Text by Lala Nurlala
What happens when a minor character goes through a recontexualisation and ends up becoming a major character if not the centerpiece. This is what I am trying to do with my work, particularly The Legend of Dr. Zone after Dan and Swampy. The artwork revolves around Dr. Zone, a character from Milo Murphy’s Law, created by Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh of Phineas and Ferb fame. In Milo Murphy’s Law, Dr. Zone is a television character inspired by Doctor Who and other sci fi TV series. He was hyped up by multiple people. Unfortunately, that catalyzed my high expectations on Dr. Zone’s role in the show and my emotional attachment to him that was influenced by my complex personal issues. So when it has been revealed that Dr. Zone wasn’t any more than a plot device character, I was devastated. So I decided to take matters with my own hands and make Dr. Zone an important character, the central, constant element into my series of works.
The Legend of Dr. Zone is a video art that consists of a stylized drawing of Dr. Zone with a spear-arrow and a platypus being used as a stencil that superimposes footage of the Dr. Zone wandering about in the final episode of Milo Murphy’s Law where he would appear in, The Phineas and Ferb Effect. I try to put an effort to mask Dr. Zone while I heavily alter his everyday surroundings with swirly effects and different tints, isolating the orange-ish character against a green edited mess of colours. After the footage is done, the stencil reveals itself clearer as the background turns to white. Accompanying the video is various music. The main music is Javanese gamelan song that often accompanies a shadow puppet performance, although there are snippets of the Maori haka and the Sundanese song “Tanah Sunda”. Most of the dialogue from the Milo Murphy’s Law footage is muffled, with only Dr. Zone’s dialogue sounding clear. Some of his voice actor, Jemaine Clement’s dialogue from an external source has been included, usually to cover up some unwanted parts from Dr. Zone’s dialogue, further separating him from the original context.
The artwork is arguably Dr. Zone’s origin story in my series of artwork, different from Orton Mahlson (Dr. Zone’s actor)’s story in Milo Murphy’s Law. Dr. Zone travels through the chaos that was his original world, the world of Milo Murphy’s Law. He feels left behind, in the sidelines (in Milo Murphy’s Law, he doesn’t serve much of an active role), and thus left in an overstimulating world of uncertainty that doesn’t care about him. But he still has himself. He knows that he matters. And so he focuses on himself. It is only him who is a constant, a source of stability. Then he discovers a way where he truly thrives, and declares himself as Dr. Zone. The illustration that becomes the stencil is inspired from a prehistoric rock carving found in Indonesia which depicts humans hunting down animals.
Unlike a film where the viewer sees an series of coherent events, The Legend of Dr. Zone is more like a moving painting where one should observe how the colors, shapes, and sounds move about within a timeframe. In this artwork, a character from a medium with a fixed and defined context transcends into an abstract artform with more leeway for more various interpretations, stripping away all previous contexts except for his visual form and voice.
However, this artwork isn’t free from all context. Instead, I have given him a context that is relevant to my experience. In this piece Dr. Zone has been dipped in an intersection of social issues, mainly autism and postcolonialism. Dr. Zone’s situation in the video is very similar to how autistics experience the world surrounding them. One defining trait of autistics is that they find the world, whether it’s the environment or other people, overstimulating to them, which affects their functioning. Autistics also experience marginalisation from other people. Another social theme that is present in The Legend of Dr. Zone is postcolonialism. Dr. Zone, a mostly British-presenting white-passing American cartoon character, has been recontextualised into a character who acknowledges Maori (as Jemaine Clement is Maori) and Indonesian culture which in Western pop culture has been mostly ignored.
This artwork elevates an underutilised character with little meaning; moving from the limitations of pop culture narratives that are often ableist and Euro-centric, into a figure used to address social issues pertaining to pop culture and while questioning the meaning of canonicity and context within pop fiction.
Lala Nurlala, The Legend of Dr. Zone after Dan and Swampy (2022) video, 8:30
Which cultures inspire your work?
I’m not sure. There are many cultures that I have absorbed subconsciously. I was born into a Sundanese family in Jakarta and spent a significant amount of my childhood in the United States; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to be precise. My autism also affects how I have participated in culture, as autism makes my social skills different from others.
At first, I thought cultural influences would only involve cuisine, costumes, and greetings. But it turned out to be more than that. Except that for me, my cultural influences were so obscure and complicated that there were no references from the outside: whether it’s the media or other people, to help me identify them. Through my work, I try to pick up where I am in the world.
For my work in general, aside from Sundanese culture and other cultures on Java Island, I also involve a bit of Maori culture, as Dr. Zone’s voice actor and visual inspiration Jemaine Clement is Maori. I’ve found that there are many similarities between those cultures, especially the visuals, so I decided to amalgamate them into a style that represents my relationship with Dr. Zone.
How did popular culture affect your growing up?
Since childhood, I had a hard time getting along with other people, so I usually turn to cartoons and games for entertainment. By taking interest in them and participating in Wikia (a kind of encyclopedia for the Web), I’ve made a few friends. Aside from that, pop culture, especially for kids, are really straightforward with its entertainment and art style, so I find them easier to understand than interactions in real life. Because of that, I feel like I’ve gained more life experiences from pop culture than whatever’s in my surroundings, as terrible as that sounds.
What’s your favourite piece of pop culture?
I have a lot of pop culture media that I enjoy, but one of the most, if not the most influential pop culture media to me would be Phineas and Ferb. I really enjoyed the geometrical character designs and how the writers play with the show’s formula. The show was a big inspiration for me to strive for creativity and to solve problems that arise along with it. That’s why I became so disappointed with the creators’ next work Milo Murphy’s Law. It doesn’t have the same juvenile, creative spirit that Phineas and Ferb had. However, the show did give me Dr. Zone so I’m grateful for that.