I'm So Non-Physical, Part 1: Lilith

A conversation about avatars, digital selves, and fragmentation.

Published June 12, 2023
USURPATOR is joined by Lilith & Avatar Lilith— one person, different fragments. They are a 3D artist, designer, performance artist, musician, and creative technologist based in Brooklyn.

Part one of two, this interview starts off a series where we talk to artists about their practice that involves virtual selves. During our conversation, we discuss Lilith’s performance art, the birth of their avatar, and philosophize the notion of our digital presence—how it represents fragments of our subjectivity, and how it takes on its own agency.

You can listen to an extended version of our conversation on Spotify, or follow Lilith and Avatar Lilith on Instagram, or visit their website.

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USURPATOR: So before I even introduce you, I will ask if you go by Adrienne or Lilith.

LILITH: Well, that has been a contention for the past few years. It's basically whatever you're introduced to me as, or however we initially know each other, and whatever specific space I'm moving through. So, people who have known me since before 2019 usually refer to me as Adrienne. People who know me from the art scene will refer to me as Lilith, and then my actual artist performance name is Avatar Lilith, so we're pretty fragmented in this space.

U: So, I've been writing a little bit recently about how we project ourselves online and how it shapes our own ideas of self-identity, and I find that your work is a great way to exemplify this, so I wanted to ask you about the use of an avatar in your work.

L:  Sure, I think of the use of avatars as a tool of reflection, a performance piece, an art object, and something that’s a source of future speculation. The way that I use it in my work is, I extend the relationship from this object into the actual process of creating the object, so my relationship to it is one of birth, modification, revision, reflection. It's something that has the opportunity and the possibility to embody multiple modalities, whether it's multiple modalities of realms, of identity, of materiality. I actually will use it in my performances, whether it looks like a virtual livestream performance where I'm doing motion capture, or whether it’s a projection behind me on a screen in a venue, or in a gallery space. Also, I can perform as my avatar without any projection or any type of virtual space at all.

U: I wanted to ask you about the space in between the digital avatar versus when you fully inhabit it. Does the avatar only exist online?

L:  Okay, I really, really love this question because I'm always thinking about the concept of where do I end, where do you begin—which is flesh to flesh—but when there is this level of abstraction of a form, or of a dimension, we have to create these differences. In defining something, it is known through the difference. Since this is a new realm, we have to manufacture these differences, and they're mutable and changeable because emerging technology is not fixed, so we have to keep continuing this relationship to uncover what that can tell us about ourselves.

For me, when we're thinking about where physical flesh Adrienne begins, and where Avatar Lilith ends, I really like to encourage the possibility that there is no beginning and ending. A lot of people ask if I’m performing as this thing, or is this thing performing as you? Which one is it? I always will answer yes to all of those questions, because I really would like to encourage people to embrace these experiences of multiple truths existing in one constraint. That’s what the relationship that I have with my avatar is.

U: Yeah, it seems like an identification of something that we all experience, especially when it comes to our digital selves. We're all split into these different fractions of people, into the different ideas of subjectivity that we have within ourselves. We are different people when we're by ourselves versus when we're with our parents or our friends, at school, at work. And those fractions can also exist on different platforms on the internet through different personas that you inhabit. You know, like, Twitter anons.

L: Yeah, I have been really thinking hard about this idea of fragmentation and fractions of identity. At the beginning of this conversation, we talked about having multiple names. And what does a name do? It evokes certain aspects of our personalities that we get to project into this specific container.

I think that this fragmentation of identity is the mechanism of creating all of these different containers for us to embody and express different parts of ourselves. And it doesn't necessarily have to be a one to one thing, right? An avatar doesn't have to look like you, or it doesn't have to be exactly you. It could just be an extension or a level of abstraction that allows you to embody certain characteristics. That's also what names do, I think. There's a lot of like quantification of needing to pick between, instead of having it be all of these fragments existing at once.

As human beings, we can choose to shift between them or embrace all the states at all times. I think this physical fracturing is really just an extension of the fracturing that we do to ourselves in the constraints of what is expected of us in social spaces or in political spaces.

U: Why do you think that we need to fragment ourselves in order to inhabit certain roles or display certain characteristics or qualities?

