“I’ve had this image in my head for a long time. It’s the cornerstone of a film, I just don’t have the context for it yet. It’s a character reaching out for a cup and, just as they’re about to pick it up, their hand goes straight through it.” Artist Johnny Woods is describing one of the myriad strange possibilities that offer themselves up to the digital marauder, once they have crossed over into the Uncanny Valley.
The advent of personal computing in the 1980s generated a brave new world of digitally created landscapes and aesthetic opportunities, including the creation of humanoid avatars. Around this time, a previously dismissed aesthetic theory posited by Masahiro Mori resurfaced and began to gain credence among the computing community. Mori’s theory proposed that our ability to empathise with a human-seeming object will increase steadily up to a certain point, after which the increasing likeness, belied by the apparent artifice of the representation, will stop being attractive and become unsettling. As soon as people started to play around with simulations of quasi-real human bodies, the visceral reality of Mori’s theory began to resonate with users across the world. Today, innumerable interpretations later, the Uncanny Valley is revered practically as a spatial reality in the world of computing, leading programmers and artists to be cautiously circumspect in their treatment of it.
“When the fundamental characteristics of a human being are identified in an object that is somehow devoid of actual humanity, the result is distinctly unsettling…”
The Uncanny Valley is an active rather than a passive space, insofar as the sensation it produces does not derive from the automaton or human being itself, but from the disconcerting transition between planes; from what is heimlich to what is unheimlich. Heimlich is a German word describing the things we do in the secrecy of our homes; the hidden, iceberg-like facets of our humanity, whereas unheimlich refers to “a place that is not like home”. The inclusion of heim, or “home”, within the structure of unheimlich is semantically awkward, continually reminding us of home whilst describing a place that deviates from it. When this paradox is translated into an aesthetic theory, we find ourselves gazing over the precipitous edge of the Uncanny Valley itself.
Both Ernst Jentsch and Sigmund Freud, in their treatments of the concept of the Uncanny, some fifty years before Mori himself, identify automatons and dolls as the most unsettling representational objects for human beings, indeed Mori originally conceived his theory with regard to the burgeoning industry of robotics. Just as the inclusion of heim within unheimlich is unsettling from a purely semantic point of view, when the fundamental characteristics of a human being are identified in an object that is somehow devoid of actual humanity, the result is distinctly unsettling.
Mori’s theory has been taken up enthusiastically by digital artists whose work explores the landscape of hyperreality in which representation coincides with and threatens to overtake physical reality. In our increasingly digitalised world, where experiences are not deemed ‘real’ until they have been shared via social media and in which Virtual Reality platforms have attained such echelons of perfection that users can spend hours if not days absorbed in their heady landscapes, it follows that our consumption of art must be moving in a similar direction.
“Woods’ art explores a sinister bizarro version of our reality in which our darker impulses and experiences are enacted by quasi-real avatars.”
Johnny Woods is a digital artist based in LA. In his work, Woods plumbs the depths of the Uncanny Valley, exploring the unique multi-dimensional opportunities it offers up and creating Lynchian narratives in which the colours are psychotropic, the soundtracks are tense and atmospheric and the protagonists invariably end up screaming. He began making films the traditional way, with a camera and a team, but when he realised that he could achieve the same effects and much more on the computer, without the expense or anxiety of a team, he absconded into the world of digital animation. In an oddly satisfying turn of events, Woods’ day job is as a programmer for Snapchat. “Yeah, I make videos all day for teenagers, I’m fascinated by teenagers!” Woods delivers this remark without a hint of irony, although he is disappointed by the direction kids are heading in these days. “Kids these days, they don’t smoke, they don’t drink, they don’t go out and party, they’re not doing drugs, they’re not doing anything cool! They’re not lazy like people think, but I do get scared that they’re becoming increasingly obedient and insular. When you’re a teenager you’re supposed to go out and drink and do drugs and fuck things and make bad decisions and rebel and get angry. For the current generation, the angriest they get is writing a snarky tweet.”
A far cry from the filtered, edited, emoji’d universe of Snapchat, Woods’ art explores a sinister bizarro version of our reality in which our darker impulses and experiences are enacted by quasi-real avatars. I ask whether there’s a distinct line that Woods abides by in terms of representational accuracy when he’s creating his humanoid characters. “Sometimes they’re more human looking than other times. In a few cases recently I’ve actually intentionally tried to make them look more like cartoons or drawings. I don’t think I would ever want to work with something that looked more human than the stuff I’m doing now. Maybe that’s not true. It’s a balance between how human they look and how human they’re acting; if both of those things are too real, then I’m not super into it anymore.”
