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Assembling Desire

Assembling Desire is an interactive, performative, and personal exploration of feminine sexual desire for the feminine.

produced by: Kiona Hagen Niehaus


Assembling Desire is an interactive, performative, and personal exploration of my sexuality as developed in a social context in which femme sexual desire for queer femmes is undefined. In representing a grey area of desire, I explore its tensions and possibilities. This piece uses nine displays linking video and still images of recorded experiences and 3D modeled and animated avatars, as well as sound files I have created, with a wearable, embroidered bodysuit that I will wear during the run of the show. I interact with viewers on a one to one basis, inviting them to touch me in specific ways in order to trigger various reactions and different combinations of imagery. 

Research and Concept

In exploring the topic of how my own desire has shaped and continues to shape my perspective, I engaged with the centrality of sexuality to Western subjectivity, and particularly with Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality (1979) and Rosi Braidotti’s Nomadic Subjects (1994), among others. This led me back to Judith Butler’s Bodies that Matter (1993), and in particular to her discussion of the feminine as that which the masculine defines itself by excluding, as the grey area outside of definition, rather than an unequal opposite (21). If masculinity and femininity are defined as inherent and distinct qualities of men and women respectively, and in an oppositional Subject-other relationship to one another, then the feminine other without a relational masculine Subject becomes non-existent. Sarah Ahmed’s blog post, “Living a Lesbian Life” (2015), describes the situation in which a sexual/romantic relationship between women becomes indescribable in its specificity in language, either reduced to a heterosexual model through the masculinization of one partner (“the husband”), or to a familial relationship based on their sameness (“the sister”).

That masculinity on its own is distinct, while femininity is undefined and without cultural space and language to be defined, particularly in all-important sexual relation to itself, is an accurate description of my feelings on my own process of actively forming what desire means to me, without context of seeing desires similar to mine represented or experienced by others. I do not have the framework for my own experience provided by an oppositional heterosexual model, and my gender presentation is intentionally too feminine to occupy the defined box of queer masculinity. While I exist in a world which expects a particular performance of femininity, that I with intention may not look as one expects a queer woman to look or perform attraction or have sex in the way that society defines the act, among others, allows me the freedom to define my attraction and sexual expression without worrying about maintaining a relationship to those definitions. I hope that creating this artwork allows others the space to consider how they contextualize, define, and experience their own desires.

Process and Reasoning

My initial plans for this piece centered on creating a tactile, conductive sculpture for viewers to interact with, narrowing this down over time to a body shape and then to my body shape. It became clear over the course of the year, however, that making a stand in object for my body was antithetical to the physical, experienced specificity of discussing my own desire for me. As such, my goal became to give the viewing participant an experience of my desire through interacting directly in a guided way with me, and to use the wearable and its design to communicate where I am willing to be touched. I also use the wearable bodysuit to comment on the notion of femininity as somehow artificial, an embellishment upon my body rather than an expression of a particular aspect of my physicality, experience, and how I move through space. I hand-embroidered a design of overlapping flowers and hands, and incorporated fine gauge copper wire (conductive material) into the design as I went along, after testing various materials for suitability for the piece. 

I work with media and photography frequently in my work, and I knew that I wanted to include an interactive, photographic element as a component of this piece as well. I began from the point of figuring out how to image that which is undefined, on how to image feminine desire for the feminine, and how to do so from my own perspective. I have been concerned with not falling into representing my experience according to a binary of pathologically negative sexuality versus overwhelming positivity at the expense of nuance and at risk of perpetuating reductive stereotypes of queer narratives and desires. At the same time, I became and remain interested in the way that sexual desire is represented visually by depicting the person who is desired, rather than the person who is desiring, as when artists depict muses. While I did create some images like these, the more I created images, the more this felt like an offsetting of feelings that are personal, complex, and not necessarily goal oriented toward another person. 

