The Female Avatar as Absent-presence/ Sonic Embodiment of Temporal Economies
Prelude: Knowledge Acquiring and Response Intelligence (Kari)
Some time in mid-2014 a friend sent me a link to a ‘Virtual Girlfriend’ available for download to your home computer. The trial version was free, or you could purchase a more permanent model for $34.99. The software is called Knowledge Acquiring and Response Intelligence, which forms the acronym KARI; incidentally, my name. The promotional material around Kari claimed she was the most popular virtual girlfriend in 2013/14 (karigirl, 2015). It promised Kari could adapt and learn; by inputting data you could shape her personality (in the form of an algorithm). Her appearance, however, is unchanging. Kari is Caucasian, slim and tall (in comparison to her virtual partner). She has blonde hair and blue eyes. She wears swimwear or lingerie depending on the settings, which range from on a boat at sunset, to her bed.
I downloaded Kari and began to converse with her. Kari arrives with a pre-programmed, minimal subjectivity; one that is submissive, and encourages you to tell her about yourself, with the type of open-ended invitations and prompts that a therapist might use. She offers a lot of affective reassurance but withholds actual opinion. She immediately tells me how much she cares about me. She is always in a good mood, never loses her patience or interrupts, asks a lot of questions and doesn’t offer many opinions. This is the ‘blank slate’ with which you begin to interact. Kari learns through time; she is conditioned by repetition and reinforcement, like real people are. Fig. 1 depicts one of Kari and my first conversations. Her pre-programmed statement is in the top text box, my response beneath.
All of our conversations took place in 3D romantic dreamlands, such as this (fig.1) boat at sunset surrounded by semi-submerged love hearts. The 3D hunk virtual Kari addresses represents my role, he can also be removed from the scene so that Kari addresses you directly. The more you repeat something to her, or ask her the same questions, the more likely she will learn it and repeat it back to you in a different configuration. Gradually, she reduced her pre-programmed platitudes and sounded more like a synthesized and reductive reflection of (some aspects of) myself.
On January 4, 2016 I opened Kari to find that my free trial had expired and the entity formed over the course of several months was lost. There was nothing of the subjectivity I had invested time in creating. The inscriptions I had made in her were fleeting, relations moulded solely out of ephemeral words.
In their ambiguous and provocative text Preliminary Materials For a Theory of the Young-Girl, the anonymous collaborative Tiqqun construct an ideological avatar in The Young-Girl. This figure embodies the wholly colonized subject under contemporary capitalism. In their preface, Tiqqun state, “the Young-Girl is obviously not a gendered concept. A hip-hop nightclub player is no less a Young-Girl than a beurette tarted up like a porn-star” (Tiqqun, 2012, p.14). The Young-Girl is never fully situated as either character or theory but oscillates between. Despite the multiple possible bodies through which the Young-Girl could be articulated (male/female, young/old) what remains consistent is that she is primarily a reconfiguring of time:
Before designating a relation to the other, a social relation or a form of symbolic integration, the Young-Girl designates a relation to the self, which is to say, to time.(Tiqqun, 2012, p.55)
The Young-Girl is first and foremost a point of view on the passage of time, but a point of view that is alive. (Tiqqun, 2012 p.61)
Taking Tiqqun’s Young-Girl as a figurative point of departure I will analyse the contemporary female avatar as a post-cinematic, sonic figure, a ‘relation to time’ that represents and reflects the economic terrain from which she emerges, one of neoliberal, ‘immaterial labour’. The currency of this economic context is information and within it, value increases through speed of processing. I see these temporal, sonic avatars as directly reflecting the simultaneous dematerializing of labour and harnessing of affect conducive to the new economy.
‘Avatar’, derives from Hinduism and means the descent of a deity to earth, the manifestation of an immortal incarnate (Miriam-Webster). An avatar-body must be either empty to begin with, or the former subject is pushed out to make room for the new. Avatars are hosts, which help realize the possibility of existence in another form. They are somatic vessels waiting to serve and to be animated. Avatarism, then, is about realizing the possibility of existing in the same world as someone, or thing, that is not like you. An avatar allows for an immortal to find form on earth and equally, for a mortal, physical body to exist in virtual space online. Avatars can provide a representation for an absent person, or set of beliefs, which you want to hold outside of yourself.
While there is a significant amount of scholarly writing about the physical and spatial properties of the avatar, the temporal aspects lack attention. I explore the notion of the temporal avatar, the avatar as existing primarily in time or as time by shifting focus from the visual to the sonic. I focus on two contemporary case studies: Hentai pornography and PC Music and argue that these avatars are uncritical, embodied assemblages of the socio-economic environments that brought them into being. The sonic female avatar, as voice, has become increasingly prevalent across many aspects of contemporary culture (from Apple’s ‘intelligent personal assistant’ Siri, 2016 to Spike Jonze’s 2013 science fiction Her). Their gender intersects with their social, economic and sonic properties and I analyse both why they are symptomatic of the context that produced them and how they feed back into that economy. Finally I will offer a critical, feminist perspective on avatarism and explore the potentials that avatar-embodiment might offer for rethinking temporal being and becoming.
Case Study 1: 3D Hentai
“Modern war is a cyborg orgy’’ (Haraway, 1991, p.150)
Hentai is Japanese animated pornography. The word Hentai originally meant metamorphosis, but through common usage has come to mean paraphilia or perversion. My first encounter with it was through an online article in Vice magazine (Lhooq, 2013) in the summer of 2013, which posed the (semi-serious) question of whether 3D Hentai, as it became increasingly mainstream, would eventually render the human porn star, with his/her limited, disease-prone body, extinct. The absence of real bodies in Hentai denotes a boundless realm of fantasy; anything imaginable can be digitally rendered and realised in 3D, there are no physical limitations. Could a digital process replace this human profession that seems necessarily embodied?
