“The Affliction of Aesthetics”

Patty Nicole Johnson
  • In a world plagued by acid rain, humans remain indoors and interact via their proxy avatars. Young journalist Melam is assigned to profile the preeminent avatar designer Uzo Tunde. What begins as a regular interviewing assignment turns into a fantastical showcase of self expression as Melam explores Uzo's elaborate world.
18 min read

Melam partially unzipped the full body control unit and took a deep breath. It was crafted from lightweight fabric, yet designed to fit snuggly enough to capture the most microscopic of movements.

Her usual avatar control unit, just gloves and boots, was government-issued. But since she was recently chosen to profile the preeminent avatar designer of western society, she apparently needed an upgrade to fully report on the experience.

Indifference swept through Melam’s thoughts when first receiving the assignment. Even though Uzo Tunde asked for her by name after reading her profile of a 16-year-old indigenous climate activist, her mood remained unchanged. 

As a Black woman, supporting other women of color was what you were supposed to do. Yet, part of Melam resisted the potential charity. True, she was only a junior reporter, still fledging in her career. But she worked for The New York Times, a feat that only occurred after becoming the youngest editor of her college’s weekly arts magazine and securing letters of recommendation from the Dean and multiple alumni. 

Even when researching the avatar designer and discovering her familial roots also stretched back to Antebellum South, she still kept the towering figure at arm’s length. In the years since college, Melam realized the futility of getting absorbed by the hype of any one person. Its only benefit was to tarnish the reporter’s credibility. In fact, she’d been labeled a cynic among her colleagues. She considered that an accomplishment.

Now Melam’s avatar sat alone in Uzo’s dressing room, finding it hard to focus on her interview questions with the control unit violating every inch of her skin. She rezipped and wiggled her bum to a somewhat less uncomfortable position and tried to reflect on the surroundings of the genderless, gray avatar she controlled from miles away in her apartment. 

The Associated Press, along with its opinions on hyphens and capitalization, issued the first blueprints for the ideal media avatar that was forgettable enough to blend into the background and never become the story. Each major publication produced slight variations of the gray avatar based on their own house style.

It was hard to make an impression from the room’s contents. Art was never neat, but Melam was puzzled at the small space. To her front was a full-length dressing mirror with an elevated desk to the left. This meant Uzo was wearing one of her taller avatars, a note Melam stored in her mind bank. The couch Melam sat on was an emerald green tweed fabric. Uzo’s assistant cleared it of fabric swatches, dried crickets, and sketches before allowing her to sit. A poster was mounted behind her that read, “Bleed to find the beauty.” 

The door opened and Uzo sauntered in without the swarm of assistants that usually trailed. Melam turned and smiled as Uzo’s angular avatar sat at the desk. Like many designers, she often kept her own look simple. A royal blue caftan fell to the ankles of the seven-foot-humanoid android. Her head was a smooth oval wrapped in golden braids that swarmed upwards until they met at a sharp point.

Melam noted how this look was more stylized than her normal show avatars. For one collection, she co-opted the gray drudgery of the media avatars.

“Everyone is so excited for your newest collection,” said Melam, breaking the silence. Her digital eyes darted up and down Uzo’s form, banking each detail. Melam often began with flattery to loosen up the subject. They usually bit with a giggle or soft smile, their ego satiated. 

“Yes, child.” Uzo returned blank-faced. “I await everyone’s reaction, too. But of course, art is subjective. I cannot be sure it will be well received.”

Melam’s brows narrowed on the geometric form in front of her. Uzo sat with perfect posture, glaring at the mirror ahead. Her bronze-tinted alloy skin radiated from every inch of her exterior. “Are you saying you’re nervous?” Melam asked, straightening up.

“No, that sensation left me long ago. For I no longer make art for the masses,” she said, turning so the tip of her sharp nose peeked from beneath her braids. “I simply reflect the truth of the moment.”

“Right, your work has long been seen as a dialogue between expression and justice. Do you feel that to be the case?” Melam asked, reciting her first pre-written question.

“It is not my role to dissect what is said of me. I just create and people, like you, judge.”

Melam thought for a moment. Judging her work would require an interest in haute avatar design, which served no utilitarian purpose. Melam would never feign interest, yet she tried a softer approach. “I do examine the motivations behind figures and their movements, but I could never judge your work.” Melam searched for her own expression. “I don’t have an eye.”

“You see there’s one regret I have.”

While Uzo was still positioned toward Melam, she feared she no longer had her attention.

“Madam Uzo?”

“Yes, child.”

“Your regret. You were just saying-”

“Never mind all that. The show is just beginning. You should grab your seat.”

Melam hesitated a second, then rose. It took six steps for her short legs to reach the door. During that time, she looked back twice, seeing if Uzo had returned her gaze. She had not.

 

While Uzo’s dressing room was quiet, the other side of the door was ignited with movement. Each stage hand’s avatar was transparent and shone a light source at the head. Like genius was always sprouting. They each sprinted in various directions performing their various tasks. One consulted the musical array with the audio engineer. Another reviewed the lineup of the model procession.

Melam loved what she did because it’s how she learned about the world.

Everyone knew the dangers of acidic rain. The world’s population was a pH-imbalanced storm cloud away from death or disfigurement. It was widely believed that the United Nations’ Avatar Act of 2245 gave humans agency in their ability to battle the outdoor elements. Yet to climate activists, this was merely propaganda and a way for governments to divest themselves from environmentalism. She was not sure what about avatar design could help her greater outlook of the world, but she wasn’t going to give up. Each of her pieces had to leave a mark.

While the results of this night could typecast Melam as a fluff piece writer or elevate her as a true journalist that could find the story anywhere, she sensed it was even a bigger evening for Uzo.  

For weeks, Melam absorbed all she could about the designer. She learned her work was discovered by chance when she was just a girl. At age seven, she had major depression and found solace by altering and dressing her avatars. Through word of mouth, people visited her home to see her looks, and she was eventually granted a contract with a major art house. 

“I don’t feel like myself without my creations,” a popular soundbite of twelve-year-old Uzo revealed.

Melam watched videos of an older Uzo walking among her gardens, each filled with a menagerie of animals. The designer spoke about her inspirations. In the Cassava collection, each avatar sported appendages inspired by farming tools of the Congo. The collection was a pinnacle year for avatar philanthropy. Uzo gifted the entire collection to the Luba tribe and established a lifetime maintenance plan for full support. She also opened an engineering school in the area so tribe members could learn the craft and cease reliance on outside agents. Designers found inspiration in Uzo’s good deeds and began their own incubation programs. 

At her last show, Uzo made a grand proclamation that the next event would be special, “one unlike any other before.” 

 

#

The press gaggle at the center of the room was easy to spot. Blurred heads of gray, etched at the chest with their publication’s insignia. Each of the established photographers and writers who filled the seats was absorbed in lively conversation, as they were undoubtedly on the same Arts & Culture beat. They turned and nodded when they saw Melam take her seat, yet quickly returned to each other.

“I don’t know,” a writer from The Guardian said. “I’ll have to say the Stripon Collection was my favorite. It had just the right amount of angst and accessibility.”

“You’re just saying that because it was inducted into the Met last year,” the heathered gray avatar of The Washington Post said. “Real stretch of mind.”

“I can’t help it that I have good taste,” The Guardian said, crossing a slate appendage over the other and looking off into the distance.

“The Seafom collection,” Melam said softly. People played this game often. Asking what was her most daring collection. A never-ending exercise.

The chatter ceased. She hadn’t realized she’d taken part. She tensed in her studio apartment, tightening the grip of the control unit further. 

“And why is that?” The Guardian asked.

Melam saw a dozen figures facing her direction. Searching her mind bank she began, “Because the-”

“Because of the perceived lack of design at all,” The Post interrupted. “Good choice.”

The chatter between the group resumed.

Melam realized she’d named the Barren Collection, as dubbed by the media. The one year the avatars wore no clothing. Yet there were intricate etchings on their forms. She didn’t remember that collection making an impression on her. It wasn’t among the list of questions. But, of course, it stuck out because of its vulnerability. 

Years before the Barren collection, demands to go bigger kept mounting. Uzo delivered with a larger, more elaborate showcase each time. It was two years into her next show and everyone theorized it was going to break barriers. Yet she defied them all. Taking a step back, for herself. 

Melam smiled in her apartment. 

 

A loud boom radiated from the rafters signaling the beginning of the preshow. Small beetle-like creatures skittered across the stage. The platform was a massive, elevated structure downturned in areas so it was both above and beneath the audience at once. Melam conceded that Uzo was a master of dichotomy.

Each androidized beetle left a trail of color in its wake. Snakes of deep violets and tempting scarlets bathed the platform. Within seconds, the lights ceased and returned to reveal a musician at the center-left. Its avatar reminded Melam of Uzo. Their feminine face was digitized over an intricate weaving of jutted braids, rising two feet before cascading downward to form a twisted bodysuit. 

Their hands were waving a jornolin, the long metal stick with micro holes in its shaft that took up sound as it moved through the air. Without practice, the only output was a mellow shrill, but this musician produced sharp melodies that rose and fell with ease. Melam wished she knew their name for her notes. Undoubtedly, a fledgling performer. 

The words, “Jacana Strong” floated about the air in playful holographs as the sound began to quiet. Melam quickly banked the note for later research.

As Jacana bowed for her ovation, Melam drifted to a conversation she had with Uzo weeks prior. The topic kept shifting to Melam’s upbringing and career path. She tried to keep on topic, but Uzo kept deviating, asking for bits about her background and relating her own experiences. After a while, the words spoken were just about Melam. 

“I read your profile on James Silk. Even without interviewing him firsthand, you were able to bring a sense of intimacy to the piece.”

“You read my undergraduate work?”

“Yes, of course. I don’t just pick my interviewers out of a hat. Like you, I conduct research.”

Melam raised her haptic glove to her face, feeling her cheeks warm.

The first model appeared. Only a foot was visible to the crowd while the body was covered in a haze of smoke. The fog formed a cloudy mass that followed the model as they made their way to the front of the platform. Then with a cease of the speakers, the fog lifted and a partition appeared. 

The glass screen had a slight glimmer with the humanoid figure behind it. It was cast in a glow so small that it was difficult to determine whether it was in fact there. Second by second, the form grew in size until it was in scale with the partition. The model was walking forward, yet kept moving until seemingly transferring between the glass. They were no longer a beacon of light but a moving free-form avatar.

The crowd erupted in laughter and applause. The avatar was nearly eight feet and its body was extremely boxy with an oversized right arm resembling a forklift while the left arm dangled to the side like an unused pulley. The avatar managed to both roll on a conveyor belt of sorts and hop along its remaining foot. As they made a lap around the circular walk you could see intricate patterns embedded within its form. Some resembled hatch markings like the counting of a trapped cave dweller. Their face was extremely feminine with exaggerated curved lips and sweeping, flapping eyelashes. The eyebrows were digitized and changed every few seconds to create a new expression. Draped over the chest was green caution tape in intricate calligraphy.

In the near distance was a second figure, making the same journey across the partition’s threshold. Coming in a foot shorter, its jet black body sparkled in melaninated glory. Melam noted that while the first was a study in utility, this second was a meditation on brute strength. The curves of the avatar were much softer, yet still bulbous in form. Each step of the asymmetrical body pronounced a sharp pound that was echoed by vibration in the seats. The only piece of clothing the avatar wore was a red cloth over its genital region. Theories of what this could mean were exchanged among the reporters.

“No, it’s just for modesty,” The Guardian whispered. “You couldn’t very well have an anatomically correct penis in this show.”

“When has Uzo steered away from controversy before?” The Post said.

They were right, this had to mean something. Melam’s thoughts hovered over her mind bank as she studied the herculean figure. Stop, she said to herself. No entry. Gaze on my form but you cannot have all of me. She saved the note as the next model took the stage.

Even with optical zoom, the next avatar was hard to see. There appeared to be a trend where each subsequent model fell shorter. At first sight, there were no non-humanoid traits of the slender figure ahead. Still tall at around 6’5, their dimensions were all in scale. The model sported the protracted walk of an inaugural avatar that was stumpy and interrupted with a short hesitation at irregular intervals. There was silence among the entire audience as everyone seemed to share a collective confusion. Yet there were selective gasps among the front row as the avatar passed by. Its form, which seemed to be made with the standard aluminum alloy, was bathed in a taupe hue that was not that at all. The color enveloping the form was seemingly melting and sliding off at minuscule drips that were only visible when they passed. Beneath a plexiglass form revealed the inner workings of the avatar.

The crowd grew louder now as the revelation was shared amongst audience members until reaching the back row.

Only when the crowd quieted did the next avatar grace the stage. A familiar figure came into view. It was the braided avatar from before. 

“That was an Uzo design!” a voice proclaimed.

Everyone rose to their feet, clapping and theorizing how this look, too, fit into the collective work. 

The final model was next and the stage changed. The platform broke into pieces and was lifted toward the rafters. Each piece seemed to shimmy a bit and take a long, circular route to its final resting place in the ceiling. These dance-like movements captivated the crowd. But their attention was soon stolen by a winding staircase being lowered to the floor. 

An appendage touched the top step. Optical lenses on many of the audience members zoomed into the faraway form. Melam felt a pain in her chest. Taking a deep breath she clenched her fist and remained seated, choosing to trust the art that was soon to meet them. 

One by one, limbs descended the steps. Eyes narrowed as reporters and onlookers alike tried to make out the materials. 

“It’s way too soft looking to be aluminum. Perhaps, a fast-acting putty? I’ve heard they were dabbling with it in Korea,” The Guardian offered to his distracted colleagues.

Guesses kept creeping into Melam’s thoughts but she batted them away. Emptying her mind.

As the figure reached the bottom of the steps and stood before the crowd, silence again dominated. 

A close-cropped blonde afro sat atop the head of a middle-aged, Black, female human in all her flesh. Thick arms stood connected to a strong body wearing an ebony leotard. Images of Melam’s aunties filled her head as she felt the resemblance of eons of shared history. 

“For my final look,” Uzo’s human body spoke. “I offer myself. For the materials, I am a mosaic of organs architected by a network of veins that offer both utility and design. For my skin protects me from the sun while highlighting all the glory that’s kept within.”

The room ignited with flash photography as Uzo spun and took bows at each corner of the room. Squawks vibrated from the media. Melam felt pitted, like the experience squeezed her soul too tight. But she couldn’t really put it to words. So she sat, reflecting. Occasionally, catching Uzo in her sightline.

She watched as her dimples stuck out beneath the blush on Uzo’s face and how she often erupted in laughter, forcing smiles on others. Soon the swarming media encased her in all directions. Melam remained back, banking notes at the spectacle. 

At times, she gravitated closer to transcribe the framing of their questions. Many seemed to think the collection was a political expression and a denouncement of avatars in their entirety. As she was known to, Uzo offered no comment and instead spoke about the creation process. 

#

Hours later when the crowd waned and the cleaning crew nearly completed disassembling the stage, Melam found Uzo in her dressing room. 

“You’re probably tired of all the questions.”

“Yes, child it has been a day.”

“We can wrap up another time, once you’ve rested.”

“Now is fine, while I’m still in the moment,” Uzo said, as she raised her arms wide.

The nervousness of speaking with Uzo the first time returned. 

“Tell me, child. When was the last time you’ve spoken to someone in their flesh?”

Melam searched her mind. She wasn’t married, so she hadn’t engaged in non-avatar sex yet. “Some time when I was young, I guess.”

“My regret,” Uzo began, “the one I alluded to before, is that I’ve clouded public perception of avatars. Your piece on climate activism showed me the ills of this profession. If there wasn’t this romanticized image of avatars, maybe we’d have a solution to climate change.”

“I don’t know if that’s true. It’s going to take a long time to undo the woes of society. Eliminating the last 50 years of environmental neglect would only scratch the surface.”

Now that Uzo was in her true form, she held Melam’s gaze soundly. “I’d like you to announce my retirement.”

“What? Why?”

“Primarily, the reason I just told you.

Melam’s head swarmed in confusion.

“People are already doing great work in the climate space. Your impact is here.” Melam took a long breath. “I never quite understood your effect on people. I’d thought this was all superficial. Yet, I experienced something today that was both fleeting yet entirely satisfying. The wonder of what’s coming down the runway, the lyrical interplay between man and machine, it was overwhelming. It hurt in its profundity, actually. But I wanted more. It wasn’t an experience I knew was needed. And now I can’t imagine people never experiencing it.” 

Tears welled in Melam’s eyes, yet she smiled.

“Thank you, child. Many have expressed similar sentiments but I prefer the rawness of yours. Truthfully, the reaction my work derives brings me more joy than the creation process. These years have been good to me, but this chapter is over. Now, I wish to elicit a less fleeting response. One that reverberates for eons.”

Moments passed as the human and gray avatar stood in silence. 

“Do you have any more questions? When can I expect your piece to publish?”

“I’m unsure. I don’t have an angle.

“Whatever form it takes, I’ll be thrilled to read it.”

 

#

Thirty minutes later, Melam’s avatar arrived at the office and docked on its charging pad. As it powered down, the control unit opened and released the pressure. Melam rubbed her arms where the creases met and applied coconut oil, generously. Removing her hair from the low bun, she fluffed up her kinks while massaging her scalp. All the while, her thoughts floated with ease. 

She sunk into her couch and smiled as a phrase drifted above the mélage. Giggling to herself, she toggled open her mind bank and saved the working title, “The Affliction of Aesthetics.” 

 

************

Are you a writer?  We’re looking for short stories and personal essays to feature on our digital and print platforms. Click HERE to find out how.

Scroll To Top