Objects
Hanni Geiger

Cameron-James Wilson
2020
CGI / 3D computer graphic
THE DIIGITALS: "Shudu"
THE DIIGITALS, Courtesy of THE DIIGITALS

Beyond Cultural Distinction?

 

The following work analysis explores the question of whether digital technologies in the (post-)digital age have the potential to break down Western cultural hegemonies with regard to the categorization and political, social and economic discrimination of ethnic, social or sexual minorities. Based on the example of a computer-generated, dark-skinned model and against the backdrop of posthumanist theories, the increasing interweaving of man and technology will be conceived as a motor for the dissolution of the Western-determined systems of man – culture – nature. Meant by this is the fundamental abandonment of all categories, biases and dualisms, which would ultimately dismiss man himself and his exceptionalism and thus inevitably declare man-made categories such as ethnic or cultural identification obsolete. Nevertheless, AI (artificial intelligence) should not go unmentioned as another, different form of digital humanization that concerns less the external than the internal formability of digital images and conceptions of man. As a data-based product of large, Western-led companies and institutions, this special combination of man and machine tends to harbor the danger of perpetuating hegemonic principles of superiority. It will be critically examined in relation to digital graphics and animations in a brief outlook.

Hanni Geiger
Hanni Geiger

 

Shudu (2020), a dark-skinned mannequin based on Instagram and other social networks, is a CGI – a 3D computer graphic that, according to its creator Cameron-James Wilson (founder and CEO of the digital modelling agency THE DIIGITALS, https://www.thediigitals.com/), is considered the world's first digital supermodel. With currently more than 218,000 followers (@shudu.gram), she is one of the most booked models and has collaborations with major fashion companies such as Oscar de la Renta or the superstars Tyra Banks and Rihanna (Square, 2018). Yet the genesis of the mannequin and virtual influencer is anything but glamorous: after years as a photographer in the London fashion industry, Wilson retreats to his mother's garden shed in Weymouth, Dorset, and experiments with various design programs on a very cheap gaming computer (Jackson, 2018). In designing Shudu, he was primarily driven by a desire to work freely and “[…] focus on the art rather than the money” (Jackson, 2018). Shudu was intended to be a product of pure creativity, regardless of her later successful integration into the fashion industry (Jackson, 2018).

 

It takes a closer look to detect the artificiality from the model. Thanks to various digital image editing programs such as Marvelous Designer, CLO and Daz 3D, Wilson deliberately adds small flawed constructions to his very naturalistic-looking mannequin (Jackson, 2018; Square, 2018): scars, hairs, wrinkles and pores provide more liveliness, and thus also more “truthfulness”, if one were to argue in the Benjaminian sense with the aura of the unique or authentic. Basically, this is a completely contrary approach to high-end fashion photography, which classically aims to remove any physical imperfections from the human models until they mutate into doll-like, enraptured beings. This already shows through the external observation of the virtual model that „authenticity“ in the context of digital media and the outdated understanding of reality as distinct from virtuality must be rethought and oppositions in the technical, but also especially in the philosophical-social sense must be questioned.

 

In order to get closer to this „reality“ or the societal significance of the digital model, it is imperative to look at the controversial debates surrounding the black mannequin. As a white man, Wilson has more often had to face accusations of commercializing black culture, which is legal but equally questionable (Square, 2018). Under the rubric of “cultural appropriation”, “racial expropriation”, “racial capitalism” (Cedric J. Robinson) or “racist plagiarism” (Minh Ha T. Pham), the economic and social exploitation of inferior, marginalized cultures by the dominant white culture is understood as a neo-colonial approach, especially in the broad sector of industry. In this process, social as well as economic value is drawn from an ethnic identity, even generating a “commodity” from it, without thinking about the painful or unpleasant part or even giving minorities a share of the profits. Wilson's implementation of diversity and responsibility in the design process could, according to critics, be read as a clever marketing strategy – after all, “exoticized” phenotypes with very dark skin, high cheekbones and slender, tall stature are currently in vogue (Square, 2018). Particularly problematic in Shudu's design process appears Wilson's inspiration in the “Princess of South Africa Barbie doll”, a special edition Barbie launched in 2002 as one of the “Dolls of the World” collection (Khoabane, 2018). The digital avatar is said to have a similar origin and motivation: born out of the imagination of white companies and creatives to generate commercial success without knowing, considering or including the reality of people of color in the creation and sales process (Square, 2018).

