Augmenting Race: the avatar in epistemic culture

Epistemic culture refers to the practices and beliefs that constitute a culture’s attitude toward knowledge and its way of justifying knowledge. –Karin Knorr-Cetina, 1999

I have been massQing ever since I can remember. I may have called it by other names, and may have done it in other ways, but it was massQing all the same. –Month of the MassQ, 2011

People of color as exotic backdrops or props: The Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Issue 2013.

People of color as exotic backdrops or props: The Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue 2013.

I was doing two things when I saw the new Sports Illustrated image above: I was reviewing a paper for a journal about “colorblindness in performance capture” and reflecting on last week’s Alien Bodies conference. My first thought about the S.I. image was, ‘this is not new– it’s very been there, done that modern (and not in a good way).’ I once wrote a paper about the visual image in epistemic cultures that explored picturing and practices of looking from the 17th-century to contemporary, antimodern experiments which explore difference.

Social scientists such as anthropologists use visual images to document messages embedded in culturally patterned behavior of their human subjects.  As a form of “cultural communication” these images were assumed to shape people’s perception of fundamental aspects of culture.  However, these assumptions were often based on false, or ideological notions about race, class and gender.  Post-postmodern critiques have given rise to alternative methods that counter conventional practices and reconceptualize the concept of diversity.  The problem which is at the core of anthropology, is that, even today, social scientists often return to eighteenth-century paradoxes of shared culture and knowledge.

In other words, Sports Illustrated must have hired a bunch of old anthropologists as photographers. My second thought was that the new S.I. images are just a ploy for attention. By presenting the same old racial/ethnic binaries as photographers did in the 1800s and 1900s Sports Illustrated is trying show that we’ve evolved… but wait. How is presenting scantily clad white women next to native men in their natural settings forward thinking? Surely, with new technologies, we have artists who can think outside of that old, dusty box. Right?

Left: Numéro magazine's "African Queen"; Right: Actor Bert Williams in blackface.

Left: Numéro magazine’s “African Queen”; Right: Actor Bert Williams in blackface.

The image on the left is of a 16-year-old white model Ondria Hardin who was painted a very deep bronze for an editorial in Numéro magazine called African Queen. The image below (right) is of a digitized African American male model. A Samburu warrior mask was applied (digitally) to his skin, much like blackface (see Vaudeville-era actor Bert Williams on the right). Digitally painting a Samburu mask over a black man’s digitized face is perplexing. Why not have the model dress as a Samburu warrior, then digitize or simulate that? Why invoke blackface?

Left: Real Samburu warriors; Right: Image Metric's Samburu avatar.

Left: Real Samburu warriors; Right: Image Metric’s Samburu warrior avatar.

The Image Metrics demo and Numero images are a problem because of how they lack authenticity and symbolize cultural appropriation– the images presented are superficial and lack cultural meaning. These images do not reconceptualize diversity. After my presentation at Alien Bodies one of the questions from the audience was about the performance capture used in the Enter The Matrix video game (2003), specifically how actress Jada Pinkett-Smith modeled for the Niobe character. Someone else mentioned the film Avatar (2009).

Zoe Saldana and mocap (motion capture) in Avatar ().

Zoe Saldana, motion capture, and performance in Avatar (2009).

What is different in Avatar is that the models were also actors; and the actors, not the animators, defined the virtual faces. Director James Cameron says that the first captures of Avatar‘s hero were “horrible, it was dead… It wasn’t Sam”. Cameron explains that successful performance capture must work from the inside out.”

Bradd Shore connects anthropology and cognitive science. In his book Culture in Mind (1998) Shore writes,

[T]he making of a meaningful world engages a set of preexisting forms, but only in relation to a set of personal dispositions of a particular knower. The emergent world is a coming-into-knowledge of another world that already exists. This is the Murngin version of culture’s twice-born character, the ceaseless flow of semiosis, inside-out and outside-in, linking culture in the world and culture in the mind. (p. 379)

This is what is problematic about the Sports Illustrated and Image Metrics images: we have the outside-in but not the inside-out part needed complete the meaning making process. In Avatar the natives of the fictional planet Pandora are the Na’vi who are ten-foot tall, blue-skinned, sapient humanoids. All of the Na’vi (alien) characters are played by black or brown actors. The white male hero crosses over, so to speak, and becomes one of the “others” (aliens). This is problematic, as well, but that’s another blog entry, perhaps.

In another interview Joe Letteri explains the software decoding of facial mocap by saying “we try to derive which groups of muscles are activated, frame by frame, and in what proportion… and we sort of modify that to apply it to the Na’vi”. The virtual beings on screen are thus truly inhabited by the ghosts of the actors’ gestures, just as the avatars in the story are possessed by the souls of the humans sleeping in their hi-tech coffins.

