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positions: east asia cultures critique 9.2 (2001) 401-422
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Cinema Frames, Videoscapes, and Cyberspace:
Exploring Shu Lea Cheang's Fresh Kill
In his essay “The Ecstasy of Communication,” Jean Baudrillard states that we are in an era of “connections, contact, contiguity, feedback, and generalized interface that goes with the universe of communication.”1 In 1994, video activist and installation artist Shu Lea Cheang produced a feature film and Web site, Fresh Kill, which challenges the viewer to become critically aware of connections that usually go unnoticed because they are buried by the speed and complexity of our contemporary global culture of ecstatic communication.
Fresh Kill comments on communication and attempts to teach the viewer new ways to perceive the world. To do this, the film's elastic and highly eclectic formal structure works in concert with the depiction of the interconnections among what initially appear to be discrete political events, national crises, environmental catastrophes, and personal trials involving racism, sexism, heterosexism, colonialism, and capitalism. However, just as the shell of [End Page 401] the fiction feature film dissipates centrifugally and evolves into video art and hypertextual cyberspace, following a performance/installation/televisual aesthetic, the seemingly scattered references to toxic waste, ethnic tourism, homophobia, and colonialism, among many other issues, merge with a centripetal force that defies linear reasoning. Fresh Kill is not just a radical call for environmentalism, anticapitalism, anti-imperialism, gay/lesbian rights, feminism, and radical multiculturalism. Its main claim for critical attention comes from the way it envisions the combination of dialectical thinking, new technologies, and media activism as a primer for the radical communications community.
Fresh Kill's title refers to a fictitious landfill that dominates Staten Island. Junk rules many of the film's compositions, and, thematically, the film revolves around the detritus of an urban consumer society in which transnational corporations bring raw materials from the Third World—contaminating goods and people in the process—and dump them in the borough. Fresh Kill makes sense out of this refuse by exploring connections among people on the edges of corporate capitalism and off-center in a white, bourgeois, heterosexual world. From the beaches of Taiwan's Orchid Island, used as a nuclear waste site in the 1980s, to the shores of New York's Staten Island, Fresh Kill collapses the globe in solidarity against racism, sexism, and the excesses of transnational corporate capitalism as resistance circulates through networks originally designed to facilitate the exchange of labor, commodities, and capital.
With a critical postmodern and postcolonial reorganization of margins and centers of the global society, Fresh Kill takes the Pacific periphery and places it squarely in the economic and cultural center of metropolitan New York. One of the most important dialectical relations that the film sets forth involves the correlation between Asia in New York (concretized within the space of a trendy sushi bar and a Pan-Asian American cast of characters) and Orchid Island off the coast of Taiwan (a “fourth world” space of aboriginal people and traditional practices penetrated by commercial tourism and satellite television). Although worlds apart, the two spaces share a common fate as the dumping ground for transnational capitalism linked by the toxic waste of discarded commodities. In Fresh Kill, the peripheral becomes central to a critical understanding of the global system. Rather than standing [End Page 402] for the guan xi (connections) of the “model minority,”2 Asian American, and the transnational ethnic Chinese businessperson, so-called Greater China3 becomes the meeting of a working-class Asian American computer hacker and the non-Han inhabitants of the most remote part of Taiwan. Rather than being in the mainstream of commercial capitalism, Fresh Kill's connections develop a transnational communication network in opposition to the dominant economic and political powers, developing a fantasy of alternative communication that the circulation of the film and the availability of its Web site realize.
A Cinematic Manifesto for Cyborgs
Raised and educated in Taiwan, a graduate of National Taiwan University, Cheang studied film at New York...