chaomingtengstudio at gmail dot com
(presented with collaborator Junhee Kim)
Training an Avatar
You land at the airport. You travel to feed yourself differences. They challenge you to “be at home in the world.” They come to you as a big mass and a big mess. You are excited. Sensations. Exoticism. Differences emerge out of collisions, like it takes two hands to clap. Differences allow you to position yourself. Figuring it out builds and reinforces your neural circuitry as your brain rewards itself with sweets of stability. You categorize to shelve these differences. Differences between what you were told about A and the A in front of your eyes. Differences between the A in front of your eyes and the X that you bring along. You check in the hotel, a procedure that’s pretty universal. You turn on the TV in your room, which is also pretty universal, carefully designed in order to achieve no surprises. Surfing through channels, you stop at a local drama series and notice the rhythm of taking turns, the noddings and scales of smiles. Pretty much everyone in it gets drunk at some point, and you learn how the story blends nationalism with romance. You walk outside. You have become an experienced outsider and acquired the capability of tuning your senses up and down to enjoy the distance when you want to. You locate the locals in order to imitate them, to differentiate yourself from the “tourists.” Up and down the hills, you imagine underground tunnels connecting all military sites hidden underground or in the mountains. You feel the smoothness of the paved road with patches of grey of different shades and shapes. You notice the fashion and makeup, wondering if it has something to do with the food. Food has two states of existence: it has its own clear form, then it is consumed by you and becomes part of you. You assign adjectives to differentiate one city from the other: bumpy and grey. You notice the scales of the sidewalks and buildings, and fonts and materials of the signages. Déjà vu acts like a sneaky ghost, or like something stored in “the Cloud” that is always with you and working in the background. “Does déjà vu have a border?” The conversations, gestures and facial expressions have no depth, confronting your face. Insecurity emerges. Taking a deep breath, you accept it wholly to complete the encounter. Like meeting a new, potential lover, you don’t assume anything. The bombing of differences all of a sudden makes you feel you are at the center of the world. You wonder what are the metaphors in the local language were developed from the sensory experiences of people growing up here. Like this long and straight river bank, which must have been named by these boys and girls, who are trying out different skateboarding tricks afforded by this long and straight river bank.
You are here on a mission. Your project is part of an ambitious one, financed by an institution that has offices across the region while the headquarter is over 8,000 kilometers away. Your project will be placed with others that come from different parts of the whole. You know this presentation together aims at constructing differences and identifying ways of dealing with the shared set of confusions, challenges, and transformations. This is a part of the world that has been branded with harmony and knows how harmony harms. The whole system operates as a system of differences, creating forces that move people and cultures around. Differences are important here, it’s a currency that you can deposit and trade. Your biographical text begins with the place you were born and where you live. You are prescribed a role of representation. You have been learning different skills to modify the hat you are assigned to wear. You are a professional and love yourself the look of being professional. You are mobilized by the growing trend of identifying authenticity as a niche for the global market. You actively hunt for differences to unify your model of the world. You are encouraged to present them in a way that’s different and “you.” Differentiation is your means and goals. Just like the organizations you helped to set up, or any community you identify with, or your country. Be yourself. Find your own voice. Wear that noise-cancelling headphone to shout better. You want diversity. They told you it’s because you are young. You are reminded of Plato’s warning about democracy. You are reminded of the dilemma that interaction between cultures is the survival strategy, while interaction also eliminates cultural diversity. Two sides of the same coin. Melting pots. You are dared to challenge the appeal of “global citizenship.” They said you are naive, pretentious even, whenever you said “Why not?” or “Be open!”
You open the map, examining the economic miracles that you are too young to have experienced. You notice the dotted lines along the coast, some form irregular small circles and some stops with no clear reason. “Are these to be built or already bygones?” Your country was once the leading “dragon,” a nonexistent animal. Highways crisscross the city, transporting goods and representing speed and connectedness. You came across the winning drawings by this legendary architect who designed a sacred monument to connect that symbolic mountain and its capital. The infamous and visionary Co-Prosperity. The tabula rasa days. You notice at the front of the bookstore a gradient of books ranging from hard-core existentialist philosophy to The Obstacle is the Way. The beauty of a spectrum lies in its difficulty to locate borders. You are curious to know how this whole region was assigned the color yellow. You like the blue-ish green and purple glowing orange with a tint of grey. You see on the right a tall shelf of books remembering that mega-total-event which has forever changed the organism of the city, like a series of major surgeries. You wonder where the cut-outs went. Trust the doctors. Images in these books are so small, you feel like a bird flying through history. Such a great view. You bought a book by a foreign correspondent writing about this place, telling its “amazing rise from the ashes,” and calling it the “impossible country.” You bought a book from an author that has been translated into over 30 languages. The story is set back in the days when protesters and students were beaten daily and disappeared. It opens with the line: “It was my first phone call from him in eight years.” Typical formula for luring the target audience like you: turning to “the world,” turning to conflicts and tragedies, and turning to the misty and foggy distant time and space.
