Morbid streaks

Two fascinating documentaries on how we respond to mortality.

To Tibetan Buddhists, sky burials are sacred. To tourists, they’re a morbid curiosity
Filmed in 2011, the US director Russell O Bush’s short documentary Vultures of Tibet offers a small window on to cultural tensions on the Tibetan Plateau. Set in the historically Buddhist town of Taktsang Lhamo, home to two monasteries, the film is centred on the practice of sky burials, in which the bodies of the Tibetan dead are fed to wild griffon vultures. For the town’s Tibetan Buddhist population, it is a sacred means of helping the dead’s spirit transition to the next life – a final earthly offering to creatures believed to have the wisdom of deities. However, for much of the rest of the world, the tradition is a morbid curiosity, and increasingly attracts unwelcome tourists, whose pictures end up in all corners of the internet.

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“If a group of Tibetans were to surround a Chinese funeral and watch, laugh, and take pictures, it wouldn’t be tolerated.”

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From the mountains of Tibet, to the miniatures of the US.

Dieorama
Abigail Goldman spends her work days as an investigator for a public defender’s office in Washington state, helping people who are seriously in trouble—which can mean hours of staring at grisly pictures of crime scenes, visiting morgues, even observing autopsies. By night, she dreams up gruesome events, which she then turns into tiny, precise dioramas. Rife with scenes of imminent death and brutal dismemberment, the fruits of Goldman’s painstaking labor would be adorable … if they weren’t so disturbing.

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Images of Hong Kong

I felt that last post about China was a little negative, but perhaps this one about the amazing imagery of Hong Kong might redress the balance.

Fan Ho’s street photography of 50s & 60s Hong Kong
Dubbed the “Cartier-Bresson of the East”, Fan Ho patiently waited for ‘the decisive moment’; very often a collision of the unexpected, framed against a very clever composed background of geometrical construction, patterns and texture. He often created drama and atmosphere with backlit effects or through the combination of smoke and light. His favorite locations were the streets, alleys and markets around dusk or life on the sea.

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Housing there looks a little different now, especially in Kowloon. Here’s Toby Harriman’s take on that (via Laughing Squid).

The Block Tower // Hong Kong Aerial
For years I have seen pictures of these public housing/apartment tower blocks being built and knew that they were something I wanted to see and document for myself. Rather than just creating stills from these, I went with the goal of taking abstract videos and displaying them more like art, showing off their true scale.

The Block Tower, by Toby Harriman

Interestingly, he says that “Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated areas in the world, with an overall density of an estimated 6,300 people per square kilometer”, but there are no people to be found anywhere in the images he captures, just the occasional glimpses of laundry drying on balconies. I think the photos feel a little unreal as a result, simply too immense to get your head round.

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Crazy colour schemes, though.

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Whilst the drone footage is impressive, I think I prefer Michael Wolf’s more atmospheric interpretation, Architecture of Density, from a while back. Looks like glitch art.

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Michael Wolf photographs the architecture of density
The structural urban fabric of the city of Hong Kong is one of the most astonishingly condensed, populated and vertical in the world, propelling its edifices soaring into the sky to contend with the lack of lateral space. German photographer Michael Wolf — and current resident of the Chinese metropolis — has captured a series of images that acutely acknowledge the landscape’s overwhelming concentration of soaring buildings and skyscrapers. ‘Architecture of Density’ is a collection of large scale works, which focuses on repetition of pattern and form to cause an infinitely complex visual reaction and rediscovers the city scenes by highlighting its forest-like expanse of high rises.

It’s not just the grand scale that interests him, though.

Michael Wolf captures abstract, accidental sculptures in Hong Kong alleyways
For over 20 years Michael Wolf has been photographing Hong Kong. During that time he has captured the towering pastel facades of its high rise architecture in a vein similar to Thomas Struth or Andreas Gursky, but perhaps more interestingly he has delved into the hidden maze of the city’s back alleys. What he found and has faithfully documented, are the innumerable abstract urban still lifes seen throughout. All the city’s flotsam and jetsam, from clusters of gloves and clothes hangers, to networks of pipes and a full colour spectrum of plastic bags, are photographed in strange, but entirely happenstance arrangements.

