Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen

Adam Harper

Cyriak Harris - his first name uncommon enough in the UK to allow it to be his nom de plume - might be the archetypal music video artist of the internet era. The playful, vernacular surrealism of his work makes him comparable to slightly older music video directors such as Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, but his grisly bursting-forth from the fevered roots of message-board culture makes his career and audience notably different in kind. This, in turn, is reflected in the production and content of his films: animations, largely two-dimensional, in which a minimum of material captured from 'I(n) R(eal) L(ife)' is subjected to a software hall of mirrors. This material typically proliferates, in fractal fashion, into mesmerisingly teeming abstractions, or is endlessly repeated as the bricks and mortar of apocalyptic megastructures. And naturally his most popular work has been based around material featuring that opium of the online masses: animals behaving improbably.


Under the apt username Mutated Monty, Cyriak first began to attract wider attention in the mid 2000s on the website B3ta, an early example of a factory churning out some particularly irreverent, quizzical and frequently puerile examples of what would later be called 'memes' and 'content.' But unlike many more recently notorious forums (such as 4chan), B3ta retains a British identity and something of that country's tradition of comically bathetic surrealism. You may have clicked on the work of two other famous British 'b3tans', Jonti 'Weebl' Picking - responsible for the viral Flash animation Badgers in 2003 - and Joel Veitch, whose rocking kittens transcended the internet and were often sighted on British television in the late 2000s.


But when it comes to Cyriak's videos, 'going viral' is more than just a cliché of internet pop-cultural analysis. It's not just his online animations and music videos that can reproduce, infect and spread through the world at an alarming rate, but the otherwise mundane shapes within them, too. The best analogy for what goes on in many of Cyriak's videos (and probably among the inspirations for them) is the eponymous alien creature in John Carpenter's film The Thing (1982). This invading force enters the bloodstream of its victims and rapidly transforms their bodies, improvising fearsome, fleshy assemblages of organs that stretch and blossom outwards to attack or escape. The film's depiction of terror amid the loss of bodily autonomy to integration with the Other has made it a classic of body horror.


Where in The Thing and its cousins (the earlier films of David Cronenberg, 1989's Society, the 1988 remake of The Blob), the fuel of this violent annexation to mindless fleshy continuity is humanity, in Cyriak's work it is the banal that is monstrously reproduced, and the results more absurd and comic. By the millennium, the endlessly proliferating stream of body-snatching meat had become a congealed enough B-movie trope to be the foundation for parody, and was ripe for the more irreverent (if still often unnerving) attentions of the b3tan generation. One of the best examples of this is Cyriak's early Beastenders (2006), its title a punning reference to long-running British soap opera EastEnders, in which a ravening hell-spawn created from the fused bodies of the cast threatens London. Its merger of extreme body horror and the soap's cherished working-class characters is both amusing and reflected a common experience of the increasingly heterogeneous entertainment subcultures of the 1990s.


Cyriak's signature animation technique is a relatively straightforward descendent of cut-out animation of the sort a younger version of him would have seen in Terry Gilliam's animations for Monty Python, or the slightly creepy British children's televisions programmes Ivor the Engine and King Rollo. Except Cyriak has a tool that his forebears didn't: the ease and exactness of copying and pasting, control C and control V. By doing this while modifying the reproduction, Cyriak can create his own mutants: growing columns of rotating heads, prehensile tubes of hands, or mouths spewing torrents of live young. Once he realised that doing this with real people's images could land him in trouble, he turned his attention to animals, including his pet cats and a farmyard animal that became the unwitting focus of the hugely viral YouTube video Cows and Cows and Cows (2010), in which bovines nod in unison to a bizarre dark-rave soundtrack provided by Cyriak himself, and seem to become so taken up in their jubilation that they begin to somersault, stretch and ball up their bodies, transforming ever more imaginatively until they become spiders and weaving sculptures of thread. Within days, millions had seen the video.


One of the more subtle attractions of the Cows and Cows and Cows video is that virtually everything that happens does so in time to a multiplication or subdivision of the music's underlying beat - in fact, given the abstract and repetitive nature of what happens on screen, the effect is rather close to one of pure rhythmic play. This aspect remains, often to an advanced degree, in his music videos. His animation for Run The Jewels' 'Meowpurdy' (2016), is the apotheosis of his mutations of animals, in this case the quintessential internet content creator, the cat. A roiling mass of cat heads, eyes, fur and teeth rises into the sky, where it is challenged by an angelic silver shorthair. The feline metastases all occurs in time with the music's groove; heads grow heads to the beat.


In other music videos, Cyriak's material comes from elsewhere. For Bonobo's 'Cirrus' (2013), Cyriak uses stock footage of life circa 1960, resulting not in a horror carved from kitsch but a more wistful, retrofuturist aesthetic that - once the mutation begins - echoes James Rosenquist, Mark Weaver or the post-punk cut ups of Linder Sterling and others. A world of obedient children, loving fathers and automobile factories becomes a sublime technocratic dream, its giant legs striding across the farmed, planned landscape, made up of whirling implements of manufacture: what citizens of the 1960s would regard with horror becomes a playing with history. A different form of cute technocracy can be found in the video for Flying Lotus's 'Putty Boy Strut' (2012), the raw materials of which are cartoon automatons designed by Sarah Brown. Once again, the denizens of the technological society fuse and fuse and take over, becoming a sickening giant caterpillar that then, however, becomes a rather attractive butterfly. Like many twenty-first-century artists of his generation, Cyriak is ambivalent about machines, recognising narratives of their threat (one thinks especially of the nanotechnological Armageddon scenario of the 'grey goo'), but sanding it down with archaism and cartoonishness.


Other videos exchange narrative and representation for the pursuit of specific creative challenges. The award-winning video for Eskmo's 'We Got More' (2010), is fashioned from split-second shots of an average metropolitan city street and a walking television screen, that then become the words, sentences and paragraphs in an essay in extensities and symmetries. For Bloc Party's song 'Ratchet' (2013), Cyriak made the whole video from footage of the band's previous, much more conventional videos - each non-chorus section drawing on a different one - even successfully creating the illusion that the singer's mouth was forming the new words.


Phrases like 'endless recycling' often appear in readings of culture under late capitalism. Indeed, in Capitalist Realism Mark Fisher wrote that capitalism is 'very much like the Thing in John Carpenter's film of the same name: a monstrous, infinitely plastic entity, capable of metabolizing and absorbing anything with which it comes into contact.' Through the lenses of gif art, forums and YouTube, the banal detritus of online kitsch and pop culture become such a Thing in Cyriak's videos. Whether or not his visual language is a symptom or diagnosis of a contemporary virus is unclear, but it certainly makes it more obvious, accelerating to absurdity the use of a priori materials until postmodern parody begins to imagine, perhaps, metamodern formal possibility.