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Essay

Essay: I, For One, Welcome Our New Tech Overlords

by Bella Gladman on 19 March 2020

Exploring Frederik Heyman's imagined tech futures, in the time of COVID-19, with a Q&A with Heyman, and Dogukan Nesanir, stylist for Ceremonial Formality.

Exploring Frederik Heyman's imagined tech futures, in the time of COVID-19, with a Q&A with Heyman, and Dogukan Nesanir, stylist for Ceremonial Formality.

Frederik Heyman's fashion film Ceremonial Formality was launched on SHOWstudio on 24 February 2020, a moment when the international spread of COVID-19 was significant. It had not, then, been considered a pandemic: that certification would come on approximately two weeks later, on 11 March. As coronavirus, as it is popularly known, shuts down workplaces, socialising, industries and economies, we are in an unprecedented situation where our existing systems, both tangible and philosophical, are being shaken. In this upending, weaknesses are more clearly identified. Held up to a fierce and uncompromising light, the holes in our social fabric are apparent. Now the principles on which our frameworks rest are being revealed to be collective assumptions, rather than undeniable truths: systems that seemed unshakeable suddenly appear to be houses of cards.

As much of the workforce is prevented from carrying out their daily business, and another large sector is working from home, many people are asking questions about what we are going to do next. A large part of our imagined futures has been postponed, cancelled, erased. There is talk of ‘after corona’; there are predictions of fundamental changes in the way we produce culture. Certainly the way we conceive of ourselves as citizens and individuals in relation to society will be drastically altered.

Still from 'Ceremonial Formality' (2020)

Frederik Heyman’s digital work has approached imagined futures long before coronavirus. He creates films and animations using 3D modelling, which explore the human condition in a digital age. Like it or not, tech has changed how we think, interact, and work, but also our physicality: our postures have changed from laptop and mobile phone use, our sleep is disrupted from the blue light of our screens, to name just two common examples. Heyman’s work splices the human body with machinery, continuing in the tradition of Ned Ludd, Fritz Lang and Donna Haraway in questioning how the things we humans make might make us in return.

The hallmarks of Heyman’s work are mechanical and technological: wires, wheels, scrolling LED marquees, metal frames, clamps, industrial lights, screens and cameras. Bodies–as opposed to humans–are subject to unusual dynamics with these technological trappings. In Ceremonial Formality (2020) a contortionist is encased in a metal cage while a spectator, hooked up to wires, looks on. In 13 (2019), a campaign video for eyewear brand Gentle Monster, a group of people are displayed like a floral bouquet on a trolley trundling along railway tracks reminiscent of Wild West gold mining. Virtual Embalming (2018) circles around dioramas of Isabelle Huppert, Michelle Lamy and Kim Peers memorialised forever in their scenarios of choice (Huppert frozen in flowers and clouds of perfume; Peers bound as if by Araki above a hotel bed; Lamy gazing out over a desert, dogs and lions at her feet). They are frozen yet the viewpoint moves around them: simultaneously alive and dead.

Watching Heyman’s work, it’s not hard to think, ‘I, for one, welcome our new tech overlords.'

Heyman’s tableaux are full, sumptuous and grand, while also disconcerting, macabre and uncomfortable. The futures he imagines are ingeniously constructed, and in their meticulousness and staging, they provoke the reverence one feels in a theatre audience. He deals in vignettes. When you view his works, on a computer screen, video frame, or Instagram feed, the perspective is akin to a child lifting the lid of a dolls house and viewing their toys in the scenarios they have designed. To the dolls, the child is god. In viewing Heyman’s work, we are both god and the dolls. We look at ourselves–our fellow humans–being manipulated. Perhaps what makes them so disconcerting is that Heyman makes visible what we know and have decided to ignore: that while tech appears as a liberating tool that gives us control, it also controls us in return in ways that are surreptitious, complicated and not immediately apparent.

What can we learn from Heyman’s rendering of the future? Technology is portrayed as majestic yet unrelenting: the wheels are always turning, the lightbulb glares without blinking. The squeamish may pull away from the grey corpse-like pallor and store mannequin stances of the bodies (perhaps a stylistic choice, perhaps a consequence of 3D scanning). Bodies are replicated. Individuality is reduced, humanity becomes clones. As such, his works suggest or warn of a future deference towards technology. Tech’s dominance is inexorable, so why fight it? Watching Heyman’s work, it’s not hard to think, ‘I, for one, welcome our new tech overlords,’ (paraphrasing The Simpsons’ news anchor Kent Brockman).

In the context of the workforce using the many existing technological innovations, from Zoom conferencing calls to Google Docs, to keep in touch and keep going, we can be impressed by the fact that tech has facilitated a relatively easy transition from office to remote working life. Yet, ever surveilled through webcams, emails and Slack, we must be at least cognisant of how tech is conveniently underpinning our new corona period systems. The ramifications of technology’s spread will be felt far beyond this pandemic; tech’s grasp on our lives is unlikely to be stopped or reversed, post-corona.

Process images from 'Ceremonial Formality' (2020)

Frederik Heyman, director and artist

How would you describe what you do?

My work is balancing act between multiple media, though over the last few years, I have expressed myself almost exclusively in a digitally altered environment. I love to create digital installations that overcome time and space, that aren't limited by the physical world. Technology and the human body are the main protagonists. 

How would you describe this film?

An exploration of the limits of the human body in relation to post-humanism, with a focus on the distorted communication between the spectator, and the performer on the elevated platform. It all takes place in a domestic setting. It’s about the desire for technology to mirror and/or overcome the human body (or the other way around?).

How did you come to the title Ceremonial Formality?

It's a quote from a book I've been reading on post-humanism by Marc O’Connell (To Be A Machine, published 2017) - it came spontaneously when I was creating the film storyboard.

The bodies in your film are part human, part machine. How did you achieve this effect?

By 3D modelling. I love to enhance or deform the human body in CGI, it allows me to tell a story I would otherwise not be able to.

What was the thought process behind using a contortionist as well as a model?

It would be too easy for me to bend a model into extreme shapes digitally. I wanted the reality and rawness of a real human body going to extremes like this, and so I captured this on an actual contortionist. The model as the passive spectator needed to be a strong woman, confident in her power and position.

What fascinates you about body augmentation?

The fact that we are at the point that we can transcend our natural condition. Enhance our bodies to ease into humanity's next evolutionary step.

Along with the contortionist poses, the chains and mouth piece add a feeling of darkness. What scares you about how technology is affecting humanity?

There is not much about technology that scares me, it opens a new narrative for us. But I do think we have to embrace it in the right way. We were provided with the capacity to create technology, so I believe technological development is an inevitable next step. It is up to humanity how we insert it into our lives (for good or for bad).

Process images from 'Ceremonial Formality' (2020)

Dogukan Nesanir, stylist

What was your approach to styling this film? 

The main approach was to have a powerful impact: thinking about power dressing for women. I wanted to create a strong signature style that would be more silently understood rather than screaming, ‘LOOK AT ME, I’M WEARING COOL DESIGNERS!’ The mix between with all those layers and designers, from emerging brands to big houses, helps creating the atmosphere for the film, and the characters in it. 

How did working with a contortionist affect your styling process?

It was very interesting, as a lot of fabrics and shapes wouldn’t work for her poses, but on the other hand, the styling needed to be tight on the body to avoid problems with the 3D scanning. It was challenging! But at the end, the looks that we created and shot were amazing on her - her work brought them to life in a new way. 

The use of machinery and electronics alongside female bodies suggests a new kind of woman: who do you think she is?

I think she is someone bold, brave, and really, really strong.

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