I’m So Non-Physical, Part 2: Kit Volta

A conversation about expression through art, AR, and our virtual selves

Published June 18, 2023
Recently, I was joined by Kit Volta, a creative technologist and XR artist based in NYC. During our conversation, we discuss self-expression through art and our virtual selves, how they blend the physical and virtual through AR, and the effects of living fragments of our lives online.

You can listen to an extended version of our conversation on Spotify, or follow Kit on Instagram and Twitter.

Image courtsy of Kit Volta

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USURPATOR: I love your work with 3D and AR, and I'm excited to talk to you a bit more about it so I can get a better framework on where you're coming from and what you're trying to create. If you could break down your creative practice, your journey, where you've been, and how you started getting into 3D. 

KIT VOLTA: I originally started in the photo space. I started taking photos of myself and other people in high school. My very first photo class was actually a darkroom photography class when I was 13. There’s something I really love about rituals around creative practices. That's something I really miss with working in digital. I did a lot of theater growing up and still love it, and I think there's a similar feeling with being in a dark room and being backstage where it's such a dark, eerie place. Everything's kind of suspended. It really feels almost like a spiritual practice in a way, but I really wanted to go into film.

When I started college at NYU, I realized early on that you need a lot of resources and people to make films happen. Also, I don't come from a well-off financial background. Freshman year I was talking to my advisor who was a filmmaker, and I was like “Hey, I'm really nervous about my future career after graduation because I'm on scholarship, and I'm taking out a lot of loans to go here.” He said “Don't worry about your work. You should just be having fun and doing what you like.” I was like, well, I can't afford that. So that's what actually started getting me into the tech space. By sophomore year, I knew I had to learn how to code. I took a one-on-one private lesson with a professor on new media art, and she was the person who introduced me to this whole world of interactive art and technology.

I saw a lot of exhibits and performances that used tech that I've never seen before, and it still captured the same feelings that I really enjoyed about film, theater, and photo. It was a new space, there's not as much competition, but it also got my brain really working and I ended up transferring into the Interactive Media arts program that was just starting my junior year and because of that, took a lot of grad classes at ITP, the interactive telecommunications program. That's where I got exposed to AR/VR and interactive computing, using Arduino, sensors, live music, and visual programs such as Touch Designer and Max MSP. I was so blown away by how much I could do on my own without needing a full crew or team to build a world. That's one of the first things that drew me to VR, being able to immerse the user into this brand new environment in a way that you could by putting on a theater play or making them watch a film. Plus, I could theoretically do it on my own using 3D models. And then the pandemic happened. I graduated in 2020, and by then I was starting to make AR filters. I got exposed to that through an internship I did the summer before, and I really loved it because it was the first way I was able to actually share this new media XR work with my friends because nobody really had a VR headset.

It's still not super accessible, but filters are on Instagram and Snapchat. People can just put it up on their face. It’s cool to see that people like wearing my art, that got me really excited. I freelanced doing that for a while. I think there were still so many beautiful things I see in my head, but I didn't have the technical skills to execute them.

Especially during lockdown, I started spending more time trying to dive into these 3D programs and learning how to make the 3D stuff that I want to make. I'm still not quite there yet, but it's been a very long journey and now, after spending the past two or three years, half brain-dead, half just like sitting in these purely digital environments, I'm really craving to get back into the physical space and doing more performance-oriented work now, having some more technical knowledge and trying to blend the two together, which has always been my real intention within this space.

U: So as you get back more into traditional, performance-based work, is that going to be integrated with your virtual?

K: I think so, yeah. Just because it's hard for me not to think about it when I get back into it now that I've been exposed to it. Also because I haven't really spent the hours and hours that a traditional performer has or a traditional set designer has, where I could create something as high quality as they could. I'm still very interested in experimenting with new mediums and making people see things that they haven't experienced before. I did make a couple of VR pieces during school, but lately I found myself drifting away from VR.

I think that the furthest that I like to go is AR/mixed reality, because something that's really important to me is people physically being present together in a space. Or at least, if they're experiencing something on their own, still getting the real world around them. I find that technology can be very isolating in the way that we mass consume it right now. I don't love the idea of completely taking somebody out of their entire reality through VR, unless we’re building a physical set and we're bringing people in together, so they’re still physically there with each other.