L: I think we want to identify with others and be part of the community. We want to be accepted. Even when we were talking about the idea of difference earlier, the difference is the identifier. By reducing the definitions or minimizing an identifier to be something tangible to other people, allows us to feel comfortable with not being extremely complex or not being able to have the cognitive dissonance of being too contrasting things at one time. Because the cognitive dissonance of holding conflicting truths is very difficult for a lot of people.

U: I agree. I think it's a necessary component of our existence. I think a lot about the ways that we try to objectify ourselves, and how it's essential to developing a sense of self-conception or subjectivity. You're always thinking about how you’re coming off to other people.

L: Absolutely. And especially with TikTok and the recursivity of seeing yourself and the reflection of your own image, and that being an endless feedback loop of what identifiers you should embody. It can be very reductive.

U: It's crazy how this hyper-fixation on ourselves really does start to change what you see in your head. Even when you're looking at an image of yourself that everyone else sees, you see it differently than other people will see it. At least, I think so.

L: Well, that's a whole dysmorphia situation. I mean, maybe it's like a digital dysmorphia that we feel. And it can be really disorienting for a lot of people.

U: Like, when you're on a Zoom call and you're watching your little reflection in the corner and you're like, that's not me.

L: Yeah, it's this level of abstraction that is supposed to represent me. But it is, and also is not me. It's not one, it's not two, it's somewhere in between. It's this thing that begins to take on its own narrative or its own identity. And that's a little uncanny, I think, even if we're just talking about the little Zoom window person that is you and is just staring back at you. It's a very disorienting effect.

U: In order for us to be confronted with an image of ourselves, we have to start doing all of these mental gymnastics, but we're all very flexible.

L: Yes, exactly. We're kind of breaking ourselves into different, into different beings. Like, we all know about the iPhone depth-sensor front facing camera that distorts your face, right? And how everyone actually has a selfie dysmorphia from thinking that we look like one thing where the angle perspective actually makes certain features bigger than what they actually are.

U: Yeah, do you remember that TikTok filter?

L: The zoom out?

U: Yeah! The face zoom. I thought it was kind of strange that everyone was freaking out like, “Oh my god, I didn't know I looked like that.” I was like, have you never seen a photo of yourself? Or your image in a mirror, maybe at a distance? Everyone knows that there's this depth perception, and a change in depth can distort how our features appear to us. But since it's us, looking at ourselves is much more meaningful.

L: I think this could also lead to a conversation about cognitively knowing something and then having a visceral experience of something that is a completely different experience. If I've seen a picture of myself, but every day I see myself through this particular lens, your body and your subconscious starts to create narratives or identifiers that instruct you on this truth. There are certain types of knowledge that are not super accessible to us.

U: So, how do you deal with this fragmentation into the 3 different parts? Which I can only assume are three of many.

L: Right, exactly. It's infinite. We are all infinite.

U: How did you decide that these are the three most important fragments that you would like to name, or even give a face to them?

L: Well, I think they are the emergent properties of what has naturally occurred in being, existing, interacting with people, and interacting through my art practice and performance. There's obviously a history behind the names that I have. Adrienne, that's my birth name. Lilith is my performance name, and Avatar Lilith is me, but the “me” that I birthed. I think those are, for now, the roles that I do step into, but it's also a reminder for me to embrace all of those aspects at one time.

And yeah, why only these three and why not a billion names? Maybe by posing a smaller amount of things to have cognitive dissonance with, it can just be a more bite-sized example of having multiple, not necessarily conflicting things, but things that are to be held in one container at the same time.

U: I would love to know more about Avatar Lilith, and the differentiation between the avatar and yourself.

L: I would love to talk about my birthing process— my visceral, bloody conception of this being, who is and is also not me. The original idea for building an avatar was to remove myself from the constraints of physicality and physical violation. To distill this new body, or my body, against the passage of time. I very quickly learned that building a virtual body and putting it into a digital space isn't quite as safe and protected as one might think, in comparison to the constraints of physical violation. That is one of the main concepts behind the work that I do: what are the types of violations that could potentially happen with virtual bodies, and what's our relationship to these virtual bodies? Is there something that transcends just likeness? If, for example, we're specifically talking about avatars that carry the likeness of ourselves, which is what Avatar Lilith is for me.

