Interview with Iara Lee by J.D. Peterson

Synthetic Pleasures is a major independent motion picture by Iara (pronounced "ya-ra") Lee. Iara's documentary about Virtual Reality, artificial intelligence, plastic beauty, nootropics cryonics, cyber sex, transhumanism, biotechnology, .... opens in late August and September nation-wide. After having seen a press preview of this film I was questioning my own reality. I thought I might ease into my questions if I made it my quest to interview the fashionable director herself. After relaying a few e-mails through caipirinha.com, I received e-mail from Iara inviting me to have brunch at her home in San Francisco.

There that afternoon, notable characters such as R.U. Sirius, writers for Wired, and artists of the virtual realm dwelled on trippy subjects. A party followed in every direction. I had to ask her why I was questioning reality after seeing her film before she flew off to Napa by lear jet to meet George Gund, producer of Synthetic Pleasures. As well, George Gund is majority owner of the San Jose Sharks, the Cavaliers, and while looking worldwide for athletic talent, is actively producing and distributing independent films. Extremely active on the international film festival circuit, he has been jury member at the Moscow and Istanbul Film Fests and for 30 years and has been chairman of the board at the San Francisco International Film Festival.


Iara & George Gund

I only caught up with George briefly at a Blasthaus party earlier in the year when I first learned about Synthetic Pleasures. I wondered if he was the genius who found "Irbe", the goalie who took the Sharks to the semi-finals in the NHL. I didn't ask him this, I only portended to have some clever ideas about films, I was thinking of sacred places in my head I'd recently been. Then he rambled off some places spontaneously and mentioned the place I was thinking of at the moment I was thinking it. I didn't talk much more with him since he was getting into my head and stealing my film ideas. I did find him to possess amiable charisma similar to some wizards like Bill Graham or Ceslaw Miloz. They all have those eyebrows, you know.

Iara is of Korean descent born and raised in Brazil. One of Iara's previous films is; "An Autumn Wind" (an experimental film with haiku by Basho and Allan Ginsberg shot in the temples and gardens of Kyoto.) She also works on a cultural exchange from Sao Paulo to Seoul, S.F., and N.Y. Her background includes a philosophy and film degree from N.Y.U. and she was a programmer for many years at the Sao Paulo International Film Festival. Synthetic Pleasures is her first full feature length film.


J.D. : What makes it happen?

I.L. : Well, all these people. The film is an independent with a credit listing as long as Star Wars'. It is produced entirely by George Gund, and has an Audio CD track by Moonshine. Investment and distribution of this film are at mine and George's expense. It has to generate box office sales by the second & third week. It's a gamble. People tell me they like it, but it's not commercial. I can orchestrate, but I'm not a business person. Artists always need business people. This business is sort of small for George but too big for me. I'm hoping I can get a
sponsorship from Samsung, a Korean corp.; they are into Korean stuff and supporting artists.

J.D. : Well fortunately Ruse has a good readership in Korea. Shawn Kim, director and webmaster for Ruse, writes the HTML in Seoul. He works there at MISO Tech.

I.L. : In Korea!! Your webmaster is in Korea?

J.D. : Yeah, he's Korean too (laughs). I send him content and he puts it up.

I.L. : Wow!! Isn't technology amazing!?

J.D. : Yeah, it seems to me this film will generate quite a bit of curiosity. I believe it is going to be a big success!

I.L. : Wow! I hope you are right. It's me against Miramax Machine, Fine Line cinema, Sony Classic and others.

J.D. : I think a lot of people are not necessarily interested in the effects of amazing technology but with the truths of technology. That's the interesting facet of your film.

I.L. : It's not fiction is it? (thoughtfully)

J.D. : No, it's about the reality of virtual reality.

I.L. : (laughs) Right. (then serious) You should write that because I think that this is correct, you know.

J.D. : I think that it is an honest approach with a rawness to it. It's not just something like Independence Day where we get blown away like an amusement park ride. Though fun, it's not as thought provoking as learning the physics of the ride itself as you're on it.

