Yeo Siew Hua does not shy away from the entangling messiness of Anthropence-era fear. The world as we know it is ending, and yet we know more ways to end it than save it. In The Once and Future, Yeo contemplates how survival beyond extinction necessitates the abandonment of our earthly bodies, postulating a one-is-to-one exchange. Totalising planetary climate devastation must be met by surrendering our individually bounded selves to form a singular consciousness. As a recursive gesture, The Once and Future lingers in this moment of future exile, where Human Consciousness voyages through its fleshly memories to find a semblance of present Humanity.

Yeo’s expanded cinema that worlds Human Consciousness in The Once and Future is historically resonant. Writing on the capacities of Expanded Media as a culmination of Intermedia, Gene Youngblood theorised the cinematic form as fully realising the Noosphere, in which Human Intelligence is reified in the connective tissues of media networks1. Expanded Cinema thus invokes the singular presence of intelligence in its assemblaged constitution, not just a patchwork collage of different media forms. Similarly, Yeo’s expanded cinema divests from pure sensorial phantasmagoria, proving that flesh is not passive. Yeo employs the filmic screen and laser projections to trouble the pictorial plane, further choreographing the bodies of his collaborators (namely the ZeMu! Ensemble Berlin conducted by the esteemed Stanley Dodds and librettist and vocal soloist Anandi Bhattacharya) into the grounds of the performance. Yeo presents Body and Consciousness within the atmospheres of cinema, allowing the narrative and movement of the filmic images to cohere within our affective registers.

Even in vivifying the planetary aesthetically, Yeo does not abandon his practice of speaking from the ground. Following his Locarno Golden Leopard-winning film A Land Imagined (2018), Yeo imbricates The Once and Future with the veracity of documentary detail, the scales of national infrastructure, and allows bleeds from reality to dreamscape in his signature cinematic voice. Dwelling on the physicality of flesh as a universal element of living experience, Yeo situates this voyage in the expansive lands of Argentina, locating moments of cleaving and melding within landscapes, lovers, and lust.

The following interview with Yeo Siew Hua was conducted on June 14 2022 after the last performance of his latest filmic work at the Singapore International Festival of the Arts (co-commissioned by New Vision Arts Festival Hong Kong). Throughout, Yeo reflects on the collaborative production of expanded cinema, thinking and making in the world’s end during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the material conditions in which flesh becomes cinema. 

– TW

TW: Why did you choose to inhabit Argentina for The Once and Future, given the years of embodied experience you had Singapore before depicting it in A Land Imagined?

YSH: Roger Garcia [producer] had envisioned a work about the human journeys that people have taken, so the project did not start out as a country-specific piece. In fact, we thought to create a work that spans several countries. Many of my works discuss the transnational because nothing is an island, not anymore. But then the pandemic hit. Travel was impossible and I guess the work was directly responding to its times when we decided to make the whole work in Argentina where I was at the time, which is something of a second home to me.

The Once and Future

TW: How did being physically land-locked in Argentina during the COVID-19 pandemic inspire you to approach the form of the work differently? Did you draw upon Argentinian cinema/film production culture?

YSH: I drew mostly from the Argentinian landscape and my immediate environment in creating the scenes for the filmic part of the work. The abundance of great lakes and mountains never fail to inspire a dizzying awe in me. But even in the quotidian, there is that sense of wonder. I probably saw things differently as an outsider. But it wasn’t just the stories I drew from the land; it was also the people I was working with who brought their idea of Argentina into the picture. I relocated to Argentina alone, without a production crew. So, I was making this work with a completely new team and dynamic… in a new language.

TW: Wow. I can’t imagine starting afresh with an entirely new crew, especially since you had planned to travel with some of your production crew pre-pandemic.

YSH: I can’t say enough how much I enjoyed my experience making a film in Argentina. That is only because I had a great team who was patient and kind and amazingly talented. As an outsider, these things are crucial to the creative process. More importantly, my collaborators each brought a piece of their own Argentina into my film, whether it is a tabletop, a piece of clothing or a shard of light coming through the window. It was as if I was working with a piece of collective memory; some of which are mine, some belonged to others. But how precious that is.

