IKEA and the Psychotronic Spirituality of Consumerist Atmosphere

#atmosphere #consumerism #capitalism #architecture #psychogeography

In the famous novel “House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski, a family moves into a new house that, at first, appears unremarkable from the outside. But soon, the family begins to notice strange and unsettling things about the architecture: the house is filled with shifting and expanding dimensions, which seem to defy the laws of physics. The family discovers that the interior of the house is much larger than the exterior, with rooms and hallways that seem to appear and disappear at random. The walls of the house also seem to be made of shifting and unstable materials, with staircases that lead to nowhere and corridors that twist and turn in impossible ways. As the family explores the house, they become increasingly disoriented and paranoid, with each member experiencing the house's strange properties in their own way.

I was reminded of this story during my most recent trip to IKEA. There is something about the staging and atmosphere of IKEA that gives it a similar feeling to the house in Danielewski's novel. The winding, labyrinth-like journey through which one must travel takes on a surrealist or “psychotronic” atmosphere as each region of the store is staged with faux living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms that continuously shift in design and affect.

The way in which one must navigate the terrain in an unconventional manner — the long, snaking path weaving through seemingly every crevice of the building — creates an effect that, to me, feels as if the building is larger on the inside than the outside. Of course, the building itself is large to begin with. However, if the labyrinth were not there, it would only take a couple of minutes to get from one end of the building to another. But in its current design, it can take perhaps more than an hour to get through the store. The labyrinthian interior staging is also combined with an element of questing. People go to IKEA looking for bedding, furniture, decor, and interior design inspiration.

To me, the element of questing/searching combined with a winding labyrinth structure creates a dreamlike, quasi-surreal atmosphere. I say “quasi” surreal because I would hesitate to call the atmosphere fully surrealist. Surrealism, in my use of the term, refers to a deliberate effort to create art within the genre of surrealism and requires a well-honed skill in the craft of artmaking. This genre of surrealism is usually characterized by non-sequiturs, archetypal imagery, and the breakdown of rational logic, resembling the logic of dreams more than conventional reality. Or, more properly, it is the combination of dream and reality into a higher reality — a sur-reality.

However, it is also possible to accidentally create something that produces surrealist affective responses, which I call “psychotronic.” Psychotronic is a term used in the film world to describe films that often include bizarre or unconventional content and are typically characterized by low budgets, over-the-top acting, and a cult following. They often feature elements of horror, science fiction, and exploitation films and are intended to elicit strong emotional responses from viewers. I once heard psychotronic films described as “naive surrealism” (I tried to track down the original source of this to credit them, but I could not find it). In other words, a psychotronic film is one that is so bizarre, jarring, or poorly constructed — along with disjunctive, visceral affective qualities combined with long periods of nauseating boredom — that the film creates a dreamlike atmosphere, though completely unintentionally.

Though I wouldn't necessarily call IKEA shocking, I do think it exhibits something of a psychotronic and naively surrealist atmosphere. In a sense, it's like a capitalist parody of a holy site. IKEA is not on every corner like Walmart. Thus, for many people (such as myself), one has to make a long pilgrimage to reach a towering warehouse (like a cheap parody of a cathedral) wherein one traverses an eerie and unpredictable landscape to the point of physical exhaustion — all in order to acquire a new TV stand.

Perhaps this is all a stretch, but I think it showcases how many of our spaces of consumerism mimic sacred spaces of worship. It's as if our drives toward the holy and sacred have been co-opted and redirected toward consumerism. This is something I've written about previously, so if you'd like to know more about this, I'll link the article below.