Digital Memories: The McCoy’s Electronic Sculptures – Wendy Haslem

Abstract: This article investigates the connections between history and new forms of memory that are produced, configured and mapped with the tools of digital media. Digital memories are contained within, and inspired by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’s electronic sculptures. The article explores the potential for new media technologies to re-imagine the intersection between history and memory as digital ‘lieu de mémoire’, a version of Pierre Nora’s memory sites that block the possibility of forgetting by remembering for us.

The Eternal Return – The McCoys (2003)

The explosion and expansion of digital tools and communication transforms definitions of memory and refines the intersection of memory and history. Digital natives and digitally literate adopters have tools at hand to practice as cartographers, genealogists, archivists, and chroniclers, even historians. This results in the creation of new connections and communities, archives that become virtual as well as material, histories that might be both real and imagined. Image and text based sites like You Tube, Vimeo, Flickr, Wikipedia, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook and the range of pervasive blogging sites across the Internet provide new ways to produce and disseminate digitally configured histories and memories. The influence of the virtual on material sites of exhibition, particularly galleries, museums, cinematheques and public sites is evidenced by an increased reliance on digital tools, particularly digital screens, to reconfigure memory and history. Digital technologies enable myriad approaches to history, expanding definitions beyond the dominance of the empirical or sequential, bringing memory into contact with history. The obsession with the present in status updates, uploads, new blog posts and the seemingly immediate availability of content brings memory into the present. Exceeding the acceleration of history characteristic of Fredric Jameson’s definition of postmodern culture (1991), the present is rapidly superseded by an immediate future/past or the past eternally returning. Concurrently, definitions of memory produced, distributed and exhibited by digital technologies result in the proliferation of innovative forms of remembering and new ways to imagine histories by prioritizing memory. The electronic sculptures produced by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy that reveals how digital technologies can be used to reflect processes of memory and to map new connections. Installations produced by the McCoys frame and direct memories, they don’t remember for us, but instead, they reveal how memories are indebted to, provoked by and shaped by aspects drawn from the archive of visual cultures. But this interrelationship between memory and history, mapped and imagined through digital technologies was not always perceived as entwined, let alone contingent.

The historian Pierre Nora argues that history and memory exist in violent opposition (1989, p. 8). He describes history as a static, incomplete attempt to reconstruct a past that no longer exists, whilst memory is more fluid, involved in a process of rediscovery that “remains in permanent evolution” (Nora 1989, p. 8). In Nora’s words, “history is perpetually suspicious of memory, and its true mission is to suppress and destroy it” (1989, p. 9). This dynamic collision between history and memory is the result of the acceleration of history at a time that Nora defines as: “a turning point where consciousness of a break with the past is bound up with the sense that memory has been torn-but torn in such a way as to pose the problem of the embodiment of memory in certain sites where a sense of historical continuity persists” (1989, p. 7). The notion of memory as ‘torn’, no longer complete, singular, trusted, no longer emanating from a defined date, moment or time, provides impetus for memory as imagined, embodied and defined in sites beyond the scope of the traditional archive. Nora identifies memory as fluid and transformed by its passage through history. “Memory remains in permanent evolution open to the dialectic of remembering and forgetting, unconscious of its successive deformations, vulnerable to manipulation and appropriation, susceptible to being long dormant and periodically revived” (Nora, 1989, p. 8).  In Nora’s words, memory’s vocation is to record and whilst delegating to the archive the responsibility of remembering, “it sheds its signs upon depositing them there, as a snake sheds its skin” (13). Nora perceives modern memory as above all, archival, relying on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image (1989, p. 13). Whilst Nora’s argument focuses predominantly on French national identity and politics, his discussion of the transformation of history and memory offers a particularly pertinent approach for an investigation of the impact of digital media on remembering. New forms of communications media provide increased access to memory, creating very specific structures for sites of remembering and producing an illusion of memory as immediate, reflexive and interconnected. The digital reshapes the production, distribution, dissemination and exhibition of memory producing innovative approaches to mapping, interacting with memory, and new sites of remembrance. Once captured, memory may contribute another strand of history.

For Nora, lieux de mémoire are sites where “memory crystallizes and secretes itself”, memory sites that block the possibility of forgetting and act to remember for us (1989, p. 7). Nora writes that the “most fundamental purpose of the lieu de mémoire is to stop time, to block the work of forgetting… all of this in order to capture a maximum of meaning in the fewest of signs” (1989, p. 19). In these sites history besieges memory as, “moments of history torn away from the movement of history, then returned” (Nora 1989, p. 12). Memory sites can be actual spatial forms like archives, exhibitions, personal shrines, and they can be tangible objects: collections of photographs, objects, diary entries, notes, tickets and souvenirs. They can also be more ephemeral, taking the form of thoughts, reminiscences and spoken word stories. Lieux de mémoire originate with the sense that “there is no spontaneous memory, that we must deliberately create archives, maintain anniversaries, organize celebrations, pronounce eulogies, and notarize bills because such activities no longer occur naturally” (Nora 1989, p. 12). Nora’s conception of lieux de mémoire arises from the acceleration of history. He writes that: “if history did not besiege memory, deforming and transforming it, penetrating and petrifying it there would be no lieux de mémoire” (Nora, 1989, p. 12).

Extending Nora’s lieu de mémoire into the realm of the visual historical archive, these sites can be reimagined as electronic databases, multimedia projections, or interactive exhibits, sites that preserve, but also revise, reshape, and inspire new memories. Electronic lieux de mémoire are used to construct and deconstruct memory in the multimedia artworks produced by the American artists Jennifer and Kevin McCoy. Across their oeuvre, the artworks build on and complicate definitions of memory, situating it in relation to an archive of recent popular cultural history. Laura U. Marks describes the McCoy’s web based work (1999) as noophagic – sucking in, eating information from other sites, reprocessing images and text and emerging with the advertising, branding and even the special offers of a new, artificial, corporation mined from corporate language on the web (2002, p. 189). is a web-based artwork that trawls commercial sites and creates networks of text, jargon, still images and footage from security cameras in the workplace. Lev Manovich defined Jennifer and Kevin McCoy as postmodern media artists who “accept the impossibility of an original, unmediated vision of reality; their subject matter is not reality itself, but a representation of reality by media, and the world of media itself” (2002a, np). Manovich develops the notion of soft cinema as database art, a specific type of new media art that is indebted to the archive, but reverses the opposition traditionally associated with the syntagmatic and the paradigmatic (2002b, pp. 230-231). For Manovich, database art values the paradigmatic, the tangible range of possible choices, options or possibilities over the syntagmatic, the virtual flow of words and images. Producing art that prioritizes memory, but refuses to narrativize it in classical form, the early installations can be understood as offering a matrix of impressionistic sequences, reflecting the illogical, sensuous workings of memory. In their database art installations, the McCoy’s work opposes rigidity and linearity, even when it is derived from the delay-filled, repetitious parallelisms characteristic of serial narrative form. Instead, the installations offer multiple possibilities and perspectives, splitting and fracturing spectatorship, creating new ways to map memories and a diverse range of possible narrative forms. The ‘electronic sculptures’ created by the McCoys rely on paradigmatic contingency to complicate the notion of memory as personal and individual by reworking and interweaving popular visual histories into their artwork. The resulting new media art reinvent Nora’s lieux de mémoire using miniaturized cinematic technologies, database narration and electronic sculptural dioramas.

