Sappho's Ghost (2018)
Sappho's Ghost is a Virtual Reality Experience designed as part of the Visual Communications Honours program at the University of Technology, Sydney (2018). It is a speculative queer interface that places queer poetry within the reach of the audience and provides a doorway into alternate, utopian existences.
Sappho's Ghost emerged from a general aim to explore the potential of queer theory when building a framework for design practice. The project has rambled from that starting point amongst archives and histories, digital materialities, posthumanist cyborg feminisms and all sorts of other interesting side-avenues, not all of them explored as in depth as they could be.
The documentation below exists as a relatively informal summary of my thoughts and reflections at the time of making, and was complemented by an academic thesis. While I have lightly edited it (here in 2021) I have largely preserved it in 2018 glory as a record of my thinking at the time.
The poetry featured in Sappho's Ghost was written as part of experimentations with historical queer content and the generative potential of code. As part of my design research I became interested in the potential of queer methods of making based in algorithmic generative processes.
Sappho is a unique figure in queer culture - her existence is as much defined by the void of missing historical material as it is by the evidence of her life in general and her same-sex desire in specific. By working with her poetry, I aimed to engage with the idea of queer forms of genealogy - allowing a queer audience to see connections other than what we’re used to associating with ancestral tries. I used poems taken from Anne Carson’s translation If Not, Winter as my source material.
Tracery is a generative tool developed by Kate Compton that allows for quick and easy text reworkings. By breaking down Sappho’s poetry into phrases and regrouping them, then pulling from those groups to generate new lines, I was able to generate queer poetry that was both by Sappho and not anything that she had written as a whole. Rather than producing linear, clearly defined poetry, this process results in fields of potential, with code acting as a performative element in a wider network of collaborators.
The outputs from my remixes were not entirely comprehensible - I am not a linguist and while there was a system to the breaking down and categorisation of the source material, I did not venture into the world of semantic analysis. However, the sometimes nonsensical outputs revealed interesting potential in the play of juxtaposition and disorientation. Editing the outputs into a series of poems involved negotiating how much of the algorithm’s “voice” should shine through, and what emerged was a network of collaboration between Sappho, the translator of her poetry, myself, code libraries, and wider technologies of reproduction. Each poem is at the nexus of that complicated network, and could not exist without each part of that intermingled assemblage.
Your sweet speaking shaking grips me all
When I look at you
I will lay down my limbs
an army of ships
for she who overcame everyone, me
beautiful thought, longing reminded by beauty
a crazy thing
These are a selection of the edited outcomes, including the poems that are featured in Sappho's Ghost.
We live the opposite from every care
lightly reminded of who is gone
You will remember an army on foot and the motion of light
out of the unexpected
You will remember your sweet speaking
You will remember what you love
For she who overcame everyone in beauty
is the most beautiful thing on the black earth
Had she a thought?
on her face
the motion of light on her face
I say it is her lovely step
and the motion of light
Her lovely step out of the unexpected
The conceptual backbone of Sappho's ghost lies in queer theory, specifically the scholarly work of Sara Ahmed and José Esteban Muñoz.
Discourses surrounding design often focus on the problem of multitasking thinking and doing. I experimented with queer theory as part of a critical design practice in the hopes of developing a method of doing that is also a form of thinking and knowing.
When I first became interested in developing a queer design practice there was an infinite array of options of what to draw from. In the end I decided to focus on Queer Phenomenology by Sara Ahmed and Cruising Utopia by Jose Esteban Muñoz. These two texts became the motivations for my work, as well as the guiding maps both theoretically and practically.
Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others
Sara Ahmed's book Queer Phenomenology (2006) critiques the idea of sexual orientation as an innate, biological quality and instead proposes a spatiotemporal understanding of sexuality as a way of doing and being over time. Ahmed’s theorisation of queer phenomenology is essential to the aims of Sappho’s Ghost, which are to present other possibilities of spatiotemporal sexual orientations, i.e to put queer futures within reach. It is also guided my methods of engagement with digital materialities, especially the focus on embodiment and spatiotemporal orientations in Virtual Reality.
"Not all bodies are within reach. [...] Queer orientations are those that put within reach bodies that have been made unreachable by the lines of conventional genealogy."
