired their artworks. Part one of our Q&A features Riar Rizaldi on Fossilis, and Su Hui-Yu on The Space Warriors and the Digigrave.

This is the first part of a two-part Q&A. For part 2, read here.

The idea that modernity has been characterized by warp-speed technological progress is nothing new. And yet, with the recent release of several eerily effective public-facing AI platforms worldwide, 2023 has quickly turned into a visceral, gripping reminder that a decades-long marathon can suddenly become a mad dash, bringing us all to the brink of unfathomable change.

It’s apt, then, that radical, speculative futures are visualized in each of the projects delivered by the five finalists of the 5th VH AWARD. But these projects also take pains to connect their imagined futures to the specificity of various pasts. Whether nostalgia-inspiring or fraught in retrospect, these past worlds seemingly drift further out of reach as the scale of societal change grows ever-more extreme.

Such examinations of the past can be scientific, pop-cultural, or even introspective in nature. Riar Rizaldi conjures an imagined archaeologist from the future devising methods to research old technology. Su Hui-Yu re-stages a fraught Taiwanese sci-fi TV series from the 1980s. Zike He, meanwhile, tells a story in which intimate personal memories bubble forth at a moment when technology fails: when a data center unceremoniously shuts down. Sometimes the past takes the form of a historical figure—such as Kangsore, an indigenous Yakthung fighter from 1774 AD who appears as a character in Subash Thebe Limbu’s film. At other times, the past rears its head as myth, such as the Chinese fable Peach Blossom Spring, which inspires zzyw’s work.

In these five projects, references to the past ultimately help articulate both optimism and skepticism for the future. Warnings and hopes abound. Paths forward are proposed, as the finalists’ projects ask an array of important questions: Are there more humanistic approaches to computing? How might future worlds overcome Confucianism and militaristic cold-war traditions, or promote indigenous sovereignty and knowledge? Might e-waste and discarded devices become a source of ancient wisdom to future humans? And how will the geological mutability of planet Earth—the ebb and flow of new mountains, landmasses and oceans—reorder life as we know it?

It is easy to relish the lushly intricate visuals of these five video-based works, not to mention their compelling soundtracks and hypnotic voice-overs. But beyond the aesthetic satisfaction offered by these artworks are carefully laid out theoretical points that ought not be overlooked. In their own ways, the projects each take up meticulously argued positions—charting out possible new relationships to former worlds, as well as worlds to come. Here, this year’s five finalists—Riar Rizaldi, Su Hui-Yu, zzyw, Subash Thebe Limbu, and Zike He—answer questions to provide a more in-depth look at the works they have produced for the 5th VH AWARD.

Dawn Chan: Increasingly, electronic waste generated worldwide ends up languishing as pollution in the global South. Your work merges this e-waste with a verdant, tropical setting. Why do you envision these obsolete devices — “maggotless corpses” as you call them — ending up in humid jungles known for their richness and biodiversity? I’m curious if you see aesthetic or symbolic resonances between rainforests and the morass of obsolete digital matter taking over the planet.

Riar Rizaldi: It all started when I made my earlier work Kasiterit, where I went to Bangka Island in the western part of Indonesia, where one-third of the global tin production for technological and infrastructure purposes originates. On Bangka island, which is located right on the equator, I found not only a thriving tin mining business, but also piles and piles of electronic waste that were shipped mostly from somewhere outside of Indonesia. This electronic waste is discarded on the ground and is covered by moss and ferns—some of them are dumped near the coastline. This was striking, both as an image and as an idea. I started to think: what if this electronic waste was buried in the soil for centuries, and one day became fossils, mutating together with the Earth and the biodiversity that exists on tropical islands? I imagined this mix of tropical rainforest and fossilized e-waste imagery as a representation of how humans might understand nature in the future.

By the way, in the Indonesian language, electronic waste is translated as "bangkai elektronik" which literally means "electronic carcass." This makes it more interesting to see e-waste from the perspective that electronic objects are not just inanimate objects, but things that have agency. They will come back again soon to visit humanity. It takes a thousand years for them to decompose, so they are nearly immortal.

Two individuals stand under a brightly lit ceiling strewn with hanging cords.

Riar Rizaldi, Fossilis, 2023. Behind the scenes image.

Image courtesy of the artist.

DC: How do AI-generated images figure into your video work? More specifically, which images ended up being generated by AI in this video and how do they relate to the imagined future in Fossilis?

RR: In Fossilis, these AI-generated images are limbo transitions between the physical world and the virtual world. In the film, the machine used by archaeologists thinks to construct worlds where this electronic waste can be observed virtually. To form this virtual world, it needs dataset images of e-waste left behind by ancient humans. Conceptually, this  resonates  with what I am currently interested in, which is looking at the possibility of how image datasets such as ImageNet or LAION see their future as electronic server waste that blends with tropical forests through their image collections. This is based on the question of how many images about e-waste are collected in the dataset, and whether these images are used as a basis pattern for illustrating climate issues, if we were to prompt it with something like "climate issue."

