Courtesy of the artist.
Subash Thebe Limbu took home the Grand Prix in the 5th VH AWARD with his sci-fi film "Ladhamba Tayem; Future Continuous." On the occasion of the competition, art critic Dawn Chan discussed the inspiration behind his work alongside the four other finalists. Part 2 of her Q&A features zzyw on "Other Spring," Limbu on "Ladhamba Tayem; Future Continuous," and Zike He on "Random Access."
This is the second part of a two-part Q&A. For part 1, read here.
zzyw on Other Spring
Dawn Chan: Is UNO bad while Other Spring is good? Or is it more complicated?
zzyw: No design framework is perfect or complete. All design frameworks foreground certain notions at the expense of others. So, it's a matter of priorities–what are values that we collectively think are important?
UNO and Other Spring are products of two distinct information design philosophies. The UNO model, which is more familiar to us, prioritizes efficiency, precision, and productivity. This approach naturally leads to mass data collection, which empowers large-scale machine learning models to automate various aspects of life. It can be traced back to the "Don't Make Me Think" design philosophy. It emphasizes the importance of designing user interfaces and websites that are intuitive, easy to navigate, and require minimal cognitive effort from the user. Initially introduced to Silicon Valley in the 2000s, it has since become a cornerstone of modern information system design. In short, when the users are not thinking, someone else is observing, and thinking for them.
In contrast, Other Spring promotes a certain level of opacity and friction, which will inevitably slow down some aspects of production. However, this approach nurtures trust, intimacy, balance, and most importantly, individual agency. The emerging field of uncomputable studies in media research aims to demystify the impact of current computational systems on our lives. Other Spring strives to bring this philosophical concept closer to something tangible and slightly less abstract, enabling us to contemplate its realization and the steps needed to achieve it.
Both paths possess no inherent good or bad qualities. However, we believe it is time to reimagine the digital landscape and reorient our focus so that we do not lose ourselves in the “frictionless” society we are rapidly approaching.
Courtesy of the artist.
DC: What is this idea of haze, as you see it?
zzyw: In Boris Vian's short story "Love Is Blind," a city becomes submerged in a dark-blue fog that alters people's social behaviors. Vian's narrative explores the influence of natural fog on relationships, and serves as inspiration for the concept of haze. This concept is seen as a means of challenging the loss of individuality and uncertainty in the digital landscape governed by rigid rules and algorithms.
Influenced by Donald Norman's user-centered design principles from The Design of Everyday Things, and Mark Weiser's concept of “Ubiquitous Computing,” which envisions technology as invisible, along with the impact of tech giants like Google and Facebook, modern communication prioritizes efficiency, limiting opportunities and leading to a loss of individuality. This results in increased polarization, dismissal of messages as noise, and an arid digital landscape. In opposition to these constraints, we propose the concept of the computational haze. This notion aspires to establish a digital space that facilitates an object's dual-existence, enabling communication without compromising the sender or context. Haze engenders an alternative existence that interacts with the absent, engendering a poetic, non-reductive space of grandeur. Ultimately, it seeks to reconceive a radically distinct mode of communication.
Courtesy of the artist.
DC: Why did you want to use this imagery and what did you hope it would evoke? How is this work inspired by the Chinese fable Peach Blossom Spring?
zzyw: The original Chinese fable, Peach Blossom Spring, recounts the tale of a lost fisherman who discovers a mysterious village—a safe, thriving haven inhabited for centuries. Intriguingly, the author deliberately attributes the village's prosperity to its seclusion. This idea contrasts markedly with the widely-held belief that openness and exchange foster prosperity. The concept of Other Spring is heavily inspired by this fable. We shifted the center stage of the story from the village to the conditions which enabled its concealment—what would a hidden place resemble in an age of pervasive connectivity? In his 2004 book Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization, media theorist Alexander R. Galloway contends that simply disconnecting is no longer a feasible choice in the era of protocols; we must remain connected to survive and flourish. This realization led us to envision a technological infrastructure that simultaneously supports connection while preserving autonomy and individual agency. When discussing agency, we do not imply that individuals in UNO are enslaved or restrained, but rather that a profound sense of critically navigating one's life that is intrinsically unique to each person.
