How did it start?
“Synthetic Pleasures started in Japan, summer 93. The director was studying in Korea and read about the amazing indoor beaches and indoor ski resorts in Japan and decided to gather footage for a short film on these controlled environments. She later got so involved with the subject that she decided to expand the film into a full length version adding sections on synthetic bodies, minds and the impact of modern technologies on our culture.
Material for the film came from original 16mm footage (45 hours’ worth), original Hi-8 video footage, 3D0 games, internet downloads, 3rd source computer animation, and archival footage. The final film is a 35mm blowup, with dolby A sound.”
Shot on location in Yokohama, Tokyo, Miyazaki, New York, Boston, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Francisco, Walnut Creek, San Jose, Berkeley, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Detroit.
Time frame of production: 2 years (summer 93-95).
“Is reality obsolete? From low-tech function like body piercing and artificially-stocked fishing pools, to the latest in bionics and VR gaming, iara lee’s cyber-age intellectual survey—call it a *.DOCumentary—downloads a Future Shockful of data and defines the parameters of advanced technologies that delete nature and reprogram mankind. Cryonics defy death; the Internet exists outside time and space; smart drugs and surgery upgrade the mind and body. But are we headed toward human optimization or system crash? Timothy Leary, RU Sirius, Lisa Palac, John Barlow, and others offer sound bytes against a mesmerizing screen display of cutting-edge computer graphics and archival clips. Exhilarating and disturbing, Synthetic Pleasures raises issues nobody today can afford to abort / retry / ignore.”
Synthetic Pleasures could be considered essential viewing for Becoming Magazine. It is reminiscent of Adam Curtis documentaries, although more subtle, more artistic, and certainly more hopeful. Instead of just systematically listing-off everything that has gone wrong in the last century (although such a thing has its value), Synthetic Pleasures yearns for some hopeful future. There is no resistance in its concern about how technologies are changing things, and that we have to be extremely cautious of potential emergent threats, but Iara Lee seems to be extremely curious about the absurd but wonderful side of technology and its transformative power, poising infant of the camera so many curious and interesting people and equally interesting ideas. Without getting into the entire Walter Benjamin vs Adorno thing, it is not a strong position to be wholly for or against technology, but to instead see technology as a transformative practice that causes re-arrangements that bring with them all kinds of new challenges; where the technologies of mechanical reproduction brought the destruction of cultic-auric powers being utilised by Fascists, the same technologies brought a whole set of new problems, and actually helped forge a new-Fascism that is probably best understood through Deleuze & Guattari’s concept of ‘Control Societies’. Technology, then, is this double-edged sword, and it must be treated with a complex position that refrains from absolute.
For example, in the opening there is a pervading ominous atmosphere as narrators and interviewees discuss how humans are using technology to both transform the world around them and control it, and to build a new world to eventually move into. Technology reflects a collective pursuit to build a better world in place of this one that, to some, seems defined by the limits of resources and the limits of the human body. The documentary shows various ways that humans are building a bubble around them, as if detailing the emergence of hyperreality. It depicts Times Square as a disorienting labyrinth of advertisements on LED screens, it depicts people banishing themselves to virtual realms in cyberspace, and, as a particularly interesting example, it depicts Las Vegas as a kind of Virtual Reality - it looks like a collection of computer generated buildings have been pasted on a road in the Nevada Desert: “i always say when people ask me what virtual reality is, i tell them to think of las vegas, an example of where the map has become so substantial that you can actually walk around in it and feel they are in a real reality even though it is all created”
Such places as Dubai seem to be the modern equivalent of this non-digital Virtual Reality, where the Image of Capital has become so substantial that you can actually go there, and walk around, buy things, play mini-games. How many steps removed are certain Dubaian seven-star hotels from the Virtual Reality of “Westworld”?
While the documentary maintains a stern attitude in many cases, the music helps achieve this pervasive sense of excitement for the potential good that could come of this technology. The soundtrack is amazing, take for example the scene at 24:00: while the mood was still stern, the emergence of an uplifting synth wave track swings the mood towards excitement, at and the director uses this euphoric surge to move into a charming scene about the role of technology in the Trans community from people such as Arman Ra and Amanda Lepore, and two Neon-Rave Cyber Goths talking about things you might find in Sadie Plant’s ‘Zeroes + Ones’, such as how exposure to technology alone can change how you think, which is a wink at Ada Lovelace. We are rapidly moving towards “total control”, drugs to control your mood and hormones, medical technology to cure diseases, sanitary technologies to prevent them, and an imaginative desire to create nano-technologies, cyborg humans, genetic modification; there is an undeniable desire to use technology to become God-like which is at once terrifying and euphoric.
There is a rapid pace to the visual sequences, which again are driven by well selected techno, techno-ambient, intelligent-dance-music, future breaks and synth wave backing tracks, which constantly reinforces the lucid or trippy and non-stop march of technologically-enhanced life. With technology comes this constant pulse, we are being bombarded from all directions by stimuli. As if having learned something profound in the filming of “Modulations”, the documentary uses momentary dips into rave and drug culture as a way of dosing the viewer. By suddenly plunging the viewer into rave music, homages to MDMA and rapid fire images of raves, dancers, DJs, computer screens and 3D animations, the viewer momentarily gets high and can ride that buzz through the next scenes, again having playful results as they talk about smart drugs and so on. Then, again suddenly, the music cuts out, and you are left alone in a room with Timothy Leary talking to you, very close to the screen, seeming more like a psychedelic-alien praying mantis as your ears ring from the ecstatic rave music cutting out. It’s a clever way to make a point about technology, because Iara Lee and the production crew use intelligent post-production methods and technologies to create these immersive sequences out of high-quality video footage that is literally of and about technology. It’s cool tech all the way down. Each layer, the music, the content of the video (in terms of what it depicts), the video itself (in terms of how it is filmed and shot and engineered), and how those videos are arranged to create flow. It’s cool that this can be done, it creates some excitement, it creates some optimism or hope. There is palpable balance between stern cynicism and awareness of the dangers, and the adolescent excitement of the potential amazing things that can come with technology. Ultimately, it would make sense to infer that Iara Lee is setting up the chance for the viewer to realise that the line between the potential dangers and the potential virtues of emergent technology ultimately comes down to the human, to the application of the technology. That in of itself may not be necessarily new or cutting, to say that it is the humans, it is us, who will ultimately tilt the balance towards doom or virtue, the documentary does an effective job of asking the audience the question of “which future do you want?”, because apparently we are much closer than we perhaps think to a point where technology simply becomes so powerful that we essentially succeed in creating some kind of idealised enclosure.
Michio Kaku states this outright in the ending, where he describes technology as the sword, and what is done with the sword is up to the wielder, but in the end, instead of veering towards cynicism, we are revisited by the sound of Tranquility Bass, an optimistic crescendo returning us to the hopeful beginning, which tilts the words of Michio Kaku towards a sweet, optimistic close.
The aftertaste is that of Becoming, a certain openness to the Future, a certain experience of… “you know what, there is a chance we might swing this”… a certain coyness and yearning to be taken and embraced by some positive outcome.