The expansion of cinema towards the digital and into the art gallery, produces new ways of mapping, engaging and exhibiting memory. Anne Friedberg identifies the transition towards the digital resulting in an increasingly mobilized, virtual experience of visual cultures (2006). Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’s collaboration creates art that juxtaposes personal with collective memories, offering viewers an interactive experience in encouraging an intervention by the deconstruction and reconstruction of popular narrative. Their art creates a matrix of reference points drawn from some very recognizable popular iconography to exhibit an inextricable connection between individual and collective memory. The installations that were created at the turn of the millennium combine the interactive potential of the database with the seemingly endless array of visual motifs, generic tropes and narrative threads recognizable from popular televisual serials. Every Shot, Every Episode (2001) is a deconstruction and recreation of the Starsky and Hutch (1975-1979) series resulting in a new taxonomy consisting of two hundred and seventy-eight categories. Individual shots and scenes from the series were excised and reorganized to feature new paradigmatic, aesthetic and cinematographic categories including: ‘Every Bloody Clothing’, ‘Every Yellow Volkswagen’, ‘Every Sexy Outfit’, ‘Every Stabbing’, ‘Every Character Looks Left’, ‘Every Insult’, ‘Every Speculation’, ‘Every Extreme Close Up’, ‘Every Pan Right’, ‘Every Tilt Down’, ‘Every Zoom In’ and ‘Every Reaction Shot’. This approach reveals the degree of repetition and the importance of generic tropes and conventions, the foundations of serial television. The shelves of DVDs mounted on the gallery wall positioned next to a suitcase containing the small DVD player and screen offers an impression of open access to secretive imagery. Every Shot, Every Episode reconstructs imagery that blurs the division between individual and collective memory. Viewing and re-viewing sequences, visitors become interactive cartographers, mapping and re-mapping as they select and view paradigmatic sequences from Starsky and Hutch. Nora’s description of memory as “intensely retinal and powerfully televisual”(1989, p. 17) is resonant in the ways that these sequences reflect the fragmented, impressionistic workings of memory. The linearity of television series is here reconceptualised by prioritizing the elements that comprise narrative form. Every Shot, Every Episode points to the tendency to prioritise moments, sensations, effects, color, action or gesture in recalling the larger structure. Paradigmatic selection parallels the ways that specific impressions might be remembered whilst larger narrative structures are forgotten. In turn, the archive of images and narrative that forms the referent – in this case Starsky and Hutch – is modified and transformed by Every Shot, Every Episode.

Every Shot, Every Episode (2001)

This approach was elaborated in Every Anvil (2001). In this interactive installation Looney Tunes (1942-1969) cartoons are deconstructed and reimagined according to generic tropes and violent themes including: ‘Every Explosion’, ‘Every Poisoning’, ‘Every Whacking’, ‘Every Evil Genius’, ‘Every Beg and Plead’, ‘Every Kiss’, ‘Every Slipping and Sliding’, ‘Every Sneaking’, ‘Every Flattening Character’, ‘Every Cooking a Character’ and ‘Every Tornado Spin’. The individual action, aesthetic and cinematographic sign is excised from the animated series, altering the temporal framework to highlight the preeminence of the moment over continuity across the series. Every Anvil, Every Shot, Every Episode along with a further installation, 448 Is Enough (2002), a deconstruction of episodes of Eight Is Enough (1977-1981) displays the McCoy’s interest in dissecting syntagmatic logic whilst recombining the imagery to highlight paradigmatic selection. The use of the new media database helps to develop incursions into conventional narrative form, resulting in sequences that are reconfigured according to impressionistic structures more common to dreams or memories. The McCoy’s subsequent installations use miniature forms to interrogate the exhibition of time, space, narrative, scale and identity. All installations situate popular culture as pivotal in the production of memory.

Every Anvil (2001)

Memory, according to Maurice Halbwachs exists unconsciously in the mind as psychic states of recollection where each act of recollection involves the reconstruction of the memory in the context of the present (1992, p. 24). Memories are constructed and facilitated in association with (or in contrast to) other individuals. Memories as a reconstruction, rather than a faithful recreation of the past are the crucial element in this context. Halbwachs argues that, paradoxically, an individual remembers by placing himself in the perspective of the group, but, by contrast, the memory of a group realizes and manifests itself in individual memories. (1992, p. 22). The McCoy’s practice involves accessing, researching and deconstructing large sources, provoking memories contingent upon popular culture. In an interview, Jennifer McCoy reveals the focus on interactivity and connection between visual culture and memory in their artwork when she suggests that: “one’s memory of a show are placed next to real memories and become part of your mental collection” (2006, np)

Soft Rains (2003-2004) is a serialized collection of six installations that use miniature figures and diorama as the base of these electronic sculptures. The miniature static sets appear as single fragments of time, or frames of film. These tiny sculptures freeze time into instances with the miniature figures representing a single instant, without an indication of the preceding or succeeding events. These instants are resonant. The conflation of the narrative, or genre into instants reiterates the selectivity of memory. In On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Susan Stewart writes that, “miniature time transcends the duration of everyday life” (2003, p. 66). Miniatures, for Stewart, offer “a narrativity and history outside the given field of perception – is a constant daydream that the miniature presents. This is the daydream of the microscope: the daydream of life inside life, of significance multiplied infinitely within significance” (2003, p. 54). Each of the six installations that comprise Soft Rains has its own thematic focus.

