The Uncanny Valley:
Digital Estrangement

The Uncanny Valley: <br> Digital Estrangement

In 1978, Japanese roboticist Masahiro Morithere proposed the term, the “uncanny valley,” a concept that describes how people experience something that looks and behaves, like a human being. As things become more human-like in appearance and behaviour, our emotional response to them generally becomes more positive and relatable. However, there comes a point where this similarity triggers unease, causing a dip in our comfort levels. The term is now widely applied to humanoid objects, such as wax figures, computer generated film characters or lifelike robots. This notion is the subject of Marshall Gallery, Los Angeles’ latest exhibition, of the same title, featuring work by Cody Cobb (b. 1984), Kaya & Blank (b. 1990) and Alex Turner (b. 1984). As augmented realities and deep fakes become increasingly advanced and prevalent, these artists respond to novel and fabricated worlds through photography, video and installation.


Aesthetica Art Prize alumnus Cody Cobb captures moments of stillness in the chaos of nature. The artist wandered through the American west for weeks at a time to fully immerse himself within untouched wildernesses. The resulting series, Spectral (2022), showcases a hidden luminescence within the environment. Ultraviolet nights stretch over icy Martian cliffs, as organic matter glows neon in seemingly impossible conditions. Mounds of sand and grass are stained in a fluorescent blue reminscent of the fluid sculptures of Refik Anadol. Cobb’s more recent works such as Effigy (2023), are also on display, as they depict monochromatic rocks that evoke the textures of plaster casts. Through geometrical arrangements, structures appear almost mystical in a surreal visage.” The light emitted from within these surfaces transforms the mundane into something extraterrestial,” the artist noted to Aesthetica in Issue 113.

Elsewhere, Turkish-German duo Kaya & Blank focus on how humans “shape and inhabit” the world. Palm trees spiral into the stars, alongisde cacti, eucalyptus and elms. Photographs from Second Nature (2022) document the thousands of cellular service towers poorly disguised as giant palms and pines in the American Southwest. Working almost exclusively at night, the artists accentuate the artificial and uncanny qualities of each construction. The results are almost hyperreal, as towers loom over pink swathes of LA’s urban sprawl. “They are part of a development that, since the late 20th century, has created many hybrid artefacts, from genetically optimised plants to cloned animals and artificial organs from 3D bioprinting,” writes Ziad Mahayn in the accompanying photobook to the series. A following installation, Crude Aesthetics (2021) additionally illustrates how closely humans cohabitate with machines. It captures oil pumpjacks across the city, showing them to groan and heave in static, yet elegant states of production.


Finally, Alex Turner plays with identity and observation in his mixed-media series Blind River (2018-2021). He combines recordings from motion-triggered game cameras, original landscape photographs and AI software to create a fascinating yet complicated look at the Arizona borderlands and the social concerns of predictive technologies. Stark charcoal hills and rocky outcrops are populated by ghostly figures and phantoms of grainy light. In several works, glowing green squares identify the subject with only a certain percentage of confidence. In one image, a figure is determined to be “73% human.” The difficulties and risks of creating work are apparent, in a vast, contested space of coyotes, jaguars and cartel traffic overlapping in his system’s field of view. The project questions what moral concerns are expected from these new technologies, asking, “Is there room for empathy in a system that promotes objectivity?”

Marshall Gallery brings together four artists that examine what it means to live digitally. These works push and reckon with the boundaries of realism, navigating the fine line between the alive and artificial. How do we respond to evolving technologies? What happens when the digital world reflects back remnants of the human form? Into the Uncanny Valley doesn’t provide a direct answer but prompts us to investigate these questions. It emphasises that we are far more entangled with our digital counterparts than once thought.

 Into the Uncanny Valley

Marshall Gallery | Until 26 August

Image Credits:

1. Cody Cobb, Spectral (2021)

2. Cody Cobb, Afterlife (2021)

3. Kaya & Blank, Second Nature (2022)

4. Kaya & Blank, Second Nature 64 (2022)