Kevin B. Lee, image courtesy of the artist
Kevin B. Lee, image courtesy of the artist
June 7, 2016

Kevin B. Lee: The Spectacle of the Screen

In his thesis titled “Future Delights,” Kevin B. Lee explores the developing lightscape of China. Lee is a recent graduate of SAIC, graduating with a dual degree MFA in Film, Video and New Media and MA in Visual and Critical Studies. During his career as a film critic, Lee became increasingly interested in the potential for images to produce critique. His primary medium, the film essay, draws from the work of filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and the Situationists.

His “desktop documentary""Transformers: The Premake" was met with wide critical acclaim in 2014, and over the last number of years has been a major proponent for the film essay genre. “Future Delights” approaches the rapidly digitizing world of screens in China via the film essay, in a self-reflective discussion on dreams, both national and individual. In this edited and condensed interview, we discussed the impetus behind his thesis, and the complex negotiation of identity and critique.

Amie Soudien: How did your thesis research begin?

Kevin B. Lee: Last summer I went to China looking for a way to approach the country in terms of my interests about it. There’s this ideological slogan being pushed called ‘The Chinese Dream.’ It’s the first time that state Chinese ideology is referring to some kind of non-material object. In the past it was always about modernisation, industrialisation, GDP—very nuts and bolts economic and social development—and now we’re talking about a dream. I was also really interested in screens. In China there are a lots of digital screen LED light fixtures, turning the land into a very modern, electronic spectacle that conveys China as a futuristic society.

I thought about how much the land has become mediated and what kind of messages were coming out of the screens. It all comes down to hyper-consumerism: a lot of real estate ads, a lot of personal technology. I began to realize I wasn’t just looking at China, but at how I was looking at China. I was very sensitive about what it means to be an American. I’m Chinese American, but still not quite native. I arrived with all of these critical leftist critiques of society and media. Am I just a China basher? I started to question that too.

AS: Does that speak to how identity is mediated through screens?

KBL: Yeah. What becomes apparent in China is this new emphasis on individualism. China was not an individualist society in the past, not at least how we associate it. Now there’s encouragement for people to follow their dreams. It’s a way of stimulating consumption. In that sense it folds into a national dream of prosperity. Can we keep individual dreams in align with the national dream?

AS: What responses did you get from citizens about how these screen affect their sense of self?

KBL: A lot of people think they’re cool, but they don’t pay a lot of attention to them. They’re more ornamental. I’m proposing that people should pay more attention to these screens. It’s very much in line with a lot of media scholarship and criticism that Western academia is very familiar with, but not in China. I don’t feel totally comfortable coming at the subject with Western values. I definitely feel a cultural tension. I’ve never had this feeling of closeness to China, because that’s where my family is from. Any real attempt to try to get close only further reinforces a sense that you’re not close. It’s a weird paradoxical thing.

AS: You’ve used the ‘film within the film’ approach before in your film about “Transformers.” What draws you to the film within the film?

KBL: As a film critic I was always trying to find a way into a movie, just to keep myself amused. It’s always this way of trying to find a newnesss—a sense of regaining existential stimulation. There’s a perpetual discontentedness with the screen you’re looking at. I spend half my waking life looking at my phone. Awareness is a major theme for me, because the role of the critic is to stimulate a certain awareness, and not take things for granted.

AS: Would you say that duality mirrors your experience as a Chinese American in China?

KBL: That may have something to with it. There was this one point where I was like, why am I spending this part of my summer in China filming screens? I thought back to formative experiences when my parents came here from China. They both worked very hard as immigrants and they left me alone a lot. So I watched television. I was basically raised by a third parents—TV. I learned so much about the outside world through TV shows and the news. I grew up feeling quite alienated from my parents for that reason. I’ve gone back to China many times over my life, always as a way to regain this lost heritage. And yet, the way that I’m doing it is by watching television in public space. There’s a very odd poetic loop to that. (Laughs) But it totally makes sense when you think about it.

AS: Are you hoping to continue your film criticism through the essay film?

KBL: Yeah, you could say I have a journalistic practice. I make video essays regularly for a website, and they’ve become super popular in the past year because online content has shifted from reading to viewing, from the desktop to the mobile device. It works for me because that is how I like to produce criticism. I also want to try long form and presenting video in galleries. That’s the thing about SAIC, it has opened me up to all these different options. Now I have to figure out how they do or don’t work together.