“Humanity is moving towards a state of perpetual freefall", says Rick Farin, the digital artist behind this incredible sci-fi fashion film
Rick Farin’s new short film in collaboration with Xander Zhou, All Under Heaven, presents us with a cast of digital beings, all somewhere between human and nonhuman in varying degrees, occupying vast post-industrial landscapes, just “living out their lives.” From bio-machinery enhanced humans to hyper-futuristic AI robots, Farin’s characters represent “an awe-inspiring infinity of diversity” in this harsh but livable world – a testament to the “incredible resilience of life.”
Living lives that are at the same time ordinary and fantastical, these humaniods work in heavily mechanised, hydroponic agriculture; use 3D scanning “eyes” for archaeological research; fly futuristic kites in a trash-scattered orange wasteland (while wearing Zhou’s AW19 fursuits); all in delightful dissonance to the cold advancement of the interior world. Farin presents us with an aquatic humanoid surgeon operating on a robot, and they’re in love – it’s the perfect example of the everyday lives of the post-human beings of our potential future.
Alongside the visuals is a stunning soundtrack comprised of original work from electronic artists Shayu and City, and PC Music’s Umru, lending the film an ominous darkness, whilst moving it between the stark extremes of the tender and personal and the vast and overwhelming realities of Farin’s post-human world.
We chatted to Farin about bodies, beauty and what it means to be human now and in whatever future we are headed for.
Where did the idea of a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by cyborgs come from?
Rick Farin: Xander approached me last year with the idea of building a themed film in relation to his new collection, loosely about evolution and new species. To me, the world of All Under Heaven isn’t post-apocalyptic at all, and it’s certainly not apocalyptic. I actually see it as very hopeful; not necessarily utopic, but at the very least positive. The title, All Under Heaven, is an ancient Chinese term that indicates (to paraphrase Xander) a metaphysical realm of mortal beings, the space in which the world and everything in it exists. In the context of the film, this is meant to indicate an awe-inspiring infinity of diversity, and the incredible resilience of life. I think the film in a large sense is trying to showcase these ideals; to almost say that everything is alive, or perhaps undead – to recognize our interconnectivity. I’d also say that the film is about recognizing the limitations of semantics and definition, especially related to understanding the impossible question: “What does it mean to be human?” It’s a relatively stupid question, but perhaps today more than ever, it desperately needs answering. This isn’t to say anyone will ever find a definitive answer (they won’t) but I think interrogating and expanding the limits that define our species is an imperative task of a 21st-century humanity.
The soundtrack for the film feels integral to the project – what was the process like working with City and Shayu?
Rick Farin: I have a background as an electronic musician, performing under the name “Eaves,” so music is always an important aspect of every project for me. It’s an organic process of constructing the project as both a film and almost a music video simultaneously – a process that can be kind of taxing for all players involved but it eventually works out. City is a close friend of mine, and I felt like his work lent itself perfectly to the themes and ideas surrounding the film; I did a music video for him last year for his song “Shame Dagger” off of his EP “Skeleton.” Shayu soundtracked Xander’s runway show and, after seeing the show, I realized her music would work so beautifully in the film. Umru (PC Music) also contributed the final track, aptly named “Linkrot,” and for me, that final scene is actually a dialogue between two lovers – a robot and an aquatic humanoid – heavily inspired by some of the material in Umru’s new EP.
What was the idea behind the landscapes and spaces in the film?
Rick Farin: When thinking about evolution, I tried to push it out of the purely biological space and bring it to the scale of planets and stars; thinking about geological time frames and their subsequent analysis. There’s an idea of the “index,” and the means by which semiotics relates to archaeology/geology; ruins, traces and things leftover are what define and represent us. Burtynsky’s “Anthropocene” and Timothy Morton’s ideas on dark ecology were initial reference points in designing the locales of the film: a post-industrial landscape, a ruined building, a dried lakebed, a crater on Mars, a hydroponic farm. All of these locations are post-human, either existing autonomously or evacuated by humanity – recognizing new definitions of nature that arise with human intervention and evaluating the human as a geological player. A city block is a part of nature, a plastic bottle, Jupiter, a bedsheet, a tropical forest, undersea internet cables.
The bodies that exist outside and those that inhabit indoor spaces look very different – can you tell us about how their situations inform their physical appearances?