Soft Rains (2003-2004)

In Soft Rains #6: Suburban Horror (2004), the miniature imagery becomes decidedly Gothic. A diorama built on the melodramatic iconography of a 1950s scene imagined through a dark cinematic aesthetic reveals suburban settings and suggests the surrounding menace. A woman stares longingly out of a kitchen window, suggesting entrapment and her desire for escape. A car traveling down a road indicates travel to a remote cabin, but the scene at the cabin contains details of blood and dismemberment, revealing a couple that had been murdered with an axe. This installation incorporates fragmented imagery signifying isolation, alienation, multiple time frames and the darker side of the imagination. Screens display low-resolution imagery, where colors are blocked and blurred, drawing from the aesthetic of colorized postcards, or perhaps the saturation and low definition imagery characteristic of 8mm film projections. Soft Rains was inspired by a David Lynchian surrealist aesthetic, and the gruesome imagery also recalls slasher films like the Friday the 13th series. Each diorama is surrounded by lights and tiny cameras suspended and directed onto the scenes via flexible metal arms. Shots are illuminated and filmed by the miniature technologies surrounding the tiny scene. These shots are then projected onto an adjacent screen in the gallery. Exposing sets, lights and cameras, alongside the fantasy projected on the screen deconstructs the illusion, defamiliarizing and reinventing the contemporary Gothic narrative. Suburban Horror draws from the archive of familiar Gothic tropes and imagery to produce disarming miniature fragments, moments that resonate with memorable sequences within the history of cinema. This series of installations rely on tropes of the Gothic and horror genres, impressionistic, distilled, miniaturized and deconstructed. The scale reflects how scale is often distorted by memory, miniature objects are enlarged on screen. In its allusions to iconic cinematic tropes, genres and aesthetics Suburban Horror mimics the potential for memory (and the database) to create a dialogue across time.

How We Met was originally exhibited at Postmaster’s Gallery and then very briefly shown in a decommissioned terminal at JFK Airport in 2004. How We Met is an elaborate series of miniature sculptural dioramas, each representing a moment in time. At first glance the platforms seem to depict aspects of the memory of Jennifer and Kevin’s first meeting as both reach for the same suitcase as it circles a carousel at an airport in France. The dioramas that form the base of How We Met are constellations of small gestures and figures, actions suspended in time with their stillness highlighted by the revolving carousel. These fragmented moments are reminiscent of Nora’s description of ‘true memory’ as comprised of gestures, habits, unspoken knowledge and unstudied reflexes (1989, p. 18). On one platform a miniature figure of Jennifer waits for her bag to emerge whilst Kevin stands to her left, seemingly distracted by a mysterious blonde woman in a red dress. At the edge of the diorama, their moment of connection is depicted through a simple gesture as two disembodied hands reach for the same suitcase. On another platform, a cab waits outside the airport terminal, offering a hint of a transition towards a new space. One camera that is positioned to shoot within the actual airport space incorporates impressions of human sized viewers alongside the miniatures. Customized computer software receives and connects the ‘live’ images, projecting a seemingly random range of sequences onto the screen. This combination of the static miniature diorama with the spectator entwines past with present. Further, baring the device for illumination, recording and projection produces a fractured, but all encompassing vision of moving image and apparatus. The result is that the memory depicted is deconstructed and reconstructed, expanding time into instants and exploding space across the dioramas. Reconstructing the experience in miniature renders the projected sequence dreamlike and impressionistic.

Whilst the title, How We Met, promises a cause and effect sequence, the constellation of images that emerge from the pivotal central gesture, opens up a matrix of connections. Mary Ann Doane perceives cinematic time as diachronic and contingent (2002). She writes about divergent temporal registers that are linked by chance and contingency, a relationship that is characteristic of the cinema.  Chance and coincidence become powerful forces in How We Met, however, this avowal of memory (from the title, from the reconstruction, from the autobiographic presence of the artists in miniature) is playfully recontextualised with the revelation of the extent that this artwork is indebted to the cinema. How We Met consciously references and remixes the bag swapping sequence from Peter Bogdanovich’s screwball comedy What’s Up Doc? (1972). What appears coincidental is in fact memory depicted through the prism of popular film. The slippage between intimate, personal memories and popular visual histories is no more evident throughout the McCoy’s oeuvre than in How We Met. In this electronic sculpture, sequences from film history are inextricably entwined with personal memory.

How We Met – detail (2004)

The recreation of real and imaginary spaces plays an important role in the function of memory. Spaces that include airports, taxi ranks, the cinema, the dance hall and the gallery become actual and imagined sites of remembrance in the McCoy’s installations. These very public, transitory spaces are described by Marc Augè as ‘non-place’, a location created through the excessive logic, space and information of ‘supermodernity’ (1995). Supermodernity arises through excess and extension of time, and in spaces that result from the shift in global scale where distance is reduced by immediate and effective communications technologies. Non-places are essentially empty spaces, locations of solitude, even when they are full of people. These are places of movement and transit where there is little sense of community or connection. The non-place exists as an urban space of little or no distinct identity or particular history. These are temporary, sometimes provisional spaces. Non-places can also be generic spaces of consumption like airports, transit lounges, supermarkets or petrol stations. However, in the installations produced by the McCoy’s, non-places become sites of memory.

Our Second Date (2004) also interweaves the McCoy’s memories with iconic sequences from the history of film. Memory here is contingent upon French New Wave cinema. This electronic sculpture presents an imagination of personal histories as sequences from film, creating a memory site that reveals the influence of film in both content and form. In Our Second Date miniature scenes are positioned at various points on a large tabletop diorama. Each of these scenes blurs the distinction between memory and film particularly when miniature models of Jennifer and Kevin appear inside a tiny cinema watching Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend (1967). Weekend becomes the key visual source for the remembrance of their second date. The table also features a large, slowly spinning disc, a recreation of the traffic jam, complete with carnage, from the film. As the road revolves, the illusion of movement is projected onto the screen. The heightened colors combined with the now familiar use of a soft focus that blurs outlines, produces a dreamlike sequence of moving images. Memories are expressed through screen memories in these exhibits. Digital technologies are used to capture celluloid and possibly personal memories, highlighting the non-linearity crucial to the film, to the exhibit and to the McCoy’s memories. Our Second Date uses cinematic processes like narration, projection and exhibition to provide the framework for and signifiers of memory. Like Godard’s cinema, the McCoy’s Date series defamiliarizes processes of narration, reconfiguring the counter-narrative experiments of the French New Wave, producing a beginning, middle and an end, just not in that order.