The architectural and world design of UNO is motivated by transparency and frictionless ness—foundational elements of neoliberalism (recall the information highway analogy we heard so much about in the nineties?). In contrast, the driving force behind Other Spring is iridescence, symbolizing anomaly and opacity—the effect of the haze. Haze and waterfall are common elements of a natural barrier that’s prevalent in ancient Chinese landscape paintings. We ask ourselves: in a world where the boundary between the physical and digital are quickly dissolving, what would haze look like, and be made of? After some research, we decided to create data falls, which are the iridescent fog and waterfall elements that saturate the world of Other Spring. We imagine some kind of algorithmic effect, countering automation and normalization, could rehydrate human expression by restoring the noise, the uncomputable aspect of human spirit, back to its origin.
Subash Thebe Limbu on "Ladhamba Tayem; Future Continuous"
DC: From the costumes worn by the characters, to the ”birds” to the landscape, the look and feel of this video seems like your own. But you also weave together many aesthetic references to various moments in history and culture. Could you speak about some of the references—say movies, books, or ancestral practices—that you are trying to evoke? What parts of the world do they come from, and what eras?
STL: Both the “birds”, and the characters come from the same place, Yakthung Nation, the homeland of indigenous Yakthung (Limbu) people, located in what we currently know as eastern Nepal. However, the characters are from different timelines. The time-traveler Mikki is from a distant future, and the warrior Kangsore is from the 18th century. The warrior is based on a historical figure with the same name, who led the indigenous Yakthung fighters to ward off the colonial Gorkha army (which later became Nepal army) who invaded our homeland in 1774. The Gorkha army was never successful, despite attacking our homeland seventeen times, which eventually led to a treaty that Yakthung Nation would recognize the nation state of Nepal while still retaining sovereignty and autonomy. Unsurprisingly, as time went by, our land rights were taken away by the state, our language, culture and identity suppressed. And recently the state even deprived us of the name we wanted for our province. Currently, as i write this, there is a massive resistance and movement going on against the colonial naming of our province that disregarded our indigeneity and relation to the land in my homeland.
As the Indigenous movement is taking new shape in different parts of the world, we are resisting the colonial nature of nation states in our part of the world as well. The warrior represents the resistance against the colonial praxis while the time-traveler embodies the future we aspire, where we have sovereignty, where we still have our language, traditions, folktales and cultures intact, where we have technology, and interplanetary or even interstellar traveling capacity. So by imagining a scenario where these two characters, one from a distant future and the other from the past, the film invites the audience to engage in the conversation about nation states, indigenous sovereignty, and the notion of time itself.
DC: In a moment when the idea of the metaverse and multiple alternate worlds are everywhere in mass media, your project offers the specific metaphor of handloom weaving that sees how past and future timelines might be interwoven. To you, why does this ancestral weaving practice feel like an apt way to describe recent, nonlinear ideas about time?
STL: The handloom weaving practice obviously is not unique to our civilization, but it is something that our community holds close. Even our oral-based repository of knowledge and cosmology, we call mundhum, has a lot of references about weaving and its relation to our matriarchs. So in way, by taking a cue from a tradition that is omnipresent in our culture, weaving has not only served as a cultural cursor but also as a form of identity and resistance in face of colonial nation statesIn connection with our mothers and grandmothers in face of this patriarchal states, I find the metaphor of handloom weaving very appropriate. It also relates to the idea that we cannot imagine a future by forgetting the past.
Courtesy of the artist.
DC: In your work, you coin the term “Adivasi Futurism.” To you, what does that phrase mean (starting with what Adivasi means to you), and what are its implications?
STL: Needless to say, “Adivasi Futurisms” is inspired by Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurisms. The word Adivasi means Indigenous in the Nepali language which is spoken by the majority of the people. There are many indigenous movements around the world, from Turtle Island to Australia, from Siberia to South America, so by using the term Adivasi situates the specific lived experiences of Indigenous people from our parts of the world while acknowledging the struggles of fellow indigenous people around the world. It contextualizes the specific kind of colonialism that has been plaguing our region, especially a colonialism that has direct link to Brahmanical patriarchy, an ideology that upholds a caste system where the Brahmin community are on top and has been oppressing the Indigenous and Dalit community.
DC: How does “Adivasi Futurism” move towards something different from the present?
STL: As Lucille Clifton said, “we cannot create what we can’t imagine”, so in order to move toward something different, we first have to imagine it. Adivasi Futurisms, like Afrofuturism and Indigenous Futurisms, imagines a future where we are no longer subjected to colonial Brahmanical patriarchy, where we have sovereignty and technology, but also our language, culture, and indigenous knowledge intact, where we live in harmony with our currently marginalized Dalit community.
Zike He on Random Access
DC: You have talked about the computational idea of RAM, or “random access memory,” being related to how humans process memories. Can you explain more: how do you see the recollections of people being similar to RAM in computing?
