Life under the abnormal; dreams of reality; an escape into the surreal: since its inception in 2005, YouTube has been home to many uniquely alternative communities. From YouTubePoop to found-footage horror, online video and audio has always been an attractive platform for artistic eccentrics of all stripes. With this in mind, it is no surprise that YouTube is the base of the well-established ‘surreal animation’ scene.
For over a decade, the community has produced creators such as David Firth (Firth, n.d.) and PilotRedSun (PilotRedSun, n.d.), that would self-identify as ‘surreal,’ with many similar channels still operating today. While the community’s aesthetics may not be united, surreal animators consistently focus on providing uncanny experiences for viewers, working in opposition to traditional media by subverting or parodying the conventions of broadcast.
Published by musician and animator Jack Strauber in October of 2019, view is a CGI animation that hails from this tradition (Strauber, 2019). Strauber’s work builds upon a surreal aesthetic to make an effective argument about the relationship between the viewer and their technology. Specifically, view suggests that technology has overtaken our perception of reality, especially that of the natural world. In the following article, we explore this work through a look at its surreal aesthetics, view‘s appeal to nostalgia, as well as the themes of simulation and the hyperreal that Strauber consistently develops.
Strauber’s clearest artistic choice in view is the adoption of a surrealist tone that filters throughout the piece, fostering disillusionment between the audience and reality. As an artistic movement, traditional surrealism advocates for the unification of the unconscious imagination and waking reality (Zelazko, n.d.). As artist Andre Breton (1924) writes in his Manifesto of Surrealism: “I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality… into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.” This merging of two streams of reality is designed to make a viewer question the limitations of what they know, especially targeting one’s perception of reality.
Surrealists often achieve this by superimposing the illogical onto the real through art. For instance, one well known example of a traditional surrealist work is Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (1931). Dali’s work famously renders a series of melting clocks in a realistic style in an effort to “systematize confusion” and “discredit… the world of reality” (Persistence of Memory, 2021). By portraying what is known and rationally understood with an illogical, dream-like execution, Dali disorients the viewer, opening them to consider how ideas such as time can be bent or redefined at a subconscious level.
View takes a similar tone to Dali, wielding illogicality in the form of juxtaposition to surreal effect (Strauber, 2019). An important example of this is the dichotomy between the speaker’s poorly rendered world and their sublime experience. For instance, at (0:05) the speaker says: “Nothing but nature, what we have left when everything else is gone” (Strauber, 2019). Here, illogicality is not only present, but pronounced. The speaker professes admiration for the beauty of nature in a robotic voice while panning over pre-rendered computer imagery. In doing so, Strauber contrasts that which is genuine and natural with overtly artificial symbolism, two concepts which are usually at odds (Strauber, 2019).
By highlighting this juxtaposition, view draws attention to a clear ‘construction’ of a reality. While the speaker’s experience may be personally genuine, the audience sees it as fake. Consequently, view challenges a traditional perception of reality. According to Andre Breton (1924), this is the main impetus of a surreal piece. By giving the viewer a vague sense of unease, it creates an experience that appeals deeper than the rational ego, suggesting that there is more to the world around us than what is simply perceived through the five senses (Zelazko, n.d.).
Another example of this process can be seen in view’s ‘found footage’ quality. Many of Strauber’s editing techniques, such as compressed audio and grainy overlay, give the impression of watching tapes on an old VHS player (Strauber, 2019). On paper, the clip is a realistic depiction of pre-internet aesthetics. Yet, the execution of its elements leaves the viewer disoriented. view’s runtime is far too short to be commercially produced, and the character’s soliloquy is bizarre and unmarketable. The piece exists, yet it feels like it should not.
Consumer researchers S. Schembri and J. Tichbon (2017) note that this ironic quality is what makes artistic genres like vaporwave so appealing. By subverting the commercial aesthetics of a style or technology, artists can redirect its meaning. Similarly, Strauber (2019) adopts the aesthetics of real technologies in a convincing manner, balancing that which is iconographically recognizable with an illogical execution. The viewer is directed to consider the authenticity of the experience.
Technological iconography also informs Strauber’s implication of nostalgia and memory in view. Icons of technology take center place, rather than specific cultural or historical ones. For instance, aforementioned elements like grainy overlay, audio compression, and chromatic aberration collectively reference Video Home Systems (VHS) (Strauber, 2019). However, there are also intertextual elements at play. The clip’s polygonal rendering is similar to the contours of early 3D-models in video games. In fact, the speaker’s robotic voice is generated by SAM, an early text-to-speech program developed for the Commodore C64 (Macke, 1982).