Our Second Date (2004)

The McCoy’s create electronic lieux de mémoire by interweaving public, collective and personal, individual memories within the history of visual culture. It is the blurring of public and private, individual and collective memory that distinguishes their new media art. The memories exhibited by the electronic sculptures need not have an actual referent in the viewer’s memory, or even in the McCoy’s experience. Alison Landsberg describes ‘prosthetic memory’ as a link to those histories that do not originate from direct and lived experiences (2004 p. 26). Prosthetic memories are derived from media engagement and arise through a direct connection to screen imagery. Landsberg defines prosthetic memories as: “memories that circulate publicly, that are not organically based, but that are nonetheless experienced with one’s own body – by means of a wide range of cultural technologies” (2004 p. 25-26). Prosthetic memories are direct and indirect – direct in their audio-visual presentation as images, and indirect in that they always refer to another spatio-temporal realm. They are collective, but also individual in that they become part of a specific range of experiences, virtual and real. Prosthetic memories produce an experiential relationship based on a virtual world rather than a ‘real’ world experience. They are created, produced, received and shared via technologies that consciously construct memories in processes of presentation and representation. Echoing the description provided by Jennifer McCoy, Landsberg suggests that prosthetic memories, “become part of one’s personal archive of experience” and that the memories that cinema affords might be as significant for the viewer in constructing, or deconstructing, the spectator’s identity, as any lived experience (2004 p. 26). The McCoy’s installations position memory as contingent on the history of visual cultures. In the case of How We Met, the artwork is indebted to popular film. In this artwork the difference between embodied and prosthetic memory is indistinct. It is possible that the bag sequence, heavy with the romantic tropes of chance and coincidence from What’s Up Doc? stands in for, and could even be entirely unrelated to, the memory of how Jennifer and Kevin McCoy actually met. Accordingly, whilst referencing cinema, exposing the machinations of the apparatus and reworking counter-narrative, Our Second Date may well also define memory as selective, constructed and prosthetic.

The power of the fragmentary detail within photography is well known in the writing on the ‘punctum’, by Roland Barthes (1984, p. 25-62). Writing during the 1950s, Barthes defines history as outside of his lived experience, but inextricably linked to his maternal bloodline. He explores the importance of subjectivity and emotion – eidos – in his encounter with history via photography. Barthes conceptualizes photography working according to a dual system of representation. He perceives the ‘studium’ as those coded, recognizable signs that are open to everyone, whilst the punctum is specific and subjective (Barthes 1984, p. 27). Barthes argues that the apprehension of the punctum is a sudden recognition of meaning that exceeds normal boundaries. This excess becomes an encounter with the self and history. Barthes’ punctum refers to the fragmentary detail of the photograph, the detail that holds significance, so much so, that it overwhelms the context. Barthes describes the effect of the punctum as akin to a sting, a recognition that he feels with a visceral physical intensity. It is this focus on detail, those smaller memory fragments, miniature signs or metonymic symbols that open out to more expansive revelations of the interconnection between memory and history, that structure the McCoy’s electronic sculptures. Whilst Barthes’ punctum refers to a detail within a photograph that linked him to his blood relations, prosthetic memories can provide a similar affective ‘pinch’, by provoking memories arising from his/her visual literacy of the popular culture archive. Prosthetic memories can also link viewers across cultures and across histories. These media images allow identification, perhaps even a visceral response from the virtual or the imagined. In a larger, perhaps more utopian context, prosthetic memories can forge the ground for new identifications, new political realignments through recognition, identification and empathy. Landsberg argues, “prosthetic memories have the potential to generate something like public spheres of memory” (2004, p. 21). The potential for cinema to generate and disseminate memories is highlighted in the work of Marita Sturken who argues that films contribute to the development of ‘technologies of memory’ where memories are shared, produced, archived and given meaning by new communications media (1997).

Eternal Return (2003) inspires the creation of prosthetic memories by situating anonymous miniature figures caught up in the rapture of dance. The presence of Jennifer and Kevin McCoy is less visible in this exhibit, but perhaps evident in the forms and concepts that spin out of the installation. Featuring a nostalgic, black, white and sepia toned dancehall; this elaborate sculptural diorama depicts a scenario set entirely within a distant past. The emphasis on cyclic rotation and repetition performed by unidentified miniature figures adorned in formal ball gowns and tuxedos, create invitations to become swept up in the nostalgia and romance of the exhibit. The wedding cake couples dance and spin in a wistful symbolization of the wheel of time. More than any other electronic sculpture, Eternal Return offers numerous entry points into the past. Encompassing imagined scenes from the 1930s dancehall, iconography and choreography akin to the films of Busby Berkeley, all mirrored in reflective surfaces, Eternal Return, as the title suggests, is a pure fantasy of another time and space. This ‘pure’ memory site renders its temporality cyclic by the repetition of movements and gestures, enhanced by the revolutions of the dioramas and giddy miniature figures. There is no identifiable narrative in this installation, no recognizable characters, endpoint or closure, just endless cycles of repetition.

Eternal Return (2003)

Common to all other projected sequences, images of the diorama are filmed, edited and they repeat and return in a combination ordered by the bespoke computer software. More than any other exhibit, the complexities of the apparatus on display in Eternal Return become part of the spectacle. Exhibiting the intricacies of the technologies involved, demystifies, but its partial concealment also re-mystifies the exhibition. Such a kinetic spectacle, featuring unidentified dancers, imagined spaces and distant past points to history and memory, but also incorporates the present amid the swirl of contingent temporalities. Quoting Gilles Deleuze’s third synthesis of time in the title of the installation, the Eternal Return refers to the complex return of difference, one that may not have existed previously (1985). This installation also manifests Walter Benjamin’s achronological history imagined in The Arcades Project. In this incomplete work Benjamin visualised history by creating a collage of quotes and reassembling fragments through montage, defining history as connection, rather than a linear taxonomy (1999), Eternal Return is built on endless repetition and eternally returning fragments of projected pasts and futures. Quotes from early film history inspire a montage of prosthetic memories, external memories that may not have materialized previously.


The notion of artist or auteur is insufficient to account for the McCoy’s oeuvre. Whilst Jennifer and Kevin McCoy create an impression of quite intimate work in installations like How We Met and Our Second Date, the idea of an individual, coherent worldview expressed across a body of work is not enough to account for the dual dioramas presented back to back in Double Fantasy (2005). Double Fantasy identifies the differences in childhood dreams by using miniature models where images from each are randomly selected and projected onto a screen. There are two contrasting impulses in Double Fantasy. The doubled diorama emphasizes difference, but the screened stills juxtapose and interweave projections of disparate dreams. Dream Sequence (2006) extends this doubling and splitting further, projecting dual visions of dream imagery emanating from two revolving dioramas onto adjacent screens and by incorporating impressions of the miniature dreamers below their dreams. Dream, fantasies and memories are individual, shared and collective.