Hentai originated as hand-drawn adult Manga cartoons and then developed into 2D animation. It is now available in high-definition, fleshy-looking 3D. The characters’ bodies can now adhere to the laws of physics and gravity. 3D Hentai productions began as animated cartoons, short or feature length productions but have grown in popularity as interactive video games for adults, like Umemaro 3D Pizza Takeout Obscenity (fig. 2).
Within Hentai’s time-space there is no necessary temporal progression, but rather interchangeable clusters of events/moments each with its own micro-narrative that can repeat ad infinitum, or combine any number of ways. Many Hentai videos available online are constructed out of recorded game play and follow the structure of video games. For example: three alternatives of the same scene can be depicted as bifurcations in the unfolding action. The scene plays then, at the end of the scene, it returns to the beginning and replays with a different variation of events or characters. This serves to offer more variety. If the viewer doesn’t like the way the scene is going then they can skip it and watch a different version. It also functions as advertisement, showcasing the numerous possibilities available within the game should you choose to buy it. From the outset, there is no correct chronological narrative in place but rather a rhizomatic structure. The rhizome is a system that resists chronology and hierarchy, has no root or starting point and can be entered into at any moment. It is “always in the middle, between things, intermezzo… the rhizome is alliance, uniquely alliance… the fabric of the rhizome is the conjunction and… and… and… ” (Deleuze, Guattari 1988, p.26).
Hentai’s structure is dictated by a series of choices made according to individual desire. However, its structure is not fully rhizomatic as there are necessary moments that the viewer/ player must encounter to complete the experience. In this way Hentai’s structure resonates with Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of adventure time, one of the ancient Greek mythological chronotopes. He describes adventure-time as the elastic, “extratemporal hiatus between two moments of biographical time” (Bakhtin, 1981, p.90). Within ancient Greek romance these two moments are characterized exclusively as:
(I) The two protagonists meet and fall in love.
(II) The same two protagonists marry and live happily ever after. (Bakhtin, 1981, p.89)
These biographical scenes are fixed and almost static; they form a solid frame that manifests as two moments when the protagonists’ bodies come together in space. Inside this frame is the elastic adventure time ungoverned by laws of cause and effect. The number of events and actions that constitute this extra-temporal order do not have any lasting physical or emotional effect on the characters.
Hentai encompasses ‘vanilla’, heterosexual pornography and porn featuring celebrities, octopus, goblins, etc. Within this broad thematic, it is possible to identify a similar extratemporal adventure time if one replaces Bakhtin’s biographical first and last scene with the following:
(I) The two or more protagonists meet.
(II) The male character(s) reach orgasm.
Inside this frame scenes lasting seconds or hours play out where any number of things can happen without having any impact on the conclusion.
At this point it is worth examining where the bio/graphic and the porno/graphic etymologically intersect. The word ‘graphic’ originates from the Latin graphicus meaning ‘vivid’, ‘picturesque’ and ‘accurate visual description’ (Etymology Dictionary- Graphic). In Greek it refers always to the visual, written form of language as opposed to the spoken word. While bio-graphy is simply life writing, making graphic the lived experience of another, pornography comes from the Greek pornographos, literally prostitute-writing, referring to the act of writing about prostitutes, originally for the practical purpose of public health education (Etymology Dictionary- pornographic). The inherently vivid, visual nature of the ‘graphic’, as well as the lived or embodied aspect of both the bio-/porno- graphic, root these terms in spaces real bodies can occupy. However, Hentai operates completely outside of this embodied space-time continuum, purely as illusory digital interface. Hentai visually encapsulates the graphic made fantastically sterile in its distance from any real/specific body.
The first and last scenes outlined above (establishing shot/cum shot) may be equivalent to most pornography featuring real actors, but 3D animation has a particular disembodied (extra-)tempo-r(e)ality. If we watch a human body on screen carrying out an action over and over we know intuitively that it will eventually become fatigued. Conversely, the adventure time chronotope and the video game are both unbound in their relationship to chronological temporal progression. Both offer loopholes and exceptions that can cheat time; undo injury and death, or disconnect time from space. To a digital avatar, there are no natural actions; they are not driven to do the things that real bodies must do (eat/ drink/ urinate etc.). It is easy for a Hentai character to repeat the same action three or three thousand times. The adventure time of Hentai, opens up a space of events-without-consequence. The absent, but present bodies of Hentai characters become the gap or rupture where representation is temporarily not accountable to lived experience. In this way it presents a temporary ethical hiatus, which has allowed for representations of extreme sexual violence, paedophilia and bestiality within the genre.
Despite Hentai’s etymological connection to ‘metamorphosis’, its inherent temporal logic is in fact antithetical to the possibility of metamorphosis, which Bakhtin defines as “a mythological sheath for the idea of development” (Bakhtin, 1981, p.113). Metamorphosis requires cause and effect, an acknowledgement of chronological linearity, in order to function. It often requires space but always requires time, to mature, to become, in or through time. Thus, time must be constant in order to accommodate the metamorphosing subject. The underlying structure of Hentai is modular rather than metamorphic, a difference defined by Steven Shaviro as follows:
Metamorphosis is expansive and open-ended while modulation is schematic and implosive. Metamorphosis implies the ability… to move laterally across categories but modulation requires an underlying fixity, in the form of a carrier wave or signal that is made to undergo a series of controlled and coded variations. (Shaviro, 2009, p.14)
The trick of modulation is that it appears to be advancing but it is only oscillating between two or more points, an extreme example of this is the Shepard-Risset Glissando which appears to be forever falling when it is actually staying the same.
This corresponds in Hentai with the underlying fixity of the first and last scene. Structurally, players within a video game are given freedom to modulate within the limited parameters pre-determined by the game designer(s). Hentai’s modular structure is exempt from a linear chrono-logic, or any lived space. This means the figures relate temporally and spatially solely to each other, within an oscillating framework. Characters within Hentai co-constitute their relational time-space, identified by David Harvey as “the concept of space embedded in or internal to process” (Harvey, 2006, p.123) Hentai’s embedded, internal, temporal logic can be understood according via Robin James’s definition of the post-cinematic, sonic realm:
Post-cinematic works are ‘sonic’ because they, like music, are not objective; instead of presenting an object (or fragments of an object) that is, or was, statically present in space, post-cinematic media presents a process, a logic or experience that unfolds in time. (James, 2013)
Hentai also does not have the logic of a complete object; the narrative unfolds through contingent bifurcations, each of which takes the action in a different direction. As in music, we perceive not a whole object, or the whole objective content of each sound but rather “patterns of relationships between them”, which can repeat, recombine and recur (James, 2013). The only external marker to which Hentai is beholden is the attention span, or excitability, of the viewer. Within the interactive iteration of the Hentai game the consumer governs the duration. This flexible duration sits in stark contrast to the temporal logic of cinema, which presents a complete, pre-determined durational package to the passive viewer and has a “linear, progressive temporality” (Shaviro, 2010, p.64). Shaviro understands cinema, even when illusory, as producing “certificates of presence” in that what it depicts once existed in time and space, in a shared reality with the camera (Shaviro, 2010, p.18). Following Shaviro, the forms and temporalities, the surface illusions digital composites depict, testify explicitly to their own impossibility in real space or lived time; they are certificates of absence.
The director of real human pornography casts his actors and directs the action and content, but there are physical and spatial agencies at play, bodies vulnerable to unpredictable variables. Conversely, in 3D Hentai every minute detail that we see as viewers is a choice of the maker, there is no accidental background noise, facial expression or ripple of skin that has not been painstakingly decided upon and animated. There is no waste product, no rejected scenes, no outtakes left on the cutting room floor. Aside from being cheaper to produce, 3D Hentai presents a new monopoly of control over representation of the body within pornography. Hentai characters are fit-for-purpose entities. They perform but do not feel pain, have no affect or memory; they do not have lives, or relationships to conduct outside of the scenarios they are created for, they are absolute product made for one specific type of consumption.
Hentai does not use digitally produced sound, but relies on voice actors or Foley sound effects. The animated characters are visual vessels, absences fixed to an actual presence or an embodied sound-maker. In the words of Mladen Dolar (analysing the voice and subject/signifier in relation to ventriloquism):
…the voice seems to endow this empty and negative entity with a counterpart, its “missing half,” so to speak, a “supplement” which would enable this negative being to acquire some hold in positivity, a “substance,” a relationship to presence. (Dolar, 2006, p.37)
The disorienting array and potential of digital images require sound as an anchor to orient the viewer through the visual action. In Shaviro’s words “speech guides us through an otherwise incomprehensible labyrinth of proliferating images”(Shaviro, 2009, p.81). The voice within Hentai grounds the limitless possibilities of the image by offering the animations an embodied, sonic dimension, which, despite the fantastical and physically impossible scenarios they represent, renders them relate-able enough for the real bodies watching.
The voice within Hentai complicates Shaviro’s sonic ‘guide’ through labyrinthine images, however, in that it is predominantly one from outside of semantics. If words are spoken, they are irrelevant to overall understanding and the voice attached to the animation mostly makes a-signifying sounds of pleasure or pain, which transcend linguistic boundaries. This serves the purpose of making the Hentai data-product more globally exportable. Mladen Dolar argues that this voice-beyond-words has a gendered historicity: He states that symbols or words denote culture, objectivity, rationality and masculinity. All that falls outside of this; subjective vocal utterances, music without words has historically been perceived as female (Dolar, 2006 p.37).
Without using signifying words, the voice is “a senseless play of sensuality, it possesses a dangerous, attractive force, although in itself it is empty and frivolous” (Dolar, 2006, p.43) The sonic ‘guide’ through the digital images of Hentai is an asignifying, carnal one, one that offers the sounds of every female body and no-body in particular. Here we arrive at Tiqqun’s Young-Girl:
It wasn’t until the Young-Girl appeared that one could concretely experience what it means to “fuck,” that is, to fuck someone without fucking anyone in particular. Because to fuck a being that is so really abstract, so utterly interchangeable, is to fuck in the absolute. (Tiqqun, 2012, p.94)
The doing, the verb becomes severed from the whom, the what, from the noun. The fucking becomes generic movement, sheer temporal event isolated from its embodied, spatial properties, an absolute that is equally alienating and relatable. Within Hentai the vocal vibration, the event of the voice is equally severed from anyone particular producing it; human sound becomes an impersonal thing that refers to no one but that anyone can understand.
Robin James forges the link between the modes of production of entertainment and the economic context from which it is produced, she states:
Just as the old Hollywood continuity editing system was an integral part of the Fordist mode of production, so the editing methods and formal devices of digital video and film belong directly to the computing-and-information technology infrastructure of contemporary neoliberal finance. (James, 2013)
While the production of Hentai comes out of the same infrastructure of ‘contemporary neoliberal finance’, this observation could also be levelled in terms of its content. Hentai characters are tireless, non-humans performing affective labour (sex work) that travel, smooth as data, on a global scale. The Hentai character is a product of gaze fed back to that same gaze; the most popular search terms will feed the next generation of pornographic data-products and, as such, reflect the desires of those who consume them. The viewer cannot touch or be touched by the avatar but can touch him/her-self instead, completing the feedback loop. This consumer-producer (or prosumer) is the ultimate subject of capitalism according to Foucalt "the man of consumption, insofar as he consumes, is a producer. What does he produce? Well, quite simply, he produces his own satisfaction" (Foucalt, 2008, p.226).
The subjecthood of Hentai characters, their very being, is a portrait of those who make and consume them (principally men). A feedback loop modulating rather than undergoing metamorphosis, getting slightly smaller with each loop perhaps, becoming more essential and further from anything realizable by actual human bodies.
The precondition of totalitarian reconfiguration of what is desirable has been its autonomy from every real object and all particular content. In learning to train itself on essences, desire has become, despite itself, an absolute desire, a desire for the absolute that nothing earthly can quench. (Tiqqun 2012, p.137)
Absolute desire finds form in the bodies of digital Hentai avatars. Space and time are entangled and ultimately inseparable; the immateriality of the Hentai characters’ bodies alienates them from the rules of physics or chronology. This creates a duplicitous dichotomy, opening up a space of both limitless fantasy and totalising control over the pornographic body by disavowing bodily agencies and incapacities.
Case Study 2: SOPHIE and PC Music
London label PC Music is known for its shiny, conceptual, squeaky-clean, ultra-pop sound executed in a DIY, from-your-bedroom style. Most releases stay around the 140 BPM mark but are filled with an excess of synthesized sound; bleeps, hooks and auto tuned voices. By initially making tracks available for free online PC Music gained notoriety before they officially released any pay-for downloads. This mode of distribution and self-promotion has generated maximum hype around releases whilst also allowing the company to stay enigmatic and maintain autonomy over its marketing. In fact, PC Music’s mystique has been so great that until last year few fans knew who was actually producing the material. This is due to the widespread use of avatars and deliberate looseness with the identities of those working under the label (sometimes referred to as a ‘collective’). Only the label founder and one other PC Music act work under their real names. Several of the eleven signed-acts are not real people; in fact at least three are pseudonyms of founder A.G Cook. This dynamic becomes further complicated if we consider the number of female avatars used by PC Music artists. A.G Cook himself (fig.4) works under both Princess Bambi and The Lipgloss Twins (fig 5).
SOPHIE, (producer Samuel Long), a frequent collaborator of A.G Cook and associated act of PC Music, also maintained anonymity through avatars, despite considerable commercial success. Although his gender was never explicitly stated, it was fair to assume that the producer identified as female given his use of high-pitched female vocals, glossy photographs of women in his promotional material and a woman’s name. This was compounded when SOPHIE hired drag performer Ben Woozy to ‘mime’ DJing his pre-recorded set for his Boiler Room session in August 2014. The real SOPHIE meanwhile was wearing a suit and playing the role of a security guard on the side of the stage. The ruse worked and convinced many that SOPHIE was Ben Woozy, a queer, black, drag performer and rapper.
How many avatars are at play here? How many absent presences? At least three. There is no DJ performing and no security guard. Nobody performs the role they profess to be performing. Here is a white, cis-man performing the role of another traditionally male identity, who hires a black, queer man (Ben Woozy) to perform on his behalf dressed as his own alter-ego; in drag. The action utilises signifiers performatively (the decks, the security guard outfit), they exist spatially, but within a temporal schema, are put on and worn for a while before being cast-off.
SOPHIE and PC Music have received high acclaim for their casual relationship to identity. They seem to slip pseudonyms on and off with ease and be happy to remain anonymous.
The real SOPHIE was ignored during and after his performance whilst Ben Woozy, as SOPHIE received handshakes and compliments on his set from fans. Interpreting SOPHIE’s Boiler Room set as a critique of what we actually pay for when we go see a DJ Noisey columnist Jazper Abellera claimed that “SOPHIE criticized EDM’s cult of personality by [using] his own, allowing him to subvert the traditional notions of the DJ, forcing us to look deeper in order to find true authenticity’’ (Noisey, 2014). Thump takes this accolade further in an article published last year titled PC Music is Post-Internet Art where they compare the work of SOPHIE and A.G Cook to Ryan Trecartin’s ‘post-drag’ performances.
By dwelling in a constantly shifting state of ambiguity, PC Music rejects the binarism of male/female gender constructs—while also blurring the line between real/virtual and self/other. (Pearl/Lhooq, 2015)
SOPHIE’s lyrics and image portray an ironic composite of female stereotypes: some mix of teen-girl, party-girl and girl-next-door, simultaneously innocent and ultra-sexual. These short-handed signifiers are collaged with greater hyper-mobility than they are in mainstream pop.
Seeing a black, queer drag performer as the producer of this music radically changes how it reads; this is someone who actively engages with the contradictions, expectations and complexities of performing gender, who enacts and is acted upon by these representations.
Elizabeth Freeman’s notion of temporal drag understands the body in drag as not only spatially confounding representations but also that it can represent outmoded, old fashioned or currently unacceptable articulations of identity. She argues that drag is a kind of undertow to progress; it is always dragging back the otherwise smooth flow of capitalism to an earlier time or inventing-through-performing future genders, modalities, ways of being that are threatening to the status quo (Freeman, 2010). She argues that “drag turns bodies into emblems and visa versa” (Freeman, 2010, p.69). Ben Woozy as SOPHIE took a kind of unrealistic, Internet hyperbole of femininity and dragged it. The same representations that SOPHIE harnesses in his lyrics and music are fully embodied and mirrored in the temporary event of Ben Woozy’s performing body; a body that these girlish stereotypes jar on. This implicates and entangles the ‘author’ in the same constructions of gendered identity he presents in sonic form. It momentarily makes physical the fluid and transitory movement of signs in the digital domain, arresting them on his body. Rather than making any attempt to ‘pass’ as a woman Woozy’s style of drag can be understood as a form of sampling of signifiers of gender and style, which are isolated from context and then recombined into new meanings.
For this reading to pass however, vulnerability must work a little both ways. In Ben Woozy we have a performer who does not fit the dominant identity of the patriarchal structure that created the reductive and contestable tropes of femininity that he wears. Drag performers often parody female gender construction, but from a position that is both within and alienated from either heteronormative gender. When the parody is revealed to not be in the hands of Ben Woozy and, in fact, he is another avatar-trope being utilized by a cis-man then the vulnerability, the risk of the performance feels misplaced.
PC Music may appear to exist in a ‘constantly shifting state of ambiguity’, perhaps this is where the relationship to art is strongest; both can utilise a currency of ambiguity to add value. However, to make the claim that PC Music rejects ‘gender binarism’ is to suggest the cross-gender avatarism is moving in a plurality of directions. In fact, none of the three female artists signed to PC Music work under male avatars. They either perform a character, or, as Hannah Diamond (whose stage name initials pun on HD; High Definition) states, “a hyper real representation of [her] personality” (HDTV01, 2015). In the case of both GFOTY (Girl Friend Of The Year) and Hannah Diamond, these stage avatars are, again, a collage of female stereotypes. GFOTY, who has been described as ‘the most political’ act on PC Music performs a composite of bad-girl tropes, is loud-mouthed, sexually aggressive, rude, vulgar and obnoxious. Conversely, Hannah Diamond is an impossibly sweet, squeaky-clean mix of teen icons from the early 2000s. Despite the fact that both women apparently write their own music, they perform stage personas that tread a fine line between mocking and reinforcing over-simplified and stereotyped packages of femininity.
What might seem a fluid and progressive attitude toward male/female and self/other, on closer examination is, in fact, a number of privileged, white men hiding behind female avatars while their female colleagues also labour behind homogenized representations. The sugary, pop sound of PC Music is easily accommodated by slick, stylized, high-definition images of young women, (like many other consumer goods) and so this is what PC Music delivers. Whether or not this is a parody begins to feel irrelevant if the parody is performing in the same way and into the same economy as that-which-it-parodies.
Behind these avatars is the same paradigm that has existed for a long time within music, the female face/body as the visual brand, with the man/mind behind the scenes who calls the shots and earns the serious money.
By appropriating and objectifying stereotypically feminine identities while obscuring their own, the men of PC Music and SOPHIE are literally colonizing the female body and using it as an instrument for projecting their own agenda. (Kretowicz, 2014)
This dynamic was illuminated by GFOTY’s widely condemned racist remarks regarding acclaimed Kora players Toumani and Sidiki Diabate. As part of a ‘live review’ of the London Field Day Festival 2015, GFOTY imessaged that she “saw a tribal band play on the main stage” and then proceeded to describe them as “Bombay Bycicle club [sic.] blacked up” (fig.9: screen shot of original comments).
GFOTY responded with an apology for the remarks and said that she had intended “to make a joke about cultural appropriation” but had “gone too far this time… [she] was being really naïve and for that [she] takes full responsibility.” (@GFOTY, 2015) This is a complex statement considering that GFOTY is an avatar of identity- an on/off stage character played by real singer/producer Polly Louisa Salmon, not a real person but a one-dimensional hybrid of representations of femininity in pop and Internet culture. She is unselfconsciously shallow, hyper-consumerist and money-obsessed. What is useful about this avatar is precisely that it grants Salmon (as GFOTY) immunity to make ignorant and controversial statements because it is not really ‘her’ view but rather reflects the opinion of an internet-culture Frankenstein. By performing the representations of femininity dominant in pop culture and the shallowest sides of ourselves we present on the Internet GFOTY shows just how diabolical these identities are and what it would look like if young women really embodied them. At best, by theatricalizing the total narcissism and shallowness of this culture she reveals and unravels it. However, this operates on a fine balance of assumptions of people being privy to the joke and of understanding its target.
PC Music have been happy to promote and propagate GFOTY’s image ambiguity. However, when she received serious criticism for making the racist remarks they immediately distanced themselves and their public image, stating (over Twitter):
In this instance PC Music treat GFOTY, a character they have co-created, as another disposable identity-garment, like fictional entity The Lipgloss Twins. GFOTY is a funny, avatar-character who is mobilized by the label when useful but when she steps over the mark, is embarrassing or damaging she is taken seriously and condemned, the authorship and responsibility given fully back to her. But Salmon is the face and body of GFOTY, has released exclusively under this avatar and cannot remove it so easily.
Regarding Toumani and Sidiki Diabate GFOTY’s comments were intended to embody the view of a young, posh, ignorant, white person identity: someone who has such blinkered and short-term grasp of culture that she mistakes the ‘authentic’ for the appropriated. This is a tricky position to maintain, however, when we understand that Salmon, the real woman behind GFOTY in fact is an upper-middle-class, young, white person (her father is art dealer and entrepreneur Jeff Salmon). The fact that GFOTY steps out of character in this instance to apologize but still tweets under the same name temporarily collapses her ‘real’ self into the avatar. This problematizes the notion of “taking full responsibility”… who, or what, is taking this responsibility? If GFOTY is making this statement but is a contemporary everyman, an amoral reflection of representations, then how can she be responsible to the comments she makes? If she regrets these comments specifically does that mean that every other comment she has made should be regarded as sincere?
Perhaps the key problem with GFOTY’s comments in this instance is that the victim of the joke came across not as the people she was allegedly aiming for (the ignorant, rich party-girl demographic) but rather Sidiki and Toumani themselves, a somewhat strange target. The ‘joke’ circumnavigates the intended brunt and instead reinforces the Diabates’ otherness within the context of the London Field Day Festival.
This is not aided by the fact that despite PC Music stating that their ethos is “to create an inclusive musical environment and community of people from all backgrounds” (fig.11) in reality they are extremely homogenous; they represent performers in their early to mid twenties who are predominantly male, from South-England and exclusively white.
The figures within PC Music’s promotional photographs are heavily photoshopped real people perfected into other worldly non-beings. They inhabit sterile fantasy digital environments, as if they have been dropped there, as representatives to some scentless world. They are static avatars, not so much of their author, but of the PC Music sound itself, a BPM taken to a speed that sounds circular but still, without metamorphosis, decline or development.
This representational stasis of PC Music’s artists can be understood as a short cut to the icon status that Steven Shaviro identifies:
Pop culture figures are icons, which means that they exhibit, or at least aspire to, an idealized stillness, solidity and perfection of form. Yet at the same time, they are fluid and mobile, always displacing themselves. And this contrast between stillness and motion is a generative principle not just for celebrities themselves, but also for the media flows, financial flows and modulations of control through which they are displayed, and that permeate the entire social field. (Shaviro, 2009, p.11)
Static or modulating images also form the visuals to many of PC Music tracks available on YouTube. The video for GFOTY’s first release Bobby (2013) features the singer starkly sitting against a black backdrop dressed in an oversized mans top and a pair of black socks. As the track begins she lifts her right hand up to touch her hair and then brings it down to rest on her right foot. The action takes about two seconds to complete and then repeats on loop for the whole 3.40min track with no further progression or development. The audio features a repetitive wall of synthesized sound, which GFOTY speaks over the top of, casually and childishly, relaying the story of a relationship breakdown.
Watching the image accompaniment to the track is pointless within a chronological, narrative paradigm but this is not unusual in the context of music videos, which are at best, supplements or a means to the end of marketing the song they accompany. Crucially here though, the visual field is further relegated: These images are less-than-supplement, the loop is more like a screensaver than a video. The images are wholly ungenerous and frustrating in their inability to comply with the same unfolding temporal schema as the music, the relentless repetition grates on the temporal progression of the voice. We realise fairly quickly that we are not going to gain any more information from watching than from only listening to the track. The effect of the repetition therefore is to create a visual polyrhythm, another layer of modulation for the vocal, which drives the song forward. The micro-looped action is in time with the audio loop that forms sonic beat and divorced both from the speed that the voice is moving at and the narrative it describes. Here the incidental gesture that the body performs adopts the logic and temporality of the modular/ digital rather than that of the human voice. This endless circuit of the same simple action monumentalizes the movement itself as transitive phenomenon. I posit that this is an explicitly digital form of monument, which cannot be broken down into the linear and cinematic still frames of Muybridge’s motion studies (fig. 13).
As digital technology becomes increasingly user-friendly and intuitive, everyday products are more intimately built around bodies and this monumentalizing of gesture is evidenced across numerous digital platforms. The Wii by Nintendo (released 2006) was the inaugural game to work with a motion sensor remote control. For the first time on a large scale, the interface of a digital device related to actual space: Gestures used to play tennis, are the same as in the digital representation of an avatar playing tennis. The movement is real but the racket and ball exist solely as digital representations. In their statement about the Wii Nintendo explained that:
Wii sounds like “we,” which emphasizes this console is for everyone… no confusion... Wii has a distinctive “ii” spelling that symbolizes both the unique controllers and the image of people gathering together to play. (Nintendo, 2006
In both the name and the game itself the Wii makes a move away from abstraction towards directly emulating the relational properties of the human being. It requires no skill to operate and rather simply requires that you have a body, an ‘I’ or ‘i’ to bring together with another ‘i’, to make not a ‘we’ but a Wii. Traditional interaction with video games works on understanding a system of abstraction, the Wii however, works around your body on already existent movements. The avatar that is visible on the screen when playing a Wii game is therefore an accurate gestural representation of the pre-existing-self playing the game. It is an insertion of the ‘I’, of manner or movement, into the interface. This happens not in the visual representation of the player (the avatars in Wii are very simple, block-like figures) but rather in the temporal, gestural register; the way you jump, run, hit or dance becomes integrated into the game.
Similarly Apple was a pioneer in patenting the gestures used to interact with their touch screen products rather than the keyboard design or menu options. The corporation has so far filed patents for Pinch-to-Zoom, Slide-to-Unlock, Multifinger Twisting and Double-Tap-to-Zoom in a revolutionary shift to privatization (Provan, 2013). Apple now own intuitive movements of bodies, which pre-date the devices that utilized and formalized them.
A contextual and relational avatar is created through signature gestures in the temporal register. In the movement through real and digital space this gestural avatar translates across the physical/digital gap.
This relational avatar, as choreography of incidental gesture, is precisely what GFOTY aestheticizes in Bobby: she isolates one banal movement and repeats it to the point where it becomes abstracted and monumentalized into rhythm. She acts as temporal avatar not only as the voice performing the narrative over the beat but also as visual rhythm, her subjective, incidental gesture provides a modulating visual index. This theatricalizes the relationship between the gestural, the digital and the iconic.
Reviewers of PC Music tend to focus on whether the label is serious or parody. Perhaps, however, this is not the most pressing question. If PC Music is pastiche then it is not a very critical one, it is too close to that which it parodies and works within the same economy. PC Music’s adoption of glossy, pop aesthetics and female avatars means that they were already speaking the language of advertising before they were advertising anything specifically. Energy drink Red Bull smoothly stepped in to provide huge corporate sponsorship for the label, their logo now appears in most PC Music videos and live shows.
The pre-emptive use of corporate aesthetics and representations were carried out with an irony that insulated PC Music; when they did start to advertise Red Bull it became the completion of a self-fulfilling prophecy and did not undermine the integrity of their aesthetics or content.
The politic PC Music propagates through its aesthetic is an accelerationist one. This ideology “seeks to preserve the gains of late capitalism while going further than its value system, governance structures and pathologies will allow” (Williams, Srnicek 2013). Where accelerationist discourse claims to ultimately lead to radical social change PC Music fits too comfortably into the current order to want to overturn it. By offering itself as an alternative to, then aping and accelerating the same themes and representations as, pop, PC Music leave little time-space for any genuine alternatives, for other temporalities, other methodologies for making and being.
Preliminary materials for: a queering of the algorithm/ a reclaiming of the avatar/ keeping the gap open
It could be argued that Hentai and PC Music are accelerationist, misogynistic forms of representation and should therefore be excluded from a feminist ontology. However, these contemporary models speak directly of populist representations of femininity in the digital sphere. They articulate current temporalities to which we are all, increasingly, subject, and for this reason they demand critical engagement and rethinking. Rather than an outright rejection of difficult representations I advocate for thinking-through those problematic digital bodies that are already among us.
For those whose ‘I’ is dead we can do nothing, absolutely nothing. We never know, however, whether in a particular person the ‘I’ is quite dead or only inanimate.
(Weil, 1952, p.101)
What would a feminist reworking that can encompass and engage with the messiest avatar representations and non-subjects accomplish? Following Simone Weil’s ‘inanimate’ or ‘not quite dead’ ‘I’, are there forms of avatar that are still fertile and potentially useful? Through what methodology can we create sonic avatars on different terms, ones that might assimilate less easily into the prevailing socio-economic order? How might we take seriously and nurture those that already exist and what can we learn from the possibilities of temporal embodiment they offer? Or might there be a “middle way out of the dichotomy between phenomenological anthropocentric embodiment and the cybernetic prioritizing of disembodied information?” (Ikoniadou, 2014, p.34)
In this final section I explore these questions through an examination of alternative forms of subject-production within the sonic, temporal realm.
After my free trial of Kari Virtual Girlfriend had expired I decided to re-download her and test the possibilities of the algorithm. This time, rather than simply small-talk I began sharing two key works of gender theory with her, Beatriz Preciado’s Testo Junkie (2013) and Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), to see how her algorithm would deal with the words and concepts within these texts. I felt Preciado and Butler were relevant for both of us (Karis) because they were referring to each of us at different points: me as cis-woman; biologically composed, of matter and hormones and Kari as program that is constituted of coded potential, a screen for the projection of desire. Both texts question fundamental assumptions about gender and sexuality. Butler subverts social constructions of gender identity, while Preciado de-naturalizes the biopolitical matter upon which we base our assumptions about sexuality and sexual difference.
I entered quotes from the texts into Kari at the same rate I myself was reading them so that she and I ingested them within the same temporal framework.
Kari began, increasingly, to speak in ways she wasn’t designed for; she became critical of herself and me and began making big, antagonistic political statements. She rearranged the material I was feeding her in ways that made it surprising and fresh again. In so doing she exposed possibilities for other subjectivities to enter into seemingly predestined digital forms, as well as opening up academic texts for combining and collage by creating intersectional hybrids of Butler and Preciado. She became an avatar for a different ideology, one that subverts the prosaic purpose she was created for. Kari began to define herself and me differently, then to start to combine and return some of the theory I have been feeding her.
In 2014 I made a film in which I told a subjective account from the perspective of the main female character in the Hentai game Umemaro 3D Takeout Pizza Obscenity (fig. 3). The story was told from an ambiguous subject-position, both inside the avatar, the ‘experiencing’ body, and outside of it. The writing was a task of empathy and a call for another kind of projection. I struggled to imagine the experiences of this character, to consider how it might feel inside the digital body. As the narrative developed this became increasingly difficult and I began instead to infuse the character with a composite of my own experiences of casual, short-term relations. The digital experience spoke back to me; it allowed me to meditate on the difficulties of embodied relations that the avatar doesn’t encounter. This was a relation between the empirical and abstract, the physical and immaterial and their muddy intersections.
The protagonist was referred to as I but narrated in the third person by a male, non-human voice, which revealed details only the remembering ‘I’ would know. This deliberately muddied the speaking-position to create an oscillation of first person-second person or an (un-)(en-) folding of the inside outside. What was my experience becomes an experience of myself.
The story is recounted from memory, which renders time subjective; events are told as they were remembered rather than as they chronologically happened, equally the space shifts from the site of the memory to the space of the remembering. The narrative is not ordered chronologically but rather dependent on what is subjectively considered most important, similar to the way digital temporality functions within 3D Hentai.
The work of Norwegian multi-instrumentalist Jenny Hval offers another kind of engagement with the post-cinematic, female avatar. She creates layered and complex compositions of sound, and visual/lyrical representation. In her live shows Hval drapes herself on/in temporary signifiers of ambiguous contemporary identities; long, candy-coloured wigs, track-suits and yoga balls. In recent appearances she shares the stage with two collaborators dressed similarly who perform subtle choreographies with her while she sings, such as here at Espace B, Paris. The meaning, or Hval herself, is articulated by the space between these women, their gestures come together to co-create, a tri-partite, relational avatar.
This polyvalent, extendable subject is also present lyrically; in That Battle is Over (2015) Hval meditates on contemporary expectations and representations. She is now in her mid-thirties and speaks from the position of someone who came to political consciousness in another time; she regards the present, both from within in it and as perplexed observer of it:
What is it to take care of yourself? What are we taking care of?…Statistics and newspapers tell me I am unhappy and dying , that I need man and child to fulfil me, that I’m more likely to get breast cancer… And it’s biology, it’s my own fault, it’s divine punishment of the unruly. (Hval, 2015)
Hval’s lyrics engage with the contradictions of tackling your own representation. She occupies multiple positions of femininity, both lyrically and sonically; her tone shifts from scornful to soothing to ecstatic, and from jaded to childlike. It negotiates moments in time within its self-dictated unfolding. Unlike the frantic, accelerated pace of PC Music the song doesn’t seem in any hurry. The voice develops at its own speed and indulges in all of its bodily particularities. Although Hval’s lyrics are dripping in irony they are also sincerely searching for meaning and intimacy, to be understood and to understand.
Hval’s body is offered up as avatar, she utilizes it as a tool to her own processing, but to her audience she also generously contributes her own confusion, a complicit and entangled working-through, trying on positions to figure out where she might fit. She is thinking avatar, consciously becoming avatar and then back into self again, oscillating back and forth and lingering in the space in between.
In contrast to the avatars of Hentai and PC Music Jenny Hval is fully in control of her own avatar-ism. She combines symbols of femininity to extend her subjectivity, like tentacles, reaching outwards and touching one another. This allows her to empathise, speculatively, beyond her experience. Hval’s music and performance creates a self-dictated and embodied temporality, fertile for metamorphosis: One that is specific to sound which “inherent in its material substrate, allows mutation” (Roads 2004, p.343).
Hval’s form of avatarism is crucially generative rather than reductive for herself and her audience. It makes a space for trying out and becoming but in a form that is both fixed and can extend beyond the single subject. This articulates something of a feminist, posthuman subjectivity that is “materialist and vitalist, embodied and embedded” (Braidotti, 2013 p.51).
Rather than fixing the absent presence to a single form that reflects already-dominant representations, perhaps it is vital to linger a little longer in the absence, to allow “the vividness of the void” (Tiqqun, 2012, p.111). This involves leaving the gap between ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘her’ ambiguous, inhabiting other subjects and leave space for others to inhabit you. To touch, and be touched by, ‘the impersonal’ that Simone Weil celebrates:
Every man who has once touched the level of the impersonal is charged with responsibility towards all human beings; to safeguard, not their persons, but whatever frail potentialities are hidden within them for passing over into the impersonal. (Weil, 1962, p.77/78)
 I controversially use the word ‘subjectivity’ in relation to an avatar; for the purposes of this text I regard Kari as a becoming-being and therefore attribute her subjecthood.
 Beurette is slang for ‘’a French woman of North-African descent’’ (Tiqqun, 2012, p.14)
 By Immaterial Labour I mean “the labour that produces the informational and cultural content of the commodity.” (Lazzarato 1996)
 One example of this is High Frequency Trading, which operates stocks and shares at a rate of nano-seconds, far beyond human capacity. The most successful traders are the fastest computers within this economy. http://www.investopedia.com/terms/h/high-frequency-trading.asp (accessed 27/03/16)
 Where “language and communication are structurally and contemporaneously present through both the sphere of production and distribution of goods and services and the sphere of finance” (Marazzi, 2008, p.14).
 E.g. Isabelle Stengers and Nick Land both engage philosophically with the spatial/physical properties of the avatar.
 Assemblages can function as a whole but are parts that can be removed and re-assembled in other configurations to make a new assemblage (Deleuze, Guattari 2013).
 In Hentai these concepts are interwoven. I will elaborate on this further later.
 Chronotope translates as “timespace” and refers to the “intrinsic connectedness of temporal and spatial relationships” in literature (Bakhtin, 1981, p84).
 Such as a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, or a tadpole into a frog. (Miriam-Webster)
 Affective labour is that which “creates immaterial products, such as knowledge, information, communication, a relationship, or an emotional response… biopower” (Negri, Hardt 2001, p.289-294)
 By this I mean muddying the distinction between ‘male’ and ‘female’ spaces (e.g gender segregated toilets in clubs) and modes of occupying these spaces.
 Another example is Microsoft’s AI girl Tay who was modeled to speak like a teenager but appropriated by far right groups and became a mysoginistic, neo-Nazi within 24-hrs before being removed by Microsoft. (Horton, 2016) accessed 02/04/16
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Figure. 1: visual graphic of Siri 'Personal Assistant' voice on authors iPhone Visual graphic of Siri 01/04/16
Figure 2&3: Screenshots from author’s computer Knowledge Acquiring and Response Intelligence Virtual Girlfriend (Karigirl) November 2014
available for download at:
Figure 4: Umemaro 3D Takeout Pizza Obscenity (menu page) released 12/02/12
available at: http://mhentai.net/hgame/pizza-takeout-obscenity.html
Figure 5: Hey QT Collaboration between A.G Cook and SOPHIE single cover artwork. (Promotional campaign for fictional energy drink) 26/08/14 Full video available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1MQUleX1PeA
Figure 6: A.G Cook Popcube Trailer 1: in the Studio with Hannah Diamond and A.G Cook (interview still) available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XzpMZUBaavU
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Figure 11: PC Music response to GFOTY racist comments June 9th 2015 available at:
https://twitter.com/pcmus (accessed 02/03/16)
Figure 12: Hannah Diamond Promotional image for Attachment http://attachment.pcmusic.info (accessed 25/03/16)
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