I.L. : I'm glad you detect this genuine part of the film because it is true you know. I guess because it is totally from my heart, and I don't have the pressure of a big company that invested saying it has to be this or that so it is more commercial.

J.D. : I think J.G. Ballard said something like: why invent the fiction when it already exists? or that reality can be stranger than fiction. Because of your philosophy background and the experience from interviewing the various professors in philosophy and theoretical physics, it seems that your own ideas would be reinforced tenfold.

I.L. : It is interesting to listen to your deconstruction. Some people read the surface of the film. Then some people read subtext and bring those ideas to me that I didn't bring to myself. These ideas are further than my own as creator of the animal. (laughs)

J.D. : It seems that's the will of all those minds going into it and you are the conduit for them after the initial spark you made.

I.L. : Yeah, that's exciting.

J.D. : Again, I think there will be a lot of this response and people will have to ask others if they have seen this film because it is important.

I.L. : Yeah, sometimes people say that and I'm so happy to hear, but at the same time I know the world out there is so difficult. I wouldn't want to take it for granted. I'm always work, work, work and concentrate and do it, because it is a big gamble.

J.D. : Sure, people out there think enough in a day, and sometimes want entertainment as a sedative. But this film isn't devoid of that ability. I mean there are the main ingredients of shock value, sex and humor in there.

I.L. : (laughs) Pretty funny, huh?

J.D. : I think you alleviate a few strains with these areas of the film.

I.L. : Yeah, comic relief once in a while. That was the most difficult part of making this film. That's the biggest task and why I took so long to make it. At some points it was too cerebral and then it was too visual and no content. Too much of this and not enough of that. It was a battle to make it entertaining, ironic, critical, and seducing. All of these things that you want in one project is juggling so much. I had 4 different editors. The first was good with the interviews but not so great
with the visuals. The second was great with the visuals but not so great with the interviews. The third wanted to do a PBS talking heads thing. Then the other wanted to chop off to much. Yes, no, yes, no. What goes in what goes out, all in this low tech way looking at each clip of film hung up above the flat-bed editing machine. For a long time it was a film that had potential of being interesting but it was not. It just had potential.

J.D. : A topic that came to my mind is that it must be difficult with technology moving so fast. Did you think it might get outdated?

I.L. : Right

J.D. : When did you begin the film?

I.L. : 3 years ago. But I'm happy that I took it on then anyway because now the interest is there for people more than when I started. It isn't just a segment of society interested in technology anymore. It is more widespread.

J.D. : We were saying before that some of the bigger commercially produced films may have a lot of effects, though I think the unique thing about this film is that it shows the work originators, pioneers, and inventors that created. Stuff that some movies base on Sci-Fi novels. It seems to show some cultural history of people who had a certain technology in there mind long before it was enabled by integrated circuitry. Now their minds have created a consciousness that will
procreate on the electromagnetic circuitry like synapses in our brains. As far as Timothy Leary believing how minds could travel through a tele-commuting fashion back in the 60's, has become a reality today.

I.L. : Hmm. Yes, Timothy Leary

J.D. : That you have enabled an in-depth interview of him, I think people will go to see the film for that and then get to learn about the other not as notable figures, who deserve credit for their pursuits. It took a while just for Timothy Leary to gain a widespread recognition for his pioneering. I just wanted to get in my 2 cents for you to chew.

I.L. : (laughs) I actually think in a very succinct way we got him to summarize the total of his ideas and I think it was his last appearance in a motion picture you know... (pause) We are going to create a shrine.

J.D. : A totally credible and non-belittling interview.

I.L. : Yeah totally genuine.

J.D. : Can you tell me more about Orlan?

I.L. : Well, she uses her body as decorative art. It is an anti-religious movement where one is entitled to change their body, where it is obsolete. I think it is interesting that she considers the body a costume. Her whole theory is she's not using plastic surgery to look beautiful, but to manipulate and improve, that one has control of the body. The implants on her forehead are an extremist way of pushing the boundaries of the body.

J.D. : Is she trying to emulate the appearance of the Mona Lisa?

I.L. : The Mona Lisa is an inspiration. She studies mythological figures and is inspired by classical art.