Dream Sequence (2006)

The McCoy’s lieux de mémoire inspire new ways to perceive and imagine history and memory. Miniature scenes and narrative forms expand the realm of memory by highlighting connections to film, television, nostalgic fantasies and projected histories. The conflation of real and imaginary spaces reflects the potential for locations to provoke memories. Airports, taxi ranks, the cinema, the dancehall and the gallery become sites of remembrance in the McCoy’s exhibitions. Non-places like the airport represent the location of a first meeting, a miniature cinema becomes the place of a second date and the revolving imagined space of the dance hall distills memories using movement, gesture and sound and reproduces them as memory sites.

Their electronic sculptures and database art revise and exhibit memory by incorporating intertextual references to the history of cinema and visual culture. The re-vision of memory through multimedia technologies can instill a sense of hyper-engagement, connecting viewers with personal or public histories. It can also blur the distinction between prosthetic and embodied memories. Whilst many of these works emerge from archives of popular culture and are exhibited in art galleries, they are also made accessible via the McCoy’s website ( and Flickr which includes views of the documentation and images of the live feed of their installations. Such multiple forms of exhibition extend the scope and lifetime of each artwork and, simultaneously, feed the imagery back into the database. In the gallery space and in the virtual world, the McCoy’s art situates the viewer centrally and actively within a matrix of visual references, paradigmatic associations and generic conventions, highlighting the strength of the currents connecting popular iconography with personal memory.

The memories exhibited and inspired by the work of Jennifer and Kevin McCoy have the potential to tease out the hard edges of ‘true’ memory (Nora 1989, p. 13). The electronic sculptures display memory “in permanent evolution” (Nora 1989, p. 8). Furthermore, these artworks display memory as not exclusively linked to an individual, but instead linked by association, or contingency. The McCoy’s electronic sculptures actively exhibit memories as evidence of Nora’s description of recent shifts in history and memory as he describes it “from the idea of a visible past to an invisible one; from a solid and steady past to our fractured past; from a history sought in the continuity of memory to a memory cast in the discontinuity of history (1989, p. 17). Memory is inspired, produced and exhibited according to images outside of the self, popular visual histories. Nora suggests that, “the lieu de mémoire is double: a site of excess closed upon itself, concentrated in its own name, but also forever open to the full range of possible significations” (1989, p. 24). With new and multiple forms of digital technologies, the McCoy’s electronic sculptures illustrate precisely such a doubling whilst emphasizing the increasingly intimate proximity between memory, screen memories and the history of visual culture.


This is an extended and expanded version of ‘Exhibiting Miniature Memories: The McCoy’s Electronic Sculptures’, AntiThesis, March, 2009, pp. 7-11.



Augè, M 1995 Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, London, Verso.

Barthes, R 1980 Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, translated by Richard Howard, London, Flamingo.

Benjamin, W 1999 The Arcades Project, Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press.

Deleuze, G 1989 [c1985] Cinema 2: The Time Image, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Doane, MA 2002 The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, the Archive, Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

Frieberg, A 2009 The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft, Cambridge, Mass, MIT Press.

Halbwachs, M 1992 On Collective Memory, edited, translated and with an introduction by Lewis A. Coser, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Himmelsbach, S 2006 ‘Interview With Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’, Automatic Update: MOMA, Viewed 1st of February, 2009

Jameson, F (1991) Postmodernism, Or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham, Duke University Press.

Landsberg, A 2004 Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, New York, Columbia University Press.

Manovich, L 2002a ‘Generation Flash’, Viewed 1st of February, 2009

Manovich, L 2002b The Language of New Media, Boston, MIT Press.

Marks, LU 2002 Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Nora, P 1989 ‘Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire’, Representations, 26, Spring, pp. 7-24.

Sturken, M, Thomas D, Ball-Rokeach, SJ 2004 Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears that Shape New Technologies, Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Stewart, S 2003 On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection, Durham, NC, Duke University Press.

A/V: (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 1999)

Double Fantasy (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2005)

Dream Sequence (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2006)

Eternal Return (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2003)

Every Shot, Every Episode (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2001)

Every Anvil (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2001)

How We Met (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2004)

Our Second Date (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2004)

Soft Rains (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy, 2003-2004)

Weekend (Jean-Luc Godard, 1967)

What’s Up Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich, 1972).



Wendy Haslem is a lecturer in Screen Studies & Cultural Management and Director of Undergraduate Studies at the University of Melbourne. She is currently involved in researching and writing Gothic Projections: From Méliès to New Media an investigation of the evolution of the Gothic narrative and aesthetic from silent film to digital media.

‘Out wiv the old ay plumma?’ The Uncanny Marginalized Wastelands of Memory and Matter in David Cronenberg’s Spider – Samantha Lindop

Abstract: The shift of economic focus from industrial production to consumption in contemporary Western Society has meant that once booming factories and their surrounding infrastructure are now redundant. Left to decay, the places and spaces of yesteryear are now derelict wastelands that intrude upon the present as a fractured semblance of the past. Hauntingly familiar yet disturbingly unfamiliar they embody the uncanny, evoking a sense of something that ought to remain secret and hidden but that has come to light. Just as unwelcome memories that exist at the core of the uncanny are repressed, confined to the margins of the mind, so too are discarded places and buildings, resonating messages of a failed past, confined to the margins of society. Both memory and matter are delegated to the status of unwanted waste, left to decompose over time. I argue that the film Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002) represents a powerful journey through the marginalized wastelands of memory and matter. Both the memories of the film’s central protagonist Spider (Ralf Fiennes) and the decomposing landscape surrounding him are inextricably bound in the uncanny, both become disjointed from the sequential structure of time, returning as a fragmented ruin of the past, imposing their disturbing presence on the present, causing the fragile web of Spider’s mind to disintegrate like the decaying wasteland around him. 


German Intellectual Walter Benjamin famously writes: “the rags, the refuse – these I will not inventory but allow, in the only way possible, to come into their own: by making use of them” (1999, 82). Abandoned, decaying urban wastelands such as those depicted in Spider (David Cronenberg, 2002) may be rendered useless in contemporary consumer society but it does not mean that their history has ceased. The rags and the refuse that are post-industrial wastelands form an unconscious backdrop to contemporary life, they come back from the past, enforcing their presence on the present as a haunting and subversive symbol of something that ought to remain secret and hidden but has come to light. As such, urban wastelands embody Freud’s description of the uncanny in the same way that disturbing memories – buried deep in the mental wasteland of the unconsciousness embody the uncanny when they re-emerge.

I contend that not only are the derelict wastelands of Spider the physical embodiment of the uncanny, but the memories of the film’s central protagonist, Dennis “Spider” Cleg (Ralf Fiennes) also possess an uncanny quality. Memory and matter interact and amalgamate, both becoming disjointed in time; the past, now fragmented, fragile and decaying, returns to haunt the present with disastrous consequences for the future as the frail web of Spider’s mind falls apart like the dilapidated wastelands around him.

