Self & Avatar : Embodiment in the age of corporate corporeal commodity

Adrienne Cassel
7 min readDec 26, 2020, image created and rendered by the artist

“If the plastic arts were put under psycho- analysis, the practice of embalming the dead might turn out to be a fundamental factor in their creation.”

- André Bazin

If we briefly look at the emergence of plastic arts we notice a shift away from survival depending on the continued existence of the corporeal body. The process of preservation could arguably be manifested as a means to provide defense against the passage of time. To preserve our bodily appearance is a fundamental need, or a “Mummy Complex,” as Bazin puts it. One could argue that the development of painting and sculpture manifested as a means to capture the form and stow it away from the flow of time. The anthropocentric need to preserve the subject from a second spiritual death is no longer in use, but rather the making of images puts forth a speculative ideal with a temporal future of its own. In the 19th century the creation of photography was thought to have eliminated, or quelled the obsession with realism, creating a fundamental shift between representation, truth, and aesthetic and psychological expression. The photograph was the object itself that determines the veritability by the means in which it was produced; the medium of representation defines the basis of truth and value.

In an increasingly virtual world, our means of communication, self agency, and expression have been relocated towards representational and abstract modes of existence, with the freedom of dynamic shifts of identity and assertion. Online, we have the ability to choose and curate what will represent our presence and individuality. Bazin’s Mummy complex can be applied beyond the advent of photography into 2020 where the fundamental need to maintain a presence that surpasses the body has led to the creation of Avatars and virtual vessels. Avatars are not new. However, the ontological shift from virtual representation to the ability to manipulate and control a 3D object, is significant, specifically in dealing with likeness of human individuals. The phenomenologically passive nature of a 3D object elicits a conversation of who is in control, who is being controlled, and who gets to make decisions about these dynamic bodies?

The creation of an Avatar is one of birth, modification, revision, and reflection. As an avatar is made, she reflects one’s own physicality. Watch the avatar stare at you stare back at her, as if she somehow realizes the limitations of her domain, and you of yours. Reaching into the virtual Aether provides physical reassurance and permanence, reflecting the limitations of Our domain. Simultaneously, the action is a vain one; while the limitations of physicality are transcended here, there is no guarantee of permanence and security in virtual form.

An avatar is made by creating a series of data points in a 3D modeling software that correspond to spatial coordinates. This allows the computer to reproduce a mesh upon which additional programs tell the computer how to render the image based on physical lighting parameters. A 3D model is ontologically a very ‘passive’ object, due to its receptive nature. It is meant to be used and manipulated by a user or developer. A 3D object can be animated, manipulated, morphed, destroyed, etc. It is supposed to receive the action of another agent.

In 2018 I created my first version of my avatar. I spent hours upon hours starting into the mirror, sculpting a mesh from scratch, carving in the smallest details of my pores, and refining my measurements of how I perceive my own physicality. I was birthing myself into a new realm that I believed I could master — I could be an agent of this domain. This piece ended up as a video of my avatar animated via motion capture into a meditative trance-like dance in a non space with a surreal monologue depicting abstract hopes for this new body and domain that I have created. I entitled this piece VOID (Giving Birth to Myself), and showed it at my senior art show for school. Little did I know that this piece would be a defining factor in proving how wrong I was about the security of this new domain into which I had created my own portal. In the back of my head I knew that virtuality would not come with implicit security, however upon further research I understood that the extent to which our bodies are being sourced as sites of information was incomprehensible, even without the modality of avatars.

Not only was my need to create an avatar to engage the desire to be the agent of my own domain, but it was also an exercise to feel secure and validated such that no harm or violation could happen to my body, in contrast to my experience with violation in the physical world.

You may already know we are being surveilled. This may come as no surprise to most people. Every platform, app, place, website, and even physical location we introduce ourselves into, our data is being captured and monetized. However we have come to an age where the unknown surpasses what is currently conceivable in the present and future. The practice of surveilling and monetizing our social and intimate online activity is known as surveillance capitalism. The ability of such a practice lies within the immediate pathway tied to corporate America and our personal and virtual identities. I will talk about surveillance capitalism in another essay, but for now, I will rest at the basics.

The temptation of self actualizing through designing your own image presents a problem: the extent to which the structural asymmetry of knowledge affects us, surpasses our agency of expression. Through inserting ourselves and our identity online through avatars, social media, and online presence, we provide information in exchange for our perceived freedom of expression. We unveil a little bit of data and security to receive comfort and convenience. However, the extent of this knowledge is not generally known to the public. We don’t truly understand how much of our personal data is being surveilled. We are blind to it, so we are comfortable sharing a little exhaust data.

Understanding this concept in relation to avatars is important to understand how readily available our data will be embedded in our online footprint. In solely the context of realistic and accurate avatars, embedded in these 3d objects are facial information, emotional information, body measurements, just to name a few. The afforded information from the avatar is not just a one-way street. If we do not have the right protections and legislation underlining our rights and agency to our bodies, corporations could potentially re-purpose our virtual bodies and use them for advertisements, deep fakes, promotions, and falsified media. This is just a small view into the potential exploitations of these bodies. An avatar can be “hacked” by anyone with a computer. All this information contained inside a 3D model being provided in virtual space is just coordinate points that can be downloaded and recreated in any 3D software.

As we move into the future of newly manipulated identities and shifting forms of online presence, so too will the culture of corporate (see: corporeal) surveillance. Understanding the fluid basis of surpassing the corporeal body, providing defense against the passage of time will deepen our understanding of humanity and connection. However, as we adapt and forge new forms of existence, so too will surveillance find more pathways to infiltrate the omnipresent links in our shifting worlds. Dynamic mutations of identities insert a dimensional shift into our relationship with ourselves and each other. If our interaction is coded in the manipulation and stealthy data sourcing of our bodies, how can we exist in a future that holds truth and veritability as a pillar of society? How can we be true to ourselves and each other?

Just like the photograph, the Avatar inserted a fundamental shift in the veritability of the medium that defines its own contextual validity. It created an additional modal shift in the way we understand our place in the world, and how we interact with our identities. Just like the photograph, we again come to the apex of the human desire to capture our identities and essence in a modality that extends beyond the body. If the body is a reflection of our identity, and our identity is a vessel that inherits control, how can we maintain our autonomy and agency over our bodies within constraints in the age of corporate corporeal commodity?

Bazin’s mummy complex is nothing new to human society, in fact, it drives much of our so-called progress and technological innovation. But at what cost does the ease at which we create, modify, and mummify ourselves return to only compromise our agency in the way we move through the world? It is not inherent in the medium that this danger expresses itself. We are already facing a monumental strike on our human democracy through data monetization within corporations like Facebook, Instagram, and Google. If these companies believe that data is knowledge, and such it is that knowledge is power, we too can arm ourselves in the fight for our freedom of a secure and safe online existence. By understanding our place within the surveillance capitalist framework, we can use information and knowledge to our power.