My Life as an Avatar

“My Life as an Avatar”

Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real? ~J.K. Rowling

This is the story of Gracie Kendal. Gracie has it all; she is a beautiful, thin, blond-haired, blue-eyed woman. She has a plethora of amazing friends; she lives in a beautiful lake-front home with three dogs and has her own loft studio. Gracie is a well-known, successful artist exhibiting in dozens of solo and group shows. She has been written about in numerous magazines and art journals, has been interviewed on television and she has been listed as one of the 10 most influential artists.

Gracie’s life began three and a half years ago. She is an avatar. She is my avatar. Her life involves living in the virtual world of Second Life, walking around in a pixilated body and communicating through text. She is my self-portrait, my alter ego, my inner conscience. She is a character in my life story that revolves around the loss of identity, self-awareness and self acceptance. Gracie saved me by allowing me to escape from a world of suffocation, judgment and criticism.

Using Gracie as a form of self-presentation, I started to explore my relationship with my body as well as question my own identity. I realized that everything going on in my life was manifesting in my body and in the figure of Gracie. Both were becoming a site for anxiety, fear, stress, grief, loneliness and depression. My body and that of my avatar became a source of autobiographical material in which a story was being written.

While dealing with the internal and physical realities of my body, I started to explore external, bigger questions about myself: Who am I? What am I? Why am I here? What is my purpose? What makes me happy? This in turn pushed me to explore what it means to be Gracie. Who is she? Why did I choose her? Does she really represent me? Why is she here? Why am I here with her? Am I happy as Gracie? What part of me is Gracie? In the article “First Person Plural” Paul Bloom discusses the idea that each person contains multiple selves, all fighting for control. “Many researchers now believe, to varying degrees, that each of us is a community of competing selves, with the happiness of one often causing the misery of another. This theory might explain certain puzzles of everyday life, such as why addictions and compulsions are so hard to shake off, and why we insist on spending so much of our lives in worlds- like TV shows and novels and virtual reality experiences…”[1] Gracie is one or more of these competing selves. She is both the angel and devil sitting on my shoulders.

When I created Gracie, I hadn’t realized how she would change my life. By creating this fantasy representation, I was projecting my ideal self onto another form. I recognized that I was confronting my own imperfections. I have always been self-conscious of my body. I have never been happy with my appearance. This is symbolic of the personal anxiety and loss of identity that occurs in a world where visually aggressive advertisements dictate how to look, how to act, what to buy and most importantly what is desirable. In this environment I have found it difficult to be comfortable in my own skin. My sense of self has become dislodged and torn apart. Through Gracie I have begun to put myself back together.

A SECOND LIFE

It’s time to start living the life you’ve imagined. ~Henry James

I think it’s important to begin with an explanation of what avatars and Second Life are. Sean Egen explains that “‘Avatar’ derives from the Sanskrit word Avatara, which literally translates as ‘descent,’ specifically, a deliberate descent by a god into the land of mortals. In Hinduism, an avatar is the bodily manifestation of immortal beings… Many who use avatars today are literally approaching it from the point of view that their avatar represents their ‘incarnation’ into the internet.”[2] In contemporary culture, an avatar is our virtual representation.

Most people are familiar with avatars through video games. In World of Warcraft, for example, players create avatars then customize their appearance. People also use avatars as icons in instant messaging applications, social networking websites like Facebook and Twitter and through their email programs. Avatars are also represented in film and other forms of media. Max Headroom (2006) is an early manifestation of an avatar. The British virtual band Gorillaz (2006) is made up of cartoon figures representing its real life band members. Movies such as Tron (1982), The Lawnmower Man (1992), The Matrix (1999) and Avatar (2009) give examples within the plots of alternate realities in which the person has an alter ego or other persona: an avatar.