From its inception psychoanalysis has been used to explore representations in cultural texts. Whilst Freud examined art and literature from a psychoanalytic perspective, many contemporary theorists apply psychoanalytic theory to film in order to study unresolved cultural anxieties. To begin I shall explore the way deserted, obsolete remnants of a once thriving industrial age embody a powerful sense of uncanny. I will then discuss the psychological origins of the uncanny from a Freudian perspective and how this links in with contemporary Western society and the post-World War II shift from production to consumption as the primary economic activity. Finally I shall look at how marginalized, neglected places and spaces interact with the deserted, shadowy content of repressed memories in the film Spider.

Released from a psychiatric institution after thirty years of incarceration Spider is sent to live in a dingy, decrepit half way house run by an officious woman called Mrs. Wilkins (Lynn Redgrave). His new home is in the same neighborhood that he grew up in and although it is now run down and derelict, all the old places of his childhood still exist. However, the return to the landscape of his youth begins to undermine the fragile stability of his psyche. Disturbing memories that have remained deeply repressed start to emerge, intruding on the present. Time becomes disjointed as he watches the past playing out before him. As memory and contemporary reality intermingle, the film reveals that Spider, an only child, and his mother have a close, loving bond but the relationship between Spider’s parents is strained. His father Bill (Gabriel Byrne) is volatile, intolerant and resentful of his familial responsibilities. Preferring to spend his time at the local pub, Bill begins an affair with Yvonne Wilkinson (Miranda Richardson), a “cheap tart” who frequents the same bar.

One night Spider’s mother (also played by Miranda Richardson) finds Bill and Yvonne having sex in the allotment shed. Bill murders Spider’s mum with a shovel and buries her in the vegetable patch while Yvonne watches on. Yvonne then moves into the family home replacing Spider’s mother, much to his disgust. Spider knows that they murdered his mother and formulates a plan to murder Yvonne. He attaches string from his bedroom down to the kitchen, affixing it to the gas oven. As Yvonne sleeps in a chair next to the stove he pulls the string that turns on the gas. However, as Bill pulls her dead body from the gas filled house she turns back into Spider’s mother whom she really had been all along.  Her transformation into Yvonne was all in Spider’s psychotic mind.

Uncanny Post-Industrial Wastelands

Around the early twentieth century there was a shift from industrial production to consumption as the central economic activity of Western society. This movement away from production meant that many factories and their surrounding infrastructure became redundant and were abandoned. With no function they transformed into decaying, derelict urban wastelands like the setting depicted in Spider. In the opening scenes of the film, Spider makes his way through the desolate urban wasteland of post-industrial East London. The streets are lined with disused, bricked up Victorian terrace houses that would have once been animate with factory employees and their families. A canal, in the past vital for the transportation of goods, now sits obsolete. Devoid of human activity, organic life comprises solely of weeds, poking up through cracks in the pavement. The only stir comes from the methodical heaving and thudding of a monolithic gas works that dominates the landscape like an enormous steel monster from the Jurassic era.

The ruined and dilapidated places and spaces of post-industrial urban wastelands generate a strangely unsettling feeling that can best be described as uncanny. For Freud the uncanny is a feeling that is “undoubtedly related to what is frightening – to what arouses dread and horror” (The Uncanny 1919, 218), but it is also unique and somehow different; a type of feeling that deserves a special conceptual term because it produces a disturbing dreamlike feeling of familiarity in what is evidently unfamiliar. The uncanny is uncanny specifically because of its familiarity being “that class of frightening which leads back to what is known of old and long familiar” (Freud , The Uncanny 1919, 218) the familiar and the unfamiliar always inhabit each other. The German word for the uncanny is “unheimlich”, which translates directly as “unhomely” in English. When Spider returns to the neighborhood that was once his home he finds that although it is the same place he grew up in it is also very different. Now a wasteland of neglected ruins it exists in the present as a haunting residue of the past. Both familiar and unfamiliar, it has become an alienating unhomely place that Spider does not quite fit into. Philosopher and academic Dylan Trigg describes the ruin as something which:

 Intrudes upon the seamless present, disordering the unmarked line of time by invoking a spatial plane of uncanniness […] It retains the shadow of its old self, but simultaneously radically destabilizes the present (Trigg 2006, 131).

For Trigg, the way that the wasteland, in a sense, returns from the past, “enforcing its presence in the present” (2006, 131) corresponds with Freud’s account of the uncanny. As Freud asserts: “Unheimlich is the name for everything that ought to have remained secret and hidden but has come to light” (1919, 227). According to Trigg:

This coming to light materializes in the untimely quality of the ruin. Having fallen from (active) time, the ruin becomes disjointed from time. The untimeliness is evident in how past, present and future conspires to converge in the ruin. Having outlawed its functional existence, the ruin’s persistence in time disproves outright extinction, so compels an unexpected return (Trigg 2006, 131).

Confined to the status of waste, obsolete structures sit suspended in time, displacing its linear continuity. As they gradually crumble and decay they retain a semblance of what they once were but grow increasingly distant from their original form. Just like Spider’s memories, the ruins of the urban wasteland embody the feeling of uncanniness, transcending time they come from the past but appear in the present as a fragmented, ghostly revelation that informs and shapes the future.

The Origins of the Uncanny

Freud argues that the psychological origins of the uncanny stem from repressed infantile anxieties that ought to remain hidden in the deep recesses of the mind but as the result of external triggers make an unexpected return (The Uncanny 1919, 227). Freud concludes that the uncanny is directly attached to the mythical figure of the Sand-Man, and to the idea of being robbed of one’s eyes. Freud refers centrally to the story of ‘The Sand-Man’ by E.T.A Hoffmann where the Sand-Man is described as:

A wicked man who comes when children won’t go to bed and throws handfuls of sand into their eyes so that they jump out of their heads bleeding. Then he puts the eyes into a sack and carries them off to the half-moon to feed his children (Freud, The Uncanny 1919, 227)

Through psychoanalytic experience, Freud has found that incidents about the eyes and fear of going blind are a substitute for the dread of being castrated which arises in the Oedipal phase of development where the male infant’s desire for his mother gives rise to an overwhelming fear that the jealous and cruel father, a bitter rival for the mother’s affections, will castrate the child as punishment for his intense cravings (The Uncanny 1919, 241). Freud argues that the self-blinding of the mythical Oedipus was simply a mitigated form of the punishment of castration and this is why the predominant characteristic of the uncanny is something that is familiar and long-established in the mind. It has become forgotten only through the process of repression, concealed in the catacombs of the unconsciousness which serves as a mental wasteland, reserved for things that we would rather pretend do not exist. According to Freud, in Hoffmann’s tale the Sand-Man always appears as a disturber of love, taking the place of the dreaded father, at whose hands castration is expected (The Uncanny 1919, 230).