J.D. : She's exercising her body as a canvas for expression and transformation.

I.L. : Exactly, it's very interesting- this distinction between what is real and virtual. All these questions seem up for grabs as we head for the next millennium.

J.D. : Let's consider that for the environments outside the computer and the body and go to artificial landscapes, like visiting the seagia ocean dome indoor beach in Japan. What about simulations and simulacra? My own interpretation and outlook on the visual field has been changed as a result of considering virtual environments. I mean there is a subtle difference to experience nature after even learning that these places do exist. Like, how fake is my world? These ideas and
places are creating change on a wide scope the way people view their 3
dimensional reality.

I.L. : Yeah, just thinking about the virtual reality hang-gliding where your body is suspended static but your mind is traveling. I think that resemblance is a sharp one because it triggers emotions and even adrenaline. Yesterday I was talking to Gurland, a philosophy professor at N.Y.U. and he was saying these kids that grow up in these virtual environments and a synthetic reality,.. for them this is their reality, you know. We consider these things virtual reality because they are created after our conception. For the kids, this is their reality and the distinction is blurry. In the end, reality is a perception anyway.

J.D. : Do you think that this ability to reinvent our reality so it is a new reality will bring freedom or control for people?

I.L. : The Japanese make these environments a part of their culture. They have no land, they have a lot of money, but no time. They look for a guaranteed pleasure because they don't have time for chances. If there going to go surfing they have to make sure the waves are there. Things are more programmed and they have to happen the way they are set up. There is something bizarre about it. Ed Regis, author of "Nano" talks about perfect conditions in space station inhabitancy and wonders how there could be excitement in that. Then Gurland talks about orgasms in that what makes it exciting is that it is not perpetual. It's a no win situation. Your chasing this perfection and this constant pleasure, but it's self defeating.

J.D. : Part of the experience I guess is that you won't just have it. When I go surfing it's most often a part of it that there are no waves. It makes the day when there are good waves a little more special.

I.L. : Yeah, but how about the idea of a 24 hour pleasure machine, then what's the point if you have orgasms 24 hours a day then it has no meaning anymore. (laughs)

J.D. : Yeah, convenience causes apathy.

I.L. : We amuse ourselves to death.

J.D. : So what is this I overheard about you and R.U. Sirius doing

I.L. : (interrupts) Doing a porn film? (laughs)

J.D. : Yeah.

I.L. : Yeah that would be fascinating because sexuality; people want to know more, they like and enjoy it, it could be so entertaining. I've been telling people who ask me this question because I'm not sure what the next film will be. Basically it will be something unusual,... the way all these Hollywood films try to be sensual,... it's so uninteresting.

J.D. : Do have an interest in doing a film that has to do with some of the ancient ways that seem to have re-emerged in present day technology, and seeing how they still exist. For instance, Shamanism, Shipibo rituals in the rain forests, or present day holistic healing?

I.L. : Something more mystical you say?

J.D. : Yes and possibly going back into it and seeing where it may lead or influence us in yet another new "information age".

I.L. : Yes, I am very interested in ancient knowledge because certain things in life never change you know? and when we talk about these mystical philosophies... actually I think that I made Synthetic Pleasures about a fascinating thing which is human satiability. The more things we have, the more things we will want. Technology is this tool which makes your satiability go up. The shamanists and all these things could make a fascinating and thought provoking film. These are the kind of thing you are interested in?

J.D. : Yes, possibly.

I.L. : Yeah, I can see your investigation. You really like to go in deep. It's a spiritual matter, yes?
J.D. : I think so.

I.L. : You should see my film of temples in Kyoto and rock gardens,... I used Haiku poetry. It's so much different than Synthetic Pleasures, but then we were talking about spirituality.

J.D. : It seems like creating some thing that was back into your conceptual work with the ideas of what your experience has been with the Synthetic Pleasures could be interesting. Perhaps not leaving people with opinions to judge, but simply a vision conveyed that would attempt to raise their spirit. I think you could take all these ideas and make a film that was an experience in itself.

I.L. : Well, we should talk more about films (laughs).

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