In terms of the birthing process, when I made this most recent version of Avatar Lilith, I would sit at my desk, and have a mirror facing me. By the way, this is the most insane process for building an avatar. If anyone is interested in building an avatar, you don't have to do it this way. I'm just insane. And that's part of the artistic process. I would sit and sculpt my face every single day from vertex to vertex.

U: How long did this take?

L: It definitely took weeks. It was insane. I've had different versions that dropped, and I think it's going to be a never ending process, especially as I age. I would sit at my desktop and sculpt my face from scratch. I started from an eyeball, like the eye opening. Then I extruded the mesh from there—a mesh is basically a coordinate system of data points that tells the computer what images to put on the screen.

So, there's the process of sculpting in 3D, where it's basically just sculpting like you normally would with clay in real life, except it's just projected onto a 2D screen. And I did that every single day. Each day, as I looked at my avatar, and she looked at me back, and we both looked at each other, I realized that maybe this person has more agency than I do in real life. She began to take on this new narrative of her own, this new agency that I was not expecting at all. That tells me that avatars span beyond just likeness. There is this kind of metaphysical relationship that you have when you're looking at something that is almost human. We all know about the uncanny valley, but there's something that I feel like a lot of people aren't considering about the weighted value of this phenomenologically passive 3D object. It's meant to be used, it's meant to be moved, it's meant to be animated by a developer. That presents this really, really insane power dynamic, especially when we're talking about corporations owning these and using our likeness. Apple Vision just dropped a few days ago which talks about scanning your features to create this virtual representation of you. We are not ready for the reality of this ontological or metaphysical, phenomenological relationship that we have with these beings. I know that because I made one from scratch and I didn't have to, but I felt like that process was really essential to me learning about what it was like to create this thing that is now a simulacra of myself. And we are not one, we are not two, we are somewhere between. If you multiply that on a scale of 100 or a thousand or a billion, what is our relationship going to be like with each other?

U: So when you say that you started to feel like the avatar had more agency than you. Do you think that this was transference? That you were putting something that you didn't know that you had into this avatar? Or do you think that it actually, tangibly has more agency than you within the virtual world?

L: Well, I think this is a question of what is a truth? Is this thing actually more powerful than I am, or am I just seeing this power that I am? And I think it doesn't really matter because that sensation is still occurring. To me, it doesn't really matter whether or not this thing has more agency than I do. It's this sensation that occurs with thought. It's a feeling. That feeling can expand upon what these relationships will be in the future. Does that make sense? I think it's less about the truth. It's more about the experience of this emergent relationship.

U: When you are inhabiting this avatar, performing physically or virtually, what are they doing?

L: I've had a few performances where I would do motion capture, so I would livestream my body and my face into this system that would detect my skeleton, and it would transfer this data into a game engine that would move my avatar. I could puppet my avatar and I’d do some vocal modulation. By speaking, my voice would change and I could perform as Avatar Lilith over livestream. So, my physical body, while I'm technically performing, it's just me through the computer.

Now, what I do is actually pre-render animations of my avatar and construct this extension of a narrative from my physical space into this virtual space. And I’ll even have it on-screen or a projection behind me. I'm exploring the material relationship between myself and my avatar, and what extensions of a narrative could be imparted on this virtual space that has these endless possibilities. I'm still developing that relationship. The process is a very important part of the work. It's not necessarily where I end up. It's supposed to ask questions. It's a tool of research, also a performance and a collaboration. I feel like I'm really collaborating with this entity.

U: When I was planning some of the questions that I wanted to go over with you, I kept going back to other examples of avatars that most of us have probably experienced in our lives. A good one is always the Mii, or the Snapchat bitmoji? I noticed that if my friends got their hair dyed, as soon as I went on Snapchat, they'd already have updated their avatar to reflect the new hair color.

L: Yeah, it makes me think of Andre Bazin’s ontology of the photographic image. This idea of the Mummy complex and where we just want to stow ourselves away from the passage of time to escape oblivion. I think that it’s a very human sensation to start with. Portraiture or photography, for instance, it goes back to the fragments, right? It's like, how can we leave the fragments behind that then begin to take on their own world or their own life? But it's also the idea of creation and birth and modification and identity.

U: When you were building Avatar Lilith, were you actively trying to make it as close to your likeness as possible, or was there some room for interpretation?

