By Lucy Fang
Edited by Nam Hoang
Enna Kim’s Outdated compares Korean diasporic intergenerational relations to the incompatibilities and disconnects between computer models from different generations — “made from the same parts”, sharing similar hardware and motherboards, and yet facing difficulties in communication. In laying out the metaphor of two intergenerational machines that have trouble reading documents from the other, Kim asks, “Why do I fail to communicate with them?”
The comparisons between computers and immigrant, parent-child dynamics extend to the makeup of a new computer — Kim draws from the process of building a PC by acquiring its different parts. The motherboard becomes the blueprint for the final product, a “city seen from above, a plan view, a term used in architecture technical drawings”. Kim refers to the motherboard as “representative of [their] South Korean culture, but what happens internally mimics to the planned obsolescence of modern technology.” In turning to monitors, computer parts, and installation work, Kim provides a closeness and tactility to the generational and cultural gap, which is otherwise difficult to grasp.
The old and new computers are then ways of rearticulating the difficulties of communication between generations. Kim compares the reading and decoding between machines as a translation between programming languages — a parallel between translating from English, a language that immigrant children are often more familiar with than their mother tongue. In frustration, and in locating the source of the difficulties, Kim attempts to close the gap from English to Korean by reassembling translations into programming codes between two incompatible machines — In doing so, Kim edges closer to their parents, even if by just a little, even if things from both English and Korean would be lost. Similar to the tangible monitor, machine-to-machine translation brings what feels like two completely unrelated languages into relation with one another.
The move to programming language — unlike my initial reading of Kim’s trust in technology or an “universal” language — is, ultimately, a love letter. 1
1 The term “love letter” came to me as a Mandarin phrase, 情话, that translates literally to something like “love talk” — a flowery phrase one says to a loved one. “Love letter” is the closest translation I can think of, and also comes from a previous conversation with Enna about their work HANBOK, where they describe all the works of art they make as a love letter to their parents. There is some endearment, I feel, in telling someone that you are willing to give up the richness of a language you know best in order to be closer, closer, even if just a little. Even for someone with a mistrust for machine translation and the stability of language such as myself, the emotion behind this love letter remains legible.
The machine metaphor helps us place ourselves in a genealogy — an alternate map of how two “expired computer models, SK-1960s, byproducts of the Korean War, the last of their kind,” have produced Kim’s “upgraded version of the latest model CAN-1995”; this is a genealogy not unmarked by state influence, a product number’s birth certificate that legitimates a product’s existence in a nation. In describing relations between machines, our language has already coded them with biological terminology, such as the “motherboard” or a “second generation” mobile device. In this understanding, how much of inheritance is to be made according to a motherboard of plans — blueprints of infrastructure and genetics — and a more agential adoption of certain parts, akin to building a PC? Planned obsolescence of technology, then, is not only a colonial, capitalist structure for older models of technology, but also for many other bodies and subjects deemed “outdated”.
As we position ourselves a computer model from the year we were born, we are moving towards the body as a machine2 — an alternate way of kinship and subjecthood that takes into account the infrastructures we are born into, that are not quite ingrained, not quite into our biology, but are the blueprints of our motherboards. While the body has been theorized as a marked entity from birth3 a dated machine speaks to the infrastructural, geographical shapings of a milieu and generation. This awareness is alternate to the often taken-for-granted, mysticized affect of “blood ties” and imagined communities; Asian diasporas are, for example, often coded as affect-driven belongings and traumas, as a powerful method of relation and connection. In imagining ourselves as machine or as cyborg, however, Outdated turns our attentions to the hardware in the spaces that have shaped each unique, dated model through capitalist logics, city planning, nationhood and imperialism. For Kim, this metaphor is a method of reformulation that can bridge phases of detachment or disinterest into processes of understanding one’s inheritance. Alternately, the machine metaphor can help demystify the blood ties and affect-driven reasonings of “relation” between parent and child; the motherboard is binding in ways that visual resemblances and mother tongues might not.
