Artist Talks: Designing Respect in the Metaverse With Michelle Cortese

Artist Talks: Designing Respect in the Metaverse With Michelle Cortese

Artist Talks is a space in which Palm NFT Studio explores the creative process, inspiration, and impact of some of the most intriguing people creating in the NFT space. Our goal is to reveal the person and the cultural context behind amazing work, with a focus on groundbreaking creators.

In this week’s edition of Artist Talks, Palm NFT Studio welcomes experiential virtual reality researcher, designer, and futurist Michelle Cortese. Her work is mainly focused on experimental communication, expression, and preventing unwanted harassment across new technologies and virtual formats. Cortese splits her time providing research on virtual reality design ethics while also teaching at NYU.

Read the full story below to learn about Cortese’s research on ethics in virtual reality design, her latest NFT drop on Portion, and more.

As the world shifts towards mainstream virtual reality metaverses, what is it that you want to explore in your research and your art?

Everything is inspired by how humans transmute their sense of creativity through different formats of technology. That has led me to a lot of work in trying to find the newest, most cutting edge forms of expression and computing and trying to get underneath them from a “How do we actually build these things to be better for people” way. That ended up leading me to Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR), mostly VR. In that space, I’ve done a bunch of research to make what I think is trying to make AR & VR more equitable, and better.

Artist Talks: Designing Respect in the Metaverse With Michelle Cortese

What is the importance of ethics and design in Web 3.0 to you?

It’s really important to me that everybody understands [design ethics] and not just people who are making the products, but that there’s a strong amount of ethics and tech literacy across everyone. Not just an understanding, but also tools and systems of accountability so that we can actually roll out [products] that are better and not just be like, “oh, well, I didn’t know.”

I feel like there are just so many really young people who had just learned the hard skills and that was it. It really freaked me out a lot. It definitely changed my practice entirely.

Your design approach is also heavily influenced by Hedonomics: the practice of ensuring design technologies are not only enjoyable and accountable, but also preventable of harm and trauma.

I was in a deep hole reading about new theories and neuroergonomics and discovered something called hedonomics, which is this loosely developed idea that we should bring more pleasure and genuine enjoyment into the human-technology relationship.

What really struck me was that [hedonomics] was built on a similar pyramid to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that would start with safety, build functionality and then create an actual use. Add onto that, usability. Add onto that, pleasure. Once you’ve gotten all of those things, you can allow for self-actualization, or to allow people to really express themselves and understand themselves better…and become better versions of themselves with the experience.

I was like: I can fit all of the research I’ve been doing into these slots. I’m going to use this as the overarching framework to effectively spoonfeed people this chart and this checklist of “how do you ensure that what you’re building isn’t going to hurt people?”

What role does trauma hold in the metaverse?

There’s a couple of ways that question can go. One answer is just like: we take our trauma from the real world into the metaverse. It doesn’t matter if we’re jumping into this virtual version of the astral plane, we’re still us and we can’t escape that.

I think one of the greatest portraits I’ve ever seen of that was the early days of VR. I was really excited to go into VR chat and thought it was going to feel just like being in a chat room in the nineties. I went in and I just got brutally sexually harassed by people.

I was like, “oh yeah, these are just people from the world and they’re here and have total anonymity, so they’re just being absolute assholes.” Sometimes I describe the experience of being harassed in VR as “if YouTube comments could just chase you.”

I think that there was just naivety on the last round of social networks; people made them and were like, “everyone’s going to be perfect here.” That’s it. Everyone’s just going to put their shit aside and they’re going to go to this place and perform as perfect little bots. And obviously, that didn’t happen.

I feel like when I say a lot of this stuff: I notice people get sensitive and they’re like, “no, you’re just trying to gut all the fun out of everything and everything should be blah, blah, blah,” and I should be able to…If I want to join a room where everybody punches themselves in the face or punch each other in the face to greet each other, then I should be able to do that. But everyone needs to be able to opt into the experience that they are comfortable having too. It’s the surprises that are bad. If I want to go to a room and be aggressively, verbally harassed by people, I should be able to make that choice and do that. But I don’t want that. I shouldn’t just find myself in it. That fucking sucks. The other side point was just there’s so much harassment in gaming in so many ways. The second you stick things in VR or anything that’s embodied, it just gets so disturbingly real. It’s horrifying sometimes.

Virtual and Other Pleasures, spectatorial VR performance by Michelle Cortese.

How would you describe the future of the metaverse in regards to crypto? What’s the relationship between those two?

I think it’s decentralization. I think in the core understanding of what the metaverse is, in order to have it, it needs to be decentralized. The Metaverse to me is the embodied internet. It is the next stage of the internet. It’s like the internet 3.0, where instead of just viewing it through a little box, you actually can be there if you want. There are different levels of engagement and just like the internet, people are not meant to own massive swaths of it. Amazon and AWS might tell you differently, but the idea is that it is an entirely decentralized space that people can just operate in portions of. I will say, however, I wish we found a different word. I wish we weren’t using a word from a dystopian novel.

You have a new collection dropping on Portion in honor of Digital Fashion Month. Can you tell us more about that work? And secondly, what inspired you to work with Portion in particular?

A lot of people have been nudging me to [join the NFT space] and I already have a separation of church & state with my artwork and my work. And I really need to just keep money away from my artwork or else everything will feel really fucked up, but I ended up… They approached me about digital fashion month. And then I had this funny idea, which I was like, okay, well this involves creating nothing new. I feel like it won’t get in my head. Again, I don’t want the idea of selling something to get in my head when I’m making something. I just like to make stuff to just feel something.

It’s Digital Fashion Month and everybody on TikTok and Instagram is obsessively thrifting now. I’m selling my avatar’s old clothes, her old toys, and all of her stuff. I just think it’s hilarious because I’m still, like, participating in fashion month. Let’s see if people will hook to the idea of Virtual Thrift Day. Can NFTs represent something that is old in a way, even if it’s just a newly minted thing? All the toys and clothes from my avatar that I’m selling are from an installation that I did in 2019. It’s an art piece I did in VR chat and I was doing this durational performance in a window in Soho for three days in VR.

It’s pre-pandemic, so it feels like it’s 10 years ago. I feel like a different person when I think about it. It was physically very difficult to do, staying in VR for four hours at a time. But yeah. It’s all from that. We’ll see what happens.

Do you have any preference for NFTS on certain platforms?

I actually think something that was keeping me out of NFTS for a bit was how non-eco-friendly a lot of stuff happened to be. That really disturbed me. Anyone that is offering anything that doesn’t make me feel absolutely guilty about what I’m doing is great. That’s the only thought that comes to mind. I haven’t really gotten super deep in this world.

I actually think that we’re finally starting to get to a really interesting point in technology again in the crypto blockchain world, as well as starting to finally turn a corner on hardware in the AR world. If you think about it, the next five years are going to be really fucking interesting, which is cool because we haven’t had an interesting few years in tech in a long time. Shit has been stagnant for a while. I think it’s really cool. The unfortunate thing is just that I feel like public sentiment about technology is not pleased.

How has your NFT experience been? Do you feel like you’ll drop more work? Is it something that you want to continue exploring?

I think I will actually. Again, I didn’t think I would. I think within having this idea, I found an interesting way to explore themes that I have personally explored in the past, which had been connected to what actually is virtual identity and how tangible is it? Does it matter if it’s embodied or not? What is its currency? What is the experience of having a virtual identity? Do you own that? Does a platform own that? I think this is actually a really good space to explore questions like that if people are interested in buying questions. I think what I’m saying is, I think I will probably put more out. I don’t know if transactions mean anything to me, but we’ll see.

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