Essays

1000+ Avatars: Portraits of our Intimate Dispositions

by: Patrick Millard

When one looks at the history of photography they are confronted with a magnitude of contexts: portraiture, documentary, travel, journalistic, artistic …but rarely are they asked to contemplate a photographic image comprised of subject matter that actually has no matter.  What then, in a world where the photograph has become a platform for scrutiny, is the addition of the 1000+ Avatars Project?

I believe that we have come full-circle with Kristine Shomaker’s images (with some changes in the mode of capture): a retreat to the very nature of the photograph, which is, the portrait. Photography is held to its place in the world as the premier mode of re-presenting, to those who gaze into its surface, the essence of the person recorded.  There is a sense of the real, an aura or essence, that bestows upon the viewer a feeling of connection to an untouchable past that comes with the nature of the portrait photograph.

Photography began with the portrait – a way to immortalize the self, to live beyond the inevitable, to sidestep death, to reappear again in the generations that follow.  The reasons were plentiful, but the fact of the matter has always been that an individual could leave behind a piece of themselves, of their personality, for those who later looked upon that image to find a connection – no matter the distance of time and space between what the French theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes referred to as the spectator and spectrum.  We use the most common form of photography, the portrait, to enshrine our inner selves for our friends, family and loved ones both during and after our lifetime.

What better way to leave behind the truth of our personhood than through the avatar?  The very nature of the avatar allows for a person to wrap themselves into iconic truth through image and object. The followers of Christ may have done this through the crucifix more effectively than anyone else. We have imposed immense cultural meanings into the cross, and through it we see the essential nature of the teaching of Christ.  Equally significant would be the Buddha and the symbolic figure posed in meditation under the Bodhi Tree. These are two ubiquitous avatars that we find in today’s socioreligious environment, and while they do not generally assume reference to the 21st century avatar culture, they are quite deserving of the label:

avatar |ˈavəˌtär|

noun chiefly Hinduism

a manifestation of a deity or released soul in bodily form on earth; an incarnate divine teacher.

• an incarnation, embodiment, or manifestation of a person or idea : he set himself up as a new avatar of Arab radicalism.

• Computing a movable icon representing a person in cyberspace or virtual reality graphics.

We forget the word has its roots in religion in the first place.  But when reflecting on the etymology we can quickly end up seeing the relationship between the former and latter definitions – and when putting the word together in context of the contemporary culture of virtual worlds, there is an affinity with avatar being a reflection of ones innermost essence; a portrait, if you will.

The images Schomaker presents to us in her 1000+ Avatars Project are the most representational portraits to-date for presenting what a person feels, what roles they assume, and what dreams and aspirations they have, as opposed to recording the way their skin wraps to bone, their hair falls to shoulder or their hands fold in lap.  Clothing, accessories and skin become emblematic of personality with the avatar in ways that real life cannot easily achieve.  Diversity proves itself a central point to these portraits: lizards, “furries”, robots, wizards, horses, aliens, birds, energy balls, people both male and female despite the gender of the operator in real life; warriors, bankers, scientists, artists, djs, rock stars, cyborgs, prostitutes and sex slaves; dancers, pilots, philosophers, writers, etc.  The list moves forward infinitely, allowing human beings to assume character(s) as they feel the urge to become something they have always felt sincere about but never had the time, courage or sense of acceptance to pursue in this real life.

We see this in our everyday lives in a far less theatrical way.  It’s what sociologist Erving Gofman would refer to as face work.  We take on the character we need to be for the situation we find ourselves placed in. I am one Professor Patrick Millard in the workplace, another in the art gallery, and suddenly P or Tricky with those closest to me, or man and dude at the local café or pub. Each circumstance requires we not only assume different namesakes, but that we assume those which manifest in their delivery the personality we give off when interacting socially in these disparate environments.  It’s not out of a sense of want but one of need.  To be fit for the group is, in a sense, a requirement for finding a place in the world itself.

The exaggeration of this face work in our lives occurs in virtual worlds where the avatar can be sculpted to any race, gender, species, or personality the user prefers to assume that evening.  Additionally, that assimilation of character has the facility to transform instantaneously, say for example, an aggressive role player in the battlefield sporting weapons changing into a submissive companion in the bedroom (not necessarily unlike walking out the door from work and into the tavern a couple of blocks away, but obviously far more amplified).

Marshall McLuhan would revel in the world of avatars.  I point to his studies on the extension of man and the assimilation of the inanimate to make sense of my own avatar.  McLuhan once stated “in this electronic age we see ourselves being translated more and more into the form of information, moving toward the technological extension of consciousness.”  The avatar is the ultimate imposition of inner self in the form of image and information.  It is the vessel by which any individual may act out the infinite roles found throughout the human ethos.  Afterall, it was McLuhan who was known to have said that people today are in search of roles not far-off goals.

