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  • Cinematic assemblage: Sinofuturist worldbuilding and the smart city

Lek, Lawrence, 2022, Thesis, Cinematic assemblage: Sinofuturist worldbuilding and the smart city PhD thesis, Royal College of Art.

Abstract or Description:

New forms of digital surveillance have given rise to a data-driven urban condition, one where machine vision increasingly determines mobility and navigation. The ‘cinematic assemblage’, as I term it, refers to a machinic agent that contains many of the sensory, recording, and representational components required to create cinema, but is itself an object of cinematic interest. Framed through surveillance studies, theories of digital cinema, and critical legal frameworks, I investigate how filmmaking practice conducted entirely within a video game engine can embody the logic of two interrelated forms of cinematic assemblage—the smart city and the self-driving car. The resulting feature-length animated film, Death Drive, draws from liberatory practices in non-Western Futurism to formulate a legal fiction about the emergence of electronic personhood within contemporary China.

Cinematic assemblage operates through posthuman approaches to distributed agency and embodied vision. This enables an analysis of the smart city and self-driving car as being coconstitutive, with both continually monitoring each other in an enmeshed system of sensing and control. To understand the hierarchy of sensorial regimes in this larger assemblage, I present a particular approach to image production. My practice explores the creation of virtual cinematographic apparatus in video game engines, using filmmaking to embody active and agential characteristics of digital surveillance systems. Based on existing self-driving car imagery, the rendered footage used to compose the film is constructed entirely within the game engine, but also references the coordinates and language of existing data and systems. This builds upon Harun Farocki’s notion of operational images to explore how a reflexive approach to filmmaking can address how surveillance functions in the smart city.

In the process of developing the film, I ask how to situate my research without perpetuating either Chinese exceptionalism or Western coloniality. I look to Futurist practices that interrogate the privileged position of the human, reconfiguring narratives from the perspective of the Other. Accordingly, I treat both smart city and self-driving car as nonhuman protagonists. Set in SimBeijing, a fictional research city on the China-Russia border, Death Drive examines the unique conditions of Chinese technological development — as noted by Yuk Hui and Anna Greenspan among others—to speculate on how the social and legal implications of digital surveillance may manifest within a Sinofuturist context.

The narrative couples the nonhuman, a key figure in Sinofuturism, with the legal fiction of electronic personhood. This is grounded through problem-centred interviews conducted with legal experts and forensic researchers, drawing together the frameworks of criminal investigation and detective story. By formulating a hypothetical crime involving a selfdriving car, the film circumscribes the nonhuman within the sphere of criminality and liability. This approach challenges humanist conceptions of AI as a disembodied mind, envisioning the electronic Other as a political subject whose legal personhood emerges from the consequences of its corporeal action.

Qualification Name: PhD
Subjects: Creative Arts and Design > W200 Design studies > W210 Graphic Design > W212 Multimedia Design
Creative Arts and Design > W200 Design studies > W210 Graphic Design > W213 Visual Communication
Creative Arts and Design > W600 Cinematics and Photography > W620 Cinematography
School or Centre: School of Communication
Funders: Stavros Niarchos Foundation Machine Learning Scholarship
Uncontrolled Keywords: Cinema; Simulation; Gaming; Surveillance; Worldbuilding
Date Deposited: 20 Apr 2022 10:58
Last Modified: 20 Apr 2022 10:58
URI: https://researchonline.rca.ac.uk/id/eprint/5030
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