In traditional Freudian expression the traumatic threat of castration forces the boy to give up his mother as a love object and instead identify with the castrating father who plays a role in the formation of the superego. The task of the superego is to repress aggressive impulses that stem from the infant’s Oedipal desires to take the place of the father. In order to render hostile impulses towards the father innocuous, the child internalizes its violence, sending it back to where it came from in the outset – one’s own ego. There it is taken over by a portion of the ego, which sets itself up against the rest of the ego as the superego. Retaining the castigatory character of the cruel and jealous father the superego functions as an overwhelmingly cruel agency that torments the ego with guilt (Freud, Civilization and its Discontents 1930, 132-135). Feminist theorist Christina Wieland contends that while the successful working through of the Oedipal stage of development involves the elevation of the father to the superego the deep trauma resulting from the essential rejection of the child’s mother as an object of affection and desire necessitates her banishment into the unconscious (2002, 36).

Just as Freud draws on the ancient Greek drama of Oedipus by Sophocles in order to contextualize this particular stage of psychical development, Wieland refers to the Greek tragedy of Agamemnon form the trilogy The Oresteia to provide a schema for the distressing removal of the revered mother from the consciousness. According to the legend, Agamemnon, commander of the Greek fleet had been in Troy fighting the Trojan War for many years. Upon his eventual return he bought with him a mistress named Cassandra whom he had captured in Troy. Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra, angry that he had acquired a mistress and wanting revenge for his earlier sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia, murders both Agamemnon and Cassandra. Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus rule the kingdom until Clytemnestra’s son Orestes, prompted by the God Apollo, avenges his father’s death by murdering his mother and her lover. However, Orestes is immediately hounded by the Furies; ancient maternal Goddesses who seek revenge for matricide. Orestes is punished for his dreadful deed with insanity. Just as Orestes commits a physical act of matricide, the total repression of the mother is tantamount to psychical matricide (Wieland 2002, 36-38).

The young Spider is undoubtedly in the midst of Oedipal conflict. He clearly adores his loving, gentle mother, cherishing the time they spend alone together. His brooding, ill-tempered father functions as a disturber of love, an unwelcome intrusion who appears to have very little tolerance or regard for his young son. When Spider observes his parent’s being physically affectionate towards each other he becomes enraged, an emotion that is intensified when a moment of blissful admiration for his mother as she models some new lingerie is shattered when she asks Spider if he thinks his father will like it. However, just as Orestes is mentally unable to deal with the horror of his matricidal actions so too is young Spider unable to cope with the reality that he has murdered his beloved mother, his punishment, like the ancient Greek character before him is insanity. Wieland identifies that the manic solution to intense distress is to deny reality. She argues that the manic responds to the act of matricide by constructing a false belief that the mother is not their true parent (Wieland 2002, 39-40). Thus, Spider’s psychotic reaction is to deny reality by instead constructing an alternative where it is not his mother that he has murdered but Yvonne.

Another example of the expression of matricide in the creative medium of film is the Australian black comedy Bad Boy Bubby (Rolf de Heer, 1993). Bad Boy Bubby is set in a derelict post-industrial wasteland that not entirely dissimilar to the mise-en-scene of Spider. Mentally retarded Bubby (Nicolas Hope) has lived in complete isolation in a dark, filthy, windowless, cockroach ridden concrete box with his abusive, dominating mother Flo (Claire Benito) for thirty five years. His mother uses him for sex and tricks him into believing that the outside air is poisonous. To back up the lie she wears a gas mask whenever she leaves their squalid home. The unexpected arrival of Bubby’s Pop (Ralph Cotterill) triggers a jealous Oedipal response in Bubby as well as leading him to question if the outside air really is poisonous. He murders both his mother and pop, asphyxiating them with cling wrap before venturing out into a strange, inhospitable world where his experiences with other people are complicated by the fact that he cannot communicate on any level other than mimicry.

Memory and Matter in a Changing World

Social theorists Ken Gelder and Jane Jacobs identify that whilst Freud’s primary concern was certainly with the psyche, his exploration of the uncanny is also about one’s sense of place in the modern, changing environment and it attends to anxieties which are symptomatic of an ongoing process or realignment in post-war society (Gelder and Jacobs 1995, 174). Sociologist John Carroll explains that the shift away from industrialization towards consumption has had a destabilizing effect on traditional societal structures in both the private and public sphere, particularly in relation to patriarchal hegemony. Consumer culture meant that for the first time the wife/mother became psychologically central to the family, taking the lead role in spending decisions (Carroll 1985, 173).

Additionally, active challenges to the time-honored order of female subordination and male domination initiated by the rise of feminism, the entrance of women into the labor market, the collapse of the nuclear family and gradual elevation of women to positions of real power within government and industry over the decades has led to the popular presumption that masculinity is in crisis; that there is a general feeling among men that they are no longer capable of fully controlling the world, and that their power and authority can no longer be taken for granted (Brittan 1989, 183).  As famous psychoanalytical theorist Jacques Lacan states:

Whatever its future this decline [of the paternal imago] constitutes a psychological crisis. It may even be that the emergence of psychoanalysis itself is linked to this very crisis (Lacan 1938, 45).

Not all contemporary thinkers agree that the psychological crisis referred to by Lacan is entirely inclusive, for example, sociologist Tim Edwards argues that whilst there is conceptual and theoretical support for the argument of a crisis of masculinity, the actual effects of this crisis undoubtedly vary according to class, ethnicity, age, geography, and sexuality, constituting what Edwards refers to as a “partial crisis” as opposed to an overall catastrophe (Edwards 2006, 16). Similarly, academic Arthur Brittan argues “it is problematic to assume that all men are in crisis given that not all men have the same interests, nor do they share the same collective identities” (1989, 183). However, whilst the extent of a crisis of masculinity is a debated topic, there is some consensus that the male identity has been destabilized by cultural shifts creating a profound effect on the psyche by triggering deep feelings of anxiety that originate in the Oedipal phase of development.

These anxieties reveal themselves in the form of the uncanny in the sense that the derelict wastelands of former factory sites serve as a catalyst, as remnants of the past when gender roles were clearly defined. Similarly, the exclusively masculine domain of the factory serves as an emblem for patriarchal hegemony. Just as unwelcome memories are repressed and confined to the margins of the mind, so too are discarded places that resonate with troubling messages of failure, confined to the margins of society. Both memory and matter are delegated the status of unwanted waste, left to gradually decompose over time.

