Happy holidays from The Popular Uncanny.
Happy holidays from The Popular Uncanny.
Boing Boing recently posted a great link to another vampire oddity that not only appropriates the popular uncanny icon of the vampire, but also that subgenre of “dolls” that for some are beautiful little darlings and for others are just too disturbingly close to real living babies — those uncanny valley dolls known as ‘reborns’. See Spooky’s article, “Vampire and Zombie Reborn Babies” at Oddity Central for coverage, or head directly to the source: The Twisted Bean Stalk Nursery, where artist Bean Shanine’s “Babies Grow on Their own Twisted Little Vines”.
This may be uncanny or creepy, but I really admire Shanine’s art!
While such matters might be termed “uncanny” in the most orthodox sense of that term, one of the interesting elements of these particular reborns is the artistic inspiration drawn from the Twilight series of books. Vampire kids are not an invention of the 21st century — we’ve had them in The Vampire Lestat, and in cinema one is reminded of creatures like the infant monsters from Cohen’s film, It’s Alive! and even Rosemary’s Baby. In the original Dracula by Bram Stoker, there is a classic scene where Lucy herself consumes infants for their blood, in a dark reversal of maternal symbolism. Here we have something of a re-reversal of this anxiety in a representation related to the child that must be nurtured by literally feeding off its mother — here made safe — and inorganic — both dead and yet newly born — through reassuring plastic.
I think this one — a photo of “Gummy Vampires” candy that I took at the grocery store the other day — speaks for itself. I don’t associate gushing or oozing or even “gumminess” with vampires…but with their victims. Indeed, the first thing I think of when I think of vampirism is “teeth” not gums. Although this product is clearly targeting children, it still reflects the typical transference we see in uncanny packaging, where the act of consumerism is projected into the product, fraught with contradictions and fantasy.
This has been in the back of my mind lately. Inspired a creepy twitter poem, even:
“Vampire Gums”: he looked down with strange relief and terror — / a loose tooth left behind / weirdly twitching / still gnawing in her neck
— Michael Arnzen (@MikeArnzen) January 20, 2013
Pop culture is so saturated with zombies that it seems quite silly. Or is it?
Take, for instance, the new (free) add on “Halloween” theme for the iOs GPS app, CoPilot Live. The opening screen transforms the colors to an autumnal trick-or-treaters fantasy with a goofy spiderweb on top (making its opening message — “Buckle Up!” seem far more ominous than it otherwise would)… and it also includes a clever zombie icon for the “Walk” GPS option, as well as funny green dismembered hands as pointers to locations.
It’s probably easy to dismiss this kind of thing as yet another goofy appropriation of horror genre tropes for pure marketing. I prefer to think that anytime you see a “zombified” commodity — perhaps most of all when the object seems ephemeral and totally unrelated to the horror genre — that there is still some true expression of fear there, lurking beneath the kitsch. Something repressed, that threatens to return…
GPS devices are used as maps that synchronize your position on a map through satellite technology. They’re highly scientific, yet I think most consumers treat these devices more like “the magic of everyday life” than as the technology they really are. The “knowingness” of the device comes “from beyond” to not only indicate where you are, but also to direct you on your way. In fact, most of these things SPEAK to us, like some kind of robotic backseat driver. It’s uncanny. Especially when they know more than we do about our location and how to save us from getting lost. A GPS literally enacts the “omnipotence of thoughts” that Freud describes in his foundational theory on Das Unheimlich.
This is why zombies make sense when used as a ‘skin’ for a GPS. It slyly suggests that when we follow the directions automatically, unthinkingly, that we are akin to robots following the programming, driving our cars, virtually on “autopilot.” Underscoring this is the fear of being lost in a strange land. The world of strangers. The place outside of our safe car bubbles, where Others roam.
Sometimes that fear may be warranted, but where there is anxiety there is always a market. And it’s not just GPS skins. Take trick-or-tracker, for instance — an iPhone app designed to help worried parents locate their children while trick-or-treating using their phone’s GPS. Sounds like a useful application of GPS if you’re a helicopter parent, I suppose. Or howabout the GPS Halloween Adventure held in Ewing, VA‘s Wilderness Road State Park? Both use GPS as talisman-like device for survival. Sounds ingenious! But also further proof of how the ‘magic’ we put into these technological divining rods are structures reflecting our fears and wishes rather than an application of science.
“Eyebombing” is the art of sticking “googly eyes” (a.k.a. “wiggly eyes” — the glue-on sort of craft store kind) onto an inanimate object in the public sphere in a way that cleverly lends the object the appearance of a living creature.
