The technology that surrounds us, our latops, phones, tablets, begins its life somewhere vastly different from an Apple store. Produced in China, its journey is a vast and mostly unknown one—to most of us, anyway. Before it leaves one of China's megaports on a cargo ship, it's assembled in factories, raw materials processed in refineries, and the rare-earth minerals that are their fundamental beginnings, sought in the mines of Inner Mongolia.
That epic process is what the students of nomadic research studio Unknown Fields, run by architects Liam Young and Kate Davies, witnessed in an expedition to South East Asia, which began in South Korea, traveled through China, and ended in Hong Kong. "We travel around the world with a selected group of students and collaborators exploring the landscapes behind the scenes of technology, looking at the places where our world is actually produced," explains Young to The Creators Project. "We treat these often unseen and forgotten sites as location shoot for a film and we develop narrative projects that are designed to raise awareness about these conditions and reimagine how we might think of them."
One such film born from the trip is Blue-Eyed Me by filmmaker Alexey Marfin. Marfin's seven-minute short is a speculative piece that ponders what a world might be like when the cost of sequencing a person's genome is so cheap that the practice becomes ubiquitous—and around it, an entire industry arises where people can order personalized fish produced from their own DNA.
Included in the film is the idea of self-curation of the social media profiles we nurture so lovingly, along with the algorithm-driven commodification of our online lives and search histories. "It's a film about the post-personal economy of the 21st century, where you are the commodity," says Marfin. "Everything you are and everything you do is monetized and given value. Nothing is unique. If, traditionally, pets are said to look like their owners, then the pets of the 21st century are personalized profile organisms, tailored to your tastes and desires."
In the film's imagined futurem, people purchase DNA-encoded fish as pets, fish which are bio-engineered to contain the features of their owners, becoming a kind of living social profile. In the film, a fish is ordered by a woman in London, complete with her "unique" blue eyes, and we are then taken back along the production line of the company that manufactured it, as the film reinterprets the supply chains of South East Asia to become those of a futuristic biotech industry that produces human genome-coded animals.
Included in the film are references to places like the world's largest biotech manufacturer, located in Shenzhen, and the fish markets of Hong Kong.
"A lot of the film's world comes from traveling around and seeing things, and in that sense the biotech labs were definitely an inspiration. There were fish that were designed to grow four times faster and three times as big, or a room with only female scientists allowed, as they were working with embryos and the presence of a male hormone would mess things up. But I wouldn't single out just the biotech—I think it's more of a bigger picture; that commodification of identity that I was looking for."
The film uses footage shot on location at the Hong Kong markets and the Chinese factories, and combines it with VFX to create its imagined large-scale manufacturing.
"When I was writing the script, I had in mind these 'hybrid' places—you take a location, you transform it a bit, and then combine it with something else, another location you've seen, or some CGI/VFX elements. I come from a visual effects background previously and, you know; it's probably somehow permeated my way of thinking—treating locations as completely malleable. There's [also] sort of a Western interpretation of South East Asia as a high-tech exotic neverland. The film plays with that, too, setting up these two apparently opposite worlds before they come together in the end, in a single chain of events."
The wholesale malls become places where the DNA-encoded organisms are bought and sold, and factories become vast aquariums full of cloned fish. And then looms the daunting realization that the tailored pet the protagonist thought was just for her, something exclusive and unique, is quite the opposite. Her very biological essence becomes a product, her DNA becomes another resource to be mined, cast adrift in the ebbs and flows of the global market economy.
"I'm interested in new social interactions in contemporary culture, and I wanted to tell a story that taps into certain attitudes we have from social media," says Marfin. "For example, there's a culture of the perfect Facebook profile, a culture of narcissism where we love ourselves and create online profiles to share this 'perfect image' of ourselves with the world. And at the same time, there's an economy capitalizing on this—analyzing our 'likes,' tastes, photos, desires—in essence, monetizing our 'perfect' profiles and lifestyles. In 2014, people were digitally worth less than $1 each to companies like Acxiom or other data brokers. It's a remarkable relationship, between self-love and self-commodification. But I didn't want to just make a film about people browsing Facebook, as I was interested in the emotions of it, rather than a direct explanation. So I chose to express it less literally, and that's where the fish comes in. I wanted to draw that parallel—to say that your Facebook profile is a little customized pet that sort of looks like you."
Find out more about the film on Alexey Marfin's website.