The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

November 12, 2008

[ The following - rewritten - text was assembled from material used for
the Intimacy presentation a while ago; it's fairly informal, but to some
extent describes the relation of bodies, and my avatars in particular, to
virtual worlds / Second Life. ]

Notations towards Intimacy ( presented by the avatar Alan Dojoji in Second
Life )

I'm interested in the relationship between consciousness and formal systems.

Our relationship to formal systems is related to how we make sense of the
world. To make sense of the world we have to consider our bodies, our
selves. It's clear for example that a 'healthy body' sees the world
differently than a sick one. And that a depressed mind senses a different
world than, say, an optimist would. We're further driven by desires; even
the development or discovery of a formal system is dependent upon our
wanting to develop or discover such. Desires are like icebergs - their
ostensible content might be the peak above the sea, but beneath the surface
lies darker matter, abject matter.

And it seems to me that working with avatars, which can be as much a
projection of our 'selving' as our own bodies - both work with images,
projections and introjections - both work with visual perception to a great
extent, locating ourselves visually in a world and both work with forgetting
- that is forgetting the body - when I speak in a conversation I'm ignoring
my own hmmm... way of arranging my limbs, etc.; I'm "just talking" and
listening So that occurs in and across these realms - our relationship to
formal systems is related to how we make sense of the world. We use systems,
gestural systems, autonomic systems, conscious and preconscious systems,
etc., to make sense of things; if we can't make sense, we begin to feel
stress, anxiety and this can further lead to one or another form of
collapse, perhaps catatonia.

To make sense of the world we have to consider our bodies, our selves. It's
clear for example that a 'healthy body' sees the world differently than a
sick one.

This is important - most philosophy or thinking of any sort presupposes a
healthy body however that's defined, which may be very different from one
culture to another and may not in fact 'record' or describe the world well
at all For example, that a depressed mind senses a different world than,
say, an optimist would. In fact one might argue that depression is a "truer"
way of seeing the world than a more rational 'surface' one We're further
driven by desires; even the development or discovery of a formal system is
dependent upon our wanting to develop or discover such. Desire seems to
underpin everything, and of course 'desire' itself is a word up for grabs It
seems to have components of abjection, sexuality, instinct, survival skills

I keep hearing the term but not much of a deep description or phenomen-
ology. Desires are like icebergs - their ostensible content might be the
peak above the sea, but beneath the surface lies darker matter, abject
matter. By "abject" I mean matter that is partly of us, constituted by us,
and partly debris - This is where the noise or dirt of the world is
described. It's this matter that I'm interested in, the abject or obscenity
that makes us human, even beyond the guise or presentation of language. In
some senses language is a surface phenomenon. In some senses what lies
beneath is the "true world" within the guise of the civil, or the guise of
etiquette or the guise of protocol

Even online, shape-riding on this level is very different than someone
hacking the machine at a lower level. Where things are being bent in secret,
hidden, one can almost say that's the tantric level which must be imagined
or can be imagined and then discarded after having been devoured or eaten.

Now to the virtual - bear with me, this is going somewhere. The virtual is
everywhere, the virtual is symbolic, inscription, an index of our
relationship with the real. Our bodies are as virtual as anything online;
we're a mess of codes and protocols, languages, drives, instincts,
communications, cries and warnings. Recently language has been related to
gesture, which brings it closer to the body. There's nothing about us that
isn't caressed by language, that isn't languaging. There's nothing about us
that isn't read or inscribed; the real itself is an inscription, as far as
we're concerned. Of course here's a contradiction, language and dirt in
tandem or one against another - Etiquette above the surface of the Victor-
ian table, playing footsies down below So I model the ostensible carapace,
the outer layers of the human and human behavior, the layers in space,
transforming through time, morphing, dividing in both conceivable and
inconceivable patterns. By "carapace" I mean the prims that constitute the
avatar - what I call "sheaves" since they reference laminated things, bent
things themselves

I'm composed of sheaves. I'm a sheave-girl. If you get close enough, if you
set your camera in me, there's nothing there nothing at all, empty space,
and you see the sheaves as thin slivers from within There aren't any organs
of course. So what we're working with here is a kind of ORGANISM FROM
OUTSIDE, which is where the carapace comes in. It looks, I look "real" in a
sense, in a way related to the external world, but within there's nothing
but emptiness.

Once Ben Hecht was asked to describe Hollywood and said it's a place where
you scratch away the tinsel to get the real tinsel underneath. So here you
scratch away a prim or two. And things are emptied, there aren't organs,
nothing making the thing GO from the inside-out It's topology - organisms
outside the screen work from the inside, they're busy containing themselves
which is how the auto-immune system works - but within the screen (so to
speak) the protocols are outside, they're for example here in Linden Labs,
not to mention thousands of servers and routers worldwide that bring you
this stuff on your home or other machines.

So when I'm modeling, I'm aware that what I'm doing is a kind of out-of-
organic-body projection I'm from space and maybe one gender into another.
Although projecting smears these categories, so that I'm not sure where I am
half the time. All of this bears on modeling of course - which is what this
is about - modeling the human or other organic or inorganic natural object
or process. Though this modeling, I hope to better understand what it means
to BE human, particularly in relation to all of that debris beneath the
surface, our obscene nature itself.