(Ahmed 2006, pp. 107)
Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity
José Esteban Muñoz explored queer identities through the lens of performance studies, philosophy and queer theory. His book Cruising Utopia contains a critique of gay pragmatism and cynicism, instead proposing modes of queer utopianism that present hope and possibility for the future. Muñoz is concerned with queer aesthetics and the potential of everyday objects, texts and experiences to hold potential for queer futures, especially historical cultural artefacts. This engagement with the aesthetics of the everyday is particularly relevant to a designerly approach to exploring queer methodologies, and his future focus has been really essential to to the idea of using reanimated queer historical content in Virtual Reality as a way to a sketch a utopian queer world.
"Utopia is always about the not-quite-here or the notion that something is missing. Queer cultural production is both an acknowledgment of the lack that is endemic to any heteronormative rendering of the world and a building, a 'world making,' in the face of that lack. "
(Esteban Muñoz 2009, pp. 118)
Prototyping in VR
When I first started designing the amorphous poetry anthology/archive/exhibition space I was working with the web VR framework A-Frame. While these early experiments weren't very successful as outcomes, they were invaluable as an introduction to the infrastructure of working in virtual reality, especially since I had (and still have) a limited understanding of code.
From an early stage I began focusing on bodies and bodily sensation, trying to push against the idea of neutral, clean technology. Moving to Unity - a 3D videogame engine - was intimidating but rapidly opened up the options, especially once I became familiar enough with the program to start working with free assets.
The structure of Unity greatly shaped the final piece in many ways. The infrastructure of Unity and the huge community developing assets for it provided many of the assets that have been collaged, rejigged or repurposed for other means. As a game engine, Unity uses a system of objects, colliders and physics that are highly regimented and delineated, and working against and amongst this infrastructure while trying to create an unstructured, gooey free-for-all was a constant negotiation.
Using virtual reality as a medium came from the goal of developing a reading experience focused on performance, affect and non-traditional meaning making. Virtual reality is used as an immersive medium that can demonstrate and explore ideas of digital materiality and queer existence.
As I began to explore the idea of slime, goo and unstable solids, I was starting to understand that I was designing an experience, not a movie. This sounds simple, but took a lot to get my head around. The entirety of the world design was important and part of the process of making meaning, and the interactions that users had were a vital place to be making my arguments.
I had been thinking very textually, relying on heavy narration and complicated story to try and get my point across. Over time I realised my goal was more about building a world that someone wants to stay in, rather than making a point by saying it.
I focused on encouraging certain emotions, sensations, and crafting a space for contemplation rather than handing over a neat message.
What became clear throughout the process was how effective little things could be for shifting the experience. Adding wobbles to text suddenly made it "feel" like slime, and a rainbow skybox suddenly made the environment feel incredibly overwhelming. Sound design became incredibly important for shifting how users thought of digital materials they were interacting with. Narration was important for introducing the user to the space and encouraging spatial literacy in VR, especially since many people have not used interactive VR or have only used it for games that have different modes of interaction.
WIth a focus on "congealed bodies" and larger masses made from smaller elements, I began experimenting with systems in Unity for emulating softness and liquidity. I began with Unity's cloth mechanics, and while it created a lot of interesting effects, it was difficult to control and achieve the balance of legibility and squishiness that I wanted.
Throughout the constant fiddling to figure out what "looked" good I was also figuring out what "meant" good. As I started to build out these elements I was realising the compatibility of simulated slime with my queer theory framework. When trying to emulate sticky, gooey substances like slime in a digital environment, I couldn't decide - a softbody physics system for solids or a particle system for liquids?
This inability to decide reflected the way that slime is a sort of in between - refusing to be categorised, causing discomfort and fascination, a material that doesn't belong. "Slime is queer" is a neat metaphor, but through the prototyping process I was able to demonstrate that materially; while simulating stickiness, oozing and gooey textures was eventually possible, it involved pushing against the allowance of Unity. I chose a softbody physics system, although I'm sure a liquids system would have been just as if not more effective.
"It is not a question of leaving the body behind but rather of extending embodied awareness in highly specific, local, and material ways that would be impossible without electronic prosthesis."
(Hayles 1999, pp. 291)
Cyborg Knowledges It was key to my goals to cling to the tensions inherent to virtual reality. I was particularly drawn to digital humanities as a field that is concerned with critically analysing technologies and their relationships with society. I didn't want to make a "floating head" experience of disembodiment. By focusing on an intermingling of technologies, bodies and knowledges, I hoped to present the cyborg splice that virtual reality embodies as a site of radical potential, acknowledging the complicated discourses surrounding technologies such as virtual reality while also arguing for its success as a way of presenting often ignored stories, histories and existences.
