Foxconn Frequency: 3 performers face piano-based challenges — to show the human cost of our devices
Each sit at stations with an 88-key keyboard, a monitor, a 3D printer, a speaker and two webcams
It's like esport as theatre: the players of Foxconn Frequency (no. 3): For Three Visibly Chinese Performers sit side-by-side-by-side at workstations framed by spotlight, and the audience watches as they succeed and fail (and fail again) in real-time at piano-based tasks of increasing technical difficulty.
Foxconn 3 is the third instalment in the series by Hong Kong Exile, an interdisciplinary arts company based in Vancouver. Founded by dance artist Natalie Tin Yin Gan, theatre artist Milton Lim and composer Remy Siu, the group's work often engages with the Hong Kong diaspora as well as the broader geopolitics of Asia Pacific and its relationship to Vancouver. Foxconn Frequency, says Siu — who plays project lead here — is a zoomed out look at the flows of economic, political and cultural capital between East and West. It's also a closeup on the human cost of our iPhones and Xboxes.
He built the series from a constellation of ideas: mass manufacturing, dangerous working conditions at the assembly plants of world's largest contract electronics maker Foxconn and the factories of similar suppliers, piano pedagogy, the poetry of factory worker Xu Lizhi, Chinese policy and Western import and export all serve as inspirations, as well as the creators' own experiences of "piano trauma."
It is complicated to write about this work, as I am using an Apple product, knowing the device began in the hands of workers in a factory like Foxconn's. But Siu says the piece is not a rebuke of all consumer electronics. It would be naive, he says, "to think people will stop using their iPhones." Rather, "the work is about this very specific slice in time" — a snapshot of mass manufacturing in the 21st century, at the moment right before automation upends such factory labour altogether, exacting another, different human cost.
The three performers each sit at stations with an 88-key keyboard, a monitor, a 3D printer, a speaker and two webcams: one trained on the output of the printer and the other on the player's face. Administered over the monitor, they're tested by a series of minigames — like trying to first to hit the right note, or unison testing where players must play together within a millisecond timeframe, or speed trials, or pitch match, or a contest where players need to depress the key accurate to a specific velocity. For some games, the players work together; for others, they compete head-to-head or perform solo. The various tasks are generated by an algorithm pulling from a bank of musical gestures written by Siu. (And, accordingly, no two performances are the same.) The games scale up in difficulty. Some stages require players to retry tasks until they're performed satisfactorily. The 3D printers, which are programmed to build perfect cubes, record the player's errors as deformations in their output.
The atmosphere is tense. Each player is lit by a bright white beam. Projected behind them, a giant display expresses their progress with an ever-present graph tracking individual competency. Their hurried labour produces mostly just machine noise and game indicators signalling success and failure. When they inevitably make a mistake, their spotlight turns red, and the word "failure" is cast across their station.
The piece engineers a stressful environment for players — one that, with performances lasting between 50 and 80 minutes, requires real endurance. "It's very taxing," says Gan, who performs Foxconn 3 alongside Vicky Chow and Matt Poon (and Andrei Chi Lok Koo in a past presentation). "I'm being tasked with things that are at the limit of and beyond my skill level and capability. And the stakes are that I'm being watched publicly as I collect failure." It's at these desperate moments, once the game has intensified, that the allusion to Foxconn workers becomes most direct: to endure long shifts practicing repetitive and technical tasks while meeting difficult targets in a negative work environment. However, Siu notes, for the workers, "their failure is not accepted. There is no compassion about failure in those conditions." Family, finances — for them, the stakes are so much higher, says Gan.
In its final rounds, the game is programmed to become impossibly difficult for one player. Inevitably, they will lose. On the screen, a short poem appears. It reads: "A screw fell to the ground / In this dark night of overtime / Plunging vertically, lightly clinking / It won't attract anyone's attention / Just like last time / On a night like this / When someone plunged to the ground." It is by Xu Lizhi, who worked at a Foxconn factory in Shenzhen, China. In the early 2010s, there was an epidemic of worker suicides at Foxconn. Lizhi was one of them — he took his life at the age of 24.
When the lights rise, the player's workstation is empty. Most harrowing, though, the game continues — and only gets more difficult for the remaining two players. The printed cubes the performance leaves behind are full of aberrations, unlike the output factory products we're acquainted with, which are uniform, sleek and perfect. Instead, the workers who make these products bear the brunt of every error. It is their bodies that are stressed, misshapen and disfigured. They record the damage themselves.
Foxconn Frequency (no. 3): For Three Visibly Chinese Performers. February 22-23. Factory Theatre, Toronto. www.factorytheatre.ca