It’s hard to believe, but after nearly five years of work, we have completed the first academically produced, nonprofit, science fiction epic: Swerve. This cinematic exploration of nanotechnology, virtuality, ecology, corporate-industrial patriarchy, and the relationship between data, the body, and the environment is over three and a half hours long, divided into ten chapters. Each functions as part of the larger narrative and as a thematic whole. This surreal, cyberpunk, Deleuzean, feminist, philosophical science fiction film would never have been possible to make in a commercial system. To accomplish this, over 150 people worked in one capacity or another on this mammoth project, which has been housed in the English Department at UCSB from 2010 to the present.
Why did we make such an unconventional film, and how?
The original concept for this project was hatched by Lindsay Thomas and myself during our second quarter of graduate school, in Alan Liu’s “Literature +” seminar. Alan challenged us to build innovative collaborative projects, and we hatched the idea of a science fiction film that would be collaboratively produced by students at the University out of content generated by the academic humanities. Instead of the endless reproduction of tropes for their own sake exhibited by commercial media, and instead of academic media that merely responds to cultural production “out there,” we thought that it would be interesting to scramble the codes, to bring some commercial tropes into contact (or collision) with academic theory produced by the humanities, with the challenge of making our own fictional, speculative product. We thought that the genre of cyberpunk was ripe for such an exercise.
As literary fiction, cyberpunk rose to prominence in the 1980s along with the first wave of home computers, exploring electronically networked culture, navigating an infoscape or datascape that seemed the inevitable future heralded by ubiquitous computing. What new identities, dangers, and possibilities would emerge within this new world of digital virtuality? After William Gibson’s visionary cyberpunk trilogy in the 1980s, the 1990s saw the proliferation of flashy, virtual-reality-driven versions of cyberpunk in both literature and film. The alterity of cyberspace (a concept invented by Gibson in his 1983 novel Neuromancer) was becoming tamed, literalized, and linearized (using the terminology of philosopher’s Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, reterritorialized) as the digital gamescape. Indeed, this subgenre finally reached its cinematic apotheosis with the Matrix Trilogy, which thematically and aesthetically combined the video game with live action. The convergence was complete: the genre was exhausted.
And that’s why we chose it. As a genre that was about visualizing the new spaces that could arise out of ubiquitous, networked computing, it had been caught and perhaps exceeded by Facebook. Cyberspace was no longer alien territory. It was everywhere. That is the starting point for Swerve. Virtual technologies have become so ubiquitous that they are no longer visible. The interesting question is no longer how to visualize datascapes but rather, how to visualize non-datascapes? Not a historical space before digital technology, but a future space that exceeds itself. This means both a return to the visionary qualities of 1980s cyberpunk, which sought to imagine a completely alterior space, as well thinking about potential paths forward, ways to take back the agency of systems subject to technocratic logics of ubiquitous surveillance, forced upgrade cycles, the gamification of labor, and the commercialization of behavioral data. Swerve takes on both of these tasks, narrativizing the process of disengaging from invisible technologies of virtualization into the shockingly new space where technology is visible, tangible, and embodied, as well as considering the potential for new spaces that are ineluctably virtual and actual at the same time. One of the ways to explore this paradox emerged later in the form of the character Charlie, who fuses an enthusiasm for technologies of virtualization (especially simulation) with the notion of virtuality developed by French philosopher Henri Bergson—that is, the virtual as an atemporal space of pure potentiality that is concentrated to a single point of becoming by the mind. (Charlie is also an homage to Afrofuturism, a celebratory movement in the 1970s to the 1990s that explored African identity in the context of high-tech, cosmic science fiction motifs.)
One of Swerve‘s primary mechanisms for collaboration and visionary exploration of potentials is combinatoric. Different characters embody different philosophical stances toward technology, identity, virtuality, and ecology. The ten chapters of this long film allow various combinations to clash or coalesce into different material-symbolic-philosophical assemblages, each of which charts potential futures.