One of the key elements of the interactions is the user being able to pick up text that, after a certain point, moves from their hands to the centre of their body and is no longer able to be touched. This literal "body of text" is an essential part of modelling a cyborg knowledge system, understanding the body as a network that includes the physical flesh, the complicated technologies that make VR possible, and the digital body that is layered on and amongst the "real" body.
Since the phrases that become their body are the phrases they've touched, the user's decisions are what shape the form of their body; this is an analogy of Sara Ahmed's model of sexuality as as spatiotemporal orientation, in which bodies and identities are culminations of desires and decisions (and the desires and decisions that are put out of reach).
This project involved a lot of very quick learning and wishing I knew the systems I was working with in closer detail or with more familiarity during the process. Moving away from an understanding of textual or image based communication into a space where experience can be a way of making an argument has been been fascinating, and I'm interested in how we can talk about virtual reality in a way that does the medium justice as more than a 360 degree image or video.
Understanding interactive VR as a liminal dimension that sidesteps the real world as it simultaneously remains inextricably tangled with it opens up many possibilities for the medium. VR is good at immersion, but asking how, and for what purpose, means we can use it as a modelling system to investigate social phenomena and prototype theoretical positions in practice.
Lastly, I'm interested to know how the other parts of the experience other than the bit we design digitally can shape the meaning of a piece. How do users put on the headset? What greets them when they take it off? What do they take away from the experience? What crosses that threshold with them?
Unfortunately most of my interesting finds and influences are formatted for academic submissions, which is great for putting together bibliographies but not good for online reading lists.
Queer Theory & co.
Ahmed, S. 2006, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, Duke University Press, Durham.
Ahmed, S. 2017, ‘Lesbian Feminism’, Living a Feminist Life, pp. 213–34.
Cvetkovich, A. 2002, ‘In the Archives of Lesbian Feelings:
Documentary and Popular Culture’, Camera Obscura, vol. 17,
No. 1 pp. 1-147.
Esteban Muñoz, J. 2009, Cruising utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, New York University Press, New York.
Bardzell, J. & Bardzell, S. 2013, ‘What is "critical" about critical design?’, CHI ‘13 Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, ACM, New York, pp. 3297-3306.
Frayling, C. 1993, ‘Research in Art and Design’, Royal College of Art Research Papers, Vol. 1, No. 1.
Prado de O. Martins, L. and Vieira de Oliveira, P.J.S. 2014, ‘Questioning the “Critical” in Speculative & Critical Design’, Medium – Designing the Future, viewed 3 June 2018, <https://medium.com/designing-the-future/
Tonkinwise, C. 2015, ‘How We Intend to Future: Review of Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby, Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming’, Design Philosophy Papers, Vol. 12 No. 2, pp. 169-187
Yin, N. 2016, ‘Beyond the here and now: speculative design, feminist queer futurity, and critical utopianism’, viewed 4/4/2018, <https://www. academia.edu/35303873/ Beyond_ the_here_and_now_speculative_ design_feminist_queer_ futurity_and_ critical_utopianism>
Digital Materialities and Humanities
Drucker, J. 2009, ‘Entity to Event: From Literal, Mechanistic
Materiality to Probabilistic Materiality’, Parallax, Vol. 15 No. 4 pp. 7 -17.
Drucker, J. 2013, ‘Performative Materiality and Theoretical Approaches to Interface,’ Digital Humanities Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 1. Para 1-43.
Fuller, M. 2003, Behind the blip: essays on the culture of software, Autonomedia, New York.
Haraway, D. 1991, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge, New York, pp. 149-181.
Hayles, K. 1999, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, University
of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Hayles, N K. 2016, ‘Cognitive Assemblages: Technical Agency and Human Interactions’, Critical Enquiry, Vol. 43 No. 1 pp. 32 - 55.
Kirschenbaum, M. 2014, ‘Software is a Thing,’ Opening address to the Library of Congress’s Digital Preservation 2014 conference July 22 in Washington, DC., <https://medium.com/@mkirschenbaum/softwareits-
Turner, J. 2002, ‘Myron Krueger Live’, CTHEORY, 23 January, viewed 23 October 2018, <http://www.ctheory.net/articles. aspx?id=328?>