Alan Kwan has turned his mind into a video game.
For two years the Hong Kong-based artist, film-maker, and technologist recorded his waking life with a bespoke camera mounted on his glasses. Every night he uploaded the footage and stored it inside digital houses on a surreal openworld landscape. The project is called Bad Trip: Navigate My Mind, an art installation that allows visitors to explore these memories using a game controller.
“I’m a big fan of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” says Kwan. “I thought it would be cool to bring the idea of walking inside someone’s head and navigating his memories into real life.”
Bad Trip drops visitors into a sketchy black and white world, sprawling and alien, like skin underneath a microscope. Some houses are tucked into hills and canyons, while others float overhead anchored only by winding staircases. There are people with trees for heads. The project collates genuine memories, but they are presented in a thoroughly dreamlike manner.
The memories themselves are stacked crates that murmur and giggle and sigh. Walk through them and the visitor catches glimpses of Kwan walking the streets of Hong Kong, eating lunch with friends, relaxing on a beach.
“As an artist I’m very interested in exploring how emerging technologies are impacting our cultures and changing our perceptions towards memory, life, and death,” says Kwan. “I became very interested in lifelogging. The idea of how these technologies can enable us to ‘remember everything’ is very fascinating to me.”
Kwan wearing the camera-equipped glasses.
The project could have alienated his friends and family, but Kwan was surprised how quickly they adjusted to his perpetual filming. “It took a much shorter time than I expected, around 2 weeks,” he says. “Some of my friends didn’t notice that it’s a camera, they thought it is some kind of device designed for the disabled.”
Honesty was vital to the project. Kwan refused to self-edit. “I didn’t stop filming for intimate or private moments. The camera kept recording as long as I was wearing my glasses.” So sleep and showers are excluded, but private memories such as masturbation or deceit are present in the game. As a compromise they live in houses that scud over the landscape at unreachable heights. If a visitor climbs high enough in the hills they can hear these memories in mysterious whispers.
Toward the end of 2013 Kwan stopped adding memories to Bad Trip. “After recording everything for such a long time I became a bit tired of these virtual memories that are completely objective and perfectly accurate,” he says. “Now I think the beauty of memory is really about the imagination you put in when thinking about your past.”
Kwan imagines a middle ground between imagination and these virtual memories. He talks of creating an “online memory market” that would allow lifeloggers to trade their memories with others. “For example, if I fall in love with a girl who doesn’t love me, I can buy a memory of kissing her from her ex-boyfriend and put that into my digital lifestream. It’s like memory cosmetics.”
There are shades of dystopia about the idea, but Kwan thinks of it as a logical progression from Bad Trip. It would be a study of the ethical problems associated with electronic memories, especially in light of nascent VR technology. “There will certainly be many problems and the privacy issue will just be one of them,” he says.
“For example, one of the situations that might happen would be children becoming millionaires as they sell their innocent memories to the adults, and as a result they become less innocent. These possibilities are very interesting to me.”