Schomaker’s portraits open the door into this world of characters through the portrait.  They allow the viewer to navigate the inner self of a virtual world and postulate the meanings behind each mask.  What does this character mean?  What sort of things does it do with others in virtual worlds?  And perhaps most common: What sort of person is behind the avatar?  The visual narrative is dense and purposeful, and philosophically, psychoanalytically, and sociologically intricate.

Bio

Patrick Millard’s work in photography, new media, and sound addresses ideas about media, digital culture, technology and the interactions that human beings have with today’s social environment. He is currently Assistant Professor of Photography at Point Park University in Pittsburgh and as an instructor for The Vasa Project’s online workshops. In 2008, Patrick began to show his work inside Second Life and is owner/curator of the Turing Gallery on Extropia.

(Originally published in 1000 Avatars Volume 2 Dec 2011)

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Arriving at Identity: A Path of Many Choices

By: Garrett Cobarr

In Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fifth, the King takes on an old man’s cloak to appear as a common soldier. He walks among the campfires of his men, to judge their spirit, prior to the next morning’s battle. His men are frightened and to rally their sense of commonality, he tells them in a moment of paradoxical self declaration, “I think the King is but a man, as I am.”

Mark Twain wrote in The Prince and the Pauper of an impoverished and abused boy’s wish to find escape as a prince, while the prince in the pauper’s clothes rebels against the burdens of power. Wearing each other’s garments, the prince and the pauper appear so identical that those around them refuse their claims of their true identities, fearing they have gone mad.

The film, Trading Places, portrays Billy Ray Valentine, a homeless grifter who is plucked from the street to take the place of the fussy and privileged Louis Winthorpe III, a commodities trader. His bosses, the eccentric and ruthless Duke brothers are trying to settle a bet in the age old debate of ‘nature versus nurture.’ Louis is stripped of his job, social standing and assets, and Billy Ray is elevated to Louis’s status and position.

Both men have difficulty adjusting to their new social standing but find the skills of one life are of great benefit in the other. Billy Ray astounds the Dukes with his assertion that sugar prices will certainly go higher despite their own strong instincts. It is just before Christmas and he feels that other traders, in their competitive drive, desire to buy their children not the standard action figure, but the GI Joe with the Kung Fu Grip.

These examples and hundreds of others in literature and film, show that humans have always had a desire to be someone else. Why not? After all, we come to this world as a partial sketch, a few scribbles on a mostly blank page. Desire and drive are the ink and the pen that, at first, crudely scrawl our existence. In time, with an ever greater confidence, a masterful hand paints ourselves into the landscapes that we wish to inhabit.

Very little time passes before the very young realize that they are not the only draughtsman working the canvas that is that sense of self we feel is our identity. As adolescent, adult and elderly we are pushed, prodded and persisted upon to meet the expectations of our fellow humans. Even in death we are dressed in our finest, hands folded neatly on our chests and makeup applied, to assure that the grieving living are more comfortable with our departure. We are like water poured into a vase; we take the shape of the container we inhabit.

As very young children, we begin to resist. Not long after our first clumsy and halting steps, we push chairs, twice our size, around the floor just to see that we can act upon our environment. To the thrill of parents, our first words are either mommy or daddy, but, to their chagrin, coming soon after, every other word seems to be, “No!” As young adults, we seem to do everything that good judgment, self-preservation and the laws of physics would contradict, just to know the experience.

Through the ruthless divinity of fashion, we are cast into molds based on the idiosyncrasies of our physical fate. The simple randomness of time and place can determine if our weight or height are of the greatest desire, while in some other time and place, the same attributes would be shunned. Gender can determine whether we have power or not, the favored eye and hair color increase our chances of success. Our race, religion or who we choose to love can insure a life of persecution. Fate giveth and fate taketh away.

If life is about choices, and if those choices determine who we are, then, for some, it is not enough to simply push their boat into the stream and be satisfied that the current will take them where they wish to go. If culture forms the frame in which we live and, within that frame, we choose the clothes we wish to wear, the way we cut our hair, choose our scent, then how far does this ‘choice’ identity go?

The business person is a near universal costume, understood in every country. Whether it is the male or female version, it radiates professionalism and a serious, “bottom line” style. Along with the dark suit and neatly tucked handkerchief, is the business card. The business card extends the giver’s identity as it remains after the person has departed, and in many cultures the act of giving the card is done with great ritual. The motions, presentation and gesture are every bit as important as the objects.

Humans have colonized the digital landscape with websites and blogs to represent them. They use social networks to expand their visible scale far beyond what would be possible in their analog existence. In these environments, they must self describe since no one knows what they look like or what their deeds have been. They create histories and profiles. They share stories and remark on each other’s activities and tastes. All together it is an extension, a projection, an identity, it is branding.