TW: I love how you accredit all these fragments that make a film to your crew members; it really drives home how all filmmaking is inherently collective action. 

YSH: I guess the idea of collaboration for me is very precious in the way I formulate my processes; how to create space for everyone and learn from each other. Like all fruitful experiments, there needs to be the uncharted for genuine synergies to form. On The Once and Future, I was dealing with a whole set of parameters that were very new to me and I was excited to ‘lose control’. 

TW: Do you mean in terms of all the moving parts of devising an expanded cinema work?

YSH: Yes. The lasers had to speak to the orchestra just as it needed to reflect and refract the film. Meanwhile, the film gave pacing to the live performers which was fed back to the live musicians and laser projections, creating a loop, a conversation.

TW: Actually, how did you come to envisioning this work on the scale of expanded cinema? I am particularly interested in how this furthers your style of using “the documentary” in relation to “the surrealistic” in your films.

YSH: It was probably a response from me to the loss of a certain bodily engagement due to the exhausting consumption of content on screen during the pandemic. I wanted to give people a reason to come out of their homes for an experience. For a work that seeks to talk about borders and bodies, I wanted to engage in a more tactile and immersive way and to have the work ‘touch’ the audience literally. The expansion of cinema beyond the screen is for me to include the spatial into the temporal narrativity outside the borders of the frame and to talk about the ‘frame’ itself as body. 

The Once and Future

TW: Right, of all the innocuously tactile aspects of the show, perhaps the most surprising and indescribable moments of contact is the laser projections. Across the film, the lasers trace the contours of Argentinian landscapes, and seem to grasp onto the personage of individual faces by outlining them. Yet, the lasers don’t only serve to illustrate graphically, and are also directed away and around the screen, at some points even scanning over the audience. How did you balance the precise quality of laser points and the blurring of the cinematic frame?

YSH: I wanted to explore what a meaningful idea of an expanded cinema can look like aside from the sensational and we came up with ideas that were oddly like the ones by analogue experimental filmmakers who were scratching and drawing on films, except that instead of abstractions appearing from within, ours was a superimposition from without. The laser work was based on the idea of Object Recognition or Detection from the point-of-view of an Artificial Intelligence. The drawing of borders is essential to identifying an object differentiated from another but importantly, we wanted to draw out the multiplicity of ways borders can be interpreted and drawn across images so that these boundaries we once thought so hard and impenetrable starts to soften and blur. There is a moment for us when the laser seems to come out of the screen to include the audience, that we start to question where does the frame end? Or when did it actually begin? 

TW: Speaking of blurred boundaries, I think the vocal performance and sonic landscape were truly transportive. There are distinct moments where vocal text appears in different languages; is this polyvocality crucial to the singularity of the Artificial Intelligence? 

YSH: The composition of the music came out of the genius of our composer Eugene Birman and vocalist-librettist Anandi Bhattacharya, interpreted into dramatic music by the renowned conductor Stanley Dodds of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. I communicated the meanings and emotions of the scenes and then to make room for the music to make its magic. I knew from the start that the music was a central character of the work, so I designed a film with the minimum of dialogue to let the music speak and told my collaborators something along the lines that this was an operatic treatise on borders and bodies. 

Since one of the main premises of the work was about humans in totality uploading themselves into a singularity. I wondered how it would think in different languages, all at once. Is genuine translation even possible? Would it come up with one same singular thought, or would it arrive at a new idea over and beyond the sum of its languages? I wasn’t only interested in seeking out the borders between landscapes and bodies, I also wanted to see if such contours exist between languages, and also, love.

TW: I was really moved by how personal some of the memories in the filmic narrative felt. Depicting a singularity has many precedents in science fiction cinema and can sometimes feel inorganic and trite. It feels like such a conceptual ordeal to manage both singular and individual. 

YSH: Well, if the laser represents cognition of the singular mind, then the film works like discrete pieces of memories, except that it belongs to no one and at the same time everyone, like dreams in search of the dreamer. These memories are mixed up with my own, of course. I think it would be disingenuous of me otherwise. In the film we see video footage of my actual wedding celebrations in Buenos Aires and a ‘remake’ of it, where my wife plays as one of the wedding musicians with her actual band called El Asesino del Romance. In some way, every scene in the film has traces of my encounters during my first years in Argentina.

