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Creepy, Cute & Camp

by Marie Bechetoille

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A conversation between Bernie Poikāne and Marie Bechetoille

April 2023


Marie Bechetoille: What is your relationship to the notion of cuteness in your film practice?


Bernie Poikāne: My films are almost always born from a feeling of love, affection or tenderness for an image, a place or a person... For me, cuteness is wanting to hug and take care of something. It’s an emotional connection that I want to examine to better understand how it operates in my work.


M.B: For the exhibition “A message for every mom who is tired lonely” that you organised with Murphy Yum in 2021 in Nice, you wrote in the press release, “Starting from the action of “collecting”, which appears in each of our practices, we explore things that are ‘creepy YET cute’ while also embodying Sarah Doke’s Techno Fairies.”1 This mix between “creepy YET cute” is at the heart of the project, which is about reborn dolls, hyper realistic baby dolls bought by people who want to take care of them for various, sometimes even therapeutic reasons. Images of reborn dolls can often be disturbing because of their still and morbid appearance.


B.P: For this fist duo show, Murphy and I looked for images online with this ambiguous “creepy yet cute” feeling. We were fascinated by reborn dolls and by the reactions of both repulsion and interest they elicit. These dolls could be a part of  the “Uncanny Valley” theorised by the roboticist Masahiro Mori in the 1970s. Humanoid robots must meet a certain level of realism to be accepted by humans. Anthropomorphic ressemblance creates uneasiness and anxiety until it is credible enough. Reborn dolls are often in this in-between.


M.B: Theorist and critic Sianne Ngai explains in an interview about the cute aesthetic: “Cuteness is a way of aestheticizing powerlessness. It hinges on a sentimental attitude toward the diminutive and/or weak, which is why cute objects—formally simple or noncomplex, and deeply associated with the infantile, the feminine, and the unthreatening—get even cuter when perceived as injured or disabled. So there’s a sadistic side to this tender emotion, as people like Daniel Harris have noted.2 The prototypically cute object is the child’s toy or stuffed animal.”3 The exhibition took place in a dark basement and looked like a child’s room filled with strange household objects in movement, flickering lights, and plays on texture. The exhibition recalled a horror film set and this sadistic relationship mentioned by Ngai.


B.P: Staging the exhibition was like a balancing act: we even covered the walls of the basement with baby lotion. We wanted the experience of being immersed in darkness to instigate unease but also a feeling of loneliness while facing machines that take care of human babies and humans taking care of dolls, inanimate objects, that we discover in the video.


M.B: The experience of loneliness connects with what viewers may feel when watching your film Once You JimIN You Can’t JimOUT (2021). Jimin, a worshipped K-pop idol, member of the south-korean boy-band BTS, is presented in an almost christ-like way through footage found online accompanied by fan confessions, including this one: “I went online to look at merch with a picture of Jimin, I had never done that for someone other than Jesus.”


B.P: It’s interesting to reconsider this film through the prism of cuteness. The human becomes a consumer product and it adds a new, quite frightening interpretation, a realisation of Jimin’s objectification.


M.B: The celebrity posters on the walls of teenage rooms are good examples of these fan images and objects.


B.P: Laura Mulvey talks about posters in her essay about “the possessive spectator.”4 She explains the changes brought about by cassettes, digitalization of DVDs, and later the rise of the internet. Digitalisation allows us to watch movies in the domestic space, but also to only watch an excerpt, to pause, slow down, go back and watch a clip on repeat to satisfy this “possessive desire”. This desire used to be fulfilled by posters in this intimate relationship with elusive images. When I collected and modified the found images for JimIN, I wanted to evoke the sensation of a caress sliding on an ultra-glossy image, like a desire to touch the skin, from the tip of the fingers, through the screen.


M.B: Children’s stuffed animals sometimes take on the appearance of beloved characters— like Mickey Mouse and Hello Kitty— that are then replaced by other transitional objects, including the posters previously mentioned. In both cases, we are still dealing with beloved icons of pop culture. You made a film about icons in the literal sense entitled Latvian Asmr (2022) that you filmed in Latvia with your family. From idol to icon— as with Jimin—, are you interested in this shift from pop culture to religion?


B.P: Collective mimetism fascinates me, the more irrational, the more fascinating. When I was working on JimIN, I went on the internet and discovered weird news headlines. I read that in a convent in the middle ages a sister meowed and progressively all of the sisters started meowing! (laughs) It seems crazy and fake, but it’s funny! In Jimin’s case, discovering an entire fandom, a fan community, made me feel valid in sharing my experience. Everyone shared these same feelings in solitude and I find it amazing that we connected thanks to the internet.


M.B. In JimIN, there is also a mise en abyme of perspective: we’re watching someone watching him and talking about his gaze.


B.P: It’s written in first person but we can dive into this encounter— it’s both detached and personal at the same time. For me, it was very important that we dig up the emotions in order to better understand. I had felt a lot of contempt about being a fangirl, coming even from friends. After seeing the film, they changed their mind.


