Presented simultaneously as an exhibition at the Michael Bjornson Gallery
in Vancouver BC, in FRONT Magazine as an artist project and essay, and as a web project.
Some have called the valley a place where monsters dwell. Indeed, in the valley the line
between seductive illusion and grotesque imitation is easily blurred. Few forms of depiction
elicit stronger positive and negative reactions than recreations of human appearance. At
different times in history, entities that mimic human beings have captured our collective
imagination in various forms: Frankenstein’s monster, human-like automatons, the cyborg
combining machine and human forms, and more recently virtual characters, have all been the
subjects of fascination, suspicion, as well as repulsion.
In 1970, Dr Masahiro Mori, a Japanese roboticist, sought to provide insight into the psychology
of human reaction to devices that physically mimic human form (robots). He proposed that, if
one were to compare similarity to human form against people’s response to human like
machines, one would find that a the reaction would be more positive as realism increased. But
then, paradoxically, as we approached nearly convincing human form, there would be a
dramatic reversal from a positive into a strongly negative response, a drop from acceptance
into repulsion. This is the valley - the valley of eeriness - or as it has come to be known, the
The concept has proven broad enough to be applicable to other human-like creations and has
been relevant in computer-generated imagery (CGI), and in other domains such as the design
of prosthetics. Dr. Mori’s idea that increased realism does not necessarily lead to increased
acceptance has been invoked those times when the furious pursuit of photo-realism in digital
actors for virtual applications has disastrously failed to gain acceptance - those times when
instead of meeting with a favorable reception these characters have generated unease.
The virtual, in the form of immersive environments, avatars, and virtual actors, represents a
new kind of relationship to representations of our selves. and it’s poised to inhabit a space
quite different from other forms of depiction. The virtual has quickly assumed the role of a
surrogate - a simulation able to inhabit the same space in the imagination as the “real” thing.
But what does our own perception of entities that mimic us reveal about our notions of “real”
and “image”, and in turn, about our own self-definition? The concept of abjection is useful here
– the theory that there is a space somewhere between subject and object. In Julia Kristeva’s
proposition of the term, something can be foreign yet familiar, perceived as both alive - and not alive
- at the same time.
The abject refers to an object cast outside the symbolic order, having once been a subject. One example is the reaction of being faced with a corpse, recognizable as human, but now eliciting a sense of unease. The abject defines our own status as (still) living subjects who reject manifestations of our own inevitable mortality. In the uncanny valley we confront something that we expect to be alive but is not, and find ourselves at a loss to reconcile its contradictions
Sigmund Freud referred to the uncanny as that class of frightening coming not from a dread of
the unknown but, in fact, from the feeling that something known and familiar has become
uncomfortably strange. Under what circumstances, though, does the familiar become
frightening? The conditions that create a feeling of uncanniness, according to Freud, relate to
the inability to reconcile being attracted to, yet repulsed by something at the same time.
Uncertainty (in this case whether one is seeing a living being or something that is in fact
inanimate) is at the root of these feelings of dissonance - of uncanniness.
© P Majano 2009