Tien-Tien Jong is a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies; she is concomitantly fulfilling a Graduate Certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies.
Interview by Sila Ulug
What is the focus of your research?
My project is still evolving, but it revolves around representations of artificial intelligence in film and fiction. It spans over 100 years of film, starting roughly with Fritz Long’s Metropolis and Ernst Lubitsch’s The Doll, which are silent films, up to very contemporary films like the new Blade Runner, Her, and Marjorie Prime. I focus on how musical or dancing automatons have been represented in different eras of filmmaking. There’s a long lineage of science fiction in which the movements of machines are seen as a source of identity, soul, or sentience. Looking at the creative expressions and physical comportments of machines opens up questions about how categories we’ve come to see as human traits (i.e. race, sexual identity, economic status, etc.) become mapped onto technology. What compels me is that the fantasy about what a machine is and what the artificial looks like remains remarkably consistent even though ostensibly the technology is changing a lot over that time.
What sparked your interest in this topic?
I started out as a classical cinema scholar, and I still care a lot about classical Hollywood films. I wrote my Bachelor’s thesis on a handful of classical Hollywood films, which is closely linked to my interest in musical machines. That thesis concerns musical moments in Hollywood and postwar ballet and opera films. I found that there are so many assumptions about class and racial and sexual identity whenever one talks about movement or voice; it seemed like an obvious connection to make when I shifted my topic to machines. I started noticing this everywhere—for example, when you go into iPhone settings, you can change the voice for Siri, but the options are very limited. You can choose Australian female, British male, which are categories closely aligned with Caucasian identity. We now have Alexa, Siri, Google home where we get the same sort of servitude role fulfilled without having to deal with cultural differences at all. Overall, it’s an old fantasy being expressed.
Why did you choose to base your work in cinema?
There’s a long history of filmmakers seeing cinema as more attached to reality than any other art form. This belief revolves around the idea that even though film doesn’t necessarily capture the world as it normally is, it is always revealing the conditions of any film’s production. This is especially true when looking at films about technology because one sees what is possible technologically at the moment that the movie is being made; the particular social fantasy about what technology could become; and what its role could be. Even a fantasy history film like Gone With The Wind can be considered a documentary because it demonstrates the limitations of racial representation in a format that is in certain ways racially progressive for its time. We look at Hattie McDaniel’s role now and see it as a racist, mammy depiction, but the film also shows how she was able to exist in Hollywood at that time.
What role does interdisciplinary discussion play in your work?
The ASCI Graduate Fellows Initiative has allowed me to meet for monthly discussions with fellows who come from different disciplines. We’re all put in positions of having to translate our knowledge in a way that is palatable to very smart people who are unfamiliar with our field. Getting basic, foundational questions sparks discussions about topics I’m not used to thinking or talking about anymore. Oftentimes, getting caught up in one’s niche academic interest leads one to neglect broader questions that are seen not only as elementary but also as scary. Having to answer these questions has spurred me to consider the relevance of the subject I’m studying and its stakes. I find that when I open up conversation with someone else, I start thinking about what the afterlife of my work in the world can be; it’s very hard to get there on my own.
What is the most exciting interdisciplinary interaction you’ve had on campus?
A friend of mine in the Music department and I had been having on and off conversations about Beyonce’s Lemonade and Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer. We were both interested in them as works of art and in how teaching them could usher in conversations we weren’t having in our classrooms. We decided to get our friends together and have back-to-back public screenings of the two visual albums in the theater at Doc Films. A lot of people from different disciplines showed up. After watching the visual albums, we went to the pub and discussed our thoughts on what we had seen; I would consider this type of spontaneous event where you’re finding a way to mix your personal investments with research interests to be an example of interdisciplinary academic discussion at its best.