Leaving the flat, graphical nature of the Internet and entering the three dimensional experience of a virtual world requires something more than an account and a profile. To move about and interact with others in an immersive space, one needs to become an avatar. Not unlike beings in the real world, humans express themselves through their avatars. As there is less social pressure and the limits brought on in physical existence, creative freedom finds little or no boundaries.

In Second Life we were not given a choice on the names we chose for our avatars, we had to invent them. Many, like myself would have chosen to use our real names, many others would not. There can be a myriad of reasons for this choice but whatever the choice your avatar now leads a virtual life. The avatar not only looks a certain way, but moves and gestures a certain way, it frequents certain places more than others; it even gains a reputation of its own.

Many, outside of virtual worlds, share the misunderstanding that avatars are some kind of duplicitous fraud. They feel that the intention must be to deceive, failing to understand that you cannot physically inhabit a virtual space. An avatar is the outcome of a person’s collection of choices, no different than a haircut or choice of clothes on any given day. These choices say more about the personality than any final outcome which is, at best, transitory.

Within the virtual world it is possible for an avatar to appear as a woman when the person behind the avatar might well be a man. You might choose to be younger, slimmer, taller or not confined to a wheelchair. However, over time you cannot hide who you are. Behavior and personality will trump all attempts to create a false front. It is like the scorpion said to the frog after delivering the sting that will certainly cause them both to drown, “It is my nature.”

Whether it is one thousand, ten thousand or a million avatars, one sees the same pattern that you see in the physical world, the extraordinary diversity of the human spirit in its ability to express itself. Each individual image of the 1000+ Avatars project is a portrait that depicts a person’s choice. I may have met Gracie Kendal, the virtual photographer, in Second Life and her counterpart, Kristine Schomaker, may have requested me to write the article you are reading now, but they are both part of a whole and, like a cut stone turning in the sunlight, each is a facet of a greater personality.

Garrett Cobarr, December 2011

Bio

Garrett Cobarr was an interface and user experience designer with a focus in 3D when he entered Second Life, in early 2006, as Loydin Tripp. He spent his first year on the mainland where he founded the group Ex Artis Communis, a collective of builders that purchased the island, Lingua Franca, on which they still operate. He conceived, designed and became the CEO of Swissopolis, a highly integrated virtual community that ran for 3 years. Garrett divides his time between the essay portal WholeThinking.com (www.WholeThinking.com) and the OpenSim based Visualitas, a developmental platform for collaboration, knowledge capture and e-learning. He is a strong and vocal advocate of the 3D Web and as part of this effort he is working on the soon to be released book, I Am Not Myself, Identity and Privacy in the Avatar Age.

(Originally published in 1000 Avatars Volume 2 Dec 2011)

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1000+ Avatars – Capturing a Moment of Becoming:

By: Dean Wilcox/Derridada Mimeteh

Spend time in any major city, on any school or college campus, in any shopping center or mall and pay attention to what people look like. Examine their hair, their clothes, their movements, their accessories and you will find that any number of these people look very similar. This comment is not meant to deny individuality, but most people tend to present themselves to the world in a kind of middle-of-the-road, not too boring and not too outlandish way. There are, of course, exceptions that will catch your eye, but then there are always exceptions.

Now spend the same amount of time walking around Second Life. Or, better yet, teleport to Gracie Kendal’s 1000+ Avatar project where you can see thousands of images on display. Explore the choices of hair, skin, size, shape, color, clothing, fur, scales, animations, and accessories. I defy you to find two that are exactly alike. Here you will see everything from humanoid shapes, mythical and “real” animal bodies, silhouettes, balls of light, aliens, lampshades, boxes, robots, hamburgers, hot dogs and fairies to forms that are so unique they are indescribable. Unlike other virtual worlds where avatars are constructed from a limited number of options, these images, created by their users from stock or custom elements, reflect the kind of complexity found in things like snowflakes and fractals. Yes, if you look long enough you will begin to see common styles or elements woven into the choices, but the end result is a rich and complex tapestry of differences.

These avatars, these embodied images in virtual space, are often referred to as intentional bodies; bodies deliberately shaped in ways which are unachievable in real life. While it is possible to sculpt, mold, pierce, mark, dye, and otherwise manipulate a natural body, an artificial body, especially a digital one, can respond to such actions instantly and fluidly. Unlike the natural body, the virtual body is always supple, always malleable, always capable of returning to a kind of tabula rasa in which the physical marks and scars accumulated by a living working body do not linger. With a core essence built on ones and zeros, avatar skins, shapes, costumes and animations can be embraced and then cast aside as easily as we change clothing in real life. Contrasting its physical counterpart, the intentional body is free to be anything at any time and any place. It is this malleability that allows us to reflect on and refract the process of defining and re-defining our virtual selves.