In turn, these decisions target Strauber’s primary audience, made up of a corpus of young adults who grew up on the cusp of the internet. By choosing to appeal to the viewer through the icons of ‘their’ technology, view supports the idea that one’s perception of memory is being channeled and shaped through that technology. This aspect of the work is only bolstered by the fact that the viewer is watching the video online, filtering both the past and the present through a computer screen. At all stages of membering and re-membering, Strauber (2019) argues that technology is implicit in the process.
This concept is reinforced by the piece’s monologue. At (0:19), the speaker robotically comments “I am reminded of being young and healthy. I am reminded of the goodness of man” (Strauber, 2019). Here, the speaker relates a positive series of memories, highlighting the fact that their interactions with the environment is ‘reminding’ them of some other time. This is important due to the clear juxtaposition between the speaker’s genuine response and the fake surroundings identified earlier. The speaker’s present time is artificially generated, leading to an implicit assumption that their memories of the past may be as well.
According to anthropologist Arjun Appurudai (1996), the practice of artificially producing historical emotions has been called ‘ersatz nostalgia.’ Linguist Hal MacDonald (2017) argues that ersatz nostalgia is a “fundamentally aesthetic memory of an experience.” In other words, nostalgia is artistically constructed in the mind of the viewer, rather than accurately recalled. By highlighting the implication of technology in the simulated speaker’s appeal to memory, Strauber (2019) pushes the idea that reality is both constructed and technologically mediated. Most importantly, this idea runs parallel to the viewer’s experience, drawing a clear connection between the speaker’s fabricated reality and the viewer’s own memories.
These ideas are tied together through the piece’s references to simulation theory. Banks et al (1996) define simulation as “the imitation of the operation of a real-world process or system over time.” While this point may seem broad, it is clear that ‘simulation’ in view is defined by the imitation of reality for the speaker. As mentioned previously, the juxtaposition between genuine and imitive experience is highlighted on multiple occasions (Strauber, 2019). However, Strauber’s ultimate goal is to superimpose this point onto the viewer.
Postmodern thinker Jean Baudrillard argues that broad simulations like this are achieved through a ‘hyperreality’ (Jean Baudrillard, 2019). To Baudrillard (1988), the hyperreal evolves from “models of a real without origin or reality.” In other words, hyperreal experiences evolve referentially from ideas which are unattached to the substantive world.
Strauber (2019) invokes this concept by uniting the audience’s emotional experience with the video’s artificial narrative. For example, the flowers in view are not actually flowers, but an iconographic representation of flowers in the natural world. Feelings which are developed by these virtual flowers are simulative; they arise from our engagement with a technological imitation rather than reality. This idea could easily be applied to things which are less tangible, such as memory, feeling, or perception. By submitting the viewer to a unique nostalgic experience via clear abstraction, Strauber therefore demonstrates the audience’s participation in the hyperreal.
Overall, Strauber’s (2019) work does an admirable job at examining our dependence on technology. Starting from a basis of surreal aesthetics, view builds upon juxtapositions such as distinctions between nature versus virtuality, past versus present, and real versus simulation. By highlighting the distinctions between the natural and virtual worlds, view suggests that a technologically-mediated view of nature is ingenuine. In emphasizing nostalgia, Strauber indicates the malleability of human memory. Finally, by creating experiences which are hyperreal, view actively demonstrates a complicity in a simulated reality.
View uses these contradictions in a way which allows us to identify similarities between ourselves and the speaker. Like the speaker, we emote through virtual experiences, and are typically unaware that the process is taking place (Strauber, 2019). The argument is clear. Instead of being in nature ourselves, view posits that technology has overcome reality; we exist through a screen.
Literary critic Katherine Hayles (1999) would call this situation one of ‘reflexivity.’ While at one time we controlled the technological systems around us, we are now fully submissive to those systems. View’s audience is so integrated that it requires a hyperreal representation of ‘nature’ to emotionally resonate, even one which is shoddily rendered. Like the speaker, the audience also exists in a simulated reality; as cultural critics J.D. Slack and J.M. Wise (2015) might put it, the master has become the slave.
Ultimately, view asks questions that will only continue to become more relevant as the connection between the real and the virtual blurs. How we decide to respond to these issues will invariably shape our collective future, whether or not we move towards fully embodying virtuality. In any case, while surrealism began as a way to deal with the angst of a post-war generation, it seems apparent that this mode of creativity will continue to hold sway in the age of new media. We can only hope that artists like Strauber will continue to innovate with the style, bringing creative pieces like view to a new generation of thinkers and creators.
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