Why obscene? Because this nature is read, processed differently than cool
speech or conversation; this nature constructs readings and writings, and
for that matter communication beyond or preceding language - In other words
the "obscene" is processed differently than ordinary language just as sex in
netsex or SLSex or any other sex, even sexual communication through language
and gesture in SL, is processed differently, neurologically than "ordinary"
language. Stephen Pinker talks about obscenity as taking different pathways
in the brain and producing intense reactions no matter what the "conscious"
mind wants to do or think. The first thing that appears is a negative
emotion, fear, etc. in relation to obscenity It's a different kind of
language, a SOMATIC language, tied differently to the body. Anyway this
nature constructs, let's say, states of affairs that, in terms of organism,
might be considered PRIMORDIAL, uncomfortable, construing presence itself,
desire, an awakening in the world, fear, dis/ease - anything before the
world shuts down in relation to language, to the processing of language. So
that on one hand, again there's surface language, and on the other,
obscenity, and for me on the third, the construction of avatars or modeling.

I wonder if one couldn't say that one is always modeling oneself in the real
world as well? Just different tools. Now to get practical: I began by
thinking about the repertoire of human physical behaviors, what the body can
or cannot do; I used motion capture equipment to record and modify the
behaviors. The equipment installs behaviors into files, much as labanotation
filed away dance - it's a form of dance notation - much as film records

Now I use bvh - Bio Vision Hierarchy - files - to store the motion capture
information. These files indicates a LOT about motion and the way it's
recorded here. You have a root - the HIP - which is where the action is
grounded. Everything moves out from the hip. So after that, there are all
the body nodes which are set at an origin. In other words, one begins with a
root and a body posture, which forms the basis for the movement

Lower down in the file there are tens of thousands of numbers. These
represent the movements proper - what occurs from the original body stance.
You might also relate all of this to tantra or to roots in sutras and
tantras - a kind of originary stance, an empty one. Through modeling
programs and in Second Life, bvh files map avatar movements. If the avatar
generates particles, like smoke for example, s/he can even produce
"sky-writing"; as the bvh files control hir movement, the smoke follows
suit, writing the movement large, in the cosmos.

There is another kind of mapping of a bvh file, mapping the nodes of the
body into 3d space using Blender a free 3d modeling program (check out Using this it's possible to tie the body notes to objects like
spheres and cones.

So these files, which contained behaviors, were then used to reconstruct
such behaviors with mannequins, avatars, in two different kinds of spaces -
ones that were completely recorded, like film itself, and ones that were
live and in real time - so that a viewer might walk about an avatar behaving
in a particular way, in a particular live space. In other words, some stuff
is prerecorded, some is live performance. The sensors are connected to
motion capture equipment which in this case is attached to the body itself -
there are 18 sensors - so that a neck sensor for example would connect to
the neck, etc. The mapping is one-to-one, leg to leg, etc. What I've been
working with is 'breaking' the mapping down so that the sensors might be
randomly distributed - yes - on the body, or inverted on the body, or thrown
in a heap on the floor, or placed in a star pattern, or distributed among
more than one body, so that you get: behaviors which are INCONCEIVABLY
CODED, that is, created in such a way as to presence an impossible body -
which then becomes a distorted body, a body transformed by the pressure, for
example, of war, of torture, of incandescent sexuality - an impossible body.

The body is "inconceivable" because it's moving in ways a "real" organic
body can't - except perhaps under torture. or ecstatic modeling of one sort
or another, or hallucinatory modeling etc. (One might say in addition that
all bodies are inconceivable.)

For me what happened, the real obscenity of Abu Gharayb - which for a lot of
us in the US was a kind of shattering - is this distortion, this abject
torture, which threw our own national behavior in our faces. I want to
explore this further in SL where at least for the moment it's safe to do

But a body that, being impossible, also represents our desires in the world,
desires which, if they could, would take apart a real body, dissolve it in
the throes of passion. which roughly says the same thing... Again, on the
technique - The techniques are surgical, cutting and suturing - separating
and bringing together. The operations occur first in real life; when a
participant wears a motion capture harness, a number of sensors are aligned
with her body parts - left leg sensor on the left leg, neck sensor on the
neck, and so forth. We rearrange these sensors, splitting them among a
number of people, reorienting them; the body maps become distorted,
impossible. We ask the participants to move. We record the impossible
movements of a single body. The recording is in the form of a file which is
fed into one of three applications: a 3-D modeling application, where
abstract forms are mapped onto the recording, resulting in an 'abstract
performance' or 'performer' - a mannequin modeling application, where human
forms are mapped onto the recording, resulting in considerable distortion -
And a 'live' virtual space, where the behavior recordings are used in live
avatar performance. I'll demonstrate these in turn. I'll also demonstrate
various ways and results of scanning the body itself. Ok, so this is what
all of this is about, at least for me - relating thinking and consciousness
to formal systems, and using formal systems for modeling organisms,
particularly the human body - in a way hopefully that can tell us something
about the world.

We take so much for granted, I think, about our bodies, and this taking-
for-granted breaks down in obscenity, death, torture, sexuality, tantra,
etc. In other words, our lived-body is in a sense empty, and at the same
time is mind, is emptied universe, and at least within the world of
computation, computers, digital and analog modeling.

I'm trying to escape Second Life, go off the edge of the gamespace - but I
keep getting returned asymptotically to the space itself - This goes on and
on and on - on and on and on ...

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