Uncanny Valley and the World Beyond

The Posthuman Prostheses of Sophie de Oliveira Barata

Over forty years ago, Masahiro Mori, a robotics professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in an essay that appeared in an obscure Japanese Journal called Energy, envisioned a possible response to robots created to be very like humans.  He suggested that there would be a “sudden switch from empathy to revulsion as the robot approached, but failed to attain, a lifelike appearance” and he coined the term to describe this response: “Bukimi no Tani Genshō (不気味の谷現象)” which translates as “Uncanny Valley.” The term reflects the shape of this sudden drop in empathetic response (as the robot becomes more human-like in appearance) when it is mapped on a graph. In the past few years there has been an upsurge of interest in Mori’s idea from people in a range of fields including gaming, robotics and prosthetics.  Now artists are working within the field of prosthetics to show an innovative approach to moving forward, beyond the Uncanny Valley.

For the 2012 closing ceremony for the Paralympic games, Latvian-born singer Viktoria Modesta created a sensation, performing as the “Snow Queen” to the live Coldplay track, “42.” Modesta appeared with one leg that looked as though it was entirely carved out of ice and snow, visibly hollow. Here was a new vision of the “Snow Queen,” part flesh, part ice. Silver and glittering, created out of thousands of Swarovski crystals, Modesta’s extraordinary, sculptural leg captivated many and made headlines.

To create this “crystallized leg” for the Paralympian ceremony, Modesta worked in collaboration with artist Sophie de Oliveira Barata. The team has also created another leg for Modesta. In steampunk black and silver, with inbuilt stereo speakers, this limb is a celebration of a camp, hybrid aesthetic, a new cyber-burlesque.

stereoleg

In speaking of her experience of wearing one of these new kinds of prosthetic limbs, Modesta says, “The first time I wore a limb that was so obviously bionic, it gave me a total sense of uniqueness, [a] feeling of  [being a] mutant human in the best way possible. It was fascinating.”

Barata originally trained as an artist in special effects and then went on to work in the prosthetics industry for several years, developing her own speciality in the more unusual orders, e.g. when the client wanted a tattoo created on a prosthetic limb. She went on to found her own company, The Alternative Limb Project, which designs extraordinary prosthetic limbs that are envisioned not as replacement limbs but rather as body enhancements. You can see her website here: www.thealternativelimbproject.com/‎

Barata works in collaboration with people to create the kind of prosthetic limb that they would like to wear. She believes the process is about “claiming control and saying ‘I’m an individual and this reflects who I am.’”

snakearm

The limb she created with red-haired Jo-Jo Cranfield, a paralympian triathlete, brings a playful and weird twist to the common tattoo of a snake winding itself around the forearm. In their version, an electric green, three-dimensional snake winds in and out of the realistic silicon flesh of the arm itself.  Jo-Jo Cranfield, who was born without an arm below the elbow, says, “I wanted people to have to look at me twice with amazement. I’d rather people just asked me outright how I lost my arm. This is so out there… that it makes people feel OK to ask questions.” She says that the limb makes her feel powerful and sexy.

Barata has also created a light jade-green leg covered in a floral pattern in collaboration with Kiera Roche, the chairperson for the charity Limb Power. This is a limb with an old-fashioned elegance and beauty that is jointed like a china doll. Kiera Roche says the limb is a personal statement and that she has had an incredible response to it.

floralleg

Barata has not been alone in her innovative approach to augmenting the human body either. One of the first artists to take an interest in designing prosthetics as body enhancements was the designer Alexander McQueen, who contacted the paralympian sportswoman and model Aimee Mullins to suggest designing some special legs for her. McQueen designed wooden legs that were hand carved and made out of solid ash, and Mullins wore them on the catwalk for McQueen’s 1999 show. The ensemble that she wore — the brown leather corset, the skirt of cream lace and the carved rich brown wooden legs — formed part of the 2011 retrospective show Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Aimee Mullins went on to invite other artists to work with her to create some more groundbreaking visions for this new kind of prosthetic limb. One of the most astonishing was a pair of legs created with Matthew Barney for the Cremaster Cycle. These limbs were produced for Cremaster 3 in 2002, and looked as though they were made out of glass. Completely transparent with plants growing inside them, these surreal legs extend an invitation to read the body itself as ecosystem or cosmos.

