questioning our reality by augmenting it

By Joel Ivan Thomas.

Instagram has been a main form of communication and consumption for young people, even before the lockdown forced us to interact primarily through digital means. No longer do film stars and celebrities dominate the media we consume — now, tools like face filters allow us to distort reality and create alternative lives with ourselves as the stars.

But it’s important to note that new technology is inseparable from the social conditions that formed it. For instance, the ability to digitally distort our appearance will always be fed by beauty standards, and can often create unrealistic expectations on how we think we should look. If you venture further into the way people are represented by technology, into the world of character design, video games, science fiction, fantasy, and 3D models, the social condition fueling this is largely the fantasies and gaze of men.

I think there’s a lot to be learned about society’s mindset if we look at the way people are being virtually presented, so I approached 3D artist Harriet Davey to find out more about what motivates her designs. Davey is a member of the group DIGI-GXL, a “global community - womxn, intersex, trans & non-binary people - specialising in 3D/animation.” Among other work, Harriet creates face filters and designs 3D environments and characters that primarily orbit the genres of science fiction and fantasy.

Science fiction is a wonderful way for us to question the way we live by presenting alternative futures, but Harriet believes the way we use the genre is outdated. “I feel like most of the ideas that people are still using in science fiction come from the ’50s and the ‘60s,” Davey says. “I want to see sci-fi ways that wealth is redistributed and everyone has access to water. It’s like, I don’t see people solving these problems with the kind of stories they tell.”

“I’ve always loved fantasy and sci-fi for the escapism. I play quite a lot of video games. I really love being able to situate myself in new worlds and meet characters who I wouldn’t be able to interact with in real life. I guess it’s just this world-building, escapist mentality that I love. The real world’s kind of boring so let’s build a better one.”

Building a better, more diverse world is engrained in the foundation of Davey’s sci-fi characters. They have distinctly human features, but their designs also question the forms being presented to us both within the genre, and with 3D models as a whole — they’re driven by a diversity that Davey feels is lacking in the world of character design.

She tells me about a program called DAZ 3D with which people create and sell virtual humans on a market place. “All the women are really sexualized and any character who is not white is sort of fetishized. I can tell, as a woman looking at that, that the developers will mainly be white men.”

Harriet also experiments with face filters as an art form, gaining thousands of followers on Instagram from her designs. She recently received a pair of Snapchat glasses in the mail for which she was asked to develop filters.

There’s a lot of discussion in the media about the morality of face filters, but it’s her belief that there’s foundationally nothing wrong with wanting to change your appearance: “You can create such illusions with makeup and clothing and styling — taking it digitally is just another tool to manipulate identity and ourselves,” she tells me.

But she does think this can be taken too far and is in favour of Instagram’s move to moderate filters that replicate plastic surgery. There’s a limit, though, and Davey believes that Facebook (Instagram’s parent company) shouldn’t have the sole power to police how people present their bodies. “It opens up like: should art be censored? Should face filters be censored? I do think there is some sort of censoring that’s needed to protect young people.”

“I think that Facebook needs to have a more open conversation with us as a community; experts and psychologists and artists all at the same time. I don’t know where the line is but I think the line should be drawn by a group of people, and not necessarily imposed from above.”

The problems that DIGI-GXL members like Harriet Davey are fighting are largely systemic and are going to take time to tackle. But Harriet offers these immediate actions we can take as artists and as consumers of art to support them in their fight, and to represent women better in our own art.

“The most important thing men can do is allow womxn to take up the space they deserve to. To listen to more womxn, and really listen - learning from what they have to say and do, especially those doing the same job as you.”

As someone who works in portrait photography with female-majority clients, I think it’s so important to have a better understanding of how I present women, to constantly ask questions and learn about whether this is actually how they want to be presented.

Another simple action that can be taken right now is to try and flip your social-media algorithms around. Instagram can often suggest you follow artists who are mostly men. Harriet had this problem herself, prior to joining DIGI-GXL. “I was stuck in this bubble of design bros and dudes,” she says. “Follow more womxn, follow more people of colour, follow more queer people. It's difficult to get out of the bubble, but so worth it.”

We are in an age where technology exists to present ourselves and others in almost any way we want — even if it means we’re an elvish character floating through space. But it’s important to question where this technology is coming from and what social conditioning is driving our use of it. If we’re all now the stars of our own movies, then we need to constantly assess what other movie stars we’re listening to and how they will influence our own narratives.