Besides the practical reasons for having an avatar, there are many psychological reasons. Because avatars offer anonymity, people use them as a way to escape reality. In his book I, Avatar, Mark Stephen Meadows discusses how people use avatars as masks. “We are more inclined to reveal ourselves when we use our avatars. We’re more inclined to reveal what we want, dislike, and think. But in a world where information is more important than physical proximity, we are not as safe as we might assume… After all, the word persona originally meant, in ancient Greek, ‘mask.’ Not as in a thing that hides your face, but one that shows what is truly underneath.”[3]

My avatar exists in the online 3D world of Second Life (SL). Created in 2003, by Linden Labs, SL boasts millions of residents using 70,000 avatars from all over the world logged in at any given time. “Residents of Second Life can explore, meet other residents, socialize, participate in individual and group activities, and create and trade virtual property and services with one another, or travel throughout the world (which residents refer to as ‘the grid’). Second Life has an internal currency, the Linden dollar (L$). Lindens can be used to buy, sell, rent or trade land or goods and services with other users. Virtual goods include buildings, vehicles, devices of all kinds, animations, clothing, skin, hair, jewelry, flora and fauna, and works of art. Services include ‘camping,’ wage labor, business management, entertainment and custom content creation (which can be broken up into the following six categories: building, texturing, scripting, animating, art direction, and the position of producer/project funder). Lindens can be purchased using US Dollars and other currencies on the LindeX exchange provided by Linden Lab, independent brokers or other resident users.”[4]

SL offers people the freedom to explore changing identity dynamics. Experimentation is welcome. It is a safe environment which allows unlimited freedom to express oneself and consider boundaries/barriers that aren’t readily accepted in the physical world. “Computer screens are becoming the new location for our fantasies… The immateriality of cyberspace dissolves not only space and time, but our identities as well. For some this is a frightening prospect, for others perhaps the beginnings of a new empowerment.”[5]

THE PROJECT

There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other. ~Douglas H. Everett

The Gracie Kendal Project began on November 1st, 2009 when I started working with Gracie on a journey of self-exploration. Every day I would take pictures of both myself and Gracie and place them next to each other comparing the real with the virtual. After observing how we were interacting with each other through photos, I realized there was a dialogue forming. The natural extension in this story was for this dialogue to be realized through actual conversations between me and Gracie. 

Through written chat and eventually comic-like banter, we express our inner dialogue in a public way. We have developed a co-dependent relationship in which each of us wishes she were the other. I yearn to have the life she does, the beauty, the success, and independence. She yearns to be free from the constraints of pixels.

This conversation, as well as the performance pieces, has helped break down the barriers between me and my avatar. In film this imaginary barrier is known as the fourth wall. The screen dissolves as if Gracie is speaking directly to me. In the movie Cool World a comic book illustrator falls in love with his character and enters her world. There is also the story of Pygmalion, in which the artist falls in love with his sculpture and then the sculpture comes to life.

Through my blog, www.graciekendal.wordpress.com, I documented these photos, conversations and comics almost every day. As the days and weeks went on, I started to think of Gracie as a character in a story, my life story. She started to take on a more distinct persona from me, maybe a repressed part of my personality. She started talking back. She is much more sassy, open, confident and brave. She teases me, gets mad when I look down on myself, cheers me up and gets excited when good things happen for me. This is not an uncommon concept. I was watching an interview with Sarah Jessica Parker the other day. She was pointing to a flat screen TV in which there was a scene from the movie Sex in the City. Her character Carrie Bradshaw was speaking. Ms. Parker said, “I don’t indulge in shoes the way she does.” Carrie Bradshaw became an avatar, an alter ego for Sarah Jessica Parker. Gracie is a pixilated character in my life story, the way Carrie Bradshaw’s pixels on TV represent Sarah Jessica Parker.

Through my blog, installation, text, photography, mixed media, video and performance I started to construct a narrative of self that represents me and is me, one that helps to deconstruct ideas of normalcy and authenticity. Through this storytelling I started to explore the extremes and dualities of reality vs. fantasy, mind vs. body, art vs. life,  private vs. public, virtual vs. tangible, important vs. insignificant, revealing vs. concealing, internal vs. external, permanent vs. ephemeral, imperfection vs. perfection and fact vs. fiction. What is real?