U: I've been thinking about that recently since everyone’s talking about VR right now, and our user patterns show that what we're asking for isn't even a fully immersive VR experience.

K: We're looking for something that blends the two, for sure. Especially among Gen Z, I think there's a general sense of nihilism and dissatisfaction with the way that mass-adopted technologies have been used. I really think that we should be using it to bring people together rather than push them apart. That's kind of one of my fundamental principles.

U: You can sense this public pushback of it. We see it all the time with filters. Whenever one gets introduced on TikTok, everyone's like, “this is so dangerous.” Just as much as people are starting to value progression in immersive technology, they're also starting to value the real because we're entering this era where we don't know how much longer we're going to have it.

K: Yes. For me, it was because I spent so much time alone during the beginning of the pandemic. I was really hyped up about the XR space before it started, when I was first dipping my feet into it, because it was so novel to me. But when everything got shut down and your only form of communication was digital and virtual, I became horribly depressed, not only for personal reasons, but because I wasn't able to be there with people, physically present.

It feels like the truly precious things in life now are privacy and the ability to experience things in real life. I think among our generation, at least with the very wealthy, well-developed countries, so much of our life is slowly becoming more and more digital. I just don't think our bodies have evolved quickly enough to feel good about that.

U: I've been thinking a lot recently about our ideas of self, and especially when we inject it into virtual frameworks because it emphasizes this fragmented subjectivity, which we always have all the time anyway. We are different people when we're at home versus out in the world, and then you are a different person when you're on Instagram, when you're on TikTok, etc.

K: I feel like growing up on social media, I have gone through several waves of my character building. I think I'm at my most healthy right now, but it took a really long time to get there and I don't think I would be there if I didn't have such a solid network of friends who I'm just happy to be with offline.

U: Do you think that involves stepping back from social media, or what's the balance?

K: I think it's most affecting when you are going through puberty and you're first learning about it, and there's a very critical window of those early years where suddenly I felt myself become hyper self-surveillanced. On one hand, social media gives you the power to potentially create a version of yourself that you don't necessarily feel like you have the ability to execute in real life. But at the same time, if you're being judged online by people, there's the pressure of creating this life and image of self. It's less intense now in my adult circles.

When you're a kid or a tween going through this process, it's hard for you not to participate in it if you want to feel included. I have taken social media breaks in the past, especially when my mental health was really bad. But I also don't agree that completely getting rid of it is the answer for everybody's relationship with it, because you can get to a place where it's facilitating genuine social interaction, connections, and networking.

We need to invent a pedagogical framework around how you socialize somebody with digital means of communication, but also make sure that they are learning that it's not reality. That people value you for who you are and things aren't as polarized or as intense as they seem online.

U: Yeah, it does seem like there's too much blending right now between reality and that which is not taking place in the physical world. I was curious because I saw that you define yourself as an XR artist, and earlier you were talking about your preference towards AR versus VR.

K: I constantly change it because another part of me really loves physical computing and that has nothing to do with extended reality. It's just using sensors in the physical world to react to your body and input. So I sometimes say interactive media. XR is the overall umbrella term for any digital technology that takes reality and alters it in some way for the user, primarily through visual input. Mixed reality is used as the bridge between the two, because it does take an input from the real world and show it to you, but also adds on content. This can be achieved through pass-through video, which is what the new Apple headset is. It's not really an AR device, it's more of a VR headset where you don't see the real world through clear lenses. You just get a video feed of what you're seeing, so it's not true, true reality. Whereas for example, the Magic Leap headset has clear lenses and you and I can just look at each other as normal and then virtual contact is projected as an added layer on top of it.

U: Interesting. I didn't know that about the Vision Pro.

K: Yeah, it wasn't super clear to people who don't work in this space. And that's why the eyes look very strange in the ads, because it's actually a two way screen, so there's a screen facing you and then there's an outward-facing screen which uses the camera to capture your eyeballs and then reproduce it. So, you're going to look like a strange little fish creature. I understand why they did it, though, because if you're using it in public and you want somebody to know that you're paying attention to them, it can show your eyes. Same as if I'm wearing AirPods, I can take an AirPod out to show that, hey, I'm listening to you.