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And check this out for an unusual point of view.

Chan Dick’s aerial photos of a Hong Kong fire station taken from a toilet window
“One day I was busy in my workshop when I heard a noise coming from the bathroom. Curious, I opened the window and looked down and saw firefighters playing volleyball,” explains Chan. “For the next month, I dedicated myself to observation and bit by bit discovered the routine of this small unusual space.”

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China’s fear of losing control

This isn’t quite the brave new world we were hoping these new technologies would enable.

Davos: George Soros calls Xi Jinping a “dangerous opponent” of open societies
Soros said he wanted to “call attention to the mortal danger facing open societies from the instruments of control that machine learning and artificial intelligence can put in the hands of repressive regimes.” Echoing recent concerns raised about China’s use of facial-recognition technology, Soros asked: “How can open societies be protected if these new technologies give authoritarian regimes a built-in advantage? That’s the question that preoccupies me. And it should also preoccupy all those who prefer to live in an open society.”

Tracing his critique of authoritarian governments to his own childhood under Nazi occupation in Hungary, Soros, who is now 88, urged the Trump administration to take a harder stance on China. “My present view is that instead of waging a trade war with practically the whole world, the US should focus on China,” he said

The complicated truth about China’s social credit system
What’s troubling is when those private systems link up to the government rankings — which is already happening with some pilots, she says. “You’ll have sort of memorandum of understanding like arrangements between the city and, say, Alibaba and Tencent about data exchanges and including that in assessments of citizens,” Ohlberg adds. That’s a lot of data being collected with little protection, and no algorithmic transparency about how it’s analysed to spit out a score or ranking[.]

[…]

The criteria that go into a social credit ranking depends on where you are, notes Ohlberg. “It’s according to which place you’re in, because they have their own catalogs,” she says. It can range from not paying fines when you’re deemed fully able to, misbehaving on a train, standing up a taxi, or driving through a red light. One city, Rongcheng, gives all residents 1,000 points to start. Authorities make deductions for bad behaviour like traffic violations, and add points for good behaviour such as donating to charity.

Running a red light is one thing, but what if you’re a journalist investigating corruption and misconduct?

Chinese blacklist an early glimpse of sweeping new social-credit control
What it meant for Mr. Liu is that when he tried to buy a plane ticket, the booking system refused his purchase, saying he was “not qualified.” Other restrictions soon became apparent: He has been barred from buying property, taking out a loan or travelling on the country’s top-tier trains.

“There was no file, no police warrant, no official advance notification. They just cut me off from the things I was once entitled to,” he said. “What’s really scary is there’s nothing you can do about it. You can report to no one. You are stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

In China, facial recognition tech is watching you
Megvii, meanwhile, supports the state’s nationwide surveillance program, which China, with troubling inferences, calls Skynet. Launched in 2005, Skynet aims to create a nationwide panopticon by blanketing the country with CCTV. Thanks to Face++, it now incorporates millions of A.I.-enhanced cameras that have been used to apprehend some 2,000 suspects since 2016, according to a Workers’ Daily report.

[…]

Jeffrey Ding, an Oxford University researcher focused on Chinese A.I., believes there is more pushback in the West against deploying facial recognition technology for security purposes. “There’s more willingness in China to adopt it,” he says, “or at least to trial it.”

But there’s also less freedom to oppose the onslaught. “The intention of these systems is to weave a tighter net of social control that makes it harder for people to plan action or push the government to reform,” explains Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

The line from Soros about the danger from “the instruments of control that machine learning and artificial intelligence can put in the hands of repressive regimes” chimes with what I’m reading in James Bridle’s new book, New Dark Age.

May we live in interesting times.

A new moon?

I can’t help but think this comes under the ‘just because we can, doesn’t mean we should’ heading.