I've always been interested in visual representations of climate change or climate breakdown in the mainstream media. In the past, images that illustrate climate breakdown were usually photos of polar bears and melting icebergs, now there are more landscapes on fires. This representation or illustration of climate change in the mainstream media influences the indexing and categorization mechanisms in the image dataset. I wonder whether e-waste will become an image that illustrates climate issues in the future.

An individual is seen concentrated at a monitor, speaking into a handheld device. They are situated in a professional setting, suggesting a behind-the-scenes look at a technical process.

Riar Rizaldi, Fossilis, 2023. Behind the scenes image.

Courtesy of the artist.

DC: Your production techniques seem to be broad ranging; is it correct that you use filmed sets, street footage, CGI, and AI-generated imagery? What do you hope to achieve by using and mixing all these approaches?

RR: Yes, I use different modes of moving image production. I always use this strategy in my work. In general, I've always been interested in the idea of worldview, and how it can be represented through different cinematic presentation techniques. In the context of Fossilis, I try to explore a world where the production of the image is related to waste, whether electronic or not. The filmed sets in Fossilis are made from abandoned trash, such as unused cables, discarded metal panels, and septic tanks. The CGI in Fossilis is from a reproduction of abandoned CGI assets. AI-generated imagery taken from e-waste imagery in the ImageNet dataset that settles among billions of other unused image datasets. And finally, the street footage was taken from the “electronic carcass” market in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. This is a market where people sell e-waste, both from their possession and detritus that they could find everywhere in Yogyakarta. Each of these moving image production techniques has its own approach to the concept of waste and unused, both physically and digitally. In addition, working with a variety of techniques will also provide a variety of sensorial experiences, which is always my aim for this project.

DC: You said that the source material for this video is a Taiwanese superhero television series called Space Warriors, that was released on a government channel at the end of the Cold War. Is your sense that Taiwanese viewers of your video would have vivid recollections of this show? What would that reference mean to them?

Su Hui-Yu: The TV program started in the mid 1980s, during the last decade of the martial law era. It was even exported to South Korea. When I mentioned the project, most of the people recall their memory of Super Sentai from Japan, but some of my Taiwanese friends of the same generation do remember the local version, but it’s a bit fuzzy.

DC: The premise of your video seems to include an alien species that invades this world and introduces alternate ideologies. Can you explain more about this otherworldly set of ethics, and how it opposes the values that were conveyed in the original series?

SHY: Usually the genre of sci-fi posits a perspective out of the normal. Unfortunately, the 1980s Space Warriors did not open Taiwanese people's imaginative thoughts about the universe and the world, but rather, it  put forward illogical fantasy and Chinese folktales, martial arts elements, subtly implied nationalism, Confucianism, patriarchy, and other values, which was a very strange and unique experience during the martial law period. This is why I decided to revisit the narrative, and reimagine what if we can do that again, and go beyond the tradition of East Asia, especially the Confucianism and the militarist or collectivist tradition from the Cold War ideology. The “evil” aliens could actually be a hope or a way out of the human race; it's also a metaphor, philosophically, morally, and spiritually.

A performer stands center-stage during a recording session, surrounded by a myriad of individuals engaged in various tasks, in a bustling behind-the-scenes image.

Su Hui-Yu, The Space Warriors and the Digigrave, 2023. Behind the scenes image.

Courtesy of the artist.

DC: It seems like many of the characters from your film are dressed in the uniforms of various laborers, while others seem to represent something more foreign. What are the characters’ various roles and jobs? How did you choreograph their movements in relation to their professions, and also in relation to the dramatic conflict in the video?

SHY: The uniform in my work metaphorically represents the collective memories of order, schools, army, military police, authority, and patriarchy.

On set, we had two instructors, one is a martial art trainer for action movies, and one is a choreographer. We mixed the methods, tried making the movement more abstract, and also kept it a bit funny, sometimes dark. The performers came from different fields, some are transgender performers, which is also an important context in my creation:gathering people from different backgrounds to shape new ideas of body politics topics and multiple values.

DC: In the world depicted in Space Warriors and the Digigrave, words are actually layers in space that often overlap or peek out behind the characters’ bodies, which is a visual strategy that seems to have more connections to manga or billboard ads than traditional visual arts. Can you speak about how you were thinking about placing the text in relation to the videos?

SHY: To me it was intuitive when I was designing the composition. I grew up with this kind of visual culture: AD signs amassed  around the streets, multimedia billboards, and nonstop massage bombing. The “Kanji/Hanji/漢字” is also important, it’s a symbol of East Asian past, some generations understand the meaning, but the newer generation might not. It represents the cultural differences, in a visual way. To me, it’s beautiful, but also it could be very geo-political. That’s why I thought it’s interesting. And of course, the multilayer words are mostly not easy to be recognized, which is also a fun that the audiences have to spend more time to find “the dangerous terms”, which also represents how we deal with censorship memories.

About the 5th VH AWARD finalists

Riar Rizaldi (b. 1990, Bandung) works as an artist and filmmaker whose Fossilis (2023) tells a tale of the verdant inferno of technological legacy, resonating the complexity of electronic waste in the 21st century of Asia where most of the discarded electronics are dumped and buried.

Su Hui-Yu (b. 1976, Taipei) explores the connection between mass media, pop culture, memories of martial law and the post-colonial history of Taiwan and East Asia.

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