When I'm Not Here
Updated: May 11, 2021
I believe that there are two stages of dying. First is the biological death when all of our cells die from a lack of oxygen. The second will come when our stories, thoughts, or beliefs are diminished from the world by being forgotten. And this is the stage where we are peacefully leaving this world.
In the digital era, it is inevitable for us to produce a ton of digital footprints. We can not deny that our personal computers, smartphones, and social media contain our personality and also many aspects of ourselves. These technologies have been created to memorize the data as long as the machine is running. Most of the time, we are drastically trying to prevent losing the data by backing up and preserving it. We are desperately trying to remember and be remembered. Therefore, I started to question how we can reach the final stage of death if some parts of ourselves are still stuck within the digital world and computer’s memories. Is it possible for our digital self to leave this world in peace?
When I’m Not Here is a self-destruction video sculpture containing my last words for people I love in a video format. Every time the video is played, the digital data in the file will be gradually corrupting by automatically rewriting some part of the information inside of itself until it is unwatchable. The process of people watching this video will be the dying process of my digital self and also my transformation from a living organism and digital archive into memories. Hopefully, I will live as long as they remember me.
This is a ‘time-based media art since I have to keep the piece working until my last day. Then, that day would finally become the real exhibition of this work. Please hold on to it :)
*** The video inside the machine is just a mock-up for documentation purposes. The actual video is being recorded and placed in the sculpture after filming but no one will ever see it until the day I die.
I was inspired by one chapter from David Eagleman’s book, SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, named Metamorphosis, which is a story about one possibility of the afterlife. In Metamorphosis, the afterlife is a huge waiting room where every person who passes away will wait until their name is called in this world for the last time. In the room, there are a lot of famous people who never have a chance to leave because their name will always be called during the museum tour or history class. And for some people, the day they leave is the day that the last person they love is coming.
If the Metamorphosis's assumption about the afterlife is true, how can we leave the room during the digital era where all of our data will always be archived and backed up by computers and tech companies. Does that mean we will be immortal in the room and have to wait forever? In many movies or mythologies, most people try to find a way to be immortal, and mostly they end up miserable because life without limitation becomes meaningless.
‘When I’m Not Here’ is my attempt to escape digital immortality and find the meaning of life by using the digital tools to reverse the process of being copied and back up repeatedly in the digital world.
Video Destruction Research
The core of this project is digital decomposition. So the first research I did is how the digital file is deleted. So I start researching Glitch Art which is the practice of manipulating the digital file or electronic device to create artistic errors.
I found that every digital file is constructed with text. If we can access that text, we can easily manipulate the file. I started trying to manipulate the data with HEX FIEND which is software that allows the user to access the hex data and the ASCII data of the file. It's very easy to play with the image but it's very tricky for the video. Because the video file is a lot more complex. At the beginning of the testing process, I failed most of the time.
Here is how the data look like
So I started to do more research about how to manipulate the video file specifically. I found this article about the datamoshing technique by corrupting data. Here is some technique I found.
The best file type to play with is .mp4 and .mov.
It's not possible to erase or add more byte to the file which means the data we want to replace needs to be the same length as the original text.
The video file is constructed with movie atom which we can find easily in the ASCII data of the file. To keep it as a video file, we cannot mess with the movie atom. Only the data between 2 movie atoms is editable.
First Attempt After getting the tips
In this attempt, I decided to manipulate data at the beginning of the file.
After trying to corrupt the file 12 times.
This is when I found the right amount to glitch.
After testing many times. I found that a file recorded from different devices has a different structure. In some files, the beginning of the data contains the audio and the ability to loop or start the video at the beginning. However, one thing in common I found is if I start to manipulate the file from the end, it's mostly successful.
Moreover, It's not a good idea to replace every single byte of the file with the same data because it turns out to be one super boring color. And most importantly, after the file is being corrupted, some software might not accept it anymore. Sometimes, it also shows different results when playing in different software or devices.
To glitch the real video, I decided to replace 55 bytes with the sentence: " I'm about to die Please remember me until we meet again ". A chunk of data is rewritten every time the video is played.
Data After glitching
During the testing process, when I watched the video of myself has been gradually corrupted, it really feels like watching myself gradually die.
Electronic Parts & Raspberry Pi
For the physical part, I used Raspberry Pi 4 to run the program to glitch the video. The assemble and the circuit is very simple. I connect the screen with HDMI to mini HDMI connector and attach the Pi to the back of the screen. The connector and fan are included in the package of the screen which is very useful.
In order to set up the Pi, I followed this tutorial from Tom Igoe's PiRecipes Repository. It's very useful to set up ssh in order to program the file remotely.
In order to play video on Raspberry Pi, I found one handy command-line media player called "omx-player". And fortunately, there is also a node package that can control it.
Finally, connecting the push button with GPIO pin on the PI and the machine is good to go!
I want the design of the piece to be very minimal. I chose an acrylic sheet as a material. In order to fabricate it, I used a laser cutter to cut acrylic and assemble it as a box.
My photo on the cover is a pixelated version of me made in this p5.js sketch. I took a screenshot and modified it in Adobe Illustrator for laser cutting.
Resources and References
Video Disruption Research
Raspberry Pi Research
Node js Research