Chinese city to replace street lights with orbiting artificial moon by 2020
Within two years, the city of Chengdu aims to swap out its ground-based street lighting with the soft glow of an artificial moon, casting light across 50 square miles of the urban landscape. […]

Reflective panels on board the machine will pick up and redirect the sun’s rays. The satellite will actually glow multiple times brighter than the moon itself, creating a dusk-like atmosphere on demand. The precise illumination can be varied in different sections of the city as well.

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I’m sure it’s very technically impressive and will put Chengdu on the map, but…

A Chinese company has plans for an artificial moon to replace streetlights
Meanwhile, other groups are trying to make the world dark again. A 2016 study showed that more than 80% of the world, and 99% of people in the US and Europe, live in “light-polluted” areas, where the sky’s natural glow has been altered by artificial light from buildings and street lamps. Entire cities, like Flagstaff, Arizona and Ketchum, Idaho, are actively working to reduce light emissions at night. Both are certified “dark sky communities” by a group called the International Dark Sky Association, which offers dark sky designations to towns, parks, reserves, sanctuaries, and other places actively working towards a “more natural night sky.”

I remember first reading about dark sky initiatives when we went to the Kielder Observatory, within the Northumberland Dark Sky Park. This fake moon does seem to be a move in the wrong direction.

Sonic art in Taiwan

What can one do with a 10 metre high brutalist concrete speaker on a Taiwanese island that was used to blare out propaganda across the sea to China? Use it as the venue for “Sonic Territories”, of course.

Beishan Broadcast Wall: Taiwan’s eerie sonic weapon
It is the Beishan Broadcast Wall on one of Taiwan’s Kinmen Islands, just 2km (1.2 miles) away from China’s Xiamen city. Built in 1967, the broadcast wall used to be a strategic military stronghold that played a key role in sonic warfare across the straits, blasting out anti-communist propaganda. Nearly three decades after the tower stopped functioning, a group of artists based in Berlin and Taiwan are turning the forgotten historical site into an experimental art stage that investigates the idea of ‘territories’ beyond the conventional definition.

Such a strange place. It’s difficult to imagine what life must have been like to live there during that time.

The interaction with the local people during the performance, however, can only faintly bridge the gap between young Taiwanese and history. “To me Kinmen is an insane place. We visit the islands as if they were a history museum or a cabinet of curiosity. People there still live in another era, and young Taiwanese cannot imagine how they felt living under the terror of dictatorship,” Chang says.

ArtAsiaPacific: Sonic Territories Performance Recap
Berlin-based French artist Augustin Maurs’ segment reflected on the opposition between sound and silence in relation to trauma. His sound piece, played via the wall of speakers, comprised incantations of statements about that duality—sound and silence—including a translated, Mandarin version of a gut-wrenching speech made in opposition to gun violence by 16-year-old Emma Gonzalez in the wake of Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting earlier this year. In explaining his work, Maurs told ArtAsiaPacific: “It is about silence and the act of choosing when to speak, even when one does not necessarily wish to do so.”

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Aural exhibition inspired by Kinmen’s Beishan Broadcast Wall bound for Berlin
Yang said instead of focusing on the pain caused by war, the exhibition emphasizes blessings, peace and the need to cloak the former battlefield with a sense of spiritual calm. It is also an attempt to heighten international awareness of Kinmen’s complicated history and the development of democracy in Taiwan, she added. […]

According to Yang, recordings of Kinmen residents detailing life on the island, as well as the sounds of the waves, wind and other signature aspects of the local soundscape, will take center stage at the Berlin leg of the exhibition. These are to be complemented by an atmospheric video capturing the visual contrast between Beishan and the nearby shoreline.

You can see that shoreline with Google Maps, as well as get a sense of the distances these broadcasts were originally travelling, across to China.

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Bei Shan Precipices

Or take a trip there to see for yourself.

Beishan Broadcasting Wall: Classic Kinmen Travel
Situated on the cliff on Beishan, the Broadcasting Wall was built to protect speakers in the broadcasting station, and has a square shape formed with 48 speakers. From the exterior, it looks like a hive, and the sound can travel as far as 25 kilometers… And is the only tourist site all over the country where visitors can announce and spread propaganda mimicking a psychological warfare.