M.B. There is a gendered aspect to this belittling of the K-pop audience, which is predominantly made up of young girls. Lucie Ronfaut, a journalist specialised in digital media, explains in the podcast Les couilles sur la table dedicated to the subject: “The expert internet user is inevitably a man— the internet cultures that prevail are the male ones. Because there are a lot of internet cultures that are specific to women as well, or rather that involve mostly women— I’m thinking, among other things, about all the practices of what we call fandoms. Fandoms are “fans of”, fans of manga, fans of TV shows, fans of K-pop, fans of whatever you want. Typically, there’s a very rich internet culture around all of this, it has existed since the beginning of the internet and is predominantly feminine. Everyone has made fun of it for the longest time and it’s still made fun of to this day. I mean, K-pop fans.”5


B.P: That’s why I wanted everyone to be able to identify with it, even those who look down on fans. I myself felt trapped when I became a K-pop fan. The gendered aspect must indeed be taken into account like the concept of the male gaze developed by Laura Mulvey6, which analyses the camera’s objectification of women’s bodies, filmed in a desirable passivity. I also really liked the documentary by Ovidie À quoi rêvent les jeunes filles ? [What do young girls dream of?] because it shows representations of bodies and sexualities on the internet, in video games and in advertisement.


M.B: Journalist Mathilde Saliou explains in the same episode of Les couilles sur la table that sexism is visible even in the video game industry’s choice of the name Game Boy in the 1990s, even though statistically there are as many girl gamers as there are boy gamers. To go back to Cuteness, the furry community seems to be an interesting way to step outside of human and gendered categories. The movement appeared on the internet in the 1990s through people embodying animals, real or imaginary, mythological or anthropomorphic, like giant stuffed animals.


B.P: We’re actually preparing a project about furries with the artist Étienne Le Coquil. We’re obsessed with the aspect of reversed roles of the avatar. Instead of being in virtual spaces, we want to transpose that universe into the physical space. Identifying with an animal figure provides a way to express aspects of our society, and we observe that the most recurrent animals are wolves, dogs, namely, fur animals, canines. I love tales and legends of animal-human metamorphoses– they’re often about men, but some of them are about female characters.


M.B: What other projects have you worked on recently?


B.P: Murphy invited me for her latest exhibition at Bucheron in December 2023. It was titled On Lullabies, with the idea that lullabies are gentle enough to lull you to sleep but can sometimes be sad or even cruel. With the video Lullabies For Adults, I wanted to create a sort of looping computer lullaby. I often fall asleep in front of a screen listening to ASMR, the algorithm then sometimes puts weird videos in the queue. I’ve mixed these images and heavily blurred them, which results in a milky appearance. With Murphy, we often reminisced about the ritual of drinking milk and honey before bed. The video has this same vibe.


M.B: Continuing with this idea of using found footage, you’ve talked about wanting to remix your latest videos. Why rework them?


B.P: Having graduated a year ago, I watch them now with a certain distance. I'm considering the presence of empathy in the three films. I want to remix them and address it more directly. When I collect images and modify them, I think about my actions: I slow down, try to blur, in a soft and caring way.


M.B: This urge to remix may come from a refusal to leave these films behind, kind of like freshly repaired stuffed animals!


B.P: Yes that’s true! (laughs) I have an emotional attachment to my movies… I still want to take care of them!


M.B: That’s what moves me in your films. We can feel the affirmation of emotions related to softness, fragility and vulnerability through the handling of images and the choice of the subjects: your own family, a K-pop star, realistic baby dolls. The affirmation of this sensibility seems like a tool for political resistance against virilist systems denying the expression of emotions.


B.P: Yes, it’s very important to me.


M.B: This recalls the return of cute, kawaii, kitsch aesthetics in art and fashion: flowers, butterflies, hair clips, glitter, etc., that manifest a queer and feminist reversal of stigma, clichés and stereotypes. As Joshua Paul Dale writes on the subject of kawaii and lolitas, “Lolita fashion is often referred to as ‘Gothic Lolita’, and Nguyen argues that the connection of the innocent and the grotesque thus implied testifies to the understanding, among Lolitas, of the fragility and harshness of human existence. (...) Lolitas use the power of kawaii to express their individual affinities and desires, quite apart from attracting men, in a way that refuses to conform to the institutional oppression of women in Japan. In this way, they are engaged in a ‘kawaii revolution’.”7


B.P: It reminds me of the horror movie The Love Witch by Anna Biller that I really enjoyed. It’s from 2016, but the 35mm film camera aesthetic, the set, the costumes, all seem to be from the 60s. The images explore what a feminine visual pleasure could be and I would like to experiment with that. There’s a scene where the two protagonists are in a baroque, pink café, it's truly over the top all the while being extremely well crafted, it’s beautiful!


M.B: You’re currently writing an essay about Gregg Araki’s cinematography. His films address sex, queer identity, aliens and teenage romances. Do you link this research with your own work?


B.P: Not directly. The link with my work could be that of queer melancholy. In Gregg Araki’s work, there is a principle of cultural grafts and a criticism of heteronormative imagery. He plays with the codes of Camp aesthetic, an aesthetic of sensibility, extravagance and theatricality via the use of ultra gaudy colours and staging.


M.B: The connection with your films may precisely be the idea of good and bad taste. Susan Sontag ends her Notes on Camp by writing, “The ultimate Camp statement: it’s good because it’s awful.”8 Araki’s movies start out from the point of view of the oppressed and question the norm of what is considered legitimate or illegitimate. Similar to the cute aesthetic, Camp can become a subversive force and a tool for protest that reverses dominant aesthetics and codes like that of soft power. The soft power of bad taste, in short!


B.P: Absolutely! Camp can be both humorous all the while being critical. I’m spending time trying to decipher these dynamics through Gregg Araki’s cinema and it's truly fascinating.








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