Zike He: "Random access" means accessing any arbitrary address of a data sequence in equal time, no matter where it is stored, while "random-access memory" is a form of computer memory that can be read and changed in any order, typically used to store working data. It is erasable and will be removed automatically after reboot. I think the human brain must be more complex than this, but it inspires me to understand those moments when different information, thoughts, and memories come across my head irregularly, and those moments when I open my old hard disk and see the outdated files and photos that I don’t remember at all. If we put it to the scale of a broader timeline, considering all the information of our lifespan as working memory, we may get a different imagination of life. Could it be possible that we have been rebooted multiple times but we don’t even remember? Anyway, forgetting is always happening.
DC: Your video, which features a retired taxi driver ferrying a passenger on a day when GPS is unavailable, is very atmospheric and conjures surprising layers of feeling that we might not often associate with genres depicting high-tech futures—especially not when there is a disastrous data-center crash as a plot point. What moods were you hoping to evoke, and why?
ZH: I hope to set the story in the present, rather than an imaginary futuristic space. I hope people feel it might happen anytime, anywhere in pretty normal daily life, although it’s fictional and might be very absurd. This is a very natural choice if you live in a community named “Future Ark,” surrounded by newly built infrastructures, and visions of big data and technology.
When I open my iCloud storage, it shows “In mainland China, iCloud is operated by GCBD (Guizhou Cloud Big Data)” and the servers are just miles from my place. It is where I am living, instead of any cyber city in sci-fi films. Although it might be affected by those typical futuristic ideas, it has a more realistic and complicated side, rooting deeply into its geological, biological, political and historical context, which attracts me a lot. It also recalls many personal emotions and memories of mine. Today we store our information in data centers, but only one decade ago, in the pre-data time, taxi drivers were still the living map and data center of the city. They knew everything, and they connected with each other via walkie-talkie, like an enormous intertwined network. Among them, there was my mom. She was my GPS but now she can hardly find the right way without her cell phone.
Courtesy of the artist.
DC: Music seems to play a key role in Random Access, both as soundtrack but also in the songs that the characters themselves sing and play. How do you see the significance of music here, in relation to the characters’ experiences of remembering and forgetting?
ZH: I think music is one of our languages that is beyond language. This doesn’t mean it’s better, but sometimes music can express what we cannot tell verbally, especially intangible feelings. I didn’t expect music would play a big part of the work at the beginning, but was just curious about how local people would think and express their feelings of the changes of the city and the environment, as well as remembering and forgetting. I invited two local musicians. One of them is my father, and plays a passenger in the video. He was one of the first guitar players and pop singers in the city back in the 1980s. The other is a young Miao boy who played DIY traditional instruments of his ethnic group.
I shared the story of the video with them, and invited them to improvise on a stone beach with glacial potholes inside a valley, where a hydroelectric power station is being built, and rumor says it will be submerged afterwards. By knowing that the whole mountains were covered by the ocean in ancient times, we realized that we are in another process of changing, and ironically, maybe these power resources will support our memory storage, the data centers, in the near future in return. During our production, I happened to find an old tape of my father on a second hand trading website. He was so surprised to hear his voice from his twenties. This is another story of memory lost and found behind the scene. I believe such information has been encoded in the final work by music in its own way, although we can not see them.
Courtesy of the artist.
DC: At some point the two characters seem to be able to retrieve each others’ memories. In what ways do you envision collective memory access being connected to the broader themes of your video?
ZH: I think the cloud can be both a metaphor and a field where we imagine how the collective memory is being processed and intertwined. This is why when the data center crashes, different memories and information ranging from ancient time to the future all burst out and come to the two protagonists. In my previous work "E-dream: We’ll stay, forever, in this way," I collaborated with an engineer and we trained a machine learning model to generate stories from everyday news. It was an extraordinary experience to flow with the AI, seeing how it tells stories in morphing identities, time and space. I would like to share such feelings with the audience in Random Access by infusing it to the two characters.
About the 5th VH AWARD finalists
zzyw (founded in 2017, based in New York) is an art and research collective formed by Yang Wang and Zhenzhen Qi in New York in 2017. They produce software applications, simulations and text as instruments to examine the cultural, political and educational imprints of computation.
Subash Thebe Limbu (b. 1981, Dhara) is a Yakthung (Limbu) artist from eastern Nepal. He works with sound, film, music, performance, painting and podcasts.
Zike He (b. 1990, Guiyang) is a media artist whose recent projects are developed with research ranging from digital space and machine learning to infrastructure and deep time, and with the exploration of their shapes in daily life.