THE PERFORMANCE

Be what you would seem to be- or, if you’d like it put more simply- Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise. ~Lewis Carroll

As part of this exploration of my relationship with Gracie, I worked in collaboration with the Vaneeesa Blaylock Company in Second Life to create a performance. I wanted to introduce an avatar based on my real life self and discuss the gap between our real and virtual selves, focusing on body image, perfection, self-awareness, acceptance and how we represent ourselves online. I wanted the audience to have an awareness of the difference between fantasy and reality. In Second Life, most avatars look very similar walking around in ideal shapes, beautiful skin, flawless hair and make-up and designer clothing. Second Life offers a place for this wish-fulfillment. Why not be beautiful, alluring and sexy? The “other” in Second Life is real. I have seen very few avatars that are based on a person’s real life self. I wanted to explore this dimension.

VB15 Gracie/Kris, inspired by the performance artist Vanessa Beecroft, involved sixteen avatars standing for two hours in a 4×4 grid pattern. The first column of avatars with Kris at the head was based on my real life shape. The fourth column was based on Gracie’s appearance. The two transitioning columns show the transformation or difference between Gracie and Kris. In the first (front) row the avatars were all nude. In the second row the avatars were wearing paint splattered jeans, a black t-shirts and black converse shoes, a typical outfit that I wear in real life and Gracie wears in Second Life. In the third row the avatars wore a leather outfit which I had previously worn in second life. And in the fourth row the avatars were wearing black cocktail dresses.

The process of creating this work was just as important as the final product. The work involved in planning the installation/performance was just as fulfilling. I started out by creating the sixteen avatars. I already had Gracie as my main avatar, and four others that I created last year. I then created my avatar, “Kris Schomaker,” to mimic my real life self as a bridge between reality and virtuality. Normally when signing up for Second Life, participants are not able to use their real names. The Lindens give a choice of last names and participants can pick an original first name. I contacted Linden Labs via email, explaining that I needed to use my name for a project. For a nominal fee, I was able to have my own identity. Under free accounts, I created the remaining avatars using names that have meaning to me.

I have an avatar named Kristine, based on my real name on my birth certificate. I have Kris and Tina that are nicknames I have acquired over the years. This made me think about identity on a different level. People have various identities/roles for different situations in life, work, school, entertainment, family, etc. I also created avatars based on important women in my life whether real or fictional: the artist Frida Kahlo, characters from Jane Austen novels, Ann Elliot and Elizabeth Bennett. Paula is based on my mom; Paige and Sophie are based on friends; and Zoe, Maggie and Madilyn are names I would give to any daughters I might have.

I worked with a member of the Vaneeesa Blaylock Company, Nightowl Meridoc, who helped create an avatar based on my real life body shape and size. After taking many photographs of my body and using the tools within Second Life to sculpt an avatar, we worked tirelessly to recreate my real life shape and size. We concentrated on every detail down to one of my eyes being smaller than the other, my nose being crooked and my chin being full.

To match the skin shading, the avatar Kris tried on over 100 different skin textures from various stores within Second Life. The best match came from a store called Redgrave, the same store from which I bought Gracie’s skin. During this process, I realized how much money this would cost, and I started to talk to the various companies I was going to be using for my performance. I needed skin, shapes, clothes, hair, glasses, shoes and jewelry for the sixteen avatars. I explained the “The Gracie Kendal Project” and asked for discount; most companies graciously donated their services. Working with thoughtful, intelligent and talented creators in Second Life was a rewarding collaborative experience.

THE TRANSFORMATION

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be. ~Kurt Vonnegut

I had been exploring the mixing of realities for some time and read an article describing a project Stanford was doing on the Proteus Effect and avatars. “Scientists at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab have found that avatars, with their artificial beauty and fantastical lifestyles, may represent more than wishful thinking on the part of the real people who create them; they may actually help bring those wishes to bear. People trying to lose weight are more apt to accomplish their goals when they spend time using a thin avatar. Someone looking to become more self-confident improves more quickly in real life after adopting an avatar that is good-looking.”[6]

Could I bring Second Life into my own reality? I wondered, if Gracie made me happy in Second Life, perhaps I might be happy in real life as Gracie? Would this be a masquerade, dress-up or a costume party? Or would it be a life changing transformation?

