Fashion film platform SHOWstudio, founded by fashion photographer Nick Knight, launched an NFT project called ‘ikon-1’ on the 14th of December 2022. It was also showcased the following year at the Metaverse Fashion Week. ikon-1 doubles as the name for the project and its central avatar. Composed of 8,000 unique NFTs that are based on the model Jazzelle Zanaughtti, the ikon-1 avatar is created using 3D scanning and photogrammetry technology and then auto-styled randomly according to two hundred unique traits. Knight estimates that the software can produce twenty-eight billion unique combinations.1
The result is a series of uncanny alter-egos of Zanaughtti, many of which are shocking in their transhuman abnormality. An online feature for Dazed Digital included twelve unique ikon-1 looks, showcasing their auto-generated variety.2 One of these depicts a barely recognisable Jazzelle adorned with undulating digital fins, akin to those of a tropical sea creature, with her face covered in lit cigarettes. They resemble an abject version of the Cenobite demon ‘Pinhead’ from Clive Barker’s Hellraiser. The editorial caption reads: ‘ikon-1 wears Romain Gaulthier [Anemone] top styled with Scarlett Yang [Venus] clothing and [SINTHIA] beat by Jazzelle Zanaughtti.’
These images also highlight that digital fashion heralds the decentring, if not redundancy, of humanity itself. It raises questions like whether digital clothes can even be considered clothes, or whether fashion only exists when worn on physical, human bodies? Also, whether technological, automated, or AI design might supersede the skill, virtuosity, creativity, and haptic knowledge of the designer? In the age of advanced digital technology, perhaps it is fair to question whether human toil remains the essential component of beauty and craft. Digital fashion is subversive in that it could potentially rewrite the ontology of the fashion system itself.
Indeed, tech companies like IBM have suggested that AI technology can take the machine out of the human, freeing genuine creativity from useless toil.3 In a CGI-enhanced video entitled ‘The Metaverse And How We’ll Build It Together,’ Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently released a corporate vision statement about building together a utopian future where technology is seamlessly integrated into everyday life.4
Despite the titular egalitarianism posed by these multinational corporations, emerging technologies do pose real threats to jobs in the creative sector. It is one of the prime concerns of American writers and actors currently on strike among other creative professionals who have been objecting passionately to the use of AI. Similar debates can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution at least. In Capital, Marx recognised that ‘the instrument of labour, when it takes the form of a machine, immediately becomes a competitor of the workman himself.’5
There’s also an argument that equates the value of art with moral labour. The Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave argues AI fast-tracks ‘the commodification of the human spirit by mechanising the imagination. It renders our participation in the act of creation as valueless and unnecessary.’6 Here, the argument becomes explicitly ontotheological. It proceeds from the biblical account of creation in Genesis to the deduction that creative struggle is a necessary condition of art. Art and mechanisation are oxymoronic, if not antagonistic: AI must be abandoned completely for the salvation of art.
Such an argument finds its roots in John Ruskin, the figurehead of the nineteenth-century arts and crafts movement, who considered mechanised production to be a form of artistic deceit.7 Ruskin also believed that art was a measure of the society which produced it. Many might draw the Ruskinesque conclusion that digital fashion is a damning indictment of the image-driven superficiality and overconsumption of late capitalist society.8
The recent proliferation of fashion NFT projects results primarily from an NFT boom, marked by the digital artist Beeple selling an NFT called The First 5000 Days for 38,525 ETH, equivalent to $69.3 million at Christie’s in March 2021.910 Hedge-fund managers, venture capitalists, publicity-hungry celebrities, tech workers, hipster curators, and money-grubbing ‘crypto bros’ are now all enthusiastic collectors. The astronomical fees of the NFT boom also attracted many bad actors. Scam projects, market manipulation, wash trading, forgeries, and outright theft are commonplace.
Critics are highlighting the relationship of NFTs, AI, and web3 technologies to hidden structures of corporate power, militarism, environmental destruction, and exploited labour.11 The philosopher Stephen Hawking even warned that AI could spell the end of mankind.12 These debates, oscillating between an awestruck enthusiasm for new technology and an apocalyptic contemplation of humanity’s eradication, closely resemble discourses of the sublime.
Philosophers have debated the sublime since at least the eighteenth century. In the Critique of Judgement, Kant distinguished between the mathematical sublime, a failure of quantitative conception in the face of something unfathomably vast, and the dynamic sublime experienced when faced with gargantuan phenomena that potentially pose an existential threat to the viewer.13 According to philosopher Edmund Burke, the sublime, when experienced through art, the feeling of physical danger cedes to ‘delightful horror.’14
Late twentieth-century scholars mapped the sublime onto the rapid technological advances of industrial capitalist society. The literary critic Leo Marx used the term ‘technological sublime’ to describe the quasi-spiritual cultural discourses surrounding emerging technologies, such as railroads, telecommunications, motor cars, electricity, and atomic power.15 In avant-garde art of the twentieth century, the Italian Futurist movement exalted industrial manufacture, automobile races, the bustling city crowd, and technological warfare equally as sublime modernist poetry.16
Sci-fi is also characterised by themes of human estrangement and the limits of understanding.17 In their awestruck fetishisation of technology and its capacity to conquer infinite new frontiers, most science fiction works of art are underpinned by an experience of the sublime. It is perhaps unsurprising that Knight recently turned to the sublime language of Star Trek when he described the metaverse as ‘fashion’s next great frontier.’18
ikon-1 is a result of a collaborative process wherein no singular author can claim creative control. Each ikon-1 represents a combination of distinct elements contributed by Knight, Zanaughtti, and forty other designers. The hairstylist Eugene Souleiman created outlandish hairstyles for Zanaughtti; the nail artist Marian Newman’s designs resemble melting icicles or the thorns of exotic flora; Nick Knight mapped digital textures onto the avatar’s skins to resemble porcelain, plastic, or precious metals. It suggests decentralised creative communities on which the metaverse could potentially be built.
