The photographer’s latest project, Ikon-1, casts @uglyworldwide as the deity of his brave new world – here, they discuss the importance of beauty, and why shaping the metaverse can’t be left to the likes of Mark Zuckerberg
I should have met Nick Knight in the metaverse, I realise, as the timer on our free Zoom call ticks down toward zero. Then again, this would have meant venturing into one of the few virtual worlds that currently dominate the landscape, where everything looks like it’s made out of mismatched Lego blocks, working legs are a distant fantasy, and dysfunction reigns supreme. It’s not exactly the ideal meeting place for the renowned photographer, who’s more used to working within the exquisite visual worlds of artists like Björk or Alexander McQueen.
In fact, the lack of attractive options from the likes of Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta, or Fortnite creator Epic, is partly what Knight’s here to discuss, as he shares plans for his own metaverse outpost – a virtual version of his IRL fashion and photography space, SHOWstudio. At the forefront of this project is an ongoing collaboration with the model and artist Jazzelle Zanaughtti (better known by their Instagram handle, @uglyworldwide), which has seen them create 8,000 one-of-a-kind avatars together.
Titled Ikon-1, this expansive series of avatars is crafted in Jazzelle’s image, recreating them as a photorealistic render. The relative freedoms of the digital world, though, allow Knight – working alongside digital artist Tom Wandrag – to warp and distort their body and clothing. In one image, they are transformed into a cyborg wrapped in glistening metal. In another, their skin is studded with crystals beneath a gravity-defying chest piece.
Of course, 8,000 images is a lot, and the fact that Knight is offering the Ikon-1 avatars as NFTs may draw comparisons to the collectable profile picture projects that came before them. But these are in a whole different realm to CryptoPunks and Bored Apes. Where Ikon-1 fundamentally differs, is in Knight’s commitment to hand-crafting beautiful images, instead of feeding a few basic attributes into an algorithm and letting it churn out thousands of bland iterations. “Trying to create something that is beautiful, it’s not just done at the stroke of a brush,” Knight says. “To do anything well is incredibly hard, and it takes work.”
To do this work, Knight assembled a team that also includes the nail artist Marian Newman and the hairstylist Eugene Souleiman, whose Ikon-1 headpieces bring some real-world physicality into the project, via scans of natural materials such as robin feathers, honey, and eucalyptus bark. The fashion, meanwhile, comes courtesy of 30 rising digital fashion designers. “I noticed about three years ago, when I was working with Central Saint Martins and London College of Fashion, graduates doing digital design,” Knight explains. “I thought, three years ago, ‘Well where on Earth are they going to put that? It’s interesting, but what are they going to do with it?’ It’s become very clear now what they can do with it.”
The Ikon-1 NFTs aren’t just for showing off in the metaverse, either. Knight is intent on expanding the project into a metaverse headquarters for SHOWstudio, with the help of acclaimed architect David Chipperfield (leave the bland structures and primary school colour palette of Mark Zuckerberg’s sad little island at the door). Then, each NFT will also double as a kind of ticket, granting holders access to various events, such as virtual photoshoots with Knight and Jazzelle, where they’ll be able to walk around the room and even offer creative input.
Below, Nick Knight and Jazzelle tell Dazed more about the potential of their metaverse project, and why it’s important to build its foundations on creativity, instead of corporate greed.
What made you want to enter the metaverse?
Nick Knight: The conversations started right at the beginning of the pandemic, when there were lots of conversations about having to exist in the virtual space. So it’s probably been about three years we’ve actually been working on it, but it’s very coherent with SHOWstudio, and what we’ve been doing right since its beginning.
Jazzelle: I was initially drawn to the project because [of] how new the metaverse was to me. And since it was Nick and SHOWstudio who brought the project to me, and [knowing] how much they support creative freedom, I knew that the possibilities for the project were endless! This project pushes the boundaries of what we consider ‘reality’. It’s exciting because of how many questions it leaves us with.