 

For a holistic understanding of the figure, however, it is also important to analyze it beyond stereotypical argumentation and against the backdrop of its time, its creators and its consumers. As Generation Z and digital natives, the creators and users of virtual influencers are inevitably shaped by the technological changes of everyday life. Their thoughts and actions are primarily derived from the fascination with digital design, which increasingly merges the real and the virtual and makes physically, socially and culturally significant differentiations recede into the background. Wilson seems to use the technical qualities of the digital image, such as its mutability and ubiquity, to draw a picture of a decidedly plural, heterogeneous society in a sustainable way that is independent of time and place. Unlike the dys- and utopian visions of the future of human beings in classical fashion photography or in numerous digital drafts of human beings in art, the figure that exists only virtually seems to be the digital embodiment of a thoroughly real and, above all, present world of life characterized by diversity. With her obvious distancing from the white, male and Western-dominated political and economic mainstream, Shudu offers a template for breaking with the universalism of imperially knitted modernism via strategies of so-called inclusive marketing, which consciously considers diversity in the design process1.

 

The fact that the digital visualization of a virtual body that stands for diversity, such as Shudu’s, is particularly suitable for creating meanings around the human body, goes back to the postmodern discourse on the epistemology of the body and the knowledge attached to it. As Jay David Bolter recognized in the early 1990s, we as human beings know something by virtue of our bodily and social situations and not through a process of abstract and disinterested thought (Bolter, 1996, 85). Time, place and context thus determine the so-called specific “situated knowledge”, which can never be universal (Haraway, 1988). While in the 1990s transhumanist, biotechnological processes such as genetic engineering and cloning changed the body, in the (post-)digital age a new attention to the physical is evident, which is shifted to the realm of digital image production (Kröner, 2019, 72–73). What becomes evident is that despite the temporary disappearance of the human body through its dissolution into data and bits, it returns on screen in an altered and far more flexible form than the carnal. Posthumanism, following on from the tendencies of postmodernism, then makes use of digital image genesis and manipulation to base the epistemology of the body and its situatedness on the complete rejection of humanism as a Western-determined anthropocentric unity and superiority. These aspects could be relevant precisely to the reading of Shudu. The hierarchical scaling of people according to gender, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, ability or age, which is characteristic of humanism, is to be fundamentally abandoned with the rejection of the onto-epistemological superiority of the human species (Ferrando, 2008, 438–439). Human interconnection, the symbiotic relationship with the non-human (Haraway, 2008; Wolfe, 2010) and the recognition of so-called “more-than-human geographies”2 are at the forefront of these conceptions of the body (Ferrando, 2008, 438–439). Beyond bias, dualisms and hierarchies, a (re)figuration of the human beyond the human that recognizes nature as well as technology in unity with the human (Haraway, 1985/2016) manifests itself in Shudu as a visual representation of Donna Haraway's cyborg figure. Thus, it seems that it is precisely thanks to the digital-technological “liquidity“ of bodies, techniques and media that Haraway's vision has been fulfilled: with the help of their transnational, hybrid nature, (digital) cyborgs develop subversive strategies of “writing” as a powerful form of political struggle against oppression (Haraway, 1988; Schmitz, 2016). Such “writing” (and thus also speaking) negates the dream of a common language and seemingly homogeneous identity (Haraway, 1988; Schmitz, 2016). In this respect, Shudu, as just such a (digital) cyborg, offers the template for multiple localization –against organic holism, unambiguous classification, and antagonistic dualisms (Schmitz, 2016).3

 

This then also includes the fact that virtual figures such as Shudu can be designed, consumed, exploited, criticized and thus also shaped on a global level in a socially, gender and culturally largely independent way4 – unlike the real, expensive Barbie dolls. With more images of underrepresented people in global circulation, habitual ways of seeing and thinking can be permanently changed, which could open up opportunities for marginalized groups, also from an economic perspective (Slay, 2018). With his collaborations with numerous representatives of the Black community as well as the Black staff team of hair stylists, make-up artists as well as also real Black models he stages for certain brands alongside Shudu (Square, 2018; Wilson 2021), Wilson intervenes in the working world and the economics of fashion. By consciously involving people of color in the design, styling, marketing, sales and profits of his company, his digital embodiments of elastic otherness impact the direction of a society that seeks to transcend Western-determined barriers – from a variety of perspectives and fields of action.