Having repeatedly showcased the most innovative digital fashion content on SHOWstudio, Knight regards ikon-1 as an ethical mission: ‘I want artists to create the metaverse because I think we do have a chance, a utopian chance, to create a better civilisation in the metaverse, which isn’t shaped by power, greed and money.’19 ikon-1 builds an absolute integration of global communities hitherto marginalised from the four metropolitan centres of fashion. Given the radical aesthetic and method of production of the ikon-1 portraits, this community could potentially be diverse and counter-hegemonic.
This utopian view is shared with others. Digital collectives like The Fabricant are currently building online communities and platforms of co-creation. The inbuilt software allows users to design, mint, and sell digital fashion NFTs. The Fabricant paints a picture of utopia for us: ‘We’re building a new fashion industry that belongs to creators, one where we remove history’s gatekeepers and create a new economy where our financial rewards are finally equal to our talent. In this new reality, a kid in Dakar stands as much chance as a kid in Paris of becoming an influential fashion force.’20
Knight, like many others, has suggested that digital technology can mitigate the environmental damage caused by the fashion industry, widely believed to be the second most polluting sector globally.212223 Potential benefits of digitalisation include the elimination of unnecessary toiles and pre-production, the replacement of physical fashion weeks with virtual ones, and the satiation of consumer needs for selfie-ready outfits through digital rather than fast fashion.
Knight also suggested that ikon-1’s digital technology could challenge endemic problems in fashion such as sexism and ageism. For instance, he argues NFTs can potentially be the solution for models to control their image rights24 and ikon-1’s centring of Zanaughtti challenges fashion’s traditional subject-object power relations. In addition to being the model of the avatar, Zanaughtti designed the make-up, a bricolage of footprints, pebbles, and gold leaf. This could extend the short careers of models indefinitely.
The suggestion that digital transhumanism can hold a black mirror to the industry’s current lack of diversity is also interesting. In their deliberate refusal of gender norms, perhaps ikon-1’s transhuman feminine grotesques could make us consider the heteronormativity, fatphobia, ageism, and sexism of fashion.25
ikon-1 further reminds us that identity is not constrained to a physical body but instead performed via technology, such as social media, smartphones, filters, and mass media, and that our sense of self is mediated by an infinite stream of representations of ideal beauty.26 Equally exciting, and potentially emancipatory, is the promise that our bodily limitations can be transcended through technology and fashion.
Nevertheless, these are technocratic solutions which ameliorate but do little to directly change the structural bias of the fashion industry. In his book Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederick Jameson argues that the technological sublime serves capitalism by disguising the reality of social relations. The Promethean advances of new technology disguise the ‘enormous properly human and anti-natural power of dead human labour stored up in our machinery.’27 Thus, whatever the progressive intentions of works like ikon-1 might be, we must question the socio-political power relations that its cyber-sublimity disguises.
As many commentators are now recognising, there are numerous unavoidable ecological problems associated with NFTs and cryptocurrency in general.28 Cryptocurrency mining operations can consume as much energy as small nations, and the digital character of NFTs disguises the material effects of their carbon footprint.29
Furthermore, as a direct critique of the fashion industry’s normative ‘beauty myth,’ ikon-1 falls somewhat short.30 However surreal, ikon-1’s seductive, mechanoid femininities are closer to the patriarchal beauty ideals of fashion media. Reforms to image rights will not overturn the fundamentally patriarchal structure of the fashion industry, not the least because research suggests that NFT copyright law is anything but clear cut: purchasing an NFT does not automatically convey copyright or ownership unless that is explicit in a smart contract.3132 And neither would prolonging the careers of models solve the ageism of the fashion industry. Whilst the transhuman potentials of the metaverse might provide a momentary bypass, systematic change will clearly not be achieved by cyber-escapism.
The metaverse was first predicted in Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel Snow Crash (1992). There, he warned of ‘gargoyles’ – online addicts who spend all their time in virtual reality to escape the dismal reality of their existence. Perhaps there is a sublime joy, even a ‘delightful horror,’ from the contemplation of billions of different ikon-1 NFTs. However, systematic change will clearly not be achieved by cyber-escapism. It is questionable whether emancipation can ever be achieved by accelerating the technocratic mindset of the techno-military-industrial-academic complex,33 which has systematically reproduced global inequality, poverty, colonialism, war, patriarchy, heteronormativity, financial crashes, and ecological disaster, among many not-so-delightful horrors.
Dr. Richard Hudson-Miles is a Senior Lecturer in Critical and Contextual Studies at Leeds Beckett University. He is the director of the SYNTHESIS: Digital Fashion Research Network.
Title taken from the 2018 song ‘We Appreciate Power’ by Grimes in Miss Anthropocene
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