L: When I was building this avatar, I intentionally didn't use any real scans. I wanted the process to be as organic as possible so that whatever emerged out of this collaboration between myself and this software was this new, simulated being that was me, but also was not me. I think that was important in the relationship that I wanted to build with this non-material being.

What ended up happening was this avatar has some of my features, but there's something that's a little bit off, right? There's always something that's going to be a little bit off. So how do you encapsulate the soul of your identity into this extension of a medium? I think that embracing the themes of the medium is very important to me in this collaboration, because I think the affordances of this new emerging technology shouldn't be hidden. If there is a vertex that's in the wrong place or something that's showing a seam of a texture map is an accidental property of my collaboration with this tool, I want to leave that in there. If this being ends up looking like marbles, not looking like me, that's also important in order to show that.

U: I wanted to ask you if there is any kind of avatar work or art that you appreciate and think is doing it well.

L: It's hard out here. It's hard to hear of platforms that are using avatars in a way that feels good. And I don't know, I think we have yet to get there because it's not a piece of technology that's accessible to everyone. The community responses are not really developed yet because it's not niche, but it's very fragmented.

It's a little bit hard to say what works and what doesn't. In pre-pandemic, I had this intention of creating this platform called the Aether Institute, which was this critical and inquisitive platform where people could talk about what legislation should be for avatars or even just go through the experiments of how these 3D objects and 3D bodies should be treated. Like, what does that relationship look like? Are we co-parenting this object? Is this thing now an all new being that can be owned? Should it exist on this platform? There are just lots of questions that I came up with. I think that asking these questions, but not necessarily having the answers is okay. A lot of people feel the need to have those answers. I'm always more inclined to be supportive of things that aren't as dictatorial. I know you and I aren't as pedagogical in terms of what we should or shouldn't be, because there's no way we're going to know what our relationship to these bodies are going to be in like five, ten years.

The best we can do is just examine the current constraints of how we treat things right now. We could pose these speculative alternatives as a tool of reflection of how you see the earth and the world as it is right now. I think that lets us dream into this not necessarily linear future or but all of these endless possibilities of what we could create.

U: Yeah, how will these avatars age?

L: I try to not think about that, not because I don't like age. I'm actually really excited to age. And also not because I don't have a plan for it necessarily, but because I want it to be this organic relationship that emerges when it has to emerge. I feel like it's a recursive relationship, as in the way that I'm feeding into this thing, and how it’s feeding into me. Our narrative and dynamic is changing over time, you can’t really reverse engineer something like that.

U: Yeah, maybe for my last question, I have this sense we're currently feeling a big pushback against this development of our digital representations of ourselves. People are reverting to this idea where reality is truth, and objectivity is best. These new technological developments are bad for you, they're harmful for your psyche, and our ideas of self. In the face of that, do you feel a draw towards reality versus virtual?

L: Well, with the disclaimer of it's not an either/or, it's not a binary and everything is fluid inside of itself. Those states are occurring simultaneously. For me personally, I aspire to be an extremely embodied person that values my earthbound material, relationships and experiences. I love being in a body. I think we all forget that we are in bodies and that we experience this “virtuality” through our physical bodies. Especially a lot of developers forget about that when we're developing for emerging technology. That’s also a huge problem. But I personally am very much more inclined to want to be physical, flesh-based, and a material human being that experiences the full spectrum of emotions in my body and feeling the dissonance and tension that occurs with feeling textures, smelling things, and sensing things.

But as more developments occur, that line is obviously going to be blurred a little bit more. Maybe you will have enhanced ability to have sensory experiences through emerging technology. I mean, there's also VR porn and things that really focus on the sensory aspect of physical experiences. I think that's why I focus on the fluid boundary between the virtual and physical.

U: Is there something you’d like the people to know, where they can go to see your work or your performances?

L: My website, avatarlilith.com. I also have the aethercomplex.com website that’s still in development. I think we covered a lot of ground. We opened a lot of portals, as the kids say, and I am really grateful to be in your space engaging in this really awesome dialogue. I think that it is absolutely wonderful to be engaged in this way that's inquisitive and boundless and I think that's really important. So, thank you.

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Image courtsey of Lilith

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USURPATOR is an online magazine sharing essays and interviews about the user experience of our current virtual landscape

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