In this way, the initially small companies that originated in a decidedly plural society seem to be using both simple and advanced digital technologies to draw artificial images of a reality that has always been characterized by diversity and particularisms. The fact that the artificial figure (certainly also for marketing reasons and due to the entertainment industry) enters into a targeted interweaving with the analogue world through the staging with real people in real settings, increases its credibility and thus the social, economic and political influence of digital (human) images. Thus, these creators, who have long since outgrown their infancy and cooperate with big brands, seem to initiate a new “decentralization” of society as well as of the internet because of their politically underpinned messages about inclusion, heterogeneity and equal opportunities – and regardless of their possibly commercially colored motivation. If the dissolution of boundaries between the real and the virtual, nature and the artificial, the human and the non-human (Barron, 2003), and consequently also between art and commerce, responsibility and economy, truth and lies, majority and minority, genres, techniques and media no longer seem socially or scientifically relevant, the question of categorizing people according to skin color or ethnicity will no longer have to arise.

 

At this point, however, AI should also be taken into account as another possibility of digital “humanization”, which, in contrast to the purely external formation already described, concerns an “inner”, algorithmically controlled shaping of the “human-machine”. The juxtaposition of both types of artificial human creation becomes relevant in the question of the generation of “truth”, which algorithmically controlled AI – unlike the digital images and animations of social diversity mentioned above – in no way answers with the claim to represent the social cross-section. As a neural network, AI processes data such as words and images statically, it calculates the probabilities and says what the majority says and thinks (Simanowski, 2021). However, if the production of AI-generated “human images” is mainly based on large, Western-managed companies and the knowledge infiltrated into the machine is fed from data sets of a white, male majority belonging to the global North – without being externally curated or supervised – every minority and individuality is silenced (Simanowski, 2021): data inclusion on the one hand thus means the exclusion of diverse social structures on the other. This would, as it were, preprogram the return of the “gatekeepers” whose disempowerment through the internet was previously welcomed so enthusiastically (Simanowski, 2021). In this case, it becomes clear that technological progress does not necessarily go hand in hand with social progress (Simanowski, 2021).

Finally, it should be noted that the technologically induced change in the production and perception of the digital (human) image challenges us to critically rethink traditional systems of order. The interweaving with digital technologies seems to make the physical body and its interior comprehensible as an open system intertwined with its environment, whereby entrenched biases and dualisms could be invalidated and a multi-perspective view of society, politics and the economy could unfold. Whether this change in perspective can lead to a more open, even tolerant society in the long term will become clear in connection with further steps in the development and the future horizon of impact of the digital image in art, society, politics and science.

 

 

Footnotes

 

1) Inclusive marketing aims to create a sense of community through “authentic” cultural values inherent in the customer base. In doing so, the personal perspective of the designers, including their prejudices, should be excluded and a design for the whole of society that is as broadly conceived as possible should be created (Saputo, 2019; Maier 2021).

2) The term goes back to the findings of new cultural geography, which is based on theories of human geography. The aim of its research is to question the contemporary relationship of people to the living beings and things in their environment. Among other things, this involves the correlation between the human and the non-human, nature and culture, people and technologies. See most recently the events at the University of Bern on “More-than-human geographies”: https://www.geography.unibe.ch/forschung/sozial__und_kulturgeographie/lehre/seminar_mehr_als_menschliche_geographien/index_ger.html.

3) Against the backdrop of Haraway's theories, this multiplicity of localizations could then be conceived with the complete abandonment of the concept of identity, if relations were created based on choice in conscious coalitions and political kinship via so-called “affinities”. See Haraway 1988; Schmitz, 2016.

4) It is important to remember that although digital images circulate worldwide, they are not equally accessible to everyone in the context of divergent cultures, political, religious and sexual restrictions. Participation in a digital “global culture” is therefore always accompanied by exclusions, interruptions and detours.

 

 

References

 

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