The Samburu like the aboriginal Yolngu (Murngin) are real people with real culture and character narratives. Sports Illustrated juxtaposes the native (other, alien) with the so-called ideal (Western, European), minus the real cultural meaning and stories of the people used as backdrops. Image Metrics paints a Samburu face on a different “other” (blackface). These images never get at what is underneath the skin. Thinking about the future possibilities of virtual presences, why not create images and avatars that would push models/characters into portraits of real people that have the fidelity, freedom and presence of paintings, performances and other forms of art?

Left: Gunybi Ganambarr at  at Annandale Galleries (Sydney). Photo by Renee Nowytarger. Source: The Australian; Right: SWARTE. "The Freedom of Yolngu," 2013. Photo by SWARTE.

Left: Gunybi Ganambarr at at Annandale Galleries (Sydney). Photo by Renee Nowytarger. Source: The Australian; Right: SWARTE. “The Freedom of Yolngu,” 2013. Photo by SWARTE.

Left: MassQ with artists Daniel Callahan and Destiny Palmer. Courtesy of Destiny Palmer; Right: Hank Willis Thomas. "Untitled, (Wayfarer series)," 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

Left: “MassQing” with artists Daniel Callahan and Destiny Palmer. Courtesy of Destiny Palmer; Right: Hank Willis Thomas. “Untitled, (Wayfarer series),” 2012. Courtesy of the artist.

For example, artist Daniel Callahan (2011) writes that his ritual-art project, MassQ, intends to “reveal the essence of the wearer in the moment it is created.” Members of historically marginalized communities often have multi-layered identities which incorporate each of the communities he or she has inherited. They also take from, share with, or exchange practices of different cultures.

In using the face as a canvas, the MassQ requires all participants (artist, subject and viewer) to engage each other, face to face. MassQing (the process of creating the MassQ) is as much about this communion and communication between people as it is the art form.

MassQing derives from a multitude of antecedent traditions around the world including Nigerian Masquerade, Surma and Mursi tribal body painting, Native American Pow Wow, Chinese Opera and many others that have been around since humanity’s inception. –Month of the MassQ, 2011

SWARTE. Body painting, drawing and photography inspired by Blackfoot, Ainu, Masai, Mosuo cultures, 2013.

SWARTE. Body painting, drawing and photography inspired by Blackfoot, Ainu, Masai, Mosuo cultures, 2013.

This context is supported by “new wave” social anthropologists that illuminate the complexities of situated participation in cultural-historical contexts (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Hodges, 1998). Looking ahead we can imagine a thousand new types of avatars, blending from real actors to totally virtual beings with just enough of a grin, gesture, or a gait to convey an authentic presence. Virtual beings with true presence will usher in a new, truly revolutionary era of art and entertainment, not just replicating the 17th century colonial gaze.

Left: Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, ‘Birrka’mirri’, 2012, linocut. Printers: Annie Studd and Ruby Djikarra Alderton; Middle: Mikey Gurruwiwi, ‘Ngarra’, 2012, screenprint. Printers: Mikey Gurruwiwi and Sean Smith; Right: Yung Jake. "Augmented Real," 2013.

Left: Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, ‘Birrka’mirri’, 2012, linocut. Printers: Annie Studd and Ruby Djikarra Alderton; Middle: Mikey Gurruwiwi, ‘Ngarra’, 2012, screenprint. Printers: Mikey Gurruwiwi and Sean Smith; Right: Yung Jake. “Augmented Real,” 2013.

The image above is what I mean by augmenting race (and culture): moving from superficial, outside-in only representations of the body to include the complex dialectic of inside-out and outside-in interpretations of the body in physical and virtual worlds. Anthropologist Howard Morphy explores this knowledge system in Yolngu art and he notes how European interest in this art has caused certain changes in the conditions of its production. Outside knowledge for Yolngu (according to Morphy) is analogous to inside knowledge which is secret and sacred. There are layers to this knowledge — indicated by the kinds of art that is created in indigenous communities. The inside significance of the art has not changed; it retains its dual ability to represent and to constitute relationships between things. I can see this visually (see image above) — moving from painting/printing ancestral narratives and designs to personal, non-sacred art and augmented reality (avatars) — and this idea can generate new art with these layers (see Yung Jake).

  1. #1 by year of the massq on February 17, 2013 - 7:38 pm

    Nettrice, wonderful article, I think you are hitting it right on the head with the inside-out vs outside-in approaches and why the inside-out one is so much more authentic and powerful. This is a must read for not only ethnographers, journalists and anthropologists but artists as well. One correction: the artist’s name is “Daniel Callahan”, not “Daniel Chandler”. And he has a new project entitled “Year of the MassQ” that you can check out here: http://www.yearofthemassq.com

    Bless

    • #2 by nettrice on February 17, 2013 - 7:46 pm

      Thank you and I apologize for “Chandler”! I just made the correction.

      Peace!

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