2 I trace the theoretical underpinnings of the body as machine to formulations of the cyborg, which Donna Haraway turns to in The Cyborg Manifesto as a feminist bodily configuration that can escape markers of being “socialized female”, to be perceived in potentially liberating ways. This configuration can be read alongside Anne Cheng’s Ornamentalism, which suggests the “Asian woman as cyborg” trope as a technological version of the decorative, objectified and unspeaking Asian woman. In our conversations, Enna also mentions the stereotype of video games, computers and coding as fields or interests dominated by men — in Outdated’s iteration, the body as machine can engage with these conversations with engagements to intergenerational inheritance and a particular gendered upbringing.
3 The marked, branded body cannot be conceptualized without taking into consideration the Black feminist scholarships on racialization and the flesh; in particular, Hortense Spillers discusses the Black woman as marked from birth, inserted into racialization and objectification, which also removes subjecthood. Spillers then finds room for an alternate grammar and conceptualization in stripping away these social markings. In conceiving Outdated’s body as machine, marked with a model number assigned by the state, there is a similar opening for questioning and stripping away, in hopes of another grammar. Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book “, (Diacritics 17, no. 2, 1987)
Rather than a one-to-one parallel or metaphor of an intergenerational relationship, metaphors for Outdated take hold when I read them as a new praxis or way of relation. What might seem like a revolutionary escape into the simplicity, binary-based programming language of true and false, is also plagued by the instability of language — what are the bugs, hacks, and troubleshoots of this way of relation? Here, in addition to CAN-1995, Kim positions themselves as a “hacker” — an entity that goes against the logics of programming language, disrupting the set pathways of obsolescence and trauma. if reading the computer hack is both destruction and creation, as a new set of code inserted into a system for some kind of disruption; this is akin to artmaking and the conversions that develop around it in response. Hacking is not necessarily the counter-culture that provides an oasis from systemic structures, but the disruption-creation mechanism that allows for something else to leak through — the insertion of new code, as hacker or as a bug in the system, takes the form of Kim’s artmaking process, or in the form of this essay I type in response.4
Outdated scales the viewers down to the motherboard and its parts, but also scales out to the overarching timeline of a model’s new status that eventually changes to “outdated”. We then share an anxiety around the passage of time in the label of something that is “expired” and behind the times, an anxiety that is closely tied to capitalist expectations for speed in production and change and the colonial, linear time. While based on linear questions of outdatedness, Outdated might resonate with personal navigations of hyphenated identities that can be much more circular through time — the turn to the metaphor of the machine is borneout of the frustrations of communication and translation, a waypoint that people might experience at any stage in life, cyclically. Archetypal immigration narratives might present the blueprint of detachment – embarrassment – frustration – acceptance – pride with one’s racialization, a formula or master narrative for the ‘American dream’ and its variations that has made its way into pop culture renditions and essentialized tropes. However, the digital, animated rendition of Outdated shows the constant movement and reorientation of certain parts, with things morphing and changing as they move in and out of place. Kim and I come to this piece with different relationships to our inheritances, be them language, culture, or knowledge, yet our conversations show that neither of us are quite done with processes of avoiding and accepting, detachment and pride.
Beyond the machine-as-body assemblage, Outdated is a poetic yearning for intimacy and connection through the words and logics of technology. To experience Outdated is to use the machine metaphor that Kim presents as a medium for reflection — what are the hardware and software components of the body you inherit, and how are they etched on, through nationhood and naming? It is the hope of a hacker that Outdated can become a disruption in formulaic narratives of diaspora and blood ties in offering a different configuration of relation and connection.
4 In our conversations, Enna mentions a want for diverting from certain intended pathways of parent-child inheritances, especially for the passing down of trauma between generations. This diversion can be put in parallel with the role that Bodies of Knowledge plays in attempting to break conventional consumptions of art — where artworks are put into linear narratives, and pathways end with an audience’s taking in of a piece. Thus, while disruption-creation of a hack, for Enna, takes the form of artmaking that helps work through intergenerational trauma, the words I type as part of Bodies of Knowledge can serve a similar role. It is my hope that my readings of Enna’s work, in combination with the concepts I bring in juxtaposition, can provide tools for similar hacking in whatever set pathways you might find yourself in.