Aimee Mullins’ funny and inspiring Ted Talk “12 Pairs of Legs” can be seen here. (Aimee Mullins: It’s not fair having 12 pairs of legs | Video on TED.com www.ted.com/talks/aimee_mullins_prosthetic_aesthetics.html‎)

Sophie de Oliveira Barata is building on the foundation work of these artists and pioneers in the field, and is currently developing some “gadget limbs for alternative functions,” for example a Swiss-army-knife arm with “a bottle opener, a flashlight, magnifying glass, whistle, compass, watch, matches and strike pad,” and another arm which doubles as a “miniature pinball machine”

[They] are completely off the wall,” she says, “but we want to demonstrate how far we can run with the imagination…”

These “gadget limbs for alternative functions” created by Barata bring to mind the extraordinary images generated by the Surrealists in their drawing game “exquisite corpse.”  In this game, developed by the Surrealists in 1925 to involve the collective unconscious of the group of artists present, each person in turn draws a part of a human figure in sequence (e.g. a head, a neck) and then folds the paper over so that the player coming after them will not be influenced by what had been already drawn.

In some of the exquisite corpse drawings we can see the extremities of the body replaced by tennis racquets, eyes floating away from the head attached to a curling ribbon, or a violin sitting in place of a head. Katherine Milligan in her writing on the ornamented body of the late 20th century writes, “As strange as they are, the human figures in these exquisite corpse drawing are consistently recognizable as such…. The legibility of the drawings attests to a powerful desire for bodily coherence. At the same time, the drawings extend the Surrealists’ questioning of the limits of individuality…in physical metaphor. The boundaries of the body are anything but discrete.” The surrealist exquisite corpse drawings pose the question as to how we are to describe the interface between the body and the other elements in the image. “Are the bodies reaching out into the non-corporeal world or is the non-corporeal world reaching into the bodies? At their edges the corporeal/non-corporeal distinction breaks down, and it becomes impossible to state decisively where the transition from one to the other takes place. In particular…the borders of the body have come to represent the difficulty of determining the limits of the individual.”

In the creation of these prosthetics, Sophie de Oliveira Barata and her collaborators are taking the questions posed by the Surrealists about the nature of the body and its limits and boundaries, and moving beyond the realm of pure imaginative drawing into the realm of the actual, by transposing these issues into the real world. They are posing questions challenging our preconceptions about the nature of disability, and presenting us with playful but challenging conundrums about the boundaries of a body that is modifiable, malleable and permeable. They are pointing a way beyond the “Uncanny Valley,” into the truly weird world of unreal limbs.

sophie in studio

 

References

McKenzie, S. (2013). Snake Arms and Crystal Legs: Artificial limbs push boundaries of art. CNN. http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/24/world/europe/alternative-limb-project

Metropolitan-Museum-of-Art. (2011, 5.6.2013). Alexander McQueen. http://blog.metmuseum.org/alexandermcqueen/tag/no-13

Milligan, K. J. (1998). Exquisite corpses in Amercia: Ornamented bodies of the late twentieth century. PhD, University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA, USA. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/304442552

Mori, M. (1970). The Uncanny Valley (K. F. MacDorman & N. Kageki, Trans.). IEEE Spectrum: Technology, Engineering and Science News, 2013. http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/

Ross, H. K. (2013). London Artist Creates Intricate Limbs to Fit Individual Styles, Prosthetics with Personality. Healthline. http://www.healthline.com

 

Photo Credits

Floral Leg: Photographer, Rosemary Williams

Snake Arm: Photographer, Rosemary Williams

Sophie in the Studio: Photographer, Rosemary Williams

Stereo Leg: Photographer, Jon Enoch

6 replies to “Uncanny Valley and the World Beyond

  1. Very fun article! I felt the “Uncanny Valley” revulsion when I first saw Polar Express. I think Professor Mori is right, at least in some cases. Embrace your differences!

  2. Thanks Katie — I really enjoyed the essay — the idea of surrealism, boundaries of the body, prosthetics and the exquisite corpse — all fascinating stuff! I love the idea of a prosthetic as an aesthetic statement or enhancement rather than something hidden or somehow detracting from the body.

  3. I really enjoyed this article. How amazing is that arm with the snakes coming out of it? And how wonderful that athletes can “transcend” disability with these extraordinary creations?

  4. thank you Katie for an elightening and uplifting article — is there an exhibition coming up with those wonderful photographs ?

  5. What a wonderful article! My interest was held all the way through, and I found it absolutely fascinating.

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