“You’re always hearing about artists trying to ‘cross’ the uncanny valley, as though it’s a place you’re trying to avoid because it’s creepy and it’s weird.”
In ‘You Are Safe’, Woods’ interpretation of real, documented accounts of alien abductions, a young woman is asleep on her sofa when an owl appears outside her window, then inside her living room, drawing her into a psychedelic realm in which she is sexually assaulted by an alien, forced to engage in sexual intercourse with another human abductee and finally conceives a child with an alien. The spawn of this encounter is the perfect visual referent for the unheimlich, bearing all the characteristics of a human child but with an indefinable otherness belying its strange heritage. When the woman is finally returned to her home, she awakes to find herself naked, providing sinister and irrefutable proof that her encounter was real and cannot be dismissed as a nightmare. The look in her eyes at this moment is indisputably human.
When I ask Woods if he has ever experienced opposition to his work, the only example he can think of relates to this film. It was scheduled to form part of an exhibition at a well-known gallery in LA but at the last moment the piece was pulled without any explanation. When he approached the director of the gallery to discover the reason for the film’s exclusion, Woods was told that the film was “exploitative” and could be a trigger for some survivors of sexual assault. He respected the curator’s decision and attended the show regardless of his exclusion, but says the gallery’s decision revealed that they had fundamentally misunderstood the work: “You know, the point of that whole film is that it’s based on true things. I mean it is exploitative, it’s about exploitation. It’s about people coming down, hypnotizing human beings, taking them up into a ship and performing very sexual experiments on them. I don’t know how you show that in a non-rapey way.”
“What have we learned? Nothing, that’s almost the point. But it winches the doors of your perception open a little further…”
The line between reality and representation gets very blurred here. After all, Woods genuinely believes in alien abductions; during our conversation he gestures to a large bookshelf behind him that consists largely of books on the subject. So where do we find ourselves in relation to the Uncanny Valley when we are watching an animated account of supposedly real events, played out by humanoid avatars? For Woods, this question is not so much a quandary as a portal leading to endless possibilities: “When they talk about the ‘uncanny valley’ in the visual effects industry, they talk about it as a problem. You’re always hearing about artists trying to ‘cross’ the uncanny valley, as though it’s a place you’re trying to avoid because it’s creepy and it’s weird. For me, the strategy was always to lean into that, to go “Oh it’s creepy in here, let’s make some creepy films!” I like hanging out down there. Everyone else is trying to stay on one side or the other but I think there’s really interesting territory inside of it to explore.”
What is more, when we relinquish those sacred ties to ‘reality’ and ‘unreality’, we begin to sink irresistibly into a state in which all similar labels become meaningless. As Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov found—that in a world without God “everything is permissible”—so too do Woods’ characters appear to operate in a space devoid of morality. It’s not that they’re bad, they just don’t operate according to the value systems that our reality is contingent upon. In “I Live My Life in Darkness”, the main character moves through her murky environment apparently without recourse to moral judgement. She meets a man for a drink in a piano bar, then wanders the streets, is accosted by a strange, cat-eyed man reminiscent of the Mystery Man in Lynch’s Lost Highway, engages in sex with a stranger, murders him and is seemingly overtaken by the spirit of the cat-eyed man. Now in his thrall, she returns to the piano bar, naked, and proceeds to spank an elderly woman and then stab her with a large sword. Finally, she and the cat-eyed man go for a moonlight trip in a rowing boat. At the beginning of the film she is screaming into a bathroom mirror and at the end, having committed several of Aquinas’ Deadly Sins, she is giddy with happiness. What have we learned? Nothing, that’s almost the point. But it winches the doors of your perception open a little further and that, according to Woods, can only be a good thing.
“I mean, Pixar isn’t going to have a sex scene any time soon and as that’s the only mainstream inflection of this kind of animation, somebody else has to do it.””
In terms of a narrative arc, the sensation the film gives is of lucid dreaming; you know it isn’t real but you begin to take an active role anyway and even enjoy the licence that the dream-state affords you. Woods never works from a script so there is an authentically dreamlike quality to how these sequences take shape: “They’re like these weird puppets, it’s very much like playing with dolls. I’m sitting there at the computer and it’s a really direct form of manipulation, they just start doing weird things. They take on their own personalities. I’m not entirely sure where it comes from to be honest, but I just build the character and situation and they work their way through it.”