Is there such a thing as geographical psychology?

I’d never heard of this comic before, but I can certainly relate a little to it.

Finnish nightmares
Meet Matti, a stereotypical Finn who appreciates peace, quiet and personal space. Matti tries his best to do unto others as he wishes to be done unto him: to give space, be polite and not bother with unnecessary chit chat. As you might’ve guessed, it can’t always go that way.

Perhaps I’m slightly Finnish?

Are you socially awkward, or just “spiritually Finnish?”
If you find it awkward to make small talk, you may be “jingfen” (精芬) or “spiritually Finnish.” That’s the newly coined Chinese buzzword for a burgeoning identity taking hold among millennials.

Or a little Chinese?

Why do millions of Chinese people want to be ‘spiritually Finnish’?
Matti’s fear of crowds and small talk and his tendency to be easily embarrassed has struck a chord with many Chinese readers, who seem relieved that their longing for privacy has finally been voiced – via the medium of a stick figure from a faraway country. But it’s Finnish culture itself – of which privacy and personal space have long been part – that has also struck a chord.

Not sure where the ‘smart’ is anymore

Smart speakers. Smartphones. They, and the world they belong to, feel less and less smart each day.

Underpaid and exhausted: the human cost of your Kindle
In the Chinese city of Hengyang, we find a fatigued, disposable workforce assembling gadgets for Amazon, owned by the world’s richest man.

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Talk in the factory is of agency workers being laid off without pay during quiet periods: 700 in April and May, and 2,700 in January and February. Yet among the workers there is no great simmering anger, no burning resentment. Few have heard of Amazon or Bezos. They aren’t expecting very much and aren’t particularly disappointed when not very much is exactly what Foxconn and Amazon give them.

One 32-year-old married man says he can earn a basic 2,000 yuan (£233) a month making Kindles, but even with overtime taking it up to around £315 it is not enough.

It’s crazy to think that they work such long hours for such low pay, without being aware of how much money these companies are making, as a result of their work.

And it’s crazy to think that not joining in with this is now seen as outlandish and controversial.

This is what it’s like to not own a smartphone In 2018
Four years ago, I wrote about having no regrets for being a “dumb phone” user. At the time I was an anomaly: 58% of Americans, according to Pew researchers, owned a smartphone; that figure was around 80% for people in my age demographic. Now, I’m a clear oddity: 77% of U.S. adults are smartphone users, as are around 90% of my peers.

But, oh well. I don’t plan on changing tack anytime soon. Here’s why. …

My life without a smartphone
The problem is, divided out like that, we are left as partially everywhere and fully nowhere. We live with a constant Fear of Missing Out; but in need to fill the moments documenting life and making sure we don’t miss an email or update, we miss out being present in life, a sentiment beautifully illustrated in the viral “I forgot my phone” short film from last year.

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I wonder if those Foxconn workers have any idea what that video’s on about.

A different kind of classical music #2

The extraordinary physical and mental demands of performing Sichuan opera
With origins deep in southern China’s folk storytelling and music customs, Sichuan opera is characterised by traditional instrumentation, a distinctive singing style, elaborate, colourful costumes, changing masks that reflect characters’ emotional states, and daring stunts including martial arts, acrobatics and fire-breathing.

Another video from Noah Sheldon, who made that documentary about the styrofoam collector from Shanghai. Other people’s lives can be extraordinary, can’t they?

See also this post about Indian classical music.

You think your work life balance is tough?

You start off expecting to be amused by the ridiculously overburdened bike, but end up saddened by that overburdened mum.

A migrant worker’s daily circus-like balancing act is a surreal reflection of China’s economy
As China shifted from a small-farm economy to an industrial powerhouse over the past generation, there’s been an enormous demographic shift, with some 282 million migrant labourers splitting their time between cities and their rural homes. For Wo Guo Jie, who makes her living in Shanghai collecting styrofoam boxes from markets and reselling them to a seafood wholesale market, this transformation has meant spending as many as three years at a time away from her family farm, where her children sometimes barely recognise her when she returns.