Memory, Matter and the Wastelands of Spider

The marginalized wastelands of memory and matter form a powerful alliance in Spider, embodying the uncanny. Both become disjointed from time, disrupting its continuity, both generate a lurking feeling of unease as something that ought to remain secret and hidden reveals itself. The places from Spider’s past; the streets, the canal, the allotment, Spider’s childhood home, the local pub, and the gas works, all conspire to exhume Spider’s interred memories. The vegetable garden at the allotment is where his mother was buried after being brutally murdered, under the bridge alongside the canal Spider’s father received sexual favors from Yvonne, the local pub is where Bill preferred to spend his free time and also where he met Yvonne, Spider’s old home is where his mother lovingly indulged his obsession with spiders (as well as being the place where she met her real death). All these places still exist, but like the ruin they are shadows of past that threaten to subvert the present.

As Spider explores the landscape of his youth the past, present and future conspire to converge in his mind just as they do in the ruin. His childhood memories resurface from history, imposing their uncanny presence on the present. Spider becomes lost in time as his surroundings return to their original manifestation and the events of the past play out before his eyes. But as Trigg describes, when we encounter objects from our background a change takes place when we recall their origin:

They return to their original spontaneity, and yet are wholly decaying, rotting, and fragile to the touch. The return of the “thing” thus instills a warped time scale. What remains in the ruin is the trace of a past, fragmented and unable to be situated in an overarching narrative, fusing with the ruin’s decay in the present (Trigg 2006, 31).

As the narrative of Spider’s childhood comes to life cracks begin to appear, revealing the fragility of its construction and the fragility of Spider’s mind. Things are not quite right; Yvonne looks disturbingly like Spider’s mother, although she behaves very differently. No one else seems to notice that Spider’s mother is missing and when Spider accuses Bill and Yvonne of murdering his mother Bill, appearing shocked and concerned, asks him if he is daft.

Just as the fragmented traces of the past fuse with the ruin’s decay in the present, the repressed memories from Spider’s past emerge and combine with the present; as the prologue for the movie articulates: “The only thing worse than losing your mind is finding it again” ( Spider is no longer able to contain the fact that it was he who murdered his beloved mother; that she was actually Yvonne all along. As Trigg asserts: “In spite of the temporal closure of the past, the same past reconfigures and reappears, circumventing the attempt to rationalize it into submission” (2006, 31).

Spider’s psychotic attempt to rationalize his act of matricide “into submission” by denying that it is his mother that he has murdered, instead displacing culpability for his mother’s death onto his father is thwarted by the return of the truth, which, in response to the external triggers of the post-industrial wasteland around him, has reconfigured and reappeared. Like the string that connects the oven door to the murder’s hand, the memory connects the past to the present. Spider’s recollections reactivate his psychosis, which returns with all the vigor and intensity of its original manifestation.  Mrs. Wilkins morphs into Yvonne Wilkinson, looking and behaving exactly as she did when Spider was a young child. The past and the present become trapped in the tangled web of Spider’s mind, just like living become ensnared in the sticky tendrils of the web of his namesake taking their place alongside decaying corpses that linger as a ghoulish testimony of past consumption. In an uncanny act of repetition he sets about murdering Yvonne again (only this time he fails to complete the deed) and is taken away to the asylum, just as he was thirty years ago, as much a fragmented ruin from the past, conflated with the present as the decaying wasteland around him.


No longer of material value, waste is the stuff we discard, the rags and the refuse that is confined to the outskirts of society, forming an unconscious backdrop that despite its marginalization defies outright extinction. Wasted places and spaces, remnant from another era become disjointed from time, transcending its sequential structure. They retain a semblance of their past life but, now distant from their original form, take on a disturbing, haunting quality that embodies the uncanny; a dream like feeling of familiarity in what is evidently unfamiliar. In David Cronenberg’s Spider the wasted debris of the landscape forms a powerful coalition with disturbing memories that have been impounded in the mental wasteland of Spider’s unconsciousness, each providing the other with substance and epistemological value. Like a hurriedly covered corpse in a shallow grave, memory and matter do not remain buried for long, instead they reemerge, tainting the present with their fetid presence, a presence that in turn contaminates the future. Thus, whether it is in the form of disturbing and traumatic memories or architectural constructions that resonate with outmoded ideologies waste becomes a pseudonym for the things we would prefer to forget; the objects and events that are stifled in the shadow recesses of the unconscious. However, as Walter Benjamin succinctly asserts “by their waste shall you know them” (1999, 82), hence, the unconscious is also a place where narratives of truth, unmediated by the ego reside. As a form of cultural expression Spider provides a compelling commentary on the powerful interaction between matter and memory and the hidden anxieties that embody them both.


Bad Boy Bubby. 1993. Directed by Rolf de Heer. Australia. South Australian Film Corporation.

Benjamin, Walter. 1999. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Edited by Rolf Tiedemann. Cambridge Massachusetts: Belknap Press.

Brittan, Arthur. 1989. Masculinity and Power. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Carroll, John. 1985. Guilt: The Grey Eminence Behind Character, History, and Culture. London: Routledge.

Edwards, Tim. 2006. Cultures and Masculinity. London: Routledge.

Freud, Sigmund. 1919. The Uncanny. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. XVII: An Infantile Neurosis and Other Works. London: Vintage, 2001, 217-256.

__________. 1930. Civilization and its Discontents. In The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud Vol. XXI: The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and its Discontents and Other Works. London: Vintage, 2001, 59-148.

Gelder, Ken and Jane Jacobs. 1995. Uncanny Australia. Cultural Geographies 2: 171-183.

Lacan, Jacques. 1938. Family Complexes and the Individual. Translated by Cormac Gallagher.  London: Anthony Rowe.

Spider. 2002. Directed by David Cronenberg. Canada/England. Capitol Films.

Spider the Movie Official Web Site. 2003. (Accessed October 3rd 2010).

Trigg, Dylan. 2006. The Aesthetics of Decay: Nothingness, Nostalgia and the Absence of Reason. New York: Peter Lang.

Vider, Anthony. 1994. The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely. London and New York: MIT Press.

Wieland, Christina. 2002. The Undead Mother: Psychoanalytic Explorations of Masculinity, Femininity, and Matricide. London: Rebus Press.



Samantha Lindop holds a Masters degree in Psychoanalytic Studies from Deakin University and is currently a PhD candidate at The University of Queensland, School of English, Media Studies, and Art History. She is researching the fatale figure in postmillennial neo-noir North American cinema.  Email: