Ursula 3: An Interview with Hannah Whitaker

By Kristyna Archer

Hannah Whitaker’s body of work, Ursula 3 examines our relationship with technology and digital servantry in contemporary life. Working meticulously in the studio between both analog and digital tools, Whitaker engages in a process of world-building around the development of a character named Ursula. As a continuation of an existing body of work, in this new series Whitaker incorporates special effects lighting, silhouettes, rear projection and fabricated sets to evoke a more established language of the Ursula lineage. She continues to push the exploration of gender stereotypes, AI, digital consent, and dehumanization. Whitaker is challenging the ubiquitous public domain of female bots and servants and highlights their consequences, damage, and complexities as we usher Ursula into a synthetic universe.

Hannah Whitaker, Obscura Curated Commission.
Hannah Whitaker, Obscura Curated Commission.

ARCHER: This series, Ursula 3, is an extension of your previous bodies of work featuring the same character. She is a female form, obscured in silhouette, against celestial, sci-fi inspired luminous backdrops, exploring the ever-present gender bias found in an increasing era of digital servants, AI, and sex-bots. In your new Obscura commissioned series, you overtly cover her form with futuristic, iridescent gloves, a hood, and a turtleneck, almost as if you were trying to unsex her image. Was this an attempt to see if you could in fact make her less objectified and perhaps more human?

WHITAKER: With their hard lines and geometric clarity, I think of the works as alluding to a graphic perfection that is ultimately undermined by all the dust and hairs of actual life. I think of Ursula similarly. She has a lovely profile and a sympathetic face and a long, skinny physique. In many ways, she adheres to conventional beauty standards and invokes an ideal form. But there is also something very strange and alien about her. (I’m referring now to Ursula, not Karen, who does an amazing job of embodying the character.)

While Ursula clearly points to a physical ideal, to me, she has also always been and continues to be completely devoid of sex. Her expressions are calm and composed and her movements mechanical. I think of her as bloodless. So the reflective garments are in keeping with this. It’s not really about covering her form as her form is never really visible to begin with. But the garments, in accentuating her gestures, can create the sense of seeing her even if you still never really are able to.

ARCHER: I'm fascinated by the processes you have used to create Ursula’s universe. Rather than sketching out your compositions in the physical world, I read you design the rough final image in photoshop and then bring it to life with analogue processes, hand-cut masks, and layered exposures on 4x5 film. It feels purposefully disruptive, and in a way that is bold and irreverent. I’d love to hear more about the ‘why’ behind your process.

WHITAKER: The process that you’re referring to applies to older work of mine. Those works were multiple exposures shot on 4x5 film through hand-cut masks that I inserted into the camera. This allowed me to only expose parts of the film at a time. I could create images that looked constructed in a way that conventional photographs cannot. At the same time, it was still a completely optical process, so in spite of the planning and control, unforeseen details were always recorded. I liked the way that process allowed me to have an idea for an image and to then make it exactly. The process made me feel like a machine–I had to follow my own instruction sets for how to make the work. It was with those works that I initially developed the Ursula character. Her face and various body parts appeared silhouetted and often repeated in a mechanical and detached manner.

ARCHER: ​​As an artist that works in a very controlled manner, how do you allow for any happy accidents to occur during the process?

WHITAKER: I started shooting conventional photographs again a few years ago and doing so allows for many more opportunities for chance. I still do sketches and plan things out but the planning takes a different form than when I was making the film works. Now I procure props, set materials, and garments. I research source imagery and lighting techniques. I buy or rent photographic equipment I need. Karen Meléndez, the model I like to work with, doesn’t live in NYC so when she is in town I shoot tons of work at once. Even with all the planning, it’s really hard to predict what will work when I’m actually shooting. Sometimes the photographs are essentially exactly how I planned and sometimes what I planned doesn’t work at all and the photograph will hinge on some unexpected gesture or lighting accident.

Ursula 3 #15 (left) and #6 (right) by Hannah Whitaker, Obscura Curated Commission.
Ursula 3 #15 (left) and #6 (right) by Hannah Whitaker, Obscura Curated Commission.

ARCHER: In the large scope of the project, AI and female voice assistants risk dulling our capability of intimacy. To me, these technologies become transactional and devoid of meaningful connection. Is this numbness of the digital era present in your work? Do we ever develop an empathy towards Ursula, or is the truth that one can not?  Are we in fact dehumanizing her, or is she actually a fully dimensional being, as you stated?

WHITAKER: Certainly Hollywood thinks so! The notion of a fabricated woman who is created to serve her maker has been in the public domain for a very long time. The story of the female form untethered from the complexities of an actual human being has been told many times. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, written 8 AD, Pygmalian hates women so he carves one out of ivory and falls in love with her. I’m not sure how it relates to intimacy but ubiquity of passive and servile female digital assistants certainly reinforces damaging stereotypes. It seems clear from the innumerous similar stories of fabricated women combined with the impulse to gender digital servants as female, that women, in general, are dehumanized in the popular imagination as a matter of course. I’m not sure why Ursula would be any different. One reason I want those tangles of hairs and glints of light on her eyes in the photographs is to insist on her humanity.

ARCHER: In respect to the NFT avatar-driven PFP way of life where anonymity is the superpower, it creates this contrast of alluring mystery and inherent disconnection. Is this something you are exploring with the silhouettes?

WHITAKER: Yes but only in the broadest possible sense. The work responds to a generalized sense of alienation and misrepresentation relating to technology and contemporary life. Online there’s difficulty in knowing people and being known in meaningful ways, particularly for women. Conversely there’s also a fear of being known, and there is a constant battle to protect oneself from unspecified threats. The work points to the complex relationship that human beings have with technology, which is constantly changing, and which no one could possibly fully understand in the moment.

