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Globule Village

Icons from another dimension

BY Annalee Newitz

IT ALL STARTED when Mosi gave me this weird CD that he'd received as some kind of inexplicable promotional item.

"Oh, you'll like this--it's Brazilian covers of Kraftwerk songs," he said. He handed me a CD with a pink cover. "Señor Coconut y su conjunto," it read. All the way home on the bus, I kept staring at the packaging, trying to figure out where it had come from and why. Little letters across the label spelled out "file under: simulation."

At home, I poked the disk into my iMac's little slit and cranked the volume. Yup, it was definitely songs from protoelectronica German band Kraftwerk. And it had a weirdly Latin flavor, with salsa beats and maracas. But it turned out to be Chilean, not Brazilian (alas, I had to give up on my theories connecting the cinematic work of Brazilian exploitation auteur Coffin Joe to this CD). After I visited the record label at www.emperornorton.com, and discovered that Señor Coconut was actually some German expatriate dude living in Chile, I knew I'd encountered yet another object from the ever-growing category I like to call "icons from another dimension" (iFAD).

You probably don't realize it, but you've seen iFADs all over the place-- they're little chunks of culture whose social origins and construction are so multilayered, inexplicable, and/or confusing that you simply cannot evaluate them in any kind of rational way.

After my close encounter with Chilean Kraftwerk, I ran headlong into another iFAD when Leon and I rented the fine and wonderful flick Shanty Tramp, an exploitation gem from 1967 duped to tape by Something Weird Video (somethingweird.com), an iFAD-obsessed video distributor in Seattle. Shanty Tramp could have been just a cheesy movie, but it achieved iFAD status when the narrative veered away from scenes of our slutty, topless anti-heroine getting whipped by her drunken father and plunged into an oddly serious meditation on why white women accuse black men of raping them. My film-snob roommate, Andrew, watching this abrupt plot shift, made a comment typical of the iFAD-addled: "This is so bad, but it actually has a serious racial subtext for 1967. What's going on here?" His final question was key. iFADs can be identified by their incomprehensibility, but also by sudden bouts of ambiguous political earnestness.

An iFAD could be something like the live action series Rapeman, from Japan. Based on a popular manga of the same name, it's a boppy, sitcomlike adventure story about a superhero whose goal in life is to sodomize frigid women who have wronged the men in their lives. After Rapeman intervenes, these women are brought down a peg and turned into wanton sluts. And it's a comedy. What does it all mean? See what I'm saying? An iFAD pulls you up short; it makes you question the entire construction of your reality. As Arsenio Hall used to say, it's a thing that makes you go "hmmmm."

iFADs have swamped pop culture lately, and I'm pretty sure the iFAD glut is at least partly caused by the Internet. Online, it's become increasingly simple for small-time production companies to crank out and distribute/sell batches of bizarro CDs, audio files, videos, TV shows, leaflets, websites, and whatever else. More importantly, as the Internet becomes increasingly populated by people from all over the world, the naturally global character of the iFAD can flourish. iFADs almost always represent the crossing of some boundary, whether that's a national boundary (Kraftwerk in Chile), a historical boundary (Shanty Tramp), or a taboo (rape can be fun!).

My first iFAD was an art book I bought 10 years ago. It was called Codex Seraphinianus.Written by some Italian weirdo named Luigi Serafini, it was an illustrated description of a fantasy world, written in a made-up language. I used to stare at it all the time, wondering what it meant--all those pictures of women morphing into alligators, and cities built on mountains of pudding, carefully captioned in elegant, totally incomprehensible script.

It was like a letter from the future, or from Alpha Centauri, or from another dimension. It was a reminder that, no matter how much you think you know about social reality, there's always something you can't understand completely, something seductive and politically motivated, brought to you by people who are communicating over all the obscene boundaries, against all reason, making you ask: What the hell does this mean?


Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who thinks Dick Lee is an iFAD too.

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From the August 16-23, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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