Blog: Body Traces

hehe long time no see... how's delta variant lockdown treating you? i am not enjoying it. Here's some work I squeaked in right before banishment :)

As previously detailed I've been really embedded in trying to figure out and make these weird digital sigils, going through processes of hand illustrating -> extruding 3d forms -> reskinning in unity. I've been really interested in figuring out visual languages that are "native" to cyberspace. I think "native" is the wrong word to use but it's the one that my brain used first, so i'm recording it for posterity. What I actually mean by that is what the material and formal conditions of digital image enable, and what cultural / ideological ideas and forces shape into a visual language that feels inherent and appropriate to the medium. I was (am?) particularly interested in the current chrome / shiny stuff trend, and visuals of sensuality and texture, and also aesthetics of areodynamism in an airless form.

After making my spinning sigil thingy there was an HDR study/meetup session where Tom Lee discussed some of his approaches to futuring, and the idea of "greasy futures" or futures with fingerprints on them was a real mind-shunter.... I think especially after following the thread of super-sexy-shiny-ultra-logged-on-digitality it was cool to then try and think, okay, now how do I screw with this? From the outside it probably looks like I abandoned a line of thought, but to me it feels like a pretty obvious pivot, to spend a lot of time trying to figure out a particular aesthetic (both practically and conceptually) and then try and disrupt it. Not that I've nailed down Internet Art Aesthetics and looping gifs or anything LOL but ykwim.

SO....! What next? how do I get fingerprints on my shiny stuff? How do I bring the body back into the equation? I landed at - "What if instead of frictionless aerodynamicism we instead have an aesthetics of touch where friction is productive?"

I was figuring out how to phrase that ~research question while also developing the urge to do this full body traces of myself in VR, so that's what I did :) I used tiltbrush and a variety of nibs, and just stood in the studio and ran the controllers all over myself with as much precision as possible. Here is a sketch I did of the overall process:

Unfortunately I don't have many screenshots / process shots because they're mostly living on the computer at work, but I have at least a few fun pics!!

As for the actual standing-there-rubbing-my-legs-with-a-VR-controller, it was surprisingly weird both as an experience and afterwards, looking at the results. I've already been percolating something in the back of my mind about what virtual reality controllers/remotes actually are, or what they do, and it was weird to use them like this. Both as the remote is intended to be used in terms of being a "virtual pencil" or what have you, but then also... dragging around over my body and up and down my arms and legs. It's weird! It's intimate! It's the same amount of actual contact as just holding it with my hands since I'm, you know, fully clothed in my uniform of oversized hoodie skater jeans, but it still feels Weird.

I really like the shape of HTC controllers though. They're large and a little bit cumbersome, and actually the form of them doesn't give you a precise "point" (although I've always assumed the pen "nib" is located at the centre of the gap of the controller?), just what is essentially a stick with a circle on the end of it, a circle with a void in the middle. I think it's interesting to have this like, ring of threshhold pushed against you, tracing the edges of you and also the virtual world.... I keep thinking that there should be a way for things actually passing through the ring of the controller to have a function or purpose in some way. I've also been thinking about the "trigger" on the back of the controller, and how we always have to go through instructing people through the various buttons and what functions they have, and how I've never held a real gun. It sounds like an odd thing to get hung up on but considering high tightly-knit various militaries are with VR/tech development I don't think it's a stupid thing to care about.

But anyway: I traced myself a bunch with various "ink" types and various poses, trying to keep everything the same scale within tiltbrush; I would move the world around me and then retrace myself, trying to manage it so that I was as still as possible and getting an accurate drawing as I could. I also did some random arms and legs without the rest of me, just to see how much tracing is needed to make a form legible. Usually I have the workspace to myself but that day I was sharing with Janey, which was actually great; I wasn't like... embarrassed...but it was still a funny thing to do with someone else around. Having someone witness you in virtual reality is something I keep returning back to as a very specific vulnerability and oddity.

I hadn't brought work from tiltbrush into unity before so I got to experiment with that, and then giving them materials and textures etc (in tiltbrush it was just black line against white background). I posted some of this to instagram:

I felt .... naked! which is silly and not silly. I rarely post pictures of myself on socmed, let alone pictures of my full body. The thin stroke drawings are more obviously A Body, and just the concept of presenting that to an audience was uncomfortable, even though it was an outline of myself as I exist in public spaces in the everyday (although with lockdown... now I am not in public spaces).

More screengrabs from inside unity, where you can see the field of various Mes as well as some close ups:

The really thick stroke forms were not at all legible or interesting in tiltbrush but once I had them textured in unity they really took on a... different resonance. They looked like guts. Which I really really like! There's something so interesting about tracing my physical outline - which is such a futile activity in terms of trying to get an accurate, fine-tuned depiction of myself - and then using that as an abstract representation of inside parts.

