Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Uncanny Vulnerability: On the Creepiness of "Hi, Stranger"

In the last couple of weeks, Kirsten Lepore's brilliant claymation short "Hi, Stranger" has taken the internet by storm.  It features a nameless, gelatinous, nude, humanoid protagonist (pictured left) with a soothing, gender-ambiguous voice who engages in a spontaneous, quasi-therapeutic, and strangely intimate conversation directly with you, the viewer. Reactions to Lepore's short have been mixed-- some find it comforting, some find it repulsive, many find it both of those-- but almost everyone seems to find "Hi, Stranger" a little creepy.

It's almost maddeningly difficult to describe to someone who hasn't seen it yet what makes "Hi, Stranger" so compelling. (H. Perry Horton captured that difficulty best in the title to his piece: "I Don't Know WTF This Is But I Love and Fear It.") There isn't a plot or even a narrative arc to speak of and, since viewers' reactions to Lepore's short are neither uniform nor universal, it isn't even possible to manufacture a spoiler alert for it. Watching "Hi, Stranger" is an experience, a curious and unsettling and comforting and very, very strange experience. Once you see it, you want others to see it as well, in part because you want to them to have that experience, but also (let's admit it) because you're looking for some confirmation that your experience wasn't that strange.

So, here it is. Take two-and-a-half minutes to see for yourself:


Creepy, right?

I've been working on the very specific variety of creepy that we call "uncanny" for several years now, mostly in connection with Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori's "Uncanny Valley" hypothesis. (Here is a link to a series of my posts on the Uncanny Valley) In sum, Mori speculated that humans’ affective responses (familiarity, empathy, affinity) tend to increase positively as a robot’s design more closely approximates human form and behavior, but only up to a certain degree of similitude, after which there is a sharp negative turn and our responses plummet into a “valley” of uncanny aversion. That is to say, we like robots that are like us, but not too much like us.

Lepore's "Hi, Stranger" is a very interesting case of the uncanny (in the "technology" sense employed by Mori, not necessarily in the technical psychoanalytic sense employed by, for example, Freud or Jentsch). The figure in it does not simulate human form and movement in anything more than a grossly cartoonish way, and so is a far cry from the sorts of uncanny androids being manufactured IRL today (see GeminoidDK) or represented in television (see Ash from the Black Mirror episode "Be Right Back") and film (See Ava from Ex Machina). What the strange figure in "Hi, Stranger" manages to accomplish is not merely a simulation of "the human," but rather something closer to what Geminoid Project creator Hiroshi Ishiguro has called the "transmission of human presence." This is what makes Lepore's figure such an unusual instance of our uncanny reaction to technologically-produced humanoids: it doesn't just look human, it feels human. But how?

I think there are a number of things we can point to that make "Hi, Stranger" so effective in transmitting the kind of intimacy and familiarity that we usually only associate with humans. First, the figure is nude, lying on its stomach, with its backside exposed. (You can look at its butt. It's okay.) Second, it speaks in a deliberately-paced, soothing half-whisper that very closely mimics that of counselors and therapists.Third, it not only speaks directly to you, but it looks directly at you, in effect utterly destroying the fourth wall. (Especially intimate are the long looks it gives when it is "drawing" a picture of you-- a sketch that you never see, but you are led to believe, from the artist's reaction, that the sketch was a flattering image of you.) And finally, it is absolutely uninhibited in sharing its whimsical imaginings, its struggles and concerns, and its deep love for you.

All of these serve to demonstrate what the figure confessed right from the start: "I feel like I can can be vulnerable around you." And that intimate vulnerability, I think, is what most people find creepily uncanny in "Hi, Stranger,"

That is a very different sort of "creepy" than the uncanny reaction we have to androids that "appear" human, which disturb us at a very basic level in part because we worry about mistaking the simulation for the real. Lepore's short manages to simulate something far more complex and multifaceted than the human form, and so our worry that its approximation of what it is simulating may be too close for comfort has to do with much more than what is accomplished by hyperrealistic art. In fact, one of the most brilliant things about Lepore's piece is that it requires some active contribution on the part of the viewer to achieve its effect.

Because "Hi, Stranger" is about manifesting a type of human relationship rather than a type or form of human, the viewer finds herself participating in the otherwise rare vulnerability that characterize the most intimate of human relationships. My guess is that those who find Lepore's short to be awkward, unsettling, or offensive (instead of comforting or consolatory) are most bothered by the fact that it insists on a mutual evincing of vulnerability without asking permission in advance.

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