This Light After “BURIED ALIVE Outdoor Playground Finger Family Song Nursery Rhymes Animation Education Learning Video”, or hell
August 8 - September 9 2018
Grandma's House in Pasadena, California

Organized by Nick Irvin in collaboration with This Light
Opening August 8 from 6-10 pm
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In the latter half of 2017, the thinkpiece economy lobbed a dose of interest to the eerie, uncanny world of YouTube content for children. The most viral article, James Bridle’s Medium post “Something is wrong on the internet”, surveys, in rather sensational terms, how YouTube’s algorithms, clickbait culture, and user-end profit incentives have led to algorithmically generated content, which has mutated along the way to involve surreal and scandalous themes. There are numerous recognizable formulas, the most popular of which include “Yes Papa”, a nursery rhyme about deceiving your parents; the “Finger Family Song” nursery rhyme, a counting game about assigning nuclear family roles to fingers on a hand; and “Wrong Heads”, which is a kind of peek-a-boo of dismemberment. Typically, these games are played out by characters from recent popular children’s media, with Spiderman, Elsa from Frozen, and The Joker being most prominent.There are also TV episode-length “cartoons” with strings of actions so meandering that they never congeal to a plot, instead only demonstrating the narrative possibilities of a loose, lazy artificial intelligence. Typically rendered with a modified Grand Theft Auto graphics engine, the various superheroes and stock animals plod through several vague scenarios, one after another: swimming, racing, fighting, always somehow filling time. There was a sprawl of YouTube channels recompiling these simple games in thinly veiled permutations: dozens of versions of “Wrong Head” with different combinations of characters, the same “Yes Papa” sequence re-skinned with different Papas, half-hour cartoons repeating the same sequences, starring a Purple Elsa in one and a Red Elsa with Joker Makeup in the next. Here we find the mechanistic libidinal economy of Marquis de Sade’s fiction rendered in 1080p: every character is exhaustively subjected to every act, dispassionately combining transmission, transformation, and conflict.Bridle writes: “I can understand how [these videos] might provide some of the rhythm or cadence or relation to their own experience that actual babies are attracted to in this content, [which] has been warped and stretched through algorithmic repetition and recombination in ways that I don’t think anyone actually wants to happen.” Yet above the uncanny valley effects of this zombie content, he also fixates on the perverse, human-selected range of motifs which have poisoned the streams of autoplay: The Joker drugging and abducting Elsa; Elsa getting spinal surgery; “surprise” videos which seem designed to traumatize, such as Peppa Pig getting a taste of bacon and cannibalizing her family, and eventually herself; and most predominantly, syringe injection, which serves as a symbolic vehicle for transformation, but also punishment (one title: “Crying Babies! Accident! Bad baby Playing Doctor & Learn Colors With Injections! Finger Family Song”). While it began in animation, these genres also crossed over to live-action content, with real actors, sometimes children, being subject to the same sadism of algorithmic payoff, to the tune of millions of views (though it’s likely that many of these views are themselves automated, too).In tandem with Bridle’s exposé, the Reddit community dubbed this phenomenon “ElsaGate”, and fervently propagated it as a scandal. Awareness swelled to the point that major advertisers such as Adidas pulled funding from YouTube, finally forcing the company to address its long-standing failures of content moderation. In late November of 2017, YouTube purged much of this content, including entire channels, deleting literally billions of views, and some of their most popular, verified accounts.

Today, nine months out from YouTube’s initial sweep, the most incendiary videos and channels have been erased, but other, less edgy ones live on and continue to be posted (and often later deleted). This screening’s playlist compiles examples of what we were able to salvage in late November, though some of our favorites, including the one in the title, appear to be lost. Many of the compiled videos have since been removed from YouTube, too.

While the surviving videos lack the flagrant shock of Mickey Mouse getting his ear scissored off, or of Spiderman receiving punitive ass injections from Goku, or of a real-life child being forced to pretend to pee themselves while costumed adults laugh at them, I think that they retain one key horror of this genre, which is that they embrace the cold antihumanism of clickbait culture as it learns how to pivot to video.The most vocal ElsaGate detractors stage this as a crusade of saving the children, to the point that they have elaborated conspiracy theories rivaling PizzaGate and QAnon in scope – but I think what’s truly scary is that these videos travel in the same patterns as pornography, and Facebook viral videos, and Instagram memes, strategically gaming commercialized media platforms which are themselves designed for maximum libidinal payoff. ElsaGate’s concern for pre-literate babies is a displacement of the fact that we’re all post-literate ones. Won’t somebody think for the children?

– Nick Irvin, August 2018

Images by Brian Sohn