Part of the appeal of the digital body is that it is fleeting and temporal in ways that our naturally decaying bodies only suggest. It is this aspect of changeability that makes documenting these images that much more compelling. In a virtual world like Second Life transformation is the norm, constancy almost non-existent. Unless, of course, you begin to examine the person behind the avatar – a distant, possibly deceptive, possibly heart-on-sleeve honest, heavily mediated but very real presence. This is not to suggest that evolution and change in the real world are impossible, but this process cannot happen at the speed at which it happens in a virtual environment. Avatars, though often playfully constructed or adopted by their users, are a glimpse of what we imagine we might be, or could be, or should or shouldn’t be, at least in the immediate moment of representation.

The digital figures we create exist as fantasy bodies that build on and magnify our individual hopes, desires, fears, and impulses. They are often seen as shapes that we can hide behind, anonymously interacting with others, which, ironically, allows us to reveal more of our true selves. Through our avatars we can tell our real stories or invent fantastic lies, flirt, explore, role-play, fantasize, express hidden emotion, and say whatever vile or wonderful or humorous or sexual or touching thoughts pop into our heads. Since Second Life was created without an overriding narrative we are free to pursue our own stories, real or otherwise. As extensions of ourselves our avatars offer the opportunity to develop our narrative the way we decide, to join or build communities, make friends, change gender, change species, create a whole new hybrid species, experiment with risky, exciting, playful or banal situations all while inhabiting the body we want, the body we design, the body we evolve, at least until we decide we want another one. But surface change is deceptive. An avatar exists as a digital body with a real world referent, whether the creator or another, that is always part of this world, not the virtual one. These computer-generated images are designed to shield us from direct contact and protect our anonymity, and while we never quite read them as “real,” they do exist as conduits to the real. How much of that real we reveal, however, is up to us.

Intentional bodies are fabricated, that much is clear, but they are fabrications that we acknowledge as such. They are a kind of visible camouflage that suggests that something more or less complex lurks beneath the surface. Avatars are built on the Latin notion of larvatus prodeo, or the idea of “I advance pointing to my mask.” Like an actor in some ancient Greek play, it is understood that the image we project is not necessarily a direct reflection of our concealed real body, but a mask that both obscures and reveals. Why we choose particular shapes or skins, adorn our digital representations with specific colors, outfits, markings, and animations say a great deal, consciously or unconsciously, about who we are. Complete with unique movements, specific greetings, names, wardrobe, and actions our avatars exist as personal icons, tiny constructed images that both project us into and represent us within the virtual. We may discard these artificial bodies like insignificant articles of clothing, but they embody something much more profound as we speak through them, act through them, affect others with them, and are in turn affected by them. They are the medium by which we enter this space, a portal into a world that we inherited without laws, language, or culture, but imagine and create from moment to moment.

In an environment where physical forms are fleeting and bodies can change at will, the images documented in the 1000+ Avatars project offer a kind of stability that resonates in ways familiar to anyone that has ever gazed at a photograph to realize that the image presents a now that is no more. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes reflected that the photograph was “the advent of myself as other” in which the “self” he understood never coincided with the image captured. Since we enter Gracie’s sphere voluntarily clad in the image we wish to project, her photographs arrest those digital others at the exact moment that the projected and received images coincide. The neutral grey background decontextualizes our avatars from the typical busy environment in which we present them, and we are able to see them for what they are, complex, diverse, and deliberate creations. Unlike traditional portraiture, Gracie encourages us to incorporate animations as part of our image. As we move and dance in the sphere she captures the essence of how we wish to be seen by others, at least at the moment the picture is taken. The residue of this encounter is an image of an image, a representation of a representation that is equal parts reflection and reflective surface. While these refracted images magnify something about who we are in the real and virtual worlds simultaneously, it is in displaying these digital mirrors that Gracie offers a more powerful critique of our avatar selves.

Rather than present the front image of these bodies – the image that we have constructed to be seen by others, Gracie presents the back – the vantage point of the user. We look at ourselves, over ourselves, through our-selves to engage in a world of our own making. In this respect we are always experiencing Second Life as a kind of phenomenological process in which we view ourselves as “other” and watch ourselves interact with other others. In this virtual world we are both actor and audience simultaneously, seen and seeing as we interact with the environments, avatars, and situations we encounter. As the frame of reference changes and shifts with the movement of our digital selves, we are conscious of these bodies in space, but also conscious of the space between those bodies and our own. Exploring the thousands of faceless images Gracie has captured we become aware of what it might be like to inhabit these skins, to be behind them, embodying them, following them, peering through them, to affect and be affected by others. In this digital environment we are always evolving, always changing, always challenging the physical limitations of our own real bodies. In Second Life, as in real life, we are ourselves, but we are also what we choose to be and share with the world. What Gracie has captured is a moment of becoming, a pause in the constant evolution of the digital form in which, if even for a brief instant, the avatar and the body behind the avatar collapse into a single consciously constructed image.