The use of hand imagery is prevalent across this piece, and comes from exploration of sex (the act) as defined by the relationship of particular body parts at the exclusion of other pleasurable acts (Foucault), and an idea discussed by Judith Butler (42), that many different body parts can constitute a phallus or an orifice depending upon the way one uses them. By creating imagery of myself with my fingers in my mouth, I am challenging the relegation of this gesture to innuendo for another more graphic gesture, rather than being inherently pleasurable in its own way. The use of multiple images of me, particularly in the same scene, is a play on the idea that women are the same (same-sex) and that desire not codified in terms of an oppositionally gendered relationship is necessarily narcissistic. By depicting myself interacting with myself, I am also discussing the multiplicity of my own perspective.

My use of a combination of images and videos of myself, in direct conjunction with 3D modeled and animated avatar self portraits, is the result of my interest in the idea of photography and recorded video as somehow more real (and therefore more graphic) than digitally animated avatar representations. I incorporated this concept into my treatment of the avatars, using a Cook Torr shader to create a plastic, shiny quality for the avatar skin, while the avatars engage in similar and in some cases more sexually explicit actions to those I have depicted photographically. This relationship of the real and graphic to the unreal and metaphorical is also relatable to cultural treatment of queer feminine sexuality as unreal, as exemplified by the ever-present, "So, how do lesbians have sex?".

The sound is made up of several ambiguous personal recordings of breathing and abigous rhythmic activity, and distorted based on sensor data. The layering of the sound aids in creating an environment which is variable and viscerally evocative of intimacy and proximity with another person. My pose during the run of the performance is based on art historical sources, particularly Manet’s Olympia (1863), incorporating myself as my own 'muse' into the visual landscape of the piece. 

Challenges and Technical Implementation

A primary challenge and part of my process in creating Assembling Desire was to find a suitable material, first for the sculpture and then for the wearable piece as the concept shifted. I was aware from October that I wanted to create a fabric-based piece, and with that in mind, I tested a variety of conductive materials, including velostat, copper tape, conductive thread, thicker gauge wire, and finally thin gauge copper wire. I was particularly excited about the velostat, since it seemed on sight to be similar to latex and conductive, but the textural quality left something to be desired and it became less sensitive when fixed down to a sculptural shape. The copper tape and the regular wire were adequately sensitive but created an aesthetic quality similar to other pieces of sculpture and wearable technology I have seen elsewhere.

I was interested in creating a piece that felt explicitly personal and in keeping with my own interpretation of my femme aesthetic, and thus I settled on conductive thread. I conducted a variety of tests with the Adafruit Capacitive Touch breakout, the MPR 121 breakout from Sparkfun, and using the capacitive sensing ability of the digital pins on the Arduino Uno itself. I found the MPR121 to be more sensitive than comparable options, and with some minor debouncing, extremely accurate. However, the conductive thread I found lost resistance over distance. If used in the same six to twelve inch area, the values I achieved were accurate, but beyond that, the accuracy of the values were less than I what needed to create a satisfyingly reactive system. Since wire had worked well in the past, I looked for wire that was thin enough to sew with or to be incorporated into a sewn piece.  The final 0.2 mm thick copper wire works well and is sensitive from end to end. In addition, it does not detect my skin through the back side of the wearable fabric, which is a problem I had had with the conductive thread when sewn and not, making it ideal for this application. My only concern moving forward is the brittle quality of the wire and the danger of cracking, and I have taken steps in order to store the piece so that the conductive material is not tightly folded, to maintain its longevity.

I had begun my testing of conductive material and boards with the assumption that I would use the serial value directly from each pin, but it quickly became clear that give that I was working primarily with media files, this put me in danger of the same issue I encountered with my final piece in the first year. Mapping a broad numerical range of analog data to a small number of files with limited output possibility tends not to create an especially reactive system, since the range of values being mapped will be flattened to a small number of outputs (most of the capacitive serial data I was collecting had a difference range of 1-300 points).  Therefore, in order to create a dynamic system based on this data, I am using the integer value of the pin the wire is connected to, which occupies a particular area of the suit, and sending this data from the Arduino to Processing when a pin is touched and when it is released, some immediately and some with a 0.5-1 second delay for effect. The touch data is then broadcast via OSC from Processing, on its own (non-internet connected) WIFI network, to the nine different Raspberry Pis and their openFrameworks programs individually. The serial event receiver in Processing intentionally does not flush the value last received after a period of inactivity, for the purpose of retaining the previous state for the next person to interact with the piece. Rather than having a defined beginning, middle, and end of the visual and sound components of the piece, or an inactive state to return to, they can be entered and exited at any point, leading to a variety of possible image and media combinations.