I have always felt that I am Gracie. In another study done at Stanford professors found that “Media experiences equal real-life experiences. This is true for all media. Their core argument was that people assume what they see in media is reality because evolution never demanded our brains to do otherwise. Our media has out-evolved our brains, and so fiction registers, on a subconscious level, as fact… The professors point out that, fictional characters in media can actually invade our personal space. Psychologically, you are your avatar.”[7]

The week of March 3rd 2010, I underwent a transformation to become and/or change roles with my avatar. Through film and photography, I documented the steps in my transformation: getting my nose pierced, having my hair colored platinum blond and curled, getting my make-up and nails done and going shopping for clothes. It’s important to note that I knew I wasn’t going to look exactly like her. I would have had to lose 100 pounds or have plastic surgery.

The idea was to be inspired by Gracie and find out what it is about her that is important to me and then try to find that within myself. My original plan was to participate in activities that Gracie does within Second Life, such as dancing, going to a nudist colony and attending art gallery openings. Unfortunately, none of these activities came to pass, but looking at the vast difference between living in a virtual world as an avatar and existing in the real world is sobering.

The transformation brought up a myriad of emotions. After getting my nose pierced, I was exhilarated. I came out of the shop with a huge smile on my face. I felt empowered. However, when I went shopping for clothes, I felt depressed. What the project was about became clear; I’m not comfortable in my own skin and a make-over wasn’t going to change that. I struggle with identity, trying to figure out who Gracie is, who I am and if there might be a happy medium. To quote Anne Hollander, “clothes make not the man, but the image of man.”[8]

Not only did I transform into my avatar, but also Gracie went through her own transformation to become me. The result of each transformation was to become the “other,” and I was uncomfortable in both roles. As I became Gracie, I felt like I was putting on a mask, a costume that bore a heavy weight, both physically and psychologically. In Second Life, when Gracie changed into my real life shape and size of 5’4” and overweight, I also felt uncomfortable sensing her physical weight as she moved around in this virtual world.

One of the culminating works I did for this project was to have portraits taken of me and Gracie before and after the transformations. I was surprised to find a balance between the two versions of constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing my identity. The portraits, titled Finding Grace: 6 Portraits in the Pursuit of Balance are poster size and professionally framed. “This operation is rooted in the profound continuity that exists between the current concept of avatar and the role played by the classic genre of portrait painting throughout history… Since its outset, the aim of the portrait genre has been to immortalize this mask, or in other words, construct avatars. More often than not it was a case of making the subject conform to a certain type (the beggar, the philosopher) or role (the emperor, the courtier). Psychological introspection, which in some contexts assumed great importance, has always been seen as a kind of “extra,” though obviously the best portraits are the ones that reveal something of the person through the avatar…”[9]

CONCLUSION

In the same way that Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp used self-reinvention to construct their personas, I have created Gracie Kendal as my alter-ego. By designing this specific representation of myself, I have established an ideal identity in a fantasy world with a fulfilling life.

“Transformations (of the body) as a subject of art were especially prevalent in the 60’s and 70’s. Many artists began to play roles and mask their identities in order to leave the real world behind for a short time and enter another realm.”[10] Using photography, artists Cindy Sherman and Eleanor Antin explore identity, masquerade and what constitutes the self in their many self portraits documenting contrived fictions. Lynn Hershman led a double life in a performance as her alter-ego, Roberta Brietmore. The New Media artist Victoria Vesna focuses on the concept of an avatar and identity in her work Bodies Inc. She writes that she is “interested in examining how technology contributes to the fragmentation of our identities in our daily lives. I embrace technology, but as an artist take liberties to break it, redesign it, and question the role it plays in our lives.”[11] I want to embrace technology, too. I want to engage it to continue this dialogue that I have begun regarding issues of identity, both personally and universally.

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