U: When I look at your work, I notice that a lot of it is based around yourself. My assumption for that is when you're developing these AR filters or designs, the easiest person to put them through is yourself. You know, you're always right there. But I was wondering what your relationship is with yourself and your body through your art.

K: It's very twofold. I think the most straightforward answer is practicality. I work at home. I don't have very many people nearby that I could call up instantly, be like, hey, let's develop this thing together and let's use your body for it.

So it’s the fastest way, but I started doing that even before I got into digital media. I started with self-portraiture and I think it comes from my desire to be onstage, perform, and act. All I ever wanted growing up was to be an actor and or a musician and build a character that is a myth, a larger than life creature, and develop a whole world around them. I think that drive continues into my current practice, and it's still what I truly want to do the most deep down. I just feel like if I were to use someone else for it, it wouldn't be truly fulfilling for me.

It also feels like a need for attention, validation, and affection that I guess I didn't get a lot as a kid and I still crave now. But it is interesting because they are characters. They're not really who I am. It's still just this thing that I'm creating.

U: Yeah, okay, that was one of the things I was going to ask you about.

K: It's absolutely not an accurate representation of who I am in real life. I love other people, I love studying and paying attention to them, meeting new people and gaining insight on how we work as human beings. But I was thinking about this a lot today. I listened to Electra Heart almost all the way through for the first time, the Marina and the Diamonds album, where she created that whole character of Electra, and there is something so fun and fascinating about being somebody and embodying them. Creating this creature that's larger than life. I've always wanted to do that the most, and it's fascinating to build it. I also don't feel like I have the authority to speak on topics other than the things that I experience. I look at people who make work about things that are not inward-focused, and I'm always really impressed by it because they’re so interested in the subject and have done so much research to truly pay tribute to it in such an incredible way. Whereas, I have never found something external that was as motivating for me as how I can use myself as a performer and an actor and create a creepy little world around myself that will make people feel interested in me. Part of it is that I want affection and attention, but a part of it is a fascination around seeing if I could replicate something that people that I’ve looked up to have done in the past.

U: In terms of these different characters that you're putting forth, is every representation of yourself different, or is there one online, AR version?

K: There is a character that I've been workshopping since I was like 13 that was intended to be a musical artist, that has continued existing in my life. I've been trying to kill it off, because if I didn't care about this and I didn't want this, my life would be so much easier. I wouldn't be constantly fighting. Basically, there's three inner people that I'm fighting that I've figured out in therapy, and one of them always wants to kill the other. I've been trying to get rid of this desire to build her, because it feels impractical. You know, I'm not a studio, I don't come from money. I come from an immigrant background, so I didn't grow up in the States. There's a very practical, rational nature that I got from my parents that is like, you need to be a doctor or a lawyer. Like, what are you doing? This stuff is playtime for rich kids. I constantly carry that guilt within me and if I didn't want it so bad, I would be so much calmer and happier in life. But I just can't get rid of it, it’s like a curse. Lately, the attitude has been trying to reconcile and accept that this is a part of me. Until I make the thing that I want to make, I won’t have peace. I just need to suck it up and stop worrying so much, and just make it to the best of my abilities, then continue on. My biggest regret would be to live my entire life as I think I should, like, what would be the smartest thing to do in my position to be a successful person versus really wanting to be an artist. That would be what I want to waste my life on.

U: It's a calling, for sure. I'm not going to say that artists don't make any money, but they will often put themselves into situations where they aren't making money from their art, or making money through something else, but still continuing their practice. Yeah, it’s something within them that they can’t stop.

K: I’ve just accepted it now. I used to feel like I could shave it off, but a lot of that inner conflict is what ends up manifesting in my work. Lately, I've been very driven towards gore and horror because it's this feeling of self-destruction that I want to express because it feels too big for my body to contain. That's usually separate from the beautiful AR filters that I'm making so people can wear. The stuff involving my face and my likeness is like, I need to scream and I need to tell you that I feel horrible inside and I just don't know how to do it in a non-upsetting way. Art is a safe place to let all the feelings out that aren't socially acceptable. Then people look at it and they're like, I understand, I get it. I take it and find a creative outlet for it before it explodes.