Nick Knight: Also, I think it’s really important that it shouldn’t be Mark Zuckerberg and a bunch of corporate stuff that shapes the metaverse. That’s not a good situation. We should have creativity that doesn’t exist behind a paywall, and that you’re [not] giving all your data to access, and just becoming fodder for somebody’s advertising demographic.
“It shouldn’t be Mark Zuckerberg and a bunch of corporate stuff that shapes the metaverse... We should have creativity that doesn’t exist behind a paywall, and that you’re [not] giving all your data to access” – Nick Knight
You’ve brought dozens of other artists along for the ride.
Nick Knight: I do think it’s really important that people like Jazzelle, and all artists, engage with the metaverse and start to creatively shape it. Otherwise it will be shaped by commerce. And even worse, it’ll be shaped by the military.
This is sort of a big statement, but just go with me: we’re creating another civilisation. It’s a different way of interacting with people [with] a completely different set of norms. And if we are creating a different space for us as a civilisation, then it shouldn’t be shaped by greed and killing. You could argue the last civilisation was shaped by greed and killing, and it ain’t looking that good at the moment. Spiritualism, or art, or whatever you want to call it… those are the sorts of things that might create and shape this new civilisation. Not just how can we make a million bucks online.
Can you talk more about this idea of spiritualism in the metaverse?
Nick Knight: I was just joking with Jazzelle. I said, ‘These [avatars] might think that you’re their deity. You might be their originator.’ And it’s not too hard to imagine that that’s a possibility. AI is very good at joining up the dots, and there’s so much information online about deities, about spiritualism, about religion, about belief, about faith. How long before an AI gets all those bits and starts to construct a belief system? An AI God? I know it’s slightly sci-fi, a bit scary and a bit weird. But how long before that happens? I’m sure it will do.
There does seem to be a shift toward a new kind of spirituality, and I wonder if it’s somehow linked to these new technological frontiers that we don’t quite understand – a new kind of mythmaking?
Nick Knight: I think that’s the sort of thing I was imagining with the slightly flippant comment that Jazzelle’s avatars might look at them as if they’re some sort of creator. I do think we’re living through quite a difficult period, and I think that does change people in so many ways. You can tell it’s not normal, everything from Trump, to Brexit, to Ukraine, to the pandemic. It doesn’t feel like the past. But I am actually an optimist – I do think we’re heading towards a better situation.
The demonization of the future… when we talk about AI or cyborgs, regretfully, the most frequent images that come to mind are Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator, or HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I think it’s down to people like myself to try and show that, actually, there are lots of benefits from looking at ourselves in a different way. The metaverse is not nationalistic, it’s not gender specific; you are actually much more free to choose your own identity.
Jazzelle, how did it feel to see yourself as an avatar for the first time?
Jazzelle: It was surprisingly… well, surprising. I’ve had a million photos taken of me, so figured it would just be like seeing another photo or video of myself. But, although it is a rendering of me, it didn’t feel like me per se. There was a bit of disconnect from my actual self, and [I] saw it more as my child, or [an] extension of my self.
Nick, do you have an avatar? What does it look like?
Nick Knight: I was playing a computer game a couple of weeks ago, and the person I was playing against was in the shape of a cardboard box. I’m not going there, I’m not going for the cardboard box shape. I’m going for exactly this [Knight wears a sharp black suit with a neat, white pocket square]. Which also raises questions. It’s just as important, what we look like [in the metaverse], and what what we look like says about us. Those things are still a concern, still an issue.
The aesthetics of the metaverse, as it currently exists, do tend to be very ugly. Why do you think that is?
Nick Knight: The interesting thing is that some of the reasons that we do things in this world are not there in the metaverse. For example, I wear suits from Kilgour. The suit is constructed not to mimic the shape of your body. In fact, it does quite the opposite; the construction of the suit is to compensate for your body. So if I’ve got one shoulder which is naturally a bit lower than the other one, the suit will pad out a bit more. A suit takes a person’s body and corrects, by structure and padding, to give you what we see as an elegant line of a suit. But that is almost the opposite to what you need [in the metaverse]. It’s funny, because of course I could have whatever body I want in the metaverse. Therefore, a suit has a very different function.
