The Art of Kiss
by Blackhawk

I first encountered KiSS several years ago in the process of researching a large essay on the culture of Anime called, "Triumph of the Cute", wherein I sought to examine the operation of popular mythic forms on youth culture & why the Nihonjin (Japanese) variety should have lately proved so much more evocative in the West than the Western forms themselves. This in turn led me to Hentai, or Anime & Manga devoted to sexual topics, & its corollary, Doujinshi, the often home-brewed spiritual descendant of the venerable "Tijuana Bibles", wherein familiar Anime & Manga characters are portrayed in all manner of smutty derring-do. & there, on some obscure web-page long since returned to the atomic sump of individual de-rezzed pixels from whence it came, under the somewhat blank heading of "Interactives", I saw my first KiSS Set. This was a rather simple affair, depicting a member of the Kogyaru (Nihonjin Schoolgirl caste) in what looked to be the midst of a gynecological examination. Indeed, the User could take the traditional role in "playing doctor" & the various effects, few & primitive though they were, still had the power to satisfy on some Ur-adolescent level. I immediately saw that there was more here than met the eye of the average hormone-addled mouth-breather.

With a rapidity peculiar to the Net, I soon discovered that this first Set I had seen, while well-known, was not particularly sophisticated in re the purveyance of smut, & that in addition to far more elaborate Hentai-KiSS, the smutty stuff was itself but an outrigger (albeit a highly charged & nuanced one), to a corpus of what can best be described as "Doll Culture". As I accumulated ever & more of these virtual dolls & came to better learn about the various artists & the social structures they had constructed around their practice, it dawned on me that I was witness to something extremely special & possibly even unique. I don't recall now if at that time I had formulated a personal policy in re engagement vs disengagement for what I now see as areas of "popular" or "indigenous" art-practice on the Net. Surely I was aware of no private battle-ground as has manifested in the realm of anthropology -- at first I was content to lurk on the various boards, fora, & lists where KiSS was discussed & promulgated as I learned more about the personalities central to this "Doll World", the structures in which they dialogued, & the methods by which they disseminated their work... meanwhile I was accumulating a plethora of KiSS Sets (which then, as now are freely distributed; though *not* "freeware"). The search for the Sets themselves was a challenge as many came from Asian sites which were poorly documented at the time. Eventually I learned the doll-hunter's tricks like pasting in the ASCII string representing the word "Kisekae" into the query box of Asian search engines, even though I did not have the correct character-set to display the word on my own screen. Since KiSS Sets are distributed in the LHA archive format I came to feel the prospector's thrill of a strike when confronted by a page of illegible foreign characters accompanied by thumbnails of Anime figures & links to files ending in ".lzh". After a while I had more, (& more obscure) Sets than many of my less diligent (or driven) collecting peers who had been at it far longer.

By that point I realized how very extraordinary some of the social structures & individuals in the Doll World truly were. I also saw that many of the artists were quite young, some hailing from areas so culturally benighted that it was practically miraculous that they found it within themselves to practice such an involved form of creative expression all the while surrounded by local sociologies which would have snuffed it out. I saw a general lack of information on issues of culture, particularly so-called "high culture", & an equally large void in the area of acquaintance with traditional artist's permissions & ethics, to say nothing of self-definition. Very few of the KiSS artists knew themselves to be artists at all, most thought of themselves as "fans" or "hobbyists" -- some could see that they were indeed making (an) art or practicing an art-form but couldn't take the next step of realizing that ipso facto this made them "real" artists. So as the first (& only) professional critic to set foot in this Doll World, it was then -- through the agency of a trusty (tho manneristic) Avatar -- that I decided to finally open my big mouth.

I had no doubt that I wanted to do something both there in the Doll World & also in the "regular" art world, that I wanted some connection, some combination, some cross-pollination, since I thought both professional fine artists & these mostly self-taught & generally impassioned "folk" practitioners could learn much from each other. It was then I hit upon the project I will briefly describe below. Meanwhile I have continued to attempt to serve this digital community just as I would "minister" to a local community of "real life" artists, sometimes attempting to resolve ethical dilemmas or provide basic (& not so basic) info on what it means to be a working artist -- in generally simplified ways, to explain the relationship between theory & practice, to advise on legal matters (since appropriation is a legitimate part of KiSS), & to function as a general aesthetic factotum. In addition I found myself suggesting various art schools to some of the teenaged practitioners or writing letters of recommendation for them, in short, the entire gamut of remote avuncular parenting. Needless to say I also made many friends (& perhaps a few enemies) & so while I am still perfectly able to see where the Doll World exists in reference to the "real" art world I am the scion of, I can see no valid argument which suggests I have lost any "critical distance" by virtue of my direct involvement in the KiSS Community.

As enthusiasts for a "popular form", the KiSS community is made up of an extremely diverse constituency, all manner of cultures inform the members who exhibit a vast range in levels of education & acculturation as well as expectations both for themselves & their socioculture. The Doll World also embraces a wide variety of motives in Kiss aficionados; some are kids who like dolls, some are older kids who like fashion, or comic books, or Anime -- the classic trope is that of the young girl dress-up with her dolls while her somewhat older brother plays with these same dolls by way of projecting sexual fantasies about his favorite Anime or cartoon characters on to them. Some KiSS fans see the very act of disrobing a doll to be sexual while others would scoff at the notion that anyone could have an erotic response to what they see as children's toys; still others see KiSS Sets as games wherein the object is to find what might be subtle effects or animations -- & beyond that, there are some who treat the medium as a stripped-down template for a specific kind of conceptual art practice which often makes use of mannequins. Further, we now see an entire generation coming of age for whom what were formerly distinctions between "illusion" & "reality" have no meaning whatsoever -- for them perhaps each Doll is something like what their elders would consider a homunculus... what this portends is in some senses frightening, but in any case it is also utterly fascinating.

The project I had envisioned consisted of a multi-part, multimedia website & accompanying museum or gallery exhibition (contrasting classic paper dolls with KiSS Sets). It would include an involved description of what Kiss was in the theoretical as well as practical sense & attempt to deconstruct the cognitive process whereby a KiSS Set is created so as to distill a clear-cut set of methodologies which could in turn serve as the legal basis which would allow Kiss Sets to bear their own copyrights regardless of the prior publication of any CR'd or TM'd characters appearing in them. There would also be a symposium in which fine artists would dialogue with KiSS artists & upon its conclusion the resultant text would become part of the site. The overarching thesis for the enterprise dealt with the synthetic recombination of the Modernist Project's de facto definition of an "art of the future". So in plundering the recrudescence of XXth C. formalist art criticism one can construct the following manifesto describing a hypothetical "Art of the Future":

It will be democratic, anyone able to participate.

It will be innately non-hierarchical, there will be no way to buy or inherit status.

It will be free from all pressures of Market Force, there will be no medium of exchange except the art itself & none other necessary.

It will organically produce its own support apparatus, those with the time, talent & ability will insure that a viable structure exists to perpetuate it.

It will share & delegate the creative process between the artists & the viewers (users).

It will contain its own critical mechanisms in organic patterns of feedback & communication.

It will be a working meritocracy, those with superior ability will be generally recognized as such w/out the necessity of external promotion.

It will make no practical distinction between skill & concept, these things will be interchangeable in the attainment of quality.

It will naturally possess a diversity of subject so that all who have particular & varied tastes will find a satisfying experience.

It will allow for a universal means of appropriation &/or recontextualization.

Artist, viewer (user), critic, dealer (provider) & collector will be interchangeable parts in a single structure.

Needless to say, every single one of these tenets is concretized in the Doll World. Is this a coincidence, an accident, or is there some determinative reason for it which has so far defied easy analysis? Alas, the KiSS Community is no longer as utopic as once it was. While it has yet to be assailed by a major lawsuit from the commercial publisher of any of the cartoon or anime characters frequently found in KiSS Sets, quite recently the main archive & distribution point for KiSS has been required to switch to a subscription basis (due to the rapidly changing nature of Net economics); while many of the Sets there are still available for free at some other location, the site's other function as the hub of the KiSS Community itself may have been somewhat compromised.

Still, KiSS is unique in that unlike other "popular forms" no distinction is made between producer & consumer -- all fans are actively encouraged to be artists as well. KiSS General Specifications (KGS) was written to be something akin to a "people's code" & any reasonably bright person should be able to master it, regardless of their utter unfamiliarity with computers or coding. While some of the more exotic effects require a deal of skill &/or craft there are many poignant & beautiful results possible utilizing only the most basic of technique. There is little unanimity about what makes for a good KiSS Set; some insist on a catholic representation of certain popular (or not so popular) characters, some require elegant code, some want a polished aesthetic presentation, others want all other considerations to be slaved to concerns for "doll play", & still others seek some form of sexual gratification (whether the Set in question is intended as "adult" or not). Indeed there are those who would never be caught dead "playing with dolls" who are yet KiSS addicts.

The KiSS Community itself is immersive, participatory, & extremely supportive of its members -- actively practicing such hoary & usually evanescent directives such as "each one teach one", "multifunction through collaboration", "collective consciousness by distribution of resources", & many others besides. The Community includes young teens & graybeards, religious zealots & self-described perverts, the self-taught & the holders of advanced academic degrees. Despite these & other profound differences all these diverse types are united in their appreciation (though that may itself take a variety of forms) of the Kisekae Set System. For many of the members (the young & also the not so young), The KiSS Community is their first glimpse of what it means to be part of a community of artists; where they will learn to balance the need to do the work & have it seen, with the need to hone their discipline so the work itself might more closely match their concept &/or intent. For many it is the first taste of the myriad of responsibilities which attend a life devoted (at least in part) to creativity. For these & many, many other reasons, the Doll World is a kind of ship in a bottle, a "pocket art world" which has many beguiling (& sometimes frustrating) similarities to, yet also profound (& hopeful) differences from its "real life" art world analog.

May, 20001