U: I was trying to think more about the use of bodies in art because, even with me and in my practice, I feel so drawn to faces and bodies. I don't really know why, maybe a lot of art is trying to capture the soul of something, and the body is a very obvious container for that.

K: I think that, biologically, we're wired to pay attention to faces because we try to anthropomorphize inanimate objects. I think it's part of how we find each other in life. I find myself very drawn towards establishing a movement practice this year because I felt so detached from reality over the past few years, spending so much time only interacting digitally, and getting back to dance has been really big for me and important.

I need to know that I can physically touch objects. An idea I've had for a very long time is making a museum explicitly where people need to touch stuff. Whenever you go to a museum, you just look, but you can't touch. I've gotten yelled at so many times as a kid. I grew up around D.C. I would always go to the Smithsonian galleries and I'd always be wanting to do a little poke on the marble statues. You can’t because of maintainability, it's not within the capitalist framework to build something that's meant to be degraded. It’s unfortunate, but comes to be the root of all of my dissatisfaction with capitalism. But there is something to building a place meant to be worn down and destroyed, and having that be the goal rather than creating a perfect pristine object to be gazed at.

U: Art is so optical, we're using our eyes for it most of the time. Same with all of these virtual spaces, it's all happening in the eyes. We have this massive focus on one of our senses and neglecting the others. I wonder how VR is going to integrate more tactile components?

K: Something that I've always been obsessed with is haptics and haptic feedback and putting on a full body suit that will vibrate different parts of you to make you feel more connected to the experience. There was actually an exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt a couple of years ago about accessibility, it had a full body suit meant for people who are hard of hearing to experience music through vibrations on their body. It was very cool. We really need to explore alternative inputs and feedback more because we are very attuned to our environments. We live with our phones and we stare at things so much, we don't think about touch and smell and even sound.

U: Just like you were talking about in terms of creating digital art, you yearn for the tactile. You need to be able to go out in the world in order to offset this hyper-concentration that you have through one of your senses.

Do you think that AR is an escape from reality, or is it a way to become more immersed in it?

K: I think that the reason I gravitate towards AR is because it's explicitly designed to be an additive layer and not completely remove you from it.

In my day job, I work in an enterprise AR setting and a lot of those applications are just using AR as a utility: how can we use it to help us do tasks that we already do but a little bit better and a little bit easier? Today I was at The Shed, and there’s a beautiful exhibit using AR glasses. It's called Kagami and it's this Japanese pianist and a volumetric capture of him. It's a cool, present experience where there's a bunch of people in the space and you can watch the holographic performance together, but you still feel each other's bodies. It's still the feeling of being at a concert, a very intimate experience. I felt closer to the people in the room when I was experiencing it myself. I don't think it's meant to be an escape. It's meant to augment your experience of reality to further ground you in it.

U: What are some of your favorite AR/VR pieces of your own work?

K: My thesis project in college was a step in the right direction where I was theorizing about “phygital fashion” as they call it now. I built this physical patch that would be sold on a shirt with configurable image markers on it that had little snap buttons on them so you could physically take the stuff off and configure a new art piece on your shirt. And then each one would trigger a new AR effect in the virtual world. So it was prototyping how we can make something that's modular in real life, but also has the same effect in AR, as our lives move closer and closer towards being this dual experience.

I think I'm still craving more of a story narrative structure that is much more theater or performance-based. Something with duration and progression that changes over time rather than a singular object. I see filters as sculptures or clothing, in a way. It's not enough for me. I want a little bit more of a story arc. So, that’s something I'm looking forward to, experimenting with virtual production and avatars and how can I make more of that traditional video content using 3D scans and data. Playing with that and eventually specializing in the hardware used for AR.

