Traveling to Utopia with YHCHI

By Jake Sell Hicks

Pending publication in PURE TRAUMA, part of the DEEP TISSUE zine series. Published here with permission.

Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’ piece “Traveling to Utopia: With a Brief History of the Technology” proposes that technology’s progression ironically functions as an invasion, using metaphors of immigration and nationality to propel their questioning of society’s integration with technology. The use of specific languages, nationalities, personal narratives, and forms of technology ground the piece in the viewers’ reality, allowing the work to transcend the screen and embed itself in daily life. 

 

When the viewer begins the piece, the visual structure and elements demand the most attention, with the mellow jazz taking a close second. The introduction to the piece displays: “Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries Presents,” followed by a countdown of mixed numbers and words overlaying the visual narrative structure that will encompass almost the entire piece. This structure is a three-piece textual layout, with the top in Korean and the bottom two in English. The word placement creates a clear hierarchy of importance, as the middle text is presented much larger than either the top or bottom bars, both of which are green text on black background, alluding to the old terminal display on early personal computers. This acts to bracket the middle text, displayed in the same typeface, black on white, suggesting a progression from old, “visible guts” technology to newer, more aestheticized forms of technological presentation that mask the underlying mechanisms of operation. This is a signifier that outlines the evolution of media and technology from a separate facet of our lives to a deeply integral one that permeates almost everything. This futuristic integration of technology and daily life is hinted at before the piece is even begun.

 

Screenshot 2019-11-20 at 12.33.44

 

The title itself foreshadows a critique of societal/technological change by pretending to visit “utopia.” Invoking Wells, Huxley, and various other science fiction writers produces a lineage of dystopic futures where our technological advances have altered individuals and society, suggesting a transition from technology as innovation to technology as invasion. YHCHI follows this framework and provokes the viewer to consider how the narratives and the visual elements in this piece may parallel or allude to their lives. The personal narratives allow the viewers to subsume themselves in the struggles of each protagonist, and thus relay these conflicts to their own lives. The stories follow characters that could easily be someone the viewer knows.

The middle narrative describes a woman who is presented with technology (and the succeeding upgrades to that technology) when she leaves home for college. After a certain point she discovers a locator chip in her gut and decides to just “avoid […] certain areas.”[1] Being literally impregnated with a technology that is foreign to her, she lacks the means to attain privacy. Continually shifting between temporary/transitional locations allows her an impermanence that removes her from the feeling of being watched, because it doesn’t matter – it’s such an impersonal place that it is personal. She says she likes to escape by going to “airport hotels where the atmosphere is exotic but reassuring in the midst of which I feel like I’ve gone to a far-off place that’s both everywhere and nowhere.” [2] This last portion of the narrative lacks punctuation until the very end, whereas the rest of the piece contains much more, highlighting a greater discomfort – an anxiety – when the monologue is trying to project minimally problematic acquiescence. The woman is constructed as being passive, not only unable to react and fight for herself, but unwilling to do so.

In contrast, the bottom narrative follows a man who struggles with his identity in a hostile environment, which seems to be every environment the man inhabits: he is the embedded nuisance. This portion uses several French phrases, mentions Paris and French police, Seoul, an English passport that the police cannot read, and the “hierarchy in the délit de faciès: Arab, African, Swarthy, Asian.”[3] These, along with the larger personal narrative of the man dreaming he was not detained when stopped, bring together immigration, ethnicity, assimilation, surveillance, espionage (and thus national security), and the acts within emigration via the oppressed individual. The man also says he “avoided” certain areas to stay out of the view of some body of overseers.[4] He is unable to alter his situation, as greater forces continually bear down upon him: he is not so much passive as he is apathetic. His fatigue is derived from a constant quelling of his struggle for personal freedom and agency.

As outlined in the lower narrative, language plays an important role in this piece, and YHCHI chose English for the piece consciously,[5] beginning the argument of colonialism and globalization that underlies much of the piece, extending to both visual and narrative metaphor: everything is being infected with technology. All three lines of text move at separate paces, the top continually scrolling like a Times Square stock feed (but to the beat of the percussion), the middle swiping on the four count, and the bottom flashing from one line to the next on the same beat. These compete for the viewer’s attention and focus, miming a flow of entertainment: the ephemeral stream of options passes so quickly that choice is often relinquished for passive submission. The flow itself is a controlling mechanism, moving the viewer forever forward, never allowing a step back, again mirroring the unstoppable growth and evolution of technology. The continuous scroll of Korean, being unreadable, foreign, and exotic (to many viewers), fits oddly well with the music playing, degrading it to a row of symbols that allude to song – a score of sorts – which is ambiguous and, in many ways, meaningless. This resonates with the dominance of English in the piece; it is assumed that we do not understand the Korean and thus its coordination with the music and its relation to our image of the stock feed reinforce the superiority of English by proposing that it is the only text that matters. This would only be a weak connection without the music, the existence of which promotes several concurrent interpretations.

The jazz, a mash up of many forms of music, free-forming and taking its own style, fits the “progression” framework, as it, in some ways, predated globalization in funneling and synthesizing several cultures in a wave of popular music. The jazz also acts to keep the text moving, as it does in all of YHCHI’s pieces, producing the sensation that we have no control, but that submission to this is ok – this is how it’s supposed to be, as all music has taught us to listen, especially when presented in this unidirectional way. Similarly, there is a dissonance in the mood of the music and that of the text, though they don’t confront one another directly. The jazz in this piece contends with some of the impact of the piece: the narrative is not necessarily upbeat, but the use of fairly light jazz reinforces the lulling, delusional space inhabited by the narratives’ characters. Sedately happy, the music mirrors the blind soma-induced submission to technology’s invasion.

Employing all these elements, YHCHI is suggesting that technology is utilized for the invasion of people’s lives for matters of security, which is cyclical in nature: as the body at large invades the individual body/life, the individual loses control, agency, and thus the perception of safety. The issue of unattainable safety revolves around the contested sanctity of the body as well as the privacy of our personal lives, as individuals are managed by their respective governing bodies. Both narratives show that individuals grapple with this insecurity, but compromise and ultimately submit to it without much struggle. YHCHI propose this is happening somewhere, be it real or not, present, future, or past, male and female, classless, and relatable to the majority of their audience: the viewer is made into the subject of the narrative via its ambiguity. Here then is the provocation: if we are being surveilled, or are going to be, in any of these ways, will we submit so placidly?

[1] Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, “Traveling Utopia: With a Brief History of the Technology,” 3:31-3:34

[2] Ibid., 3:36-3:43

[3] Ibid., 2:56-3:01

[4] Ibid., 3:04

[5]http://iowareview.uiowa.edu/TIRW/TIRW_Archive/tirweb/feature/younghae/interview.html

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