[-empyre-] PS queer new media artists (avatar faciality)

Amanda Phillips aphillips at umail.ucsb.edu
Tue Jun 5 08:32:50 EST 2012

> I'd love to hear from Amanda on how embodying butchness and creating
> butchness in gaming informs your scholarly work and how it may trouble
> and/or expand definitions of play? How might play be a political
> intervention? and a queer intervention? How about race? Does #TRANSFORM DH
> play or game?
Margaret, the questions I have about avatar creation systems are kind of
the inverse of those Zach is working with in his Fag Face project - where
he's interested in what it means that a face can be read by a machine, I'm
interested in what it means for a machine to make a face to be read. So the
avatar customization systems go hand-in-hand with facial animation
technologies, motion capture techniques, and the limitations of
communicability in digital faces. The face is such a densely packed site of
information and communication that computers simply can't reproduce them in
a way that is realistic enough for us, and as they get more graphically
sophisticated, they feel more and more eerie  - what roboticist Masahiro
Mori called the "uncanny valley."

So my avatar customization experiments, both with the gender-bending I've
done and the deformations that you may not know about but can see on the
poster I created for the recent Research Slam (
try to reverse-engineer these systems and root out cultural assumptions
that lie, for example, in the limitations of slider bars that control
facial features, or in the underlying skeletons that exist in different
avatar "types" organized by gender and/or race. How do the artists,
programmers, and technology in these systems codify assumptions about what
a particular gendered and racialized face looks like - and what its maximum
and minimum dimensions are?

In terms of a political intervention, I've been running through different
political theories of the face to think about that - Levinas, Deleuze &
Guattari, Agamben - and I think I've finally settled on Gloria Anzaldúa's
introduction to _Making Face, Making Soul/Hacidendo Caras_, in which she
talks about women of color negotiating the space between their true faces
and the masks imposed on them by a white racist society. Very tellingly,
she calls this space between face and mask the interface, after the
reinforcement placed in garments to add structure to collars and cuffs.
These avatar interfaces are another such struggle between the self and
hegemony, where one's ability to customize their own likeness (or whatever
digital likeness they desire) butts up against a restrictive system. And
for Anzaldúa (and also Agamben), making a face is a manifestly political

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