This week, it finally dawned on the U.S. media that the China of now is the West of tomorrow, with a small but seedy collection of reports that the waking moments of millions of Chinese are monitored, policed, scanned and logged using artificial intelligence plugged into 200 million cameras and countless lines of code. The New York Times called China’s facial recognition system an effort at “algorithmic governance,” while Vanity Fair linked the upswing in surveillance to an industrial boom for the companies selling the shady technology. It’s America’s future, too. But the vision of an eternally monitored techstate—and the sheer weirdness of it all—has already been shown to us by a conceptual artist working deep in the gritty interior of China.
A woman falls into a river in an alienated, urban space. Did she fall or was she pushed? Dragonfly Eyes, a new film by Chinese artist Xu Bing, is the first film assembled almost entirely from surveillance footage, an anxious, experimental, spooky composite of artist’s film, murder mystery, and found footage. It is a story of anonymous individuals suffering from terrible isolation—a fictional narrative born of real people’s digital detritus—and the woman in the river, Qing Ting, is one of them.
Despite the narrative abstraction and exposed artifice of the film’s construction, Xu’s creation feels creepily alive—because it is.
I first saw the trailer for Dragonfly Eyes eighteen months ago, and in its pixelated blur of car crashes and fights and disasters both large-scale and intimate, it was so shocking and real—so far away from the tired conventions of much current independent filmmaking—that I thought of it often before finally seeing it this year at a Chinese art gallery in Sydney. The film began circulating in festivals and cinephile societies in 2017. Much of the footage is harvested from 2015 onwards, when a raft of Chinese sites emerged allowing consumers to upload their own security and home webcam streams: the world has been streamed, and we’ve done it ourselves. In China the all-seeing state eye is even more vast, with 200 million CCTV cameras across China, and predicted to grow three-fold to 600 million by 2020. Such is the supremacy of this ever-present government architecture and accompanying AI-based facial recognition technology that it took only seven minutes to find BBC reporter John Sudworth in a human interest/government propaganda story late last year.
Footage of this kind is silent, and so Dragonfly Eyes superimposes recorded narration, foley (the addition of sound to footage after it’s been shot), and dialogue; Qing Ting is voiced by Liu Yongfang, and Ke Fan, her wandering lover, voiced by Su Shangqing. Timestamps appear on most of the shots, and each source and location is credited at the film’s end, so despite the narrative abstraction and exposed artifice of the film’s construction, Xu’s creation feels creepily alive—because it is.
As the footage traces backwards, we learn of a Hitchcockian tale of switched identities, a love affair, and its abandonment by Qing Ting as she tries to climb the deeply stratified ranks of Chinese society. The character of Qing Ting is resurrected through shots of many Chinese women, but our desire to make meaning of the deluge makes us see her as one cogent character. It’s a stunning trick of narrative.
We flashback to Qing Ting as a young woman talking about her life in a Buddhist temple (consider that a monastery of this type streams its own surveillance footage online). Haunted by spiritual longing, she leaves the monastery unfulfilled, lamenting her loss of anonymity in the Buddhist garrett and the world at large: “The flowing river reflects one moon.”
A computer voice steps in: “A storyline swims into view,” it says, articulating a meta-narrative from the ether. Qing Ting takes up work at a dairy farm. “We’re both drifters,” says Qing Ting to an agricultural technician, Ke Fan, and the common, untethered identity bonds them. Soon, Qing Ting gets another job at a dry cleaners where she encounters a customer, Wu Li, who has overcome both her plainness and poverty by saving for plastic surgery and marrying up. Wu complains to Qing Ting about a stain on an expensive dress: “Nothing escapes God’s eye.”
Visual references to mass manufacturing bring the metaphor home: we move from farms and malls to food courts and factory interiors—bodies and tables and pipelines are arranged in plodding grids. As the processes of dehumanisation build up, Qing Ting and Ke Fan fall out: “You’re too intransigent,” she says to him. “How will you ever find a place in society?”
Qing Ting takes another low-paying, low-respecting job at a Western-style restaurant. “Would you like someone prettier to take your order?” she asks a grumpy customer. “It’s sure to taste better,” he replies. Soon she visits a plastic surgery parlor, and notices Wu Li from the dry cleaner’s in one of the before-and-after photos. “What will you do,” she asks the staff member, “when a woman wants another kind of beauty?” In voiceover, she says, “it’s not a life, the one I’m living. I’ve gone as far as I can.”
Refusing to accept the end of their relationship, Ke Fan visits the restaurant where Qing Ting last worked, but he finds no trace of her, and begins to lose the last of his connection with society. Security guards and police try to find the woman in the river, but there’s no corpse and no evidence.
Dragonfly Eyes is an exercise in montage and making meaning through association, abandoning a direct relationship to story and character. That’s not new—that’s often what experimental cinema is all about—but Dragonfly Eyes is compiled out of cinematography that is free of the human hand and eye. Cinema, once celluloid, now digital, is collected from archives that have slipped into the public realm, with characters crafted from the fuzzy faces of thousands of busy citizens crossing the screen. The cinematographer’s eye is that of many ubiquitous webcams, leaked CCTV streams and surveillance devices, time-stamped and pixelated, blinking millions of times a second, across the expanse of the People’s Republic of China. Other material from vlogs, livestreams and dashcams are captured by personal, consumer-bought webcams and streamed by their owners.
But the conversion and perversion of spy material for artistic purposes resonates beyond the free-market authoritarianism specific to China. This is where cinema is headed, as types of devices and images multiply. And this is our relationship to technology: we all continue to do things we’re uncomfortable with; we all use Facebook when we know our information is shared with advertisers and election manipulators; we all look the other way when devices like AliPay (a Chinese cellphone payment and social ranking platform that uses technology as a form of social control) are introduced to tourist hubs in Australia and elsewhere. We participate in work Fitbit schemes that allow our employers to trace our movements and suggest personal health insurance programs.
In Xu’s hyper-real vision—which is, to my mind, the finest, most authentic science-fiction film in recent years—public data becomes fodder for a new story, and the traces left by the many re-form as a handful of ghostly, shapeshifting protagonists floating through an unstable consumer economy. In the face-lifted figure of Qing Ting, surveillance and surgery create a single body, a single face, a single citizen: complete oneness. The flowing river reflects one moon. And eventually, the scope widens to a society-wide conspiracy: a montage of catastrophe—planes careen downwards, cars swerve off-road, trains derail, construction sites collapse—piles up from the big dystopian now of self-surveilled China.
Xu’s manipulation of civilians’ faces and bodies could appear as a form of government collusion. But the critique is clear: authoritarianism of the past—in the real world and in science-fiction—relied on sneaking, reporting, informing. Today, we have given up our privacy without a fight; the critique applies across East and West. “Her privacy is all used up,” drones the computer meta-narrator. “He and she leave data.”
As Xu elaborated in an interview with Hyperallergic magazine last fall, “In Chinese, the word for surveillance is jiānkòng. Jiān means ‘watching,’ and kòng means ‘control.’ So when people stream their own surveillance footage, they feel they are in control.” In Dragonfly Eyes, Xu Bing compiles a film of an inhumane society, with a camera that no longer symbolizes the human eye. By volunteering surveillance, we have given ourselves away—but then what choice do we have? Xu gives his anonymous contributors a face, and a name, and a role in a new kind of narrative.