A series of ambient video loops exploring quantified emotion. A version of this project was displayed at Mediamatic Fabriek for the RVNG label night presented by Subbacultcha! and curated by Marieke Van Helden.
This Video Proves The Uncanny Valley Is In Hell
“WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU EMBRACE RATHER THAN AVOID THE UNCANNY VALLEY? AS IT TURNS OUT, PURE HORROR.” Review by John Brownlee (August 22 2013) at Co.Design.
There are definitely some art projects you shouldn’t experience under the influence of hallucinogens, for instance, Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture, Ron Mueck’s giant sculptures, or Lingxizhu Meng’s baby-pets. You can add to that list Parametric Expression, a new short film by Canadian artist Mike Pelletier that is one part Fantastic Planet, one part Lawnmower Man, and one part Hellraiser. Eerie, otherworldly, and more than a little horrifying, it will definitely make an impression.
In Parametric Expression, a pair of nude, hairless computer models repeat the same off-putting facial expressions in a digital limbo that seems to exist somewhere between the uncanny valley and hell. Sometimes the faces will glitch out, blooming into a blood-colored biomass of intertwining polygons. Other times, these visages will just twitch and leer, pulling back their muscles into ever-intensifying rictuses that, in humans, would cause their facial muscles to roll up like window shades. It’s disturbing.
As its name implies, Parametric Expression is ultimately about what happens when the expressions on the faces around us–the wistful smile, the sarcastic smirk, the suggestive grin, the angry grimace–are converted from muscle memory into parameters an algorithm can understand. “I was trying to explore what it means when you reduce emotion to measurable, repeatable processes,” says Pelletier.
…It was this feeling of strangeness that was the bulk of Pelletier’s inspiration. “The uncanny valley effect is now something that many people are familiar with, and whenever there’s errors in the way a person’s face is represented, it can provoke strong reactions,” Pelletier tells me.
… And as Pelletier would be the first to admit, exploring emotion and facial expressions parametrically in the uncanny valley can end up being a pretty discomfiting experience. Everything about Parametric Expression is tinged with a feeling of wrongness. In fact, when Pelletier tried to introduce motion capture at the end of the piece, he wasn’t able to inject the missing humanity. “The collision between realistic motion data, the 3D rigging errors, and the frozen facial expression just amplified the wrongness factor,” Pelletier says. The model becomes like a demon, lurching toward the camera at the end of a Japanese horror movie.
Parametric Expression isn’t exactly comforting art, nor does it find a path through the uncanny valley. Instead, it just strands you there, and it turns out that the uncanny valley is a worse place than you could possibly imagine. Be warned.
“Disturbing Animations Made by Pixar’s Evil Twin.” Review by Joseph Flaherty at (August 7 2013) Wired.com (U.S.)
Television programs like the Walking Dead have touched a nerve and gained an audience largely by scaring viewers with visuals of severed nerves and other viscera, but artist Mike Pelletier’s new video project, Parametric Expression, shows how horrific a banal facial expression can be.
There is no plot, no antagonist, just a group of androgynous characters staring, smiling, and baring their teeth in a stilted manner as if they were robots or aliens attempting to act human…
…Most artists use the software to create characters with distinct personalities, such as a cleft chin super hero or a rotund crime boss, but Pelletier wanted to focus on the unique aesthetic attributes of the software. “In a lot of my work I’m looking at how digital tools provide new ways of seeing the world and seeing ourselves,” he says. “All of these tools have their own specific aesthetic qualities, whether they’re MRI scanners, a thermal camera, or a Kinect. While often these are technical tools for measuring, observing, and recording, they can also be adapted for artistic expression.”
Taken on their own, the creepy countenances might just be seen as an awkward animation exercise, like something a Pixar animator would create if they were tasked with terrifying children instead of delighting them. When overlaid with Pelletier’s aesthetic choices, the robotic movements become downright alarming. The pale “skin” belongs to an android or vampire, but nothing human. The pink shadows around the eyes and mouth give the models a sinister albino feel. The rhythm of their movements seem more ritualistic than rote. Overall, the colors and surfacing are distressing without providing any clear reason why.
…Parametric Expression is one of several projects where Pelletier has explored the disquieting combination of biology and computation. Lucy Skull is a 3-D printed sculpture based on dental tomography data that is artfully manipulated to look like the result of an ultramodern technical glitch and an antique medical curiosity, simultaneously. His Kinect Portraits transform data from video game peripheral into pictures that make the subjects look like faceted statues, as if a modern Medusa stared them in the eye.
His sculptures and prints are stunning, but the creep factor snowballed when motion was added to the mix. “I found the collision of data recorded from the real world, mixed with the frozen expression really triggered the ‘uncanny valley’ effect for me,” he says. “It just highlights a feeling of awkwardness, that something isn’t entirely right, that there’s some sort of translation error happening.”