An Artist Warns of a Robot-Ruled Future. Or Is It Our Present? Let’s Discuss.

No young artist has a sharper view of the future than Cao Fei. Her dreamlike visions of China’s full-tilt economic development, and the social dislocation and environmental abasement that have come with it, were the most beguiling and unnerving parts of her acclaimed midcareer retrospective at MoMA PS1 in 2016.

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Jason Farago
, New York Times

No young artist has a sharper view of the future than Cao Fei. Her dreamlike visions of China’s full-tilt economic development, and the social dislocation and environmental abasement that have come with it, were the most beguiling and unnerving parts of her acclaimed midcareer retrospective at MoMA PS1 in 2016.

Cao, 40 (her full name is pronounced TSOW fay), revisits those themes with her new video work, “Asia One,” a mournfully beautiful hybrid of economic forecast and tragic love story, now on view at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum as part of the group exhibition “One Hand Clapping.”

“Asia One” transports viewers to a high-tech warehouse near Shanghai, staffed by only two workers — a smiling porcelain robot nearby scans their every move — who oversee the automated distribution of hundreds of thousands of packages. The near-absence of human workers may feel like the stuff of fantasy, but it’s not. The film was shot principally at the newest warehouse of JD.com, a $48 billion company often (inexactly) called the Amazon of China, where robots handle almost everything.

Cao’s fixation on economics, labor and development is rare among artists, and I was eager to discuss the plausibility of “Asia One” with someone who had studied China’s industries up close. So I invited a New York Times colleague, David Barboza, who was The Times’ Shanghai bureau chief from 2008 to 2015, to join me at the Guggenheim, where we discussed what the Guggenheim work has to say about a future we’re already moving into. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

JASON FARAGO “Asia One” is set in a China of the near future — but like so many great speculative fictions, it’s really about the present. In economic terms, how did you perceive “Asia One”: more like science fiction or more like real life?
DAVID BARBOZA I’ve been to a lot of Chinese factories; that was one of my favorite things to do in China, actually. As an American, you have a natural interest in seeing all the hidden steps that go into making, say, a Nike sneaker or an electronic cigarette.

And I have been to one of JD’s logistics centers, much like the one where “Asia One” was shot. There were certainly more than just two employees. But you could see, as the boxes flew down the conveyor belts, the beginnings of this trend toward fewer and fewer people doing the work. In that sense, there was nothing surprising to me in the look or feel of this “futuristic” distribution center.

Maybe the reason Cao wanted to shoot there is that its lack of hustle and bustle is so jarring. China is a country with 1.4 billion people, and my own experience in visiting a manufacturing or distribution site was to be awed by the sheer mass of humanity you encounter. Everything is the biggest, with the most people. Now, though, China is undergoing a big demographic shift, with a steadily declining population of young people. In some parts of the country, there are already shortages of migrant labor. FARAGO Hence the turn to automation. In the empty factory of “Asia One” there’s a banner that reads “Man and Machine Go Hand in Hand, and Create Miracles!” which is a real JD slogan.
BARBOZA But if robots do too much, where are all the people going to work? China is moving ahead so fast with AI, faster than the United States or Europe, and yet the ramifications there could be the most troubling — a potential for massive dislocation.
FARAGO Cao is from Guangzhou, the megacity of the industrial Pearl River Delta, and her career as an artist has run parallel to China’s arrival on the global stage. My favorite work of hers before this one was “Whose Utopia” (2006), which she shot in a light bulb factory. It beautifully humanized the migrant workers who made the world’s cheap consumer goods; they formed a band, talked about their dreams.

In “Asia One,” China is no longer the back office but the main stage. The factory is gleaming — cardboard boxes dance across the screen as if they were in a Busby Berkeley musical — but no one is there. These two workers appear to be middle class, and they’re managing this hugely complex set of logistical operations. Yet they might as well be the last people on earth, and they are under constant surveillance.

BARBOZA Ten years ago Chinese manufacturing was all about exports. This work is much more representative of the shift in Chinese business toward a domestic consumer class.

China is also going full steam ahead with facial recognition technologies, mobile payments and mass surveillance. There are cameras everywhere, CCTV everywhere. At lots of the factories I visited, companies had installed fingerprint recognition to better track and authenticate who was visiting the site. And Cao is playing with that — the female worker has a bar code tattooed on her wrist, as if she were the product rather than the employee.