When the integer data is received, each openFrameworks program plays the media file that corresponds to the integer received via an if statement. I use the ofxOMXPlayer add on to play video files, since running ofVideoPlayer tends to freeze and crash openFrameworks on the Pi. The volume of the sound files is elevated individually by touching the wires attached to different pins, and the speed of their playback is dependent upon the incoming value of the data, achieved by diving the incoming value by 5.0 (maximum possible incoming value of 10; pins 11, 9, and 0 are not used). While I could have directly mapped the data to the sound speed with the ofMap function, several files take on a horror movie quality when slowed down below 0.6 (0-2.0 possible, 1 normal), so their direct reactivity to the data is only triggered above a received value of 3 for one file and 4 for another. I have been able to load some avatars into openFrameworks on the Pi, which I was initially not able to do because the program would not compile. The workaround I have used, loading the 3D avatars within a private variable class, was found through this example code. However, in practice I found that real time rendering of the avatars in oF on the Pi lagged noticably and was unsuitable in combination with the other media I used in the project. The avatars included were created in a mix of Adobe AfterEffects and oF screen-recordings from my laptop. 

The avatars themselves have been a major challenge over the course of this project. I began this year with very rudimentary experience with creating avatars in a program called MakeHuman, applying textures, and loading the avatars into openFrameworks without any editing. In the course of creating a series of avatar self portraits with my desired level of anatomical accuracy, I learned to manipulate, edit, and add to the avatars I had previously created against reference images in order to make them more accurate, and edited the upper and lower interpolation threshold files and other parameters for MakeHuman in order to achieve results closer to those I was looking for within the structure of the program. I explored a number of strategies for creating hair, including Autodesk Maya’s XGen geometry instancer for creating hair, fur, and grass, and creating my own hair with nurbs curves and converting them to polygons, and applying textures and materials in order to achieve desire effects. This also led me to explore loading different kinds of files into openFrameworks, and this taught me a lot about accessing meshes and dealing with pros and cons of different 3D formats. I taught myself some keyframe animation in Blender and Maya, and loaded this into openFrameworks, although I found that I was able to achieve flexible and creative results by exporting my animations as .png file sequences from Blender and combining them in AfterEffects.  I briefly tried putting my avatars into Unity, but in context of this project, I found the quality loss difficult to justify aesthetically in comparison with the photographs.

This piece is also an endurance piece for me, requiring me to interact with strangers both physically and verbally throughout the length of time the piece is up, and while this is definitely a challenge in its own right, I believe that it is a worthwhile challenge to undertake for my own artistic development.

Future Development  

Moving forward, I intend to continue to make artwork about sexuality and particularly my own sexuality. The performance and avatar-based aspects of this piece are particularly interesting to me, and I am looking to make a small-scale avatar game of some kind based on communicating an experience of sexuality. My work with human 3D modeling software and its shortcomings this year has led me to PhD research at Goldsmiths, specifically on creating software for more diverse mesh-based human avatar generation for games, media, and creative use. I am very much looking forward to creating software that is useful for others, and indeed, for my own artwork. 



Source code:

Assembling Desire Source


Personal Planning Project Blog (October 2015 - May 2016)

MPR121 Library (capacitive touch)

Example for running AssimpModelLoader on Raspberry Pi

Braidotti, Rosi. 1994. Nomadic Subjects. United States: Columbia University Press.

Butler, Judith. 2011. Bodies that Matter. New York: Routledge. 

Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality I: The Will to Knowledge. New York: Penguin Books.