Chinese visual artist Xu Bing is primarily an installation based artist. But in 2017, he made his film directorial debut with Dragonfly Eyes, snagging the FIPRESCI Prize and Special Mention: Ecumenical Jury at the Locarno International Film Festival 2017. Dragonfly Eyes continues Xu’s ongoing exploration of communication and the way we interact, carefully editing down over 11,000 hours of footage obtained from surveillance cameras to create a completely unstaged, original story.
By attempting to find meaning and narrative in the visual chaos, Xu uses new mediums to unearth themes of identity and construction, formulating a film both heartbreaking and thought-provoking. We asked Xu more about the process of creating such a film, and the implications and impact of surveillance cameras in society today. Read the interview in full below:
Bakchormeeboy: How did you come up with the idea for Dragonfly Eyes, and what is the meaning behind its title?
Xu Bing: In 2013, I was watching a ‘reality’ program about legal issues on TV which contained some surveillance-camera footage. I remember finding surveillance-camera material rather striking and intriguing. The people in the images were unaware that they were being photographed, which generated a strong sense of reality, and the images themselves had unique perspective and compositions. This underlined the reason that surveillance cameras are installed in the first place: to record as much information as possible within the frame. And so surveillance-camera images have qualities that are quite novel and non-conceptual. It struck me that using this kind of footage to make a feature-length fiction film would be a very valuable project.
As for its title, a dragonfly has 28,000 eyes, blinking 40,000 times per second. I wanted to apply this concept to the surveillance cameras that exist all over the place in today’s world. Our film depicts a world no-one knows about, a world seen through the “dragonfly eyes” of surveillance cameras. These all-seeing “eyes” observe the protagonist of the film, a young woman named Qing Ting (literally ‘Dragonfly’). Can they reveal something invisible to human’s naked eye?
Bakchormeeboy: How long did it take to create this film, considering the hours of footage and editing that would have to be done?
Xu Bing: I started on this project in 2013, however, due to limited access to necessary resources at the time, I had to suspend the project until 2015, before finally finishing the film in 2017. Over the course of those two years, my team and I collected and browsed over 11,000 hours of surveillance camera footage. The editing team and I then spent at least 3000 hours to look at the selected images. Of course, sometimes we used fast forwards to speed up the process.
Bakchormeeboy: How much of the film was staged, and if it was not, was it difficult to get footage from the surveillance cameras?
Xu Bing: I require every image from the movie to be taken from authentic surveillance camera footage, in which no photographer is involved. We have no actors, either.
When I first started the idea in 2013, I had no access to legally acquire surveillance camera footage. However, in 2015, the surveillance cameras in China started to be connected to the cloud database system, and suddenly countless surveillance recordings were streamed online. There were even some websites streaming live video caught by the kind of surveillance cameras you see everywhere. That was the point where I took up the project again and started to collect this newly available footage.
Bakchormeeboy: As we move into an increasingly globalized world, should we be more afraid of surveillance, or welcome it as the new normal?
Xu Bing: I didn’t set out to directly discuss surveillance in this film. The fact that we can narrate a story vividly by using surveillance footage tells us something about the way we relate to surveillance these days. It encourages us to think more about the human situations we encounter today.
During the years we worked on this project, surveillance video developed rapidly. Live streaming online is developing even more rapidly. The film not only reflects the surveillance-cameras but also the rise of video-blogging and site-hosting in China. I think both of them have roots in the emergence of surveillance cameras which feed data into the cloud. But they’re different in certain ways. The use of surveillance sprang from the desire to control crowds and to monitor certain locations. Surveillance serves to acquire factual evidence and to govern it.
These days, though, people’s attitude to surveillance and to its fundamental purpose has changed. At both the governmental level and the popular, first-person level, surveillance is now used very differently from the way it was used in, for example, the cold war period. Clearly many people now try to build connections with the world by presenting themselves online, hoping that this will change their lives. This is a fast-expanding field in China, and there are even training centres and textbooks teaching people how to become Internet celebrities. In some places the Internet celebrity phenomenon has made a significant contribution to the local economy. What’s special about my film is the way it uses materials which are constantly growing and changing.
Bakchormeeboy: You’re primarily a visual artist and Dragonfly Eyes is your film directorial debut. Do you intend to experiment with and explore other mediums in future?
Xu Bing: If I have more ideas for films in future, I’ll continue pursuing them. But I don’t know. I don’t believe that anyone’s artistic path is designed beforehand. Rather, it’s discovered afterwards: “Oh, it turns out that I’m interested in things like this and I work like this.” However, I can certainly say that this film is a continuation of my working methods and my attitude towards art. All of my art projects look different, to the extent that they look like they were made by different people. But deep down they share the same spine, and they explain and highlight aspects of each other.
I don’t approach art through any past art style or school of art, because schools and styles are invented by artists as ways to approach the issues of their time. To discuss today’s issues, I need to use today’s way of talking. I can’t find that in any pre-existing system. I can find it only by exploring today’s lively social contexts.
Dragonfly Eyes plays on 29th November at The Arts House and 30th November at the National Gallery Singapore. Tickets and more information available here
SGIFF 2017 runs from 23rd November to 3rd December across various cinemas and venues. More information and ticket sales available from their website.