TW: Oh wow, congratulations! I feel this constant sense of desire and seeking, specifically to flesh, really permeates the film. Be it in the craving of an athletic physique, the queer longing in interstitial moments of cruising, the consumption of meat, the heat of platonic companionship, or the entwinement of lovers, desire for flesh serves as an overt current for the work. How did you come to fixate on flesh?

YSH: I think it is in these times of isolation and alienation that we see desire burn brightest. We could try to find meaning in this senseless pandemic in its failures and triumphs, but I think it could also be understood more intimately through the lens of desire, and ultimately, what we cannot hold. Our bodies had turned alien to ourselves even while the mind and all its anxieties went into hyperdrive. I wanted to reclaim the corporeal flesh in all its beauty and blemish, and the yearning of it.

TW: Right, and I felt like this yearning was even present in the scenes depicting people tending to cows, even as we see later that it is in the context of industrial animal husbandry. 

The Once and Future

YSH: When I first arrived in Argentina, I was surprised by the culture of meat they had, which wasn’t just about the abundance of it, especially beef. Meat holds a symbolic place in a country that is proudly one of the biggest meat producers and consumers globally. As a pillar of its economy, the production and consumption of meat supports the direct and indirect livelihood of the people, shaping its markets, its work and play, its social imaginaries, and ultimately, its bodies. These are not hidden bodies, but proud bodies of great showmanship and rhythm and life. But what does this mean at a time when the world is going through a moment of self-introspection on what it produces and consumes? I think these reflections cannot be sustained merely as an abstraction. 

TW: I think in this retrospection, it is equally important to think through how representations of flesh have historically rendered spirit and corporeality separate. How did you contend with flesh as a cinematic material, be it in the scenes of the film, or in the usage of bodies on stage? 

YSH: Frankly, such an idea of separability is plainly a lie, a myth at best. But I do however take myths to be useful. It helps us understand what and how we lie to ourselves – which is more revealing than my own presumed beliefs. On this presupposition, what happens when the mind of the future, which has sublimated itself beyond its corporeality, now yearns for its carnal past, dreaming a somatic dream? This return of the flesh as abstraction, as geometry, as haunting becomes the cinematic blueprint I drafted my images on. Also, performer on stage that is reconstituted as an AI modelled after the most perfect of us. But isn’t the whole endeavour we have been wrapped up in but a fetish in creating the prime Self-and-Other embodied in the personhood of an AI?

TW: This dialectic really seems crucial for how we consider humankind to be connected on a planetary scale. Do you think your future films will continue to image the complexities of transnational existence?

YSH: Being based in two countries, halfway across the world, I think it is natural for me to think more transnationally. I enjoy finding the connections and the dissonance in such a state of flux. But just as well, I think the project will dictate the kind of contextual specificity it calls for. Like in the case of my next film, Stranger Eyes, about state surveillance and voyeurism between compact housing estates. These are topics that originated from within a city-state like Singapore and would resonate very differently outside. But in short, yes, I do think that a transnational approach of thinking about my works is where I should be expanding myself.

TW: Has working on the planetary heightened your sense of climate crisis, and how filmmaking can be a form of activism? I feel this is also extremely prevalent your recent short film, An Invocation to the Earth (2021). 

YSH: I’m hardly an activist but what concerns me as a filmmaker is the human condition and the destruction of the earth is an existential one for us all. I don’t think something like that can be left to only a niche of eco-cinema but that all responsible artists and filmmakers working in this moment must take this into account in their work and processes. However, a film is not a blunt instrument made to kill and condemn but for understanding and resonance. Honestly, I can’t be sure that filmmaking is an effective response to the crisis we face ahead of us, but I think it can be a sincere one.

The Once and Future will travel to Hong Kong in October 2023 for the New Visions Arts Festival (NVAF), with more stagings to be announced in the near future.


  1. Youngblood, Gene. Expanded Cinema (New York: Dutton, 1970), pp. 54-58.

About The Author

Toby Wu is a curator and PhD student at Harvard University. He researches Global Contemporary Art, elemental media theory and the environmental humanities.

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