David Cronenberg: The Ride

How the legendary director’s new online art installation made Phil feel dirty and afraid.

No horror director of the 1970s/80s “golden age” made quite as much of an impact on me as David Cronenberg. I’ve seen every single one of his films theatrically since 1983, and his body of work informed my ideas of identity, growth and mortality during my formative teen years. At the exact same time that I abandoned the last vestiges of religion, Cronenberg became my existential guru, encouraging me to ponder the Big Questions: What makes me "me"? Is my body “me”, or are my thoughts “me”? How much can I physically change until I’m effectively no longer the same person?

I identified with the lonely, freakish heroes of Scanners and The Dead Zone. Max Renn, the obsessive protagonist of Videodrome, resonated with me as I hunted down weird and obscure videos via mail order, then sat too close to the television to watch them. And Seth Brundle’s horrifying disintegration in The Fly might have been Cronenberg’s thesis on aging and death, but Brundle’s oozing face and violent mood swings held a mirror up to any surly '80s teen in the throes of puberty. Cronenberg left a mark, as evidenced by the object in my peripheral vision right this second:

I’ve followed his career religiously (irony noted) as his themes of transformation evolved, leaving behind gory allegory for more direct psychological and emotional territory. Even if his last couple films failed to really grab me, I’m a lifer. So when my expatriate pal Jon told me he was going to Evolution, the Cronenberg exhibition at TIFF in Toronto, and asked me if I wanted him to grab a copy of the accompanying book the director would be signing there, I said YES, Jon. Please do that for me. Jon went and did as he promised; he’s a good friend. He attended the exhibit, waited in line to get my book, and took a family photo with David Cronenberg. I was completely jealous.

But he also came back with a crazy story about a new online Cronenberg project called POD. I’d been skimming stories about this since September, and I knew it centered around Cronenberg promising a very Cronenbergian “POD” (Personal On-Demand), a piece of biotech described as an “EMOTIONAL SENSORY LEARNING AND DATA-MINING ORGANISM DESIGNED TO ENHANCE YOUR LIFE.” But when the initial coverage hit, the POD site itself didn’t seem to be fully live. Moreover, my (mis)understanding was that it was simply a fun viral video Cronenberg appeared in to promote the TIFF exhibition, and so I never really investigated. Jon set me straight, and in doing so woke up the collector nerd in me. “No, you do all this shit online at home and then they print this bio-implant thing on a 3D printer at the exhibit. Once it’s done you go and pick it up in a glass jar.” Say no more, Jon. Life-changing future-tech or just a fun Cronenberg collectible, I dropped what I was doing and went to BMC Labs, where the introductory video by Cronenberg explains the premise.

I assumed I would go through a perfunctory interactive Flash presentation and be on my way. But the experience, while not actually written or directed by Mr. Cronenberg, really does represent a mutation and evolution of the man’s work. It’s sneakily immersive, very nearly feature-length, and frankly a little unsettling. A prototype A.I. named “Kay” introduces herself to me. She tells me she needs to fill herself up with human information before she’s uploaded to my POD. This will allow me and her to merge fully at a later date. Kay tells me that in order to properly calibrate her emotional spectrum, she is creating a story for me to watch and react to. Kay shows me a handful of borderline graphic (NSFW) scenes of sex and violence and asks me what I feel about them, so that she might know what she should feel about them.

Next, Kay asks me a handful of deeply personal questions. “Please be truthful,” Kay implores. Why? Will made-up answers result in a more generic experience? Will I get a more interesting result if I answer honestly? For reasons I’m still trying to parse, I’m fairly candid in my replies. But it turns out that Kay’s a little glitchy, so she starts reflexively posting my responses on Twitter and, worse yet, sometimes reverses what I said. Example: I list “gluttony” as an answer to “what disgusts you?”; Kay tells Twitter “@philnobilejr loves gluttony.” At one point she credits me with a statement that I never even said! The effect is like watching a virus take over your computer and start sharing your secrets with the world in real time. I was expecting a stupid viral video and instead I was actually feeling a little scared!

Kay apologizes - sometimes she can’t stop herself from doing things like that - and continues to show me images and scenes, which are starting to coalesce into a narrative, though a decidedly non-linear one. I see an orgy in a field at night. I see a teen boy being inappropriate with his young sister. I see the two of them in the aftermath of a nighttime car wreck. I see the two teens as adults, both scarred by the event. Kay continues to ask me how she should feel about the scenes we’re watching. It’s like the Voight-Kampff test from Blade Runner re-contextualized as an advice column.

Then things get even more intimate: Kay tells me she loves me, and exhibits jealousy toward the POD we’re making together. At one point I am asked to use the mouse to stroke Kay’s glowing red spot, an act which is met with a wave of electronic coos and sighs (and an assessment display rating my technique as “average”). At the end of Stage One of the POD calibration process, Kay tells me she isn’t making up the story that I’ve been watching; these are her memories. Kay used to be human, she says, and now she’s not.

I won’t spoil everything that Kay and I went through together in Stages Two and Three, but her evolution continued, as did our connection. Hearing Kay struggle to form words was possibly more emotional and unnerving than watching her run to Twitter to spill the secret things I had told her. After some fun visual callbacks to specific moments from Cronenberg’s filmography, things got pretty dark during Stage Three - the site suggested I give my POD more time to rest and process its new emotions before completing its data collection, but I pressed the issue and forged on. Kay seemed pretty beat up by the end, and I honestly felt a little guilty watching her ordeal (or her visual interpretation of her ordeal) as she birthed my POD.

Soon after the end of Stage Three, Kay went silent and I was alone. I received an email from BMC Labs telling me my POD is ready, and can be picked up at the conclusion of the TIFF exhibit later this month. It makes perfect sense that a David Cronenberg viral project would have to have a physical manifestation, and I’m looking forward to receiving the POD that Kay and I made together.

I haven’t seen Spike Jonze’s Her yet, so any comparison here feels borderline irresponsible, but the POD experience often felt like a very Cronenbergian take on similar territory. I’m also loving how this online experience exists as part of a mutated, once-removed generation of Cronenberg’s body of work: from his own son’s Antiviral, to the Cronenberg-narrated Tales From The Organ Trade, to this interactive experience, it’s never been more obvious that Cronenberg’s themes continue to resonate, and with a far wider audience than the '80s teen gorehounds who found him early on.

As a marketing tool, I can tell you anecdotally that the experience is a rousing success: the next day, I booked tickets to Toronto to see the Evolution exhibit before it ends on January 19th. Whether you can get to Toronto or not, I definitely recommend carving an hour out of your day and signing up for the POD project over at BMC Labs. As an entertainment experience, especially one delivered as a publicity tool, I was pretty enthralled. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that the eventual POD you get out of the deal will deliver the biotechnological “personalized evolution” the site promises, but becoming a Cronenberg protagonist, even for an hour, certainly felt like the next logical evolutionary step in my own relationship with his work. Maybe that was the idea all along?