Bio:

Dean Wilcox: Is the Assistant Dean for the Undergraduate Academic Program at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts where he teaches such subjects as The Aesthetics of Dissonance, Chaos Theory and the Arts, Postmodern Drama, and Performance Art. In addition to working periodically as a lighting designer and dramaturge he has published articles and book reviews in Theatre Journal, Theatre Survey, The Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Theatre Research International, and Modern Drama on such topics as: the intersection of semiotics and phenomenology, the convergence of chaos theory and performance, ambient space in twentieth-century theatre, and post-semiotics.

Derridada: Was created by Charles Babbage in 1852 and then languished in a series of warehouses until he was rediscovered in Zurich in 1916 and taught to dance. From there he ended up little more than a conversation piece for Guy Debord and company until the Tel Quel folks taught him how to think. He is now into glitch art and processing post-digital information.

(Originally published in 1000 Avatars Volume 1 March 2011)

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Ekphrasis: Gracie Kendal

By Rowan Derryth

‘My art, in whichever medium, is based on spontaneity and change.’ – Gracie Kendal

In 1971, in the early days of feminism, the young Art Historian Linda Nochlin wrote a groundbreaking essay titled ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’, which considers the problematic question of ‘greatness’ and artistic genius against the historical roles of women, and the ways in which their position in society precluded them from seriously pursuing art careers.  Nochlin’s article not only challenged the way (male-dominated) art history had been written, but also questioned attempts by female scholars to ‘re-insert’ women artists who seemed to have gotten ‘lost’ in the art historical canon – artists such as Artemesia Gentileschi and Rosa Bonheur, for example.  What this rather short essay managed to do was open up the entire art historical discipline for review and debate, actually enabling a re-thinking of the way we view women artists, and consequently opening the door for their future inclusion and success.

So with that rather erudite introduction, I come to my point.  In my Second Life(SL) youth, I was very disturbed to find I was asking myself the question ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists in Second Life?’  Or, more specifically – and with apologies to my gender – I realized that all the work I’d seen that truly blew me away was by men.  I found this rather disheartening, and yes, I was convinced that I needed to look around more! Since then, I am happy to report that I’ve found plenty of women artists (and let’s avoid the questions of RL/SL gender swaps just now) whose work fits my manifesto – not just resonates but rezzed; not just rezzed but resonates – that will be featured in upcoming articles.

But the FIRST great woman SL artist I found, who brought relief to my worried young SL heart, was Gracie Kendal.

Now, I will admit that I kind of hate the fact that the first woman I write about is being set up in the framework of a feminist question.  I think one of the amazing things about SL is that it provides us the opportunity to transcend these questions.  But Kendal’s work does in fact deal with issues of gender and identity, so I cannot be too much of an apologist for this lens.

Gracie, whose RL name is Kris Schomaker, has been showing her paintings successfully in SL for three and a half years, but it is her recent work ‘The Gracie Kendal Project: A Conversation with my Avatar’, which has kicked off a flurry of interest.  I asked to meet Gracie in her studio, because on a prior re-con I had noticed a poster of a Jeff Koons’ work in her studio… and I’m always fascinated when artists I love are inspired by artists I can’t stand (see my Ekphrasis on Ragamuffin Kips and his enjoyment of Barnett Newman). What followed was a rather irreverent conversation in which we soundly trash some of contemporary art’s luminaries.  Well, I do at least:

RD: So if you’ve read the column, you know… I like to talk to people about their influences, etc., and I know you are an art historian too, so this should be fun… BUT I came to visit your studio when you weren’t here, and I was APPALLED…
Gracie: (grinning and laughing) uh oh
RD: (pointing at a poster of Jeff Koons’ “Rabbit”, 1986 http://www.balloonhq.com/highlights/koons/rabbit.html) EXPLAIN YOURSELF!
Gracie: (laughing hysterically)
RD: (peering next to the image right next to it) And next to poor Jasper Johns!
Gracie: (still laughing) It’s a poster… let me show ya (she moves some of her paintings so I can see the bottom, which says “Jasper Johns to Jeff Koons: Four Decades of Art from the Broad Collections”) It’s part of the wall, but yea.. I totally hear ya… (laughs some more)
RD: So you can’t get rid of it? Generic ‘artist loft decor’?
Gracie: Yeah.. it’s part of the texture… although mirroring that wall is Warhol’s Marilyn.
RD: Yes, I noticed that. So… here I was thinking these are somehow your artistic influences, and I didn’t quite get it.
Gracie: (still laughing) Noooooooooo
RD: Koons is the artist I LOVE to loathe. He’s a fucking moron when he speaks.
Gracie: Yeah, him and Hirst… although some of Hirst’s work is beautiful… the butterflies…Oh My God!
RD: Now with Hirst it is a love/hate thing.  I hate that I am intrigued by his work.
Gracie: Yes exactly.
RD: Do you know the work of Tracy Emin?
Gracie: (smiling) Of course.
(We blurt simultaneously here) Gracie: LOVE her work. RD: HATE HER (then crack up)
Gracie: She is intriguing too and so wild… and crazy…. I don’t know… and so in your face
RD: Ugh, her manky bed?
Gracie: (laughing) Well yeah… but who else would have the guts to do that?  And ‘Everyone I’ve Ever Slept With’?  (Work destroyed in Saatchi fire – link) LOVE that. I thought about doing a similar piece with names from SL.
RD: I just find her SOOOO self-indulgent, and not in an interesting way
Gracie: haha yea, well that is true. I guess a love hate thing too.
RD: Now, THIS is interesting (gesturing at posters from her recent performance at the Eostara Gallery {see below})  you both are dealing with similar issues, biography, but what you are doing is SO MUCH MORE INTERESTING.  So.. let’s pick apart this Emin/Gracie thing a bit.  You both are using very personal biography. She draws on personal trauma quite a bit, but she basically just takes her diary and throws it on the wall. I went to a retrospective of her work in Edinburgh last year, I thought ‘GO see… THEN judge’. My favorite work… she had little slides set up (actual slides, not projected) of her paintings from art school… The ones she burned. They were SO MUCH better than the rest of her work. And the work itself was interesting, in terms of being about loss, And misguidance. (grins) But I thought the rest was crap.
Gracie Kendal: (laughs)

RD: When I first saw your paintings a couple months ago at Exposure Gallery, I liked them, but I was also struggling with this idea of artists rezzing RL work and not changing or working it in world… I still struggle with it, even though I own one of yours, and have it in my house.
Gracie: Ahhh… why do you struggle?
RD: Hmmm… Good question… no one really asks that! Most often, they happily agree!
Gracie: (laughs) Seriously… it’s a great debate.
RD: Yes, well, I think that… I can see that it is a way to promote your work, get it to be known. But.. hmm.. Ok, first of all, I think probably 90% of what gets rezzed is garbage. So many who say ‘Oh, I think I’ll be an artist today’.
Gracie: (smiling) Yes I agree, anyone can be an artist. Well its role-playing I think.
RD: (Same with ‘I think I’ll open a gallery’ without knowing the FIRST thing about being a Curator.)
Gracie Kendal: (laughs) Yeah.
RD: (grins) Man, this article is going to get me in trouble. And… if I may…
Gracie: you may..
RD: Your paintings here, I KNOW they are large RL.
Gracie: ummmmmmm, you do?
RD: I’ve seen pics of you working on them… they can be in scale here or not…
Gracie: Well some of them are small in RL though so it depends… some are only like 24×24 inches and I really enlarge them here. I’d love to go bigger in RL …but no space or car to transport.
RD: Interesting. So in a way you DO manipulate them here.  SL allows you to do things with them you aren’t able to.
Gracie: Yeah… it does. I used to also show just details of my work here… and sell them as paintings in themselves. I don’t do that anymore though. I like the idea that if it’s available here, it’s available in RL too.
RD: Well, I certainly see a lot of grey areas in my ‘struggle’.  And I see paintings that I LOVE, and am happy to have found.  BUT I have to say… that I’m most interested in work that really USES SL… whether in build, photography, prim manipulation, etc.
Gracie Kendal: Oh yea, I understand… and that is what is cutting edge about SL. Especially for the real art world.

Gracie’s most recent body of work is, in fact, all about using SL as a medium. How she came to it is an interesting tale. She had been studying for a Masters degree in Art History, and had been deciding whether to write a thesis about Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman, or even the intriguing analysis ‘Comparing Second Life Art Community to Paris of the 20s and NY of the 50s’. But, as she had been an artist for over 12 years, she realized that her passion truly lie in the making, and decided to switch to a studio focus. “It was THE best decision of my life.”  She was also able to continue as a practicing art historian, teaching as an adjunct at a local Junior college.  “That is probably what I am going to do when I graduate, go back to teaching. Anything to stay immersed in art.. It’s my love.”  Her students will be lucky as, in my view, the best art historians are also practitioners.

