Playing virtual dress ups

Mitchell Whitelaw

The Men Who Knew Too Much, Virtual Humanoids

The Men Who Knew Too Much, Virtual Humanoids

dLux media arts’ annual futureScreen event sets out to explore new media hotspots formed at the intersections of art practice, cultural theory and new technologies. 1998’s inaugural event, Immersive Conditions, considered virtual space; last year, AvAtArs | phantom agents took on virtual identity through the figure of the avatar, the placeholder for the self in online virtual environments.

Jeffrey Cook opened proceedings with a paper offering a useful prehistory for the notion of the avatar—a corrective, as Cook noted, to the tendency for new media discourse to naively overestimate its own “newness.” In fact “avatar” is an ancient Sanskrit word—literally meaning “descent”—which referred to the embodiment or manifestation of a god on the earthly plane. As Cook explained, this original usage also suggests a kind of divine multiplicity, a single perfect identity manifest in multiple earthly aspects. However the term’s contemporary meaning, Cook suggested, is also shaped by the more troubled figure of the Golem—in Jewish mythology, an artificial being with a crude clay body brought to life by a heretical cleric. The Golem is thoroughly imperfect, a kludgy construction, a product of fallible technology and human hubris, but it’s magically autonomous—clay with a spark of the divine.

If the avatar is, as Cook suggested, a mixture of god and Golem, at AvAtArs the Golems had the numbers, at least initially. The technology was as fallible as ever, and the online virtual worlds and their avatar inhabitants were weighed down by the kludgy clay of crude 3D geometry and slow net connections. Merryn Neilson and Dave Rasmussen, virtual world designers, were to play host to the remote presence of Bruce Damer, cyberculture’s most prominent avatar evangelist. Neither Damer nor his avatar could be found: we waited, and waited, passing the time zooming through some airy virtual architecture and watching the assembled avatars run through their preset repertoire of kung-fu and ballet moves. Finally Damer appeared in the form of a giant, beaming sphinx-head which spoke in that tinny, choppy stutter of real-time internet audio. “Hello”, it said, “can you hear me?” We switched virtual environments in order to see a webcam image of Damer waving hello once again. These tortuous negotiations with the medium left no time, or energy, for actual “content”—and gave a decidedly underwhelming impression of life as an avatar.

Next Fletcher Andersen, another builder of virtual worlds, introduced his Pollen environment and his avatar persona, Facter Pollen, before giving a clear-headed comparative outline of online environments such as ActiveWorlds and EverQuest. Andersen reported the startling statistic that EverQuest, essentially a giant networked role-playing game, has some 150,000 subscribers who pay $US10 per month in order to keep playing. Welcome to the new economy of online identity. While open about the limitations of these systems and the restrictions which they place on their avatars, Andersen expressed a hope that with technological advances we might soon be able to experience “a true existence within virtual worlds.” Miriam English, another Australian world-builder, anticipated a similar technological progression, culminating in the eventual dominance of virtual worlds over film as a fictional medium.

These presentations represent a “head-on” approach to avatars and virtual worlds; following a conventional VR paradigm, they pursue an ideal of immediacy and immersion which involves pushing against stubborn technological and representational obstacles. Happily, other presenters took on avatars in more tangential and strategic ways. Keynote speaker Adriene Jenik led a performance of a brief excerpt from her Santaman’s Harvest, a chatroom morality play on the evils of genetically-modified food. While it too was fully-laden with technological and representational kludge, some striking and funny theatrical moments filtered through the graphic chat-space which it inhabited. An international ensemble of avatar-actors joined Jenik’s own avatar, the “Prof”, in a loose, haphazard narrative which staked out a performance-space in a cyberspatial public plaza; the finest moments came as an innocent member of the online public stumbled in, blithely looking for someone in her home town to chat to. In the process of striving to maintain a sense of drama, or convey topical content in a normally vacuous virtual space, Jenik’s work develops a keen sense of the social and institutional dynamics which shape those spaces and their avatars.

Others offered a more personal perspective on virtual identity. Bondage mistress and sex industry activist Mistress Eve Black (herself presenting through an “avatar” stand-in) made a clear argument for the value of sexual role-play and identity-shifting. Role-play is ubiquitous, she reminded us—to a greater or lesser extent, we take on socially-prescribed identities in everyday life. Black warned that the current wave of censorship, which has attacked the non-prescribed roles of B&D, involves a narrowing of options for identity-formation and sexual expression. Moving back online, local artist Graham Crawford gave a candid guided tour of his own avatar-selves, “fractal personalities” woven into a hypernetwork of lavish animation. Interestingly the web, which can be both private and public, contained and open, seems to offer an ideal medium for these split selves: each subdirectory can house another past life or lover, neatly enclosed but easily navigated and unpacked. As well these selves are mobile and replicable: a portion of Crawford’s site had recently been mirrored on an overseas server, moving beyond the control of its original “host” to become an autonomous part-self.

Dr Jyanni Steffensen presented another case study in labyrinthine identity, discussing Suzanne Treister’s CD-ROM No Other Symptoms: Time Travelling with Rosalind Brodsky (see Joni Taylor’s review, page 22). Here Brodsky, both “virtual subject” and alter ego for Treister, is the central figure in a dense fantasy world which mingles personal and public histories and fictions, rewriting Freud, Lacan and Kristeva. As in Crawford’s work, complex virtual identities are constructed, explored and exploited through interactive forms—the conventional VR “avatar” is nowhere to be seen. That figure has its uses, though, as Simon Hill and Adam Nash showed. The wooden, “salaryman” personas of their performance art troupe The Men Who Knew Too Much are ideally suited to translation into VR—and their work Virtual Humanoids promises to give virtuality the absurdist send-up it so badly needs.

Finally Stelarc, virtually present via prerecorded video, presented the concept for Movatar, an “inverse avatar” that extends his work with corporeal remote-control. As planned, Movatar describes a tight engagement between avatar and physical body: the performer (“the human”) wears a motion-control prosthesis, a pneumatically-actuated exoframe which moves its host’s limbs like a puppet. This prosthesis is controlled by an autonomous virtual entity, the “digital Movatar.” In an elegant circuit, the digital Movatar is fed sound from the motion of its pneumatic “muscles”; it is “startled”, and changes its behaviour in response. The human body is caught in a feedback loop between the disembodied autonomous entity and its physical machinery, possessed by an unstable avatar.

Movatar raises the close coupling of avatar and host, and of reality and virtuality, in a quite confronting way. It recalled an image that Jeffrey Cook had earlier borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari, of the wasp and the orchid co-forming each other, co-evolving in a double spiral of imitation. Our avatars, Cook proposed, might relate to us in the same way: not as simple projections or representations, but as artificial entities which inflect their creators, “both shaped and shaping.” Cook’s notion was borne out by the more interesting work presented at this forum: rather than an idealised virtual presence, this avatar is used knowingly and experimentally in a game of virtual dress-ups with a serious agenda: the transformation of the self.

dLux media arts, futureScreen 99: AvAtArs | phantom agents, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, November 6 – 7, 1999.

RealTime issue #35 Feb-March 2000 pg. 21

© Mitchell Whitelaw; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2000
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