Kitsch and the Uncanny Valley

Driving along the main stretch of North Conway, New Hampshire this past weekend I passed a “theme hotel”. My girlfriend and I discussed tackiness. I’d transcribe our conversation here but I think a picture of the place will suffice.

Driving through the country I saw several of these types of buildings in tourist downs dotting the mid west. They resemble strip malls but strip malls of the simulacra of historical epochs instead of different little shops; the equivalent of one of those books for children with hundreds of small illustrations set on a timeline through history; probably as accurate, shiny, but pricier and you’re supposed to sleep in it. Facades that are frequently pressure-washed to make sure that their resemblance to faded ruins remains shiny and vivid. A contradiction. They’re unnerving to look at. But why is that?

Jean Baudrillard famously discusses an adjacent phenomena in Simulacra and Simulation and several other texts, perhaps most amusingly in reference to the little versions of towns and famous monuments that make up large portions of Disney World and Disney Land. He makes the argument that the Disney Land versions of these little towns, being the hyperreal averages of what these places exist as as physical occupied spaces and as imagined elsewheres are in fact more real than what they copied. I felt especially intrigued by these passages because the town where I grew up, Saratoga Springs, NY, was “remade” as the largest themed sub-resort in Disney World. I have written about Saratoga extensively and while most people know it as a resort town, I know it mostly for the collection of extremely unusual individuals who populate it in the off-season. I made a movie about it.

The Disney World version of Saratoga is especially strange for me because I know every inch of the actual town inside and out and while the Disney version retains some features it seems soulless and lacking. What makes it even more unnerving is the extent to which the actual town, especially at night when the streets are mostly deserted except where the bars are, already has the artificial feeling of a dollhouse and the eeriness this implies.

I’m sure most of our readers are probably familiar with the “uncanny valley”; the space in automated copies of people where they’re especially unnerving to look at, conveniently graphed here.

The poor replica, the kitsch object, festers discomfort in the observant individual for it’s inability to come across entirely as put-on or homage; the unreality of resort towns perhaps derives from something similar. What else is “bad” acting besides a backpeddling by a healthy human into the bunraku puppet/prothetic hand cliff?

And so a building that can’t convincingly come across as being such takes on a similar discomfort despite its actually being a building. Horror films will frequently take place in amusement parks along the fake “shops” that dot the stretch of midway. Marshall McLuhan compared the then contemporary urban environment, especially in a booming space like Manhattan, to an amusement park or boardwalk space; perhaps to symbolically drag the thing that was the real closer to the approximation, continuing the consummation of the two into a dialectic resolution, a cultural project that has been aggressively pursued for the last 60 years or so. It worked. When I got to NYC for college, Manhattan’s gentrified look and repeating stores did feel like a boardwalk.

The claims to “authenticity” in ruins no longer ring quite as true as they once did with the cultural capital now attached to urban exploration; the spaces become the sites of contradictory “authenticity tourism”. A cottage industry of looking at broken empty things has emerged. The kitsch-value of a Buc Ees suggests a level of authentic inauthenticity; the crassness breaks the hump back into being a striking example of naked primitive ambition that acquires a certain allure for its utter lack of restraint and subtlety.

Perhaps in the future there will be only boardwalks and ruins. What was once the “normal” will come to constitute the uncanny valley of architecture and urban planning.

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