U: I was talking to my friend Adrienne the other day for this series, and they have an avatar that they use for their art pieces and performances. I find it intriguing because we all kind of have those. To me, that's what a filter is as well. It's an uploaded version of yourself that you are able to manipulate in order to change the way that you present yourself to the world. It also seems like most of the ways in which this is presented to us preys on our self-consciousness.

K: If you're talking purely about beauty filters, for sure. I finally reached a place over the past year and a half where I'm accepting that human bodies are inherently disgusting and won't look perfect. But somehow, through that it's a deep, final contentment with it. I did a lot of introspection, thinking about the lives of my mother, my grandmother, my great grandmother, and how they experience life and beauty in the world. Every time I get too hung up on it, I reach back into that and be like, okay, I'm real. This digital shit could disappear tomorrow. The servers are down, but I'm real. But the surveillance and the self-surveillance embedded in social media practices right now is definitely, absolutely not good for our mental health.

U: It seems like it prolongs this pubescent stage that we all experience where you're desperately trying to fit in and look like how most people should look. It's hard for me to say whether or not 100 years ago, if people ever truly grew past it. But I would make an argument that they became more at peace with it at an earlier stage.

K: I also think aging has been the biggest focus of that. Being in a femme-presenting body, being socialized as a girl for the majority of my life, there's a lot of weird pressure and objectification that you experience where, if you're like a young girl, you're desirable because you're young and beautiful. Part of me hated myself because I don’t want weird men being creepy towards me. But then, you hit an age where you're suddenly losing that desirability and then you're like, “Oh no, I'm like an old hag and nobody wants to fuck me because I don't look like a prepubescent child.” Which is also extremely messed up.

The filters and the smoothing and the Photoshopping doesn't help, but the issue is not the existence of that. The issue is the dissonance between seeing that image of yourself that is altered, and seeing yourself in the mirror in an actual reality, and being conditioned to think that what you see in the mirror is wrong. For me, the biggest improvement has been from analyzing how consumerism affects my self-perception. Once you decouple that, it starts to get a little easier. But thinking about myself when I was like 13, 14, 15, and seeing all this for the first time, of course you're going to feel like crap when you don't look like a supermodel who also doesn't look like how she appears in a photo that's been digitally altered. It's this whole Baudrillard thing about the simulacra of life. To objectively take a step back and think about this whole spectacle that we've created for ourselves, you look at it and it’s so hilarious.

U: We definitely hyper-fixate on ourselves. We weren’t ever able to get an objective picture of who we are, but it seems like it's unraveling itself more and more.

In terms of these projections of yourself, do you create the kinds of worlds you’re trying to immerse yourself in?

K: Yeah, the stuff I've been brainstorming in my head is all about self-devouring and the evil version of me coming out. I just like blood and water and hell, all the scary stuff. Growing up, I was really obsessed with pleasing authority and being a good girl, being put together so everybody would tell me how smart I am. I think I just really want to express the extremely primal anger, craving, and hunger that I feel inside, that I have not been able to express in my real life.

U: So what kinds of scenarios does that result in?

K: The stuff that I've been doing the effects on is me unzipping my body with the skin peeling off to reveal some sort of cyber-hybrid skeleton. Anything to visualize the anxiety I feel about technology and human life and exploitation coming together. I need a venue to express that. And if I make it a little bit campy, over the top, or gory, people will understand that it's a caricature of a certain part of myself.

My favorite thing is meeting people I know from the internet in person and becoming their friend and it's like I'm in on the joke. I know the dramatic irony of who you are in real life and what you choose to show. I think that's the most beautiful thing about life, the intricacies of who we are and our past experiences and how we navigate around the world. I love people. I love learning about them. If everything else were to disappear, if AR goes away tomorrow, I don't care if the industry burns down. My friends and people and love is definitely the most valuable thing about being alive. That's what I try to tell myself any time I get too lost in the sauce.

U: Do you ever think that this primal caricature of yourself is going to feel fully expressed and you'll move on to another era?

K: Probably not. But I think about that and I'm like, “Okay, the plan is to finally make an album.” I've always wanted to get my crazy person out— but am I suddenly going to be like, “It's time to settle down and have a child and like, be normal?” Or am I always going to be crazy?