When Kris submitted her portfolio to enter her program, she included images of Gracie showing work in Second Life.  However, when she began showing her real painting in critique, she “didn’t get as positive feedback from them…. “It was ok.. but very critical…”, as she was being compared to modern era Abstract Expressionists such as Pollock.  As I said to Gracie, she is GREAT at that style of painting, and people don’t often understand the skill involved with it (and Gracie has updated the technique by using things like hair dryers to move her paint, rather than Pollock’s brushes and sticks), but her professors were correct that it isn’t really cutting edge.  She agreed, and knew she had to do something to bring her work ‘into the 21st century’:

“I met with my professor a couple times, who suggested I delve deeper into SL. So the next critique, I had a cut out of Gracie on a collage piece I was doing. I had ideas of bringing SL into my artwork. That was a year and a half ago, and since then my paintings ARE more contemporary, especially with the outlining I’m doing.  The project though… well I had an idea to do a piece that had 50 1×1 foot wood squares with cut outs of different avatars on them. I was going to call them the ’50 Most Beautiful People’ a spoof on People magazine dealing with identity in SL. So the idea was already spinning around up there.  People started getting more interested in SL: what it was, and who I was in it. My professor gave me tons of amazing ideas… thinking about the idea of what an artist is, what an avatar is, the idea of beauty here… etc.”

“I don’t remember an exact moment but a few months ago, I started realizing I need to put myself more into my art.  My paintings are kind of detached in that aspect I think… I put myself into them…but not in the same way. I started to ask myself why I am here in SL, what all this means, asking myself, Who am I? Because I have no clue.  I have been dealing with personal issues, of weight, anxiety, loneliness, for a while now and it came to a forefront 2 years ago when I had my first panic attack. It scared the hell out of me, and my life changed. So I’ve started to look inwards. Trying to figure myself out. I think I realized, I could do that with art, especially thinking of SL as a tool to do that, which is what I’ve been doing for the last 3 and a half years. I got into SL because I was suffocating in RL. SL allowed me to breath.”

Gracie is being creative in addressing issues which I think many struggle with, and brave enough to fess up about it too.  On Nov. 1st last year, she started the blog which, through a series of side-by-side RL and SL images, compares her life with Gracie’s and converses with her too, so we are privy to Kris’ inner dialogue in a way that separates her identity into two selves.  As readers, we begin to forget that these two people are actually the same person… then when we remember this fact, the narrative become equal parts amusing and melancholic.

In some ways, the narrative is as we expect: the artist, in her real world anxiety and self-consciousness, is envious of Gracie’s world, with her ‘perfect’ body, wealth, and vibrant social life.  Gracie seems to embody all Kris wishes she had.  If the story ended there, it might be somewhat cliché.  But what is truly fascinating is the way in which we see Gracie being jealous of Kris too.  One of my favorite panels expresses Gracie’s own disembodied angst at not being able to experience the real world, in particular, the rain falling on her skin.

Thus the co-dependant nature of this relationship is cleverly expressed.  The ways in which they need each other (for there obviously can be no Gracie without Kris) are eloquently conveyed, and in fact Gracie’s dependence becomes more pronounced as time goes on, with the phrase ‘Kris, where are you? I need you.’ used with increased frequency.  As an outsider reading this, I began to wonder if this was a way for Kris to reclaim power from her Gracie identity; a reminder that although she may be the virtual manifestation of Kris’ own desires, Gracie ultimately IS Kris, and cannot exist without her. I asked her about this:

“Oh yeah… I think so… even though Gracie has a lot of influence over Kris… Kris is definitely showing her power more I think.  Hmm… not sure that comes across right.  I think Gracie and Kris are struggling right now… maybe it’s a power struggle, I don’t know… they are finding their places within each other maybe. I think they both wish they were the other, and they are both questioning why that is.  And are yet to answer that question.”

One cannot help but consider that in addition to dealing with issues of identity and power, that she is also addressing body issues that are particularly keen for women (and if fact, these issues are at the heart of the art of two of her self-confessed biggest influences, Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger).  In looking at her work, I wondered how men might respond to what she is doing:

RD: When I interviewed Glyph Graves, he said ‘I don’t hold with the notion of girl’s art and boy’s art;  I think that silly.’  I agree with him in general, and would certainly say that applies to work based in the formal.  But some work, often more conceptual work, definitely deals with issues of gender.  Barbara Kruger is a case in point (as is Emin, I am loathe to say).  Your work deals with more universal ideas of identity, but gender is a huge part of it.  Clearly men also have body issues, but I wonder, do you think men ‘get’ your work as much as perhaps a woman might?
Gracie: Oh wow, great quote…I would actually say yes, they do get it… Men seem to be just more “quiet” about it I guess. I mean if you look at the avatars in SL, do you see many overweight male avatars?
RD: No, not often.
Gracie: I think in RL there are many more magazines about women, promoting the “ideal” image.
RD: That’s what I was wondering… clearly they can relate, but do they think about it as much?
Gracie: Yeah they can relate, because my project is not just about weight and body image, but life in general. Even though it’s a very personal project… about me… I think both men and women go through this type of process of finding themselves… for men, I think it shows in what they just call “Mid-life crisis” maybe?
RD: (laughs) Fast cars, faster women (or men)?
Gracie:(laughs) Yep, so true. (pauses) I’m afraid of what they will think of me after this.
RD: Well, me too… We’ll stick together.
Gracie: Even though it’s personal…  it’s very universal. And I do agree with Glyph… Yes, women have had a hard time, and yes, we still do in some respects… I used to teach a women in art course… and I believe it needs to be taught because the history of women artists wasn’t really known until the 70s… I think there are still the old school curators, gallery owners who hinder women artist’s exposure… but… I believe now especially in this postmodern era… that there are just as great women artists as men, and just as crappy women artists as men.
RD: You might be happy to learn that I am leading off your article talking about Linda Nochlin.
Gracie Kendal: (laughs) Nice, that’s great!
RD: She opened the door.
Gracie: Absolutely.
RD: You love the Guerilla Girls, don’t you?
Gracie: Oh yeah, absolutely! I did a talk about them in school and invited them to come talk, but it didn’t work out.
RD: Aw, that’s too bad. I actually have a theory that Nochlin is one of them. And maybe Kruger.
Gracie: (laughs) I wouldn’t doubt it.
RD: I want that to be true, anyway.

In much the same experimental and performative manner at the Guerilla Girls, recently, Kris/Gracie pushed her fascinating experiment even further by attempting to switch places.  For the week or so leading up to March 6th, Kris went through a physical makeover to make herself more like Gracie, including wardrobe, cutting and dying her hair, and even piercing her nose.

Meanwhile, Gracie’s transformation was displayed in a performance piece at the Eostara Gallery on the 6th.  The piece, which was conceived as a collaboration with the Vaneeesa Blaylock Company of Second Life, involved 16 avatars: 4 Gracie’s, 4 Kris’, and 4 each of two transformative states in-between.  Three different outfits were chosen and worn by each set, with the fourth set being nude (save for some wicked black heels).  The avatars then stood in a grid, the piece inspired by the performances arranged by the RL artist Vanessa Beecroft, and in fact the work is titled like a Beecroft as well: ‘VB15 Gracie/Kris’. As Gracie states: “I wanted to introduce my avatar based on my RL self and talk about body image by showing the difference between our realistic selves and our virtual selves.”  She filmed this experience, and the final cut will appear on her project blog.  The work is powerful and to my mind extremely successful.

However the experiment, for Kris, did not have its expected or desired result: “The transformation for Kris to become Gracie… I would call for lack of a better term a ‘failure’… it was definitely not how I expected it to turn out. I think I expected I’d feel like Gracie… I’d feel more comfortable with who I am… but I wasn’t.. I was even more uncomfortable because I became something I’m not… well in a way… it was more because I put on this ‘costume’ and that doesn’t change a person. Gracie is pretty confident…or has been for a long time now… although she seems to be in a slump too. But that is because of who Kris is… I don’t know… it’s so complex. (laughs) I think the real purpose for both is to find a balance.”

This is an intriguing statement, as I think this artist has struck a balance that perhaps she cannot yet see herself.  There is balance in the co-dependent relationship between these two evident in the ‘Project’ pieces.  But there is also balance in the way each identity works as an artist.  Kris uses Gracie as a creative character in her own personal narrative to explore identity issues.  But by the same token, Gracie uses Kris’ RL art, appropriating it and transforming it into something new.  Perhaps the best example of this is the massive, 250 prim sculpture she built for the Step Up! sim a few months ago, which has just been reinstalled outside the Designing Worlds studio at Northpoint (along with a wonderful exhibit of the rest of her work).  “Making Connections” is a series smaller sculptures textured with both her own painting and other patterns she likes (and she re-textures them at will), which she arranges in a site specific manner.  I watched her install the work, and was reminded of the way in which artists like Andy Goldsworthy respond to their environment as they work.

Gracie Kendal is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the SL art world, with her work being shown at every turn.  She will also be participating in the ‘Ambiguity of Identity’ exhibit at Caerleon Island alongside artists working with similar issues such as Artistide Dupres, Sabrinaa Nightfire, Botgirl Questi, and Chrome Underwood.  In addition to her exhibit at Northpoint, there currently is a wonderful display of her paintings at the Noetic Gallery in Avalon. And if that isn’t all, Gracie/Kris was just chosen as one of the faces of Second Life itself. She was selected as one of only 9 people in the “SL Faces, A campaign to find a few good avatars” competition, and will be seen in Second Life advertisements aimed to dispel the ‘fat old man in the basement’ myth.  I for one cannot think of a better, more intriguing, and more beautiful representative for this, in either world

(Originally published April 2010 online and in My Life as An Avatar)

One thought on “Essays

  1. Pingback: Final Paper. Semiotics in Avatars. | bridgettecard

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