The raw content for these philosophies, theories, and fictional experiments came from discussions in graduate seminars around related topics at UCSB. Participants in those seminars fed their thoughts into forums, which were then accessed by a team of world builders who synthesized this rich academic work into narratives, characters, and a fictional world. Others wrote script segments, poetic fragments, etc. Over multiple years, I worked all of this material together into a coherent script. While this long-term unfolding remained true to the original plot outline, segments were only written in cycles of six months or so, allowing the script to emerge as segments were filmed. The filmmaking process thus mirrored the feedback loop between the virtual and actual worlds that is depicted within the film. The process itself is documented in the form of its ideal circuit diagram here.
Because Swerve is about a sense of expanded ecology—an ecology of the “natural” world combined with an ecology of the virtual—many people from the “world builders” to location hunters to the cast had to work together to produce a milieu that functioned as a complex, ecological whole. We filmed over a three year period around Santa Barbara, Ventura, Ojai, Los Angeles, and the incredible Sedgwick Reserve, once Edie Sedgewick’s family’s ranch, and now operated as a research reserve by the University of California. More than one member of the cast or crew lost themselves, seduced by this hypnotic landscape that may be from the past, or may be from the future.
I brought my own aesthetic to the project, my love of analog film stock (used to portray the virtual world in the film, in jerky, unstabilized 8mm), my background as an independent film director, and many of my friends who work in the film industry. Our all-volunteer cast and crew was formed from the ranks of incredibly talented professionals, alongside passionate students learning the ropes. Many of these latter have gone on to work in film or other creative industries. Several undergraduate students on the crew started when they were freshmen, worked throughout their college years, and graduated before the film was completed! I have never worked with a more passionate, gracious, brilliant, and giving group of people. I cannot thank you all enough for your incredible work.
I hope that Swerve demonstrates that when enough people contribute enough passion, time, and energy to a project, it is possible to make something that would never happen in a commercial system. The point here was not to make something using alternative means of funding (“independent” filmmaking), but to make something that absolutely cannot make a profit, that must live and die by its own rules and perverse desires. I hope that it will live on for a very long time, enjoyed by science fiction fans, casual viewers, academic theorists, and whoever else is willing to embark on this strange journey. Further, I hope this film will be used in classrooms. It is meant to be not only a film, but a creative ecosystem of ideas, a form of pedagogy, and the jumping off point of new speculative imaginings.
The film is free and always will be. It can be streamed, downloaded, remixed, re-authored… We provide the disc images and cover art to produce your own DVD or Blu Ray set, and hope you do so. (The film is so long that it spans three discs.) If you are reading this blog, Swerve should probably be on your shelf!
Swerve was made on a miniscule budget, provided by a grant from the Princess Grace Foundation in New York, a starter grant from UCSB, a very modest IndieGoGo campaign, and a number of direct donations from beautiful souls when the going got rough. Still, this 3.5 hour film cost about as much as shooting only three days on an average ultra-low-budget independent feature. That was only possible due to the incredible dedication and generosity of this cast and crew. Many faculty members at UCSB worked on or helped to facilitate this project. I’d like to give a special shout out to Doug Bradley, who served as production designer and general engineering genius, and Alan Liu, who has supported this project all of these years, and even donated a chunk of his own research funds to purchase the Avid system upon which it was edited. (And which is serving us still, as I edit a streamlined theatrical version meant for screening in one sitting.)
The “swerve” of the film’s title refers to Roman poet Lucretius’ concept of clinamen, the fundamental nature of chance, or non-determinism, that enables single atoms to change course, setting into motion radical systemwide effects, escaping the homogeneity of matter. The swerve irrupts and determines the present, and is the hope (or fear) of difference, of the new. (The title of the film is not derived from Stephen Greenblatt’s book, titled The Swerve, which shares Swerve’s derivation from Lucretius, but was subsequent to it.)
Making this film has been a strange and wonderful journey for many of us, and I am deeply grateful to everyone who made it a (virtual and actual) reality. So much for history. What, I wonder, will be Swerve‘s futures?
All chapters can be viewed and downloaded from the main swerve site: www.swerveinterface.com
This site also contains a “theory wiki” with ties to the film, behind the scenes photos, and a complete cast, crew, and participant list.
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