Rick Farin: Each of the characters has a fictional occupation, for example, “Archie,” the humanoid in the desert scene, is an archaeologist tasked with exploring unknown ruins to collect artifacts, which is why he carries a 3D scanner and his eyes are specially designed for archaeological research. Another character is a “drone whisperer,” a person with attuned transparent broadcasters that allow him to cybernetically communicate with drones, leading them into a meditative dance. Most of the characters are wearing clothing directly taken from or heavily inspired by Xander’s new collection. In some ways, this project is about creating new subcultures and envisioning scenarios and lives for the respective characters. The aquatic humanoid is a surgeon, and he’s in love with his patient, a robot. In reality, none of the activities that the characters are doing are very spectacular, they’re just doing their jobs – living out their lives. The drama is placed upon them, whether through music or composition, and I think that’s where the game engine comes into play. The whole thing could be a cutscene, you know? Taken from some larger video game, and I want it to feel like when the film ends you’re ready to pick up a controller, ready to be immersed. The film is meant to be seen as a kind of documentary, a survey of the daily operations of these characters. It was important to me that the characters all were humanoid in form – the film is not meant to showcase aliens from another planet or some bombastic sci-fi world, but rather vignettes demonstrating an evolved humanity. Characters that are, to a certain extent, relatable.
Can you tell us about the bodies in the film and your feelings about technology and the body now and in the future?
Rick Farin: The body today is somewhat an object of contention as we slowly accelerate to a post-human future. The physicality of our bodies is retreating as more technology gets attached to and injected into us, and as we become more interconnected; our bodies become nodes on networks, systems, and data sets. To some extent, I think the body is starting to exist as a vanishing point, a position on a Google Earth coordinate set, and as Hito Steyerl puts it, humanity is moving towards a state of perpetual freefall. To quote my friend Igor Bragado of Common Accounts, “The ultimate frontier of the Anthropocene may well be the body.” I would like the film to speak to a criticality of engagement with this tangibility, and to quote Igor again, “the body can no longer be ‘whole.’ It is here, it is there, it is pixel, it is flesh, it is appendage, prosthetic, conditioned, enhanced, garment, nutrition, chemistry, and design.” The physical bodies of the characters in the film are but a set of code, etched with a laser onto a piece of rare earth, dug up from Australia, encased in a hard drive and projected as pixels on a screen. I think ultimately, the point at which we lose sight of our physicality is the moment we lose the right to call ourselves human, and so I feel that we must start building new definitions of human and the human body in preparation for what’s to come. All Under Heaven is a model of starting to create those new definitions: an implied infinite multiplicity, a sphere of increasing diversity.
What can you tell us about beauty and how it operates in the world of All Under Heaven?
Rick Farin: Ironically, I think in many ways the term “beauty” now is delegated to scientists – an astronomer is probably much more likely to describe a newly discovered planet as beautiful than an art critic is to call a painting is beautiful… that being said, I believe the term beauty needs to enter back into art practices, just with a redefined and broadened context. One of my favourite philosophers Graham Harman writes about this topic significantly, in relationship to aesthetic theory: beauty is a specific type of allure, and it is perhaps not something placed upon or gifted with gaze to an organism/object, but rather that existence itself is founded upon beauty and aesthetic structure, constructed from the ground up with recognition of the aesthetic experience. To paraphrase Harman: physical causation has a metaphorical structure. It’s a concept that I fully endorse, and in some ways, relates to more spiritual ideas such as animism, in which everything exists in some form of living state; i.e. everything has a soul. Beauty is an object stating exactly what it is while simultaneously revealing some further truth buried inside its aesthetic structure. In the world of All Under Heaven, I’d like to think that this definition of beauty has been fully endorsed, and that the characters live and breath in a kind of intergalactic and interconnected tissue.
The face, as an idea, operates very loosely in the film – they’re masked, hairy, deformed and robotic to different degrees of ‘humanness’. Is this how you see the future of beauty for humans... or whatever we become?
Rick Farin: As I’ve mentioned a few times above, I think we are seeing now a broadening and abstraction of the term “human,” whether that’s in reference to A.I. or the propagation of body modification. The thing about the face, though, is that it is the ultimate visual signifier of the human; emblematic in the popularity of emojis, demonstrating the foundation of aesthetic structure in the construction of our definitions. I think the faces of the characters in the film are not trying to hide anything; they are themselves. If the faces of the characters are saying anything about the future of beauty, I think that they demonstrate a multiplicity of acceptance, and not in a bow to our A.I. overlords kind of acceptance but rather, an inclusivity of radical self-expression – of actors human, nonhuman, and in between.
Director: Rick Farin
Art Assistance: Claire Cochran, Echo Seireeni
Narration: Case Miller
Sound mixed and mastered: Theo Karon
Music: Original work by City, Original work by Shayu, “SAR” and “Pain/Power” by City, “Linkrot” by Umru
Special thanks: Nick Vernet, Andrew Thomas Huang, Isamaya Ffrench, Katja Farin
Graphic artworks: Patrick Müller & Marie Lautsch