ARCHER: There are elements of Trompe-l’oeil and illusion in your analogue-native work that manipulate the viewers’ perceptions and are intrinsic to your process. Do you feel this highlights the opportunities for disruption of non-digital-native art, like the impact of photography in the NFT space, as we continue to become more immersed in these digitally native worlds?

WHITAKER: I don’t tend to think of photography as not native to the digital space, though I get what you mean. I suppose NFTs started out with digitally-created images and photo NFTs came later. But photography has always been a huge part of the images trafficked online and a major driver of technology in hardware, software, and social media. Are the digitally native worlds interested in the veracity of an image? I don’t know!

I personally like to make my work in-camera, not out of a sense of superiority to digitally native imagery, but because I think my work is more complex when the real world inserts itself into it. Karen is always trying to smooth out her hair when we’re shooting but I love seeing a tangle of hairs recorded in high photographic resolution. That way the photographs contain more than just my own ideas.

Ursula 3 #26 (left) and #14 (right) by Hannah Whitaker, Obscura Curated Commission.
Ursula 3 #26 (left) and #14 (right) by Hannah Whitaker, Obscura Curated Commission.

ARCHER: Is there any deeper meta interconnection between the idea of “right-click & save” of images profierating the internet, on top of being a series of images of a digital servant? The use and abuse of power runs deep. Abuse meaning, the stealing of image use without proper credit exists in web2. Now Ursula 3 will be on-chain and can not be modified or detached from her owner.

WHITAKER: Right-clicking and saving images doesn’t bother me actually. I would be happy to have someone like my image enough to save it so they can look at it regularly. I mean, obviously I don’t want them to pass it off as their own or make money off it, but just saving it I’m okay with. To me, right clicking and saving isn’t an inherently abusive act and doesn’t undermine the commodity value of an NFT. But the connection that you’re drawing is interesting. I do think that the notion of a digital servant is related to wanting to have power over someone. Being able to abuse someone without any consequences comes with it. Maybe it relates to wanting to be able to do what you want all the time without constraint.

Ursula 3 #8 by Hannah Whitaker, Obscura Curated Commission.
Ursula 3 #8 by Hannah Whitaker, Obscura Curated Commission.

ARCHER: Do you see a conversation occurring between the Ursula character and these new contexts of blockchain, NFTs, and the metaverse that she now occupies?

WHITAKER: While I wasn’t thinking at all about NFTs when I developed the character, she certainly makes a lot of sense on a conceptual level in the NFT space. I mean, the project does touch directly on the question of how to represent people in the digital sphere.

ARCHER: In your artist’s statement, you mention you “usher her [Ursula] into a synthetic universe,” as if releasing her into the wild of the metaverse. Her release or escape into web3 is quite ironic in its evolution. If web3 is supposed to decentralize and flatten previous hierarchical societal constructs, can this new synthetic universe of the blockchain actually free her because inherently web3 hopes to disrupt and remove bureaucracy? Perhaps in effect she will be more free here than the gender bias that has been instilled previously?

WHITAKER: I would be shocked if Web3 will ultimately be spared the structural biases of the real world but I love your optimism! There’s a lot I don’t understand about Web3 but I don’t think anything made by people who developed consciousness in a flawed world (ie everyone) can really escape it.

ARCHER: With NFT culture highlighting digital, generative AI-driven art like nothing ever before in history, have these new technological paradigms inspired any thoughts on how you might introduce this into your own work? Have you ever considered implementing an actual AI process or forms of automation into your work processes that removes some of your control as an artist?

WHITAKER: The 4x5 film process started out as a way to remove some of my control as an artist. At the time I was thinking a lot about John Cage’s chance operations. But now that I’m working with a digital camera making conventional photographs, I don’t see myself relinquishing control any time soon. I’m really interested in photography as a medium–it’s history, its influence on culture, its power to seduce. In that sense, I’m still very interested in making my own specific kind of photographs. I want the images I make to comment on contemporary life but also relate to some of the images that I drew from– like album art from the 70s, or fashion photography from the 60s, or posters from the 80s.

ARCHER: Apparently, Siri got her name after the Norwegian name that means "beautiful woman who leads you to victory," can I ask why “Ursula?” WHITAKER: I have also heard that Siri was named for a specific woman – a Norwegian meteorologist named Siri Kalvig. I chose the name Ursula for a few reasons. I liked that it's a name that feels both old fashioned and futuristic at the same time. It’s also frightened with a lot of associations– the witch from the Little Mermaid, Ursula le Guin the feminisit sci-fi writer, and Ursula Andress a Swiss actress/bond girl/sex symbol. The triangulation of the villain, sci-fi, and iconic beauty seemed about right.

Ursula 3 #11 by Hannah Whitaker, Obscura Curated Commission.
Ursula 3 #11 by Hannah Whitaker, Obscura Curated Commission.

ARCHER: What are you most excited about with what the blockchain offers for artists and what Obscura is doing in partnership with your future path?

WHITAKER: Obscura basically funded the making of a ton of new work with no strings attached. I had total creative freedom. That’s never happened to me before in my entire career and it felt amazing. In general what I’m most excited about is the availability of new models of living and working for artists. I still operate in and appreciate the legacy art world but few would argue that it serves all artists well. I’m all for the creation of new income streams for artists, new opportunities for discourse about art, and new forms of community-building.

Ursula 3 #22 by Hannah Whitaker, Obscura Curated Commission.
Ursula 3 #22 by Hannah Whitaker, Obscura Curated Commission.

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