BY Orit Gat in Opinion | 26 JUL 19

How Cecelia Condit’s Video Art Became a Viral Curse for Teens on TikTok

Why are kids born in the 2000s lip-synching to the 1983 film ‘Possibly in Michigan’?

BY Orit Gat in Opinion | 26 JUL 19

The first time American video artist Cecelia Condit’s 12-minute film Possibly in Michigan (1983) found some online attention was back in 2015. A user called LikeMyMen posted a Youtube excerpt of the work to the subreddit r/creepy, saying: ‘Possibly the creepiest thing I've ever watched.’ The thread it started ended up on the front page of Reddit, with 4000 upvotes and 868 comments including observations like, ‘I watched this entire film in my video art class. It was the most fucking disturbing thing I’ve ever seen. At first it was funny in a weird way, but then it was really off-putting. Possibly In Michigan sparked a conversation about what kind of creepiness gets attention: user spider_cereal said, ‘I do not understand why this is not getting more up votes. It is probably because it is a video and they don’t do well on r/creepy. Truely creepy in my opinion.’ How_is_this_relevant answered, ‘This sub prefers predictable, cookie-cutter halloween creepy. ‘Oooooh, abandoned house all alone in the woods.’ ‘A baby doll hanging from a tree, did a ghost do dat?’ ‘A photo I took made my eyes red, no logic can explain’.’

Cecelia Condit, Possibly in Michigan, 1983, film still. Courtesy: the artist

‘When Possibly was on the first page of Reddit, it was amazing,’ Condit told Daniella Shreir, editor of feminist film journal Another Gaze over a text message, ‘I was so confused. Almost terrified.’ Shreir shared a screenshot of the text message to Twitter in response to film curator Chris Osborn posting, confused and delighted, a short video taken off the social media app TikTok of two teenage girls miming a song from the second minute of Possibly in Michigan. In the scene, the work’s two protagonists, Sharon and Janice, are trying out perfumes in a mall, and singsong-talk: ‘this one here smells great / which one? / smells like mother’s crazy sister Kate / oh you think so? / it smells so good she couldn’t have been so crazy, I don’t think so / oh, you don’t think so? Well, she put her poodle one time in a microwave oven / to eat it? / oh, no no no no no no silly, to dry it. But it exploded, and they were both found dead.’

POSSIBLY IN MICHIGAN (of all things!!!) is a popular TikTok meme I am absolutely losing my mind right now!

— Chris Osborn (@Chris_Osborn) July 13, 2019

There are 23,530 videos on TikTok that use the audio clip from Possibly, originally uploaded this year by a sixteen-year-old girl called Vris Dillard. It’s simply called ‘oh no no no no no no no no silly.’ Most of the videos are of teenage girls lip-synching from the ‘oh no no’ part through to ‘and they were both found dead’; they are performing one of the most common uses of TikTok, an app with more than 500 million users who make and share short – usually about 15 seconds – videos set to music (or sounds, including short snippets from TV or other TikTok and online videos). It’s perfect for lip-synching and dancing and it is enormously popular among teenagers. So much so that when TikTok videos migrate to other platforms – specifically YouTube and Twitter – it’s as the ‘cringe’ finds of older teenagers and adults, who collect videos of kids being weird online.

In keeping with the internet’s understanding of Possibly in Michigan as creepy, the ‘oh no no’ sound snippet is used in a number of ill-fated videos of tween girls in scary clown makeup; a girl in a school outfit, pale makeup, and a toy gun in her hand; image macros where text has been superimposed, such as, ‘Mom: are you high? Me: What? Oh no. No no no… silly.’ One user discovered that the original soundtrack was about putting a dog in a microwave: ‘When I figured out what this sound was about... I flipped’.

How does a video artwork from the 1980s become viral with kids born in the 2000s? Dillard, the sixteen-year-old who created the sound, told Garage’s Tatum Dooley: ‘I love creepy cute things so I fell in love with it’. It quickly spread: ‘after I uploaded the audios TONS of people started using them. Within a month all my mutuals were posting audios and their love for ‘Possibly in Michigan.’’

The content of Possibly in Michigan – where Sharon and Janice are followed by a man wearing different animal masks who they are so threatened by that they end up killing him and eating him – is a dark fantasy delivered in an aesthetic that is legible to these tweens and teens from the filters and themes that repeat on TikTok. Possibly in Michigan, with its figures speaking in song, performing – then rebelling against – their gender, and enacting defiance in killing their aggressor, is primed for teens to identify with. It’s also cursed. Possibly began circulating online as creepy, an aesthetic category that users not only love to look at online, they also want to share. Critic Rahel Aima, in a 2018 essay about the phenomenon of cursed images, writes about how anything from a Furby’s creepy dangly eyes to an image of a man surrounded by tomatoes, can circulate on Tumblr and Twitter as ‘cursed’ with a random number (to attest to the infinity of cursed things around us). Aima writes: ‘Once seen, they cannot be unseen, and demand the catharsis, the lactic acid release of sharing: Must pass on, must retweet. I can’t stop thinking about this image and now you have to too. They are insatiable. And to paraphrase American Movie, we are aesthetically not ready.’

Cecelia Condit, Possibly in Michigan, 1983, film still. Courtesy: the artist

Possibly in Michigan is complex: there are a few stories woven into it, there’s a hint of sexual violence but also female friendship, there’s rebellion, and there’s the fact that the section that exploded on TikTok is true. Condit said that it was taken from a newspaper article she read at the time. Microwaves were new then, she explains, and she read about a woman who put her poodle in the microwave to dry the dog; it exploded and (you know where this is going…), ‘they were both found dead.’ The horror aspect of it, and the close-to-reality is exactly what teenagers are engaging with, even if they don’t know that it came from Possibly In Michigan, even if they discover it’s about a dog in the microwave and flip. Something of the original essence of Condit’s film persists across its thousands of new interpretations. The darkness that remains is a way for some teenagers to participate in an app full of their peers performing their sexuality in song and dance, while they maintain a sense of individuality. It’s your classic Scarlett Johansson in Ghost World (2001), Winona Ryder in Heathers (1988), Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club (1985). With terrifying makeup and possibly a clown costume on.

Orit Gat is a writer and art critic. She is a contributing editor of The White Review and Art Papers.