Sense and the City: Liam Young’s Speculative Cinema

Holly Willis explores Liam Young's "speculative cinema," showing how his work that integrates film, fiction, animation, marketing, games and documentary demonstrates an emergent cinematic form that defies generic boundaries whilst simultaneously reconfiguring the city.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “Experimental Media and the City.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

The city sensed and traced at night by scanners roving the streets renders an evanescent urban landscape, iridescent wisps of buildings sketched briefly before dissolving into bits, trees glitchy and ephemeral with leaves never fully formed. More videogame vista than pictorial panorama, this sense of the city—this sensing city—suggests another form of intelligence as much as it does a new aesthetic of the city, and it is this shift, from the city as backdrop to the city as participatory agent enabled by new technologies and networked infrastructures, that interests architect Liam Young.

Classically trained in architecture, the Australian-born Young has replaced the act of designing buildings with a speculative creative practice that engages with world building and filmmaking to conjure imaginary cities that allow him not only to ponder the roles of architecture and entertainment, but more significantly, to generate scenarios that invite us to participate in imagining our own futures. He has made this hybrid design practice the heart of a new MA program in Fiction and Entertainment housed at SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture), which he now oversees. Integrating film, fiction, animation, marketing, games and documentary, the program investigates how architecture can contribute to these disparate practices, and how these practices can, in turn, inform architecture.

Young has recently produced a series of new short films that practice what he teaches by engaging in a form of world building in order to imagine possible futures. Where the City Can’t See (2016), directed by Young and written by Tim Maughan, is a story told through the point of view of a driverless taxi as it takes a group of factory workers to an illegal rave. While Where the City Can’t See uses scanning technology to generate its imagery, In the Robot Skies: A Drone Love Story (2016), also directed by Young and written by Maughan, is told entirely through imagery captured by drones; it chronicles the travails of a young man and woman who are forbidden to interact. Separated in two separate counsel towers, the couple finds ways to connect despite the aggressive surveillance of the hovering drones.

“What I am interested in exploring is this condition where cities are actually no longer inert conditions but have forms of embedded intelligence,” Young explained recently in an interview, referring not only to the intelligence of the driverless taxi and the drone, but more broadly to the Internet of things and the so-called “smart” city. “What does it mean to occupy and navigate those cities when the city itself is a character that can think, can talk back and can interact in ways they never have before?”

Young goes on to say that he’s particularly interested in the emergence of new subject positions enabled by technologies such as scanners and drones. “The idea of using the Lidar scanner was to depict and describe the city entirely through the machines that now manage it, in order to explore the subject positions that are emerging,” he says. He is referring both to the sense that the scanner and the drone now possess a certain kind of intelligence, as well as the fact that humans are no longer at the center of the world. The waning centrality of the human in the posthuman was embodied in Young’s filmmaking practice. For In the Robot Skies, he divested a great deal of authorial control by providing the drones with certain parameters and letting them make their own cinematographic decisions. “The drones autonomously flew back and forth between the towers capturing the actors who performed a set of choreographed actions over and over.” He continues, “Each drone was making its own choices about how to frame a shot based on how it needed to stabilize itself in the wind and when its battery needed to be changed, so it was really an experiment in this new subject position of technology in the city but also an experiment with drones as storytelling devices.”

Young goes on to note that while we once designed city streets to fit the width of horse-drawn carriages, and defined landmarks with human lines of sight in mind, the design of cities increasingly attends to the needs of technologies. How will driverless cars gauge the edges of streets? How will they discern corners and the differences between the road below, the buildings alongside and the sky above? And where and how will drones fly, land and charge themselves unless the cityscape shifts to accommodate them? “I am interested in exploring what architectural spaces, buildings and cities are now starting to look like when the dominant systems that occupy them are no longer us, but are machines. These are the creatures we are now making our cities for.”

In Where the City Can’t See, we see the city from above and through tracking shots as the car navigates through the streets. The buildings feel ephemeral, and the narrative focal point shifts from the human protagonist; likewise, the mechanism for propelling the story moves away from identification and narrative action to something more akin to surveillance. We track; we listen; and we move methodically.

The formal design of In the Robot Skies is restricted to the various movements of the drones—up and down, across and in-between. The young man and woman are followed, analyzed, tabulated. The imagery includes blocks of information and more than a film with a narrative; this is cinema as surveillance and targeting. The drone’s implacable perspective embodies a kind of omnipotent power and threat. As Steen Ledet Christiansen argues in his analysis of drones and their relationship to action films in Drone Age Cinema: Action Film and Sensory Assault, (2017), “The drone stands as the central object of power today, a conjunction between human and nonhuman agencies, which binds images, intensities, flows and culture together.” Rather than celebrating the capacity of the drone to produce a particular sensation of power within the story, Young instead uses the drone to provoke questions.

Young is fundamentally interested in prompting our engagement with the shifts in the world around us. “I’m trying to implicate the audience in conversations about how these technologies are changing their world and to do so by engendering an emotional relationship to the content. Am I scared of this future that I’m seeing on the screen? Is it intoxicating? Is it wondrous? Is it romantic? Is it daunting? Is it surreal? And through that process people can start to make up their own minds about whether or not these are technologies that one wants to see in the world, or whether they are things that need to be regulated, or that we might run away from screaming.”

Young goes on to consider storytelling specifically. “What I’ve tried to do in this work is develop a language that I would describe as ‘data dramatization’ in which I try to imbue the data with narrative qualities and emotive potential, so that audiences can start to connect on an emotional level to these technologies and data.”

As subjectivity is distributed among machines and the spaces we inhabit are redesigned to accommodate them, it follows that our stories will also necessarily change. Says Young, “Thinking about spaces as narratives, cities and technologies as characters and voices within film in their own right suggests the move away from temporal storylines and human-centric stories with their traditional three-act structures toward something that’s much, much stranger.” He goes on to describe this emerging storytelling paradigm as one that eschews the time-honored linear narrative with its coherent beginning, middle and end, to a form that is more akin to nested stories. “Stories can become entirely fragmented, overlaying meshes of multiple storylines and inputs occurring simultaneously,” he says, suggesting that what becomes significant is the platform through which media are disseminated. “The platform is an inherently spatial medium,” he says, adding, “So I think that it’s a really interesting space we’re in right now, where we’re reinventing some of the rules of cinema again.”

As Young notes, we are indeed seeing the reinvention of the rules of cinema, especially as its boundaries become increasingly permeable; we are witness not simply to the migration of moving images into diverse spaces, such as the city, but a reconfiguring of the cinematic itself as the image is understood to be data, and as representation becomes computation. Similarly, the city is not a stable, material backdrop into which an array of screens and their projections are positioned, but instead part of a dynamic information ecosystem. As Young’s films suggest, we can begin to imagine a continuous, networked unfolding of city and technologies characteristic of a culture of computation. Rather than image and the world, there is a Mobius strip of mutually producing and enfolding, of networked being in a continuous process of re-shaping the visual from the computational.


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