A lot of the terms that we use for the world are redundant when you get into the metaverse, and actually they’re quite unhelpful. We have to be very careful, when we move into this space, that we don’t bring unnecessary restraints to the art we’re creating, which aren’t necessarily in that space.
Jazzelle: There are no bounds in the metaverse. Things don’t have to make sense. You can be 100 feet tall one second and transform into, let’s say, a centaur the next. You can be and wear your wildest dreams. It gives space for creatives to manifest the most surreal of ideas.
Nick Knight: [The metaverse is] embryonic. It’s early, early days. Weirdly, a lot of it is actually quite… I wouldn’t say infantile... but it’s bright colours, it’s shiny surfaces. It doesn’t have the soul or the emotional integrity of our world, of this world that we know. This world is full of possibilities for change, full of things that don’t work. It’s full of pain, as well as anger, as well as love, as well as all sorts of emotions that we go through. If you’re creating a world, you don’t have any of that. It’s a sort of benign space.
“There are no bounds in the metaverse. Things don’t have to make sense. [...] It gives space for creatives to manifest the most surreal of ideas” – Jazzelle
Do you think it will stay benign?
Nick Knight: Well, if you go into Meta, and start writing things about Mark Zuckerberg, sooner or later, you’ll be told to stop it. Who’s going to tell you to stop it? And how will that look? And if you don’t stop it, what will happen to you? The idea of a prison in the metaverse, or a police of the metaverse, hasn’t been formulated yet. They are the concepts we are going to have to deal with. As I say, I don’t want people to be formulating them just based on how much more bloody money they can make.
I’ve spent about three years working on 8,000 images of Jazzelle, and I put as much care into every single one of those images as I would do if it was a picture for Gaga, or I was doing a Dior campaign, or I was doing one of my rose pictures. I won’t ever create an image that I don’t love, I don’t believe in, and I don’t try perpetually to make as good as I possibly can. Otherwise what’s the point?
This is a very long way to answer your question of why the metaverse is so ugly at the moment. It’s because you need to put care and love into it. Trying to create something which is beautiful, it’s not just done at the stroke of a brush. To do anything well is incredibly hard, and it takes work. I think this is the first iteration. Of course, it’ll change.
You’ve said that fashion itself needs to change and adapt to the metaverse, if it wants to survive. Why do you think that?
Nick Knight: Two very important reasons. Fashion is about the future, it’s a future predictive medium. We’re creating desire, and what you will want to look like, so it should be looking into the future. The whole process of creating fashion imagery to do six month campaigns feels very out of date, considering so much more is happening. That’s one reason.
The other reason is quite simply that fashion is the third-worst polluter in the world. We can’t just ignore that. I think we have to do something that rectifies that. There has been lots of talk about NFTs being polluting, too, but the Ethereum blockchain that I’m working on had a merger back in September, which means that this is irrelevant now. It’s become like one per cent of the amount of electricity that it used to use, so it’s not really even a consideration. I’ve been waiting for that to happen to launch the collection. But I think fashion cannot just greenwash stuff, and say, ‘Yes, yes, we will try to do a very small diffusion line of sustainable whatever.’
Perhaps we’re gonna have to find a different relationship to dressing. Maybe you have a way of dressing for the metaverse – which is incredibly flamboyant, or moves around, and is much more experimental and whimsical – and then a way of dressing when you’re in the rest of your life. I think those two things can exist quite happily together. If we want to have more choices, and be able to do more things, and evolve, then we shouldn’t be doing it at the cost of the environment. You can’t just dodge it. You can’t keep saying: ’Oh, it’s awful, but we’re gonna do another collection.’ It doesn’t make any sense. At some point, we’ve got to say: ’Enough.’