There is an interesting trend within work that explores the Uncanny Valley towards exploring human sexuality and nudity in its various forms. I propose to Woods that this is due in part to the digital artist’s proximity to porn whilst creating their work. “Yeah”, he agrees, “I think there definitely is an element of that. I haven’t really psychoanalysed myself in that regard but I do know that whenever I set out to make a film I say, ‘Ok, don’t do a sex scene. This is the video where you won’t have any sex’, but it always comes back in and I don’t know why. I think, once you’re in the Uncanny Valley, it’s an interesting thing to explore within that space. It gets really creepy and bizarre and strange. There’s also a long history of underground art exploring sexuality, partly because it’s such a repressed subject, especially in American culture—I think that was a big part of it—saying ‘Fuck you, no one else is gonna do this so we’re gonna do it.’ I mean, Pixar isn’t going to have a sex scene any time soon and as that’s the only mainstream inflection of this kind of animation, somebody else has to do it.”
The radical potential of the Uncanny Valley is currently being explored most daringly by social media platforms that, to varying degrees, allow us to experiment with the bounds of our own identities, stretching and transmuting them further than ever before. Second Life is an online virtual world developed by Linden lab in which users can socialise, fall in love and even work, in return for ‘Linden Dollars’. The website describes itself as, “a 3D world where everyone you see is a real person and every place you visit is built by people just like you.” Even as someone so adept at traversing the murky waters of the Uncanny Valley, Woods finds Second Life a tad scary. “The aesthetic difference between Second Life and social media platforms like Facebook and Snapchat is that, in Second Life, you clearly have another body; you’re occupying a different space and you’re clearly presenting a different personality. I’m aware that I have a different personality on Twitter than on Facebook, they’re very different people and they’re both completely different to me as a real person. They’re all projections, but people are forgetting they’re projections because it’s so deeply embedded in their daily life. How much of your daily life do you do on Facebook? I do a lot, almost everything.”
When these fictive projections begin to collide with physical reality, the strangeness of the Uncanny Valley begins to transcend the digital world and reach into our own. Woods describes an encounter with a woman he had met on an online dating site and the intense confusion and disappointment he felt on hearing her voice for the first time and realising that it bore no resemblance to the one he had been imagining. Neither did her personality nor mannerisms correspond to the idealised projection he had held in his mind throughout their conversations online. They are still friends, he says, but every time he sees her he still experiences the same jolt of confusion as he did the first time, adjusting to the unexpected reality of her. “Right now, it’s bad,” he concedes, “we have all this technology allowing us to communicate in so many different ways and slowly weaving itself into the fabric of our lives but we don’t know how to deal with that, so it’s very awkward. It’s like a weird adolescence. We’re growing into a new technologically advanced body and we don’t know how to deal with it, or with the new technologically enhanced consciousness that goes along with it.”
Slavoj Zizek summarises the paradoxical nature of our current relationship with ‘reality’ thus: “The ‘virtualisation’ of our life experience, the explosion/dehiscence of the single ‘true’ reality into the multitude of parallel lives, is strictly correlative to the assertion of the proto-cosmic abyss of chaotic, ontologically not-yet-fully-constituted reality—this primordial, pre-symbolic, inchoate ‘stuff’ is the very neutral medium in which the multitude of parallel universes can coexist.” In other words, the more we replicate our reality with virtual levels of hyperreality, the less ‘real’ each level of our reality becomes. However far we stray into digital multispheres and virtual antechambers, at some point we will be forced to return to Earth and acknowledge our physicality and our undeniable reality, if only for a quick sandwich and a trip to the loo.
Speaking about visionaries such as Galileo and Einstein, Woods says, “They had a moment when the blinkers were off and they were open to all possibilities so that it changed the way they saw the world. It just took the rest of the world a couple of hundred years to catch on to what they saw. Anything that fundamentally changes the way you view the world, going down the rabbit hole, seeing whether there’s anything substantial there, can only make us move forward as a civilisation.” And therein lies the rub: in order to dream we must first be asleep and in order to wake up we have to give up the dream. The fantastical kingdoms, bodies and lives that we create and curate for ourselves on the other side of the digital curtain may delight and delude us into believing that they are truly ‘real’, but our bodies will pull us back from the edge every time.
Words by Claudia Paterson.