Is eight-year long enough to forget something? You have been away from your people for almost eight years. You wonder what memories and traditions were invented while you were gone. You visit the national shrine dedicated to the war dead who fight for the country. You wonder if Archeology 101 was required in college, or the duration of a tick of the clock was one millisecond, how we would have designed the society differently. National narratives want everyone believes they share the same past, present, and therefore the same future. They preach: “We are in the same boat.” You start to imagine an app that helps develop users’ reconciliation capacity by loading into their brains different versions of the same past. Sociologists had predicted twenty years ago human societies are on the way to be “alone together.” Communication is costly. You start to imagine the business opportunities in a future where we lost the drive to deal with differences, where we find no need for speaking and then the system stops running. You were taught that it takes a village to raise a kid, you were told that there is only so much you can do by yourself. You need a team. And it feels great to know you belong to something bigger than yourself. You want those pins on your chest. You have read all these books on team building and leadership. In a flash, a memory appears in your brain: at that team-building retreat you did years ago the whole group of people falling back freely with eyes closed. You start to imagine some trust-building games for all the countries in the region. You start to design the enemies, then risks and uncertainties, without which trust has no place to grow. Like traffic and traffic lights. How to destroy a city? You hack into the traffic system.
You are back in the hotel room after dinner. Sliding open the curtains, through the large floor-to-ceiling window you see the sun sinking into the high-rises and dense urban landscape. You stare at the burning sun for five seconds and by blinking your eyes you stamp dark red dots onto different points in this panoramic view of the city. You open the laptop, create a new file and name it “CT_currentDate.” You start writing for a consulting project, helping clients popularize products to different countries. You jot down many notes and type down all you can think of right now: how to use foreigners to design products that “choreographs the East with the West;” collections of folk songs and color combinations for each culture; the welcoming and forbidden gestures; say “Hi,” “I am very happy to be here,” and “We will be back soon” in different languages; implicitly market sincerity and perseverance; the camera angles, lighting techniques and casting requirements for shooting; attractive and repulsive physical attributes and proportions; cognitive science findings on how humans perceive shining objects and smooth surfaces; the geopolitical realities linking these countries and case studies on taking advantage of them; online behaviors and stereotypes and slang terms. Your goal is to turn all these research into a parametric system with machine learning techniques. In order to examine the whole range of possibilities, you want the system to fluctuate, you feel the need for feeding it randomness and fuzziness.
You go down to the hotel bar to smoke. It’s teeming with all sorts of languages. After a couple of eye contacts this girl approaches you, asking why you are drinking only water. She happens to be a local with quite some experiences of the West, and you know this means things will be under control. The audience murmurs: “Cliché.” You recall reading an article criticizing the app that asks users to swipe left to find the right one. It is launching a new feature that shows users’ education and working histories. The author thinks it diminishes the possibility of social mobility and cross-breeding. Very quickly you learn that she is teaching at an international school that is located in this newly-built neighborhood. It is a grand urban development project that demonstrates how forward-thinking and technology-embedded a city can be. Competitions. Early adopters. Reproductions. Exports. She says she was swimming before coming here. Healthy people, healthy nation. She says she is leaving for Paris for holidays next day, she says she’s not into casual sex. She ends up lying in your bed. You two have a very weird two hours of kissing and cuddling, with both of you naked except the underpants. Both of you are talking with the English part of you, filling the possible misunderstandings with your experiences and imaginations. You two collaborate to achieve the absence of climax, which allows you to imagine the best version of it. Before falling asleep, you wonder if a native-speaking fuck would be more fulfilling. The room is very quiet, sucking in all possible sounds. You hear only the humming of the AC. You realize how greedy you are, you want to claim you have been here and there and there and there, you want yourself to include all possible selves. You get up, come across online this English dictionary of all possible human emotions, and write down into your to-do list those you have not experienced yet.