FARAGO This is a future where everything is constantly scanned and scored: the goods but also the workers. The smiling robot scans the male protagonist and gives him a low “trust score.”
BARBOZA That’s already happening, too, in China with the social credit system. Outdoor surveillance cameras can record the image of a person’s face and know whether that individual has an unpaid parking ticket, has poor credit history or has made some radical comments online. This happens first in the factory, because the factory is the most controlled space, with cameras everywhere, recording every moment.
FARAGO Yet the film’s heroes exhibit no outrage. “Asia One” is shot through with pathos; it’s a thwarted romance as much as an industrial drama. The woman is so desperate for affection that at one point she hugs the robot. But she and the man can’t connect; he has to use his digital goggles to scan her face for emotions. There is no love in the age of data.
BARBOZA About a decade ago, a migrant worker might have worked three years in a factory, and then returned home to find a spouse or settle closer to home. A factory job allowed them to save money, and that’s obviously changed in recent years, as China’s economy has grown along with consumption. So I think the actors in this film do, in a way, represent what I have seen in China’s factory zones: This is now a more permanent state, and while the work may be mind-numbing, people are more resigned to it. FARAGO At the Guggenheim, Cao is screening “Asia One” within an installation that features much more low-tech equipment, like a motorized rickshaw loaded with packages. There’s also a second film she made, a documentary, that shows couriers high-tailing JD deliveries to customers across Beijing. This is the other side of the contemporary factory: the migrant laborers who ferry clothes or baby formula or consumer electronics from the automated site to customers.
BARBOZA The documentary shows that the final steps of this logistics chain are still more reliant on humans than you would expect. When JD began operating some years ago, its couriers were delivering goods on motorbikes — or even bicycles, with your packages taped to the back!

Probably 90 percent of these delivery workers are migrants from elsewhere in China, and in Cao’s project you see the delivery men shoving odd-shaped packages into a van, racing through the alleyways of Beijing. And she takes you home with some of these people, where several generations live in a one-room apartment.

When you put the two films together, you have this portrait of a Chinese economy with a lot of automation, but still a lot of heavy lifting and arduous tasks. And she shows you the challenges for the human worker in 2018, and the coming challenges of isolation, loneliness and perhaps joblessness — or the absence of jobs. And of technological control.

FARAGO Toward the start of “Asia One,” as a robotic vehicle glides across the empty factory floor, Cao plays a clip from a Mao-era patriotic song: an early ode to logistical infrastructure, with a soprano singing about piers and cranes and the Great Leap Forward. There are also some unexpected dance sequences, too, with performers sliding down chutes on the factory floor, that have the feel of a Maoist pageant.

In the U.S. we think of shipping and robotics as economic questions, but of course they are deeply political in China. And this gets to why I think “Asia One” is such a monumental work: Cao somehow convinced one of China’s most valuable companies, with deep government ties, to let her shoot this tragic portrait of China’s future — our future, too — right inside its flagship warehouse.

BARBOZA Whether you’re a private company or a state-owned company in China, everyone knows that you need to be on the same page as the government. You have to seem to promote the interests that they want to promote, even if you don’t believe in them.

And in “Asia One,” Cao invests this empty factory with this romantic, heroic, Cultural Revolution-style rhetoric. You’re really working for the benefit of the company and its shareholders, but you have to fuse that with national priorities and ambitions. It’s all about the goals for the nation.

FARAGO Liu Qiangdong, the chief executive of JD, recently said that China “can realize the dream of Communism in our generation,” which is not what we usually hear from billionaires. But the old Marxist dream that robots will free us from the drudgery of labor doesn’t convince Cao: They seem to have subjugated the two heroes instead, and stunted their capacity to feel and to love.
BARBOZA To me, Cao is trying to portray that, even in a dehumanized environment like the automated warehouse, you need that inspiration or that order from up high. And who knows, maybe the idea is that these two characters make themselves able to cope with this need, this illusion that they are part of something bigger. You know, it’s a beautiful dance. We’re doing something for the party. We’re doing something for the country. Because the future is going to be very challenging.

— Event info: One Hand Clapping through Oct. 21 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; 212-423-3500, guggenheim.org.

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