I've met a lot of artists who are older than me who I look up to. I think there's a certain trait that you have as a creative that you don't quite lose over time. It's very rare. It's just a part of you and how you experience the world. I think the more important thing for me is reminding myself that when I start to get really uncomfortable and unhappy, that I'm probably missing that outlet. The crazy outlet that I need to actively work on to let out rather than suppress it. Because the suppression is what causes the self-hatred and the downward spiral.

I think this also goes to like in a greater context, like how it’s harder for our generation to have the traditional adult markers of life, of saving up and having a mortgage on a house, or settling down to have kids because everything's so expensive or thinking about the morals and ethics of bringing children to the world where climate change is so eminent. So, how do I even plan for an adult future when I feel like there's no guarantee that I would live that long?

U: We need a VR experience of being married with children.

K: Yeah, well, I personally want a VR app for going on a date with Robert Pattinson where he's like, extremely rude to me and acting really strange [laughs]. I think that's the kind of stuff that I would make, personally. But I definitely think that for all of the things that I dismiss, I think there is still value in creating healing projects that mimic an interaction that you didn't get as a child, or you can't get right now. But it needs to be done in a way that acknowledges your pain and allows you to have a ritual that gives you the thing that you didn't get. But also some sort of critical discussion about how this is not real life. You can't stay here forever, but how can you use the emotions that you experience during this that were positive, and carry them forward in your day to day life. Because there's obviously this fear of the future being like, Wall-E or the Matrix where people are just trapped in headsets because real life sucks, Ready Player One-style, but it doesn't have to be that way.

I hate the reductive nature of all of these doomer conversations. We can imagine a better life. It's just that the people who hold the power don't want us to because it would take away their profit. I don't have the answers to what that would look like. But I think that we need to start having these local discussions with our communities, with our friends.

U: Yeah, I'm trying to think right now of therapy VR where your dad is nice to you.

K: There's so many startups out there that are touting VR therapy. The stuff that gets me irked is that a lot of them just use that as a marketing ploy to get funding. The product that they deliver doesn't actually resolve anything internally for the user’s therapy and inner growth. Healing is such a complex thing that involves multiple dimensions. You can't just watch a video and suddenly you feel cured, you need conversations. We need social interactions with people to process our feelings as well. There's yet to be something in that space that I find super effective, but it has been proven to help in certain cases. For example, for people with phantom limb syndrome, there have been VR experiences built where it allows them to visualize their pain being relieved in the virtual space.

I think it's just still so early. Even though Apple is releasing this headset and people are making these insane claims about the future, the reality is that we're still so far from having the tech to fully make yourself want to live in the space for the rest of your life.

Like, Daddy's Nice To Me VR, if it looks like PlayStation2 graphics, you're not really going to get the same fulfillment that you would from a high definition of volumetric capture. I know one of the earliest VR projects I conceptualized when I first started working with the medium was to make a VR graveyard. My grandmother, who I was closest to growing up, passed away this past fall, and she lived in a different country. So I couldn’t see her a lot and I missed her. I wished that I could just pop in and use data from her experiences and her voice to talk to her and ask her questions. I wish that I could use her guidance just for comfort and clarity. As long as you know that it's more of a self reflection activity rather than the truth. It's kind of how I feel about ChatGPT, because I and many others have used ChatGPT for therapy. It's kind of a training ground for something you would actually do with a physical person. You just need to remind yourself that this is not a real being, but you can still use it to practice and heal and grow internally and then apply it in the real world.

I try to come to it with the attitude that the computer is my friend and it is a tool. It’s like a pencil or a hammer. I can do things with it and I can use it to my advantage to help me build a world that I think is good, rather than evil. I think there are enough people in the world, especially technologists, who have more helpful and less profit-oriented ideas. It's just that you don't really see them on the surface because they're not the companies pushing out the products.

U: Thank you so much for joining me. Is there anything you want anyone to know about where to find your work?

K: I’m on Instagram, Twitter, and the Internet @kitvolta, and I have kitvolta.com. I'm still doing my brand revamp and my character building. So might be a minute before anything coherent is up, but you can definitely find my work posted there.

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