Then i started playing with my old favourite jiggly physics shader magic plugins to make stuff wobble and animate, and figured out how to make it so that a controller visiting a VE could touch/jiggle these weird intestiney forms, and then we moved house and it was really stressful and lockdown happened and blah blah blah blah. I'm really glad I got to a milestone-y point with it, where these things were interactable, because it did feel like a natural rounding out of the experiment, and now I just have to figure out when and what sort of equipment I can get my hands on in lockdown.

As far as what's next — there are two (or three or more or...) discrete moments going on that I can keep developing:

  • the process of "scanning", tracing, or otherwise coming to have a digital-virtual version of A Body

  • the process of "stepping into" that body in the virtual environment and embodying it, sensing it as your own, etc — or in contrast — interacting it with it as an "other" outside the self while in VR.

Those are two fun tasks to keep investigating. But I really care about MRI machines now. Up there in between messing around in Unity to figure out interactivity with these forms and moving house and so on and so forth I caught up with a childhood friend who's recently started work as a medical imaging technology.... engineer? repairperson? maintenance worker? I don't think "technician" is correct, since she's not actually operating them in a medical context, but she fixes MRI and x-ray machines. She told me stories from work and I showed her my weird mushy body VR blobs and she said, "our jobs are very different". And they are! Isn't that so funny and weird and cool, that we both are interested in how technologies do the work of making bodies into digital entities but she's in an incredibly high stakes medical environment where surgeons get on her case for not working fast enough on their live operation-imaging labs and I'm like, looking goofy doing drawings of myself. I promise I do take my work seriously. It's just great to have this contrasting moment.

It was interesting seeing her make sense of my work/projects too. I can't remember entirely but I was basically like, "I'm trying to figure out ways of having avatars or forms in virtual environments that are more interesting and meaningful, using queer and feminist theory," and she was looking at the images and said, "So you think this is the future of being in VR? Or what people should look like in VR?" which is oddly direct and practical sounding to me, and fantastic for making me think. I think it's less about looking any particular way or any particular future, and more about what the process of getting a body into VR is, and what meaning is created by the ongoing process of being a body in a virtual environment. But we were at a concert so we stopped talking about it.

I think there's something very cool and interesting and meaty in the contrast between medical imaging that creates a virtual body in this entangled inter-relation of flesh and machine and touch and invisible force (magnets.), where the goal is always to examine and comprehend The Inside, VS. an entangled inter-relation of body and machine and touch and invisible forces (infra-red, electricity, etc) where it's VR, and instead of the inside it's entirely about staying with the surface, the "sticky" skin as the contact point / threshold with the virtual world. There's something there about "the inside" vs "the interior" and cutting open the golden goose, heh.

I have a lot of scattered references and half-read things that I need to pull together properly into a reading list of some sort. So I will do that soon.

OH also I transcribed all the random things I wrote down in my journal from February through to umm May, here's a list of keywords and half formed thoughts:

community / reading & writing as discourse / hauntology / accelerationism / what does it mean to use a technology i distrust? / uncanny / abcanny / weird / lightning / quantum entanglement / emergence / loss / desire / jouissance / virtual objects / the phantasmic / queer geography / disorganisational strategies / questions of encryption / hyperobjects / fractal and rhizomatic / encounters / integrity / entity vs prescence / cohesion and flocking together / exquisite corpse / you want someone to break it / ai research about sensorial aspects not cognition / what are the syntaxes of meaning in virtual reality? / representational logic vs performance logic / texture / self-reinforcement / cybernetics / affordances / what is the difference between a tool and a machine? / agency / the screen as substrate / the deluge of the internet / embedding concern / what are the formal properties of Unity (program)? / patterns of use / what does it do to have this interface? / immersion / illusion / simulation / telepresence / medium / stratum / ethereality / scale and texture in VR / practice as a zone of activity / cow tools / VR as the constant "new" utopian / utopia as a place you can visit but have to leave / text freed from the plane / type as bodies / bodies from textual ruin / anti-nostalgic caveats / anti-technosolutionist caveats / marginal and peripheral vs centre / bodies and viscerality / organs without a body / threshold / interplay / embodiment / systems of organs / analysis of vr in vr / boundaries / glitching / affect / avatar / observational processes / communicating a felt experience / to have your own nature / glossary / parameters / the emotional support jarred wife / curatorial intervention / ideologies of technologies / embodied cognition / proprioceptive / haptic / embodiment / phenomenological / becoming / being / assemblage / a flexible digital sigil that resists manipulation / a flexible digital sigil made greasy / a tool or hand or tool in the hand / design the world itself and it will last / a repeatable gesture / bodily languages / what if the in the worst future possible a cybernetic consciousness is just like me? / synthesis / implosion / cosmotechnologies / I don't know if this is an object or a recording of a digital object / the sensuality of shiny / homes for digital objects / objects without diegesis / boundary objects / aerodynamics / smoothness / sharpness / uncritical trends / aesthetics and objects native to vr / the ontology of virtual reality / object / person / environment / superorganisms / empathy as a boundary object / buried together / mixing of new and old / falseness of no queer history / queerness as an operational logic / digital conviviality / what of people can live in digital landscapes? / is vr lonely?