The purpose? According to eyebombing.com, it’s “humanizing the world, one googly eye at a time.” A wee bit subversive in nature, like drawing a mustache on a billboard celebrity. Take a snapshot of this public (de-?)facement, post it to eyebombing.com, link to it on a facebook group or flickr group or some other social network, and you have a mounting trend that — while nothing new, really — is emerging as a cute internet “meme.” We could possibly also call this meme an instance of the popular uncanny. But maybe not in the way you might, at first, suspect.
Sure, it’s just anthropomorphizing. Such gestures — which give the attributes of life to an inorganic object — often are “uncanny” because they confuse the assumed boundary between what makes something an object and what makes something — anything — a subject, capable of “returning the gaze.” We might feel an aura of weirdness for just the first moment we look at the object and see that it is “looking back” when it’s not supposed to. This reaction harkens back to what Freud once termed the “surmounted” childhood beliefs in an animistic world, in this case rendering everyday urban life as fantastic as the trees that talk in fairy tales or the Muppets of television childhood. Only now Oscar the Grouch doesn’t live a trashcan — he IS the trashcan. From guard rails to postal boxes, as the result of eyebombing, the objects of everyday life become doll-like with those cheap stick-on “googly” eyes so familiar to us from craft stores.
But googly eyes are plastic simulacra to begin with. They do not “move of their own accord” per se — in fact, it would probably be far more uncanny and disturbing to see human beings with plastic eyes like these on their faces instead. In other words, this is a representation of the gaze, a plastic staging of the uncanny, rather than a genuinely haunting act of defamiliarization.
Yet it is still — at least at first glance — a little uncanny. Indeed, it is the eyes themselves, far more than the objects they transform, which I would say are the harbingers of the popular uncanny. Is it not the familiarity of the googly eyes — not of the defamiliarized postal box, but the plastic eyes themselves — used in such a strange way, that makes them seem so odd, if not haunting? The googly eyes themselves are displaced from the faces of dolls and other crafts and are now potentially looking at us from anywhere, especially places where we would not expect to encounter them. The “bombed” site — a guard rail, a trash can, a light switch — is surprisingly looking at us when we turn around, precisely like those eyes on the GEICO dollar bill stack from advertising (“I always feel like somebody’s watching me.”)
Of course, this is not really scaring anyone. Disturbing a few, momentarily, perhaps. But we remain “surmounted” because we are not fooled by the eyes — they are not realistic the way that, say, fantastically customized contact lenses or the eyeballs from a “reborn doll” are. No — these “craft” items are virtually two-dimensional in all their clitter-clatter spinning disc glory, and are located more in the realm of concepts than animals. Indeed, they seem to make a statement more than talk for themselves. The subversive act of rendering a public, hard object as a personalized and personified object is still potent; it can defamiliarize in a very palpable manner, like all good art — but it does so in a way that is not felt as threatening. Its unreality is domesticated — which, while seemingly lacking in the haunting power of the uncanny is nonetheless a a defining element of many items of the “popular” uncanny, which sublimates but never entirely buries repressed desire in its attempt to make the unfamiliar more familiar — often by employing the tactics of childhood fantasy.
Eyebombing is the Fozzie-Bearification of the community property — the Jim Hensoning of the public square. There is a return of the repressed invoked here, but it very well may a repressed belief in the power of folk art, which has been increasingly “surmounted” by technology — or even just a psychological reawakening of some relationship to a children’s puppet from days gone by — which here returns with a twinge of uncanny recognition.
Wired magazine recently posted a clever infographic: “Where Celebrities Fall in the Uncanny Valley.”
I don’t want to take this one too seriously, and really just wanted to share it. It’s pretty funny…and also accurate. I think it’s really just an inside-joke at the expense of the Wired editor who is included on the chart. But in the larger view, the conceit, of course, is that actors are non-human constructs — and that their plastic surgery makes Joan Rivers and Mickey Roarke akin to zombies. The chart is really flawed, however, because it mixes up the idea of a “character” and an “actor.” These are two very different things, and I believe only “actors” really constitute celebrities.
Perhaps this ambiguity is related to their uncanny affect. How often do we confuse the symbol (actor) for what it symbolizes (character)? This comes right out Freud’s essay on the Uncanny.
I have to admit, I found the names listed on the OTHER SIDE of the valley more interesting than those dumped into the valley itself. They are examples of actors who are approaching the transhuman, I suppose.
Moreover, I had to note that the use of Star*Wars figures made the Wired chart feel a little too much like the chart Tracy Jordan crafted in an episode of 30 Rock (discussed in depth here back in Oct 2008). The whole chart is an uncanny echo in a way, of both Mori’s theory and that episode of 30 Rock.
I have to laugh whenever I see this snowglobe of Sigmund Freud, which is on a shelf in my campus office. This came to me from my old friend from graduate school, Bill Hamilton, who picked it up during a trip to Vienna last year, when he visited the Sigmund Freud Museum among other things.
What an odd choice for a kitschy ball of faux-snow! The figure inside is hard to determine as Freud, but I like to imagine it is Freud wearing ski goggles. Or a character from Futurama.
A colleague once asked me if that was cocaine swirling around his head.
The snowglobe is hilarious, as all snowglobes are.
The other day I took the above photo because the look of it got me thinking about snowglobes themselves — balls of glass that swirl powder in a watery shell to create a three-dimensional snowfall scenario. It’s impossible not to think of Citizen Kane or childhood or giftshops. To me they seem to imply a moment “frozen in time” — much like a photograph — yet not still… in persistent motion. The snowfall effect, when it works correctly, and sustains a well-balanced drift over time, aligns the device with the “automaton.” Yet we must shake them to stir them to life — these are not robots with on-off switches.
Indeed, the snowglobe is unerringly physical in nature…seemingly alive, in that it is a globular, fragile vessel that contains liquid, despite its hard glass shell. It is fascinating to watch people make this odd gesture — the shaking of a snowball — and to see the change that momentarily comes across their features — the frustration or fear or desire on their faces. Some shake them violently. Some gently disturb the glass for fear of dropping it. Some swish them like brandy; others twist them upside down and up again with violent abandon. There is something going on there, some kind of wish fulfillment and dread, in that strange moment when they grasp and disturb the contents of the globe, followed by the look of hope in their eyes as they hold it up to the light.
I always want the snow to keep moving, so I never have to shake the globe again. But gravity always wins.
The snowglobe is always reminiscent of death until it is shaken into life. In this way it has the aura of the uncanny.
It is no wonder, then, that they are objects of kitsch commodity fetishism in popular culture. Every gift shop sells them, even when the objects in the globe have absolutely nothing to do with snow, winter, or white powder in any way. Their “liveliness” promises for a price to allow you to magically bring a memory back to life, through this fetish object that stands in for the memory. We just think of them as toys, but they are deceptively more like dreams. Nay, they are more akin to crystal balls than toys.
Thinking of all this, I went hunting for interesting snowglobes online. Check out the snowglobe artwork of Walter Martin & Paloma Muñoz, called “Travellers”. “Like fairy tales or dreams, the tiny tableaus work as psychological metaphors,” Ken Johnson wrote for the NY Times. “Specifically, a stage everyone is bound to enter when life has lost its warmth and promise, at which point finding a new way becomes desperately urgent.” The globes contain an un-home-like moment, destabilized. And they are morbidly hilarious, too.
STRANGE RAIN is a new iphone/ipad application (aka “app”) by Erik Loyer at opertoon.com that, simply, simulates looking through “a skylight on a rainy day.” Rain falls from the cloudy abyss “above” the viewer to splatter down on the glass of the device. Tilt the device and the atmosphere tilts back, too, maintaining a 3-dimensional appearance that makes it genuinely feel like you are looking up through a portable, handheld window into a sky. You can make gestures with your fingers and cause the rain to gather into a column that follows your fingertips. You can tap on the glass and make music…and words begin to flash in “whispers” beside the raindrops…or, if set to “story” mode, the words appear in complete phrases, in errant but profound micro-musings, evoking a narrative (see Holly Willis’ review at KCET for a description of the ‘story’). The game encourages interactive finger-tapping and dragging as it plays musical notes with each touch. Tap quickly, and you “fall in” to the sky, as the clouds above become framed by other clouds…and still more frames of clouds, cascading and creeping in around the edge of the screen, frame inside of frame inside of frame….
It’s a very mellow, hypnotic kind of 21st century phantasmagoria. Words can’t describe it as well as the sample video on their website:
The app is quite simple, even monotonous to a degree, but it seems to be surprisingly popular for what amounts to an interactive haiku (Apple featured it in their Entertainment category, and it hit #1 on Jan 14th). I usually don’t buy these kinds of “eye candy” sorts of things, but there are times when it’s worth it to just kick back and relax with a computer/device and see where the muse takes you. There’s something very “zen” about this sort of application — and as Fast Company points out in their review, there are already a host of other “ambient meditation aids” out there in the ipad/iphone market — and we’ve also had New Media Poetry and other forms of Electronic Literature for decades now — but there’s more to the attraction than its successful application of this genre on the ipad platform. On his blog, the app’s author, Erik Loyer, once referred to this approach to gaming as prompting “casual significance” – taking “a stab in the dark, doing things you’d like to build theories around but shouldn’t, and as such they enable you to walk into the unknown with joy and confidence.” Creative minds need to do that. But that wasn’t the entire draw for me: when I read the description of the app, I immediately noticed how it employed the language of the uncanny, and had to give it a try:
Strange Rain…feels as if you’re holding a living window in your hands. The more you touch, however, the more strange the rain becomes: layered skies, visual anomalies and shifts in speed and color, even the occasional cataclysm if you’re not careful. Before your eyes and beneath your fingers, the familiar becomes strange, and the strange, familiar.
Any reader of Freud would recognize the opposition of the familiar and strange as unheimlich — and it is precisely the tropes of the uncanny, rendered interactive (“beneath your fingers”), which make this “living window” so curiously appealing.
Though the game subtly plays off our instinctive “sky is falling” kind of fear, virtual rainfall in itself is not so disturbing. Yet the effect is uncanny. In a review at iphonefreak.com, Andy Boxall compares the app to a David Lynch film, and in the process nails the reason why: “The oddness comes not only from the appearance of the rain falling from inside your device upwards, but from the discordant tunes you can make while tapping the screen.” Let’s talk about these two elements — the visual and the aural — to probe into what makes this app so “strange.”
In Strange Rain, the world is rendered topsy-turvy because we are so habituated toward thinking that the sky is always fixed in a position up above us. Gravity is a natural law for us. Click on this app with an ipad down on your lap or desktop, and suddenly the world has been turned upside-down, fostering a minor sense of acute weightlessness. “Rain” still “falls” in a natural way, but it does not so much fall down on you as fall at you. This feels a bit threatening, sure, and the inversion of our perspective on the world is felt as threatening because it challenges our sense of mastery over the environment. But that threat is offset by a larger fantasy of control over the environment, too: we can “magically” manipulate — nay, orchestrate — the rain with our fingertips. And who hasn’t wanted to control the weather? Or, to quote the game’s tutorial, “reset the world”?
Yet at the same time, the glass is a persistent barrier in this relationship, and the use of cascading frames as you probe deeper into the game persistently reminds the player that the window remains a medium that enables this “control” but at the same time blocks the user from really ever touching or feeling the water and other elements implied by the game’s diegesis. This is why the music — a pling-plongy waltz of notes that change tempo when you tap — is so important, “framing” the experience as an aesthetic one, set to a soundtrack in the foreground, while the “ambient” sound of rainfall is pushed sonically into the background. Diegetic and extra-diegetic elements compete in a way that render the familiar elements of nature (rainstorm/sky) strange (mediated by sounds/images/words). There is a play, too, between what is pre-programmed and what is randomized by the user, as well as between the inescapability of gravity vs. the mobility of the app, which generates oppositional tension: the game flip-flops the fantasy of mastery over the environment with the feeling that the environment is master over the user.
Perhaps the oppositional tensions I have been describing are a common structural element to most interactive handheld games, but the aesthetic framing of this one explicitly puts such issues in the context of a subjective fantasy about the natural environment, where “thoughts” are projected directly onto the sky. I am reminded of the way we often imagine we see uncanny shapes (animals, faces) in random cloud formations. The uncanny is never really just about “scary” objects, but about the projective fantasies we have that seem to “come to life” with more power than we imagine they might have. Strange Rain dramatizes this fantasy in a contemplative and mesmerizing way.
Visit Erik Loyer’s “Generous Machine” site for more of his projects, which include interactive comics and other ‘virtual windows.’
Strange Rain was also recently reviewed in-depth by CNN, who raises the question, “What exactly is it?” The answer: a postmodern phantasmagoria of the popular uncanny.
“These adorable pets offer a real pet ownership experience without the hassles and expense. Say goodbye to feedings and vet bills. Say hello to lots of love and cuddles. Perfect Petzzz – the ultimate pet.” — Perfect Petzzz website
“It is not a toy,” [VP of Marketing] Clarkson says, “but this is the closest you can get to real pet ownership without the hassles or responsibilities of owning a real pet.” — journalgazette.net
“In 2005, Perfect Petzzz® generated more than $20 million in retail sales in its first full year of operation. In fact, the Perfect Petzzz cart program was named the most successful new product concept in 2005. With the overwhelming demand for these lifelike puppies and kittens, we’ve seen other companies try to produce imitations.” — CD3 Press Release to PP Mall Dealers
Perfect Petzzz are stuffed animals that breathe. The autonomous movement of their fur — controlled by a battery-powered engine you don’t expect to be there — is enough to trick the eye into presuming that the puppy or kitten curled up on the floor is actually a living, breathing, pet. Cute, and perhaps attractive to your hand’s caress, until you touch it and realize it’s not real. Then you are startled and the toy enters the already doll-crowded realm of the popular uncanny.
Of course, the Perfect Petzzz (the ”zzz’s” are for snoring) are plastic. And therefore the animal it represents is literally as dead as it looks, with its eyes closed and body stiffened into a disturbing fetal curl. It should not move, but it does, and it is this representation of death-stirred-to-life — of the presumed inanimate object surprising us with its animation — that gets our reaction. The tricky switcheroo of statuses between familiar and unfamiliar spin the roulette wheel of certainty: the domesticated animal is rendered un-familiar (stuffed, inanimate) then restored to a heimish (cozy) status of sleeping and napping..
It is surely cute, and there is little difference between a breathing stuffed animal and a toy doll that burps or blinks. Of course, even the cutest of dolls are inherently uncanny in the way they are semblances, pale imitations of life…but the creepy thing in this case is not so much its status as automaton, as the fact that this “sleeper” never wakes up. These are comatose pets…and that, perhaps, is what makes them so “perfect.” Like the commodities these organic creatures have become, our domesticated pets are “perfect” when they are behaved, controlled, and easily replaceable after they expire. Even more, these plastic pals are simulacratic forms of taxidermy (and surely a savvy taxidermist has already borrowed the motor or at least the concept for an experiment or two). Another form of death, fantastically alive through the magic show of animism, nostalgia and fantasy. Living, breathing, death.
England’s Telegraph is running a “Best Pictures of The Year” gallery to wrap up 2009…and with images like the above from the “Weird Inventions” gallery — or even from their other bizarre and weird and spectacular galleries — one can only marvel over what a strange year it’s been…and how remarkably stranger it is going to get as we move into the second decade of the 21st century.
The photo above is a “personalized urn” that British firm Cremation Solutions can create, using 3-D facial reconstruction software. There is obviously an uncanny element to this urn, which reduces the body into ash stored into a simulacrum of one of its components — a dismembered head with a removable skullcap — in the form of an unblinking mannequin head whose features bare an alarming similarity to the dearly departed.
Curious to find out more about this product, I visited Cremation Solutions online, and after browsing some interesting “fingerprint jewelry”, quickly turned to their stunning catalog page for the personal urn. I call it “stunning” because I hadn’t expected to encounter an urn for President Obama!
At first I was taken aback by the image, both because of the accuracy of the likeness and because of the unexpected treatment of a living person, as if he were already dead. As it sunk in, I realized that most presidential figures and celebrities — indeed, anyone whose image is popular — are memorialized in a similar fashion, having their images frozen into postage stamps and plaster busts — and so, conceptually, this tribute is not so aberrant. But the uncanny is still omnipresent in the unblinking return of the gaze, the doppelganger of the dead person permanently placed on your mantle. There’s a reason why graveyards spook us: they are the spaces where the dead “live”; cremation urns can respect the role of the dead in a loving family’s home, but the more lifelike the urn, the more uncanny it becomes, making the boundaries between life and death — subject and object — very blurry. The commercial marketing of such memorials, both loved ones and celebrities, sold “on demand” (just $2600 for an urn that can hold all the ashes; $600 for a smaller keepsake), integrating the unfamiliar “magic” of high technology with the domestic familiarity of family photographs, brings this into the realm of the popular uncanny.
I could go on and on about the stock elements of the unheimlich in these urns. But one thing this particular practice brings to mind is a rising cultural trend toward employing 3D image rendering in ways that clone or replicate us. The art world seems to be responding to this with great interest. Visit the WebDesigner’s Depot on “Mind-Blowing Hyperrealistic Sculptures” or Eric Testroete’s Papercraft Self-Portrait series to muse over the implications and potentials of all this technology. I suspect we’ll see many more “personalized” objects mapped off images of ourselves or popular images in the media — there’s no end to our sense of wonder about ourselves, but one has to also wonder where natural fascination ends and cultural narcissism begins.