Life Imitating Art: The Quest for Truth, Beauty and the Inner Self in the Avatar

The Gaze

What happens when our avatars are so spectacular we want to become like them? Lately I have been sporting an avatar with a new look dark hairdo and I was so taken with how it looked, and how I felt wearing it, that I dyed my real hair a dark rich brown. I didn’t tell too many people because… well, it’s embarrassing, no? To be influenced by the image you have created to represent yourself, so much so that you try to become that idealisation? Wait… if my avatar reflects my inner aesthetics, then it’s natural to want my outer fleshy aesthetics to match it, right? Or is your brain hurting now?

Last year I had to grapple with the TV show I was featured on insisting they do a shot with me next to my avatar. I mean this would be fine if I was younger, thinner, taller, more gorgeous and so on… but I’m not, and so I ended up feeling totally eclipsed by the image of my avatar hovering next to the real me.

So I was especially interested in the writings of Domenico Quaranta, a commentator on the work of Eva and Franco Mattes (0100101110101101.ORG):

«It must be hard to be a model, because you’d want to be like the photograph of you, and you can’t ever look that way. And so you start to copy the photograph»
Andy Warhol [4]

As we have seen, this hall of mirrors is typical of virtual worlds. Expressions like “in world” and “out of world”, used by residents to refer to Second Life and the outside world respectively, are like a kind of inverted anthropocentrism. The most famous avatars in Second Life, those who have made a name for themselves “in world”, are rarely well known in the real world. After much insistence, Aimee Weber [5], the famed fashion and content designer who Eva and Franco Mattes dedicated a triptych to, came along to the opening of the show at the Italian Academy in New York. The photograph that captures her in front of the portrait of her avatar bears witness to a singular paradox: that of a real person completely outdone by her virtual self-representation. The image prevails over the person, as is always the case in the star system. But on a closer look, there is an element of novelty: what we are calling ‘image’ is in actual fact the immaterial projection of the self within a virtual space, within a world and community that does not exist outside the computer screen. The avatar has taken the upper hand.

In other words Portraits bears witness to the gradual humanization of our digital identities. To get a measure of this it is worth having a closer look at another project by Eva and Franco Mattes, which immortalizes the previous status of the digital identity. The project in question is Life Sharing, commissioned in July 2000 by the Walker Art Center of Minneapolis [6]. Starting from the statement that “a computer, with the passing of time, ends up looking like its owner’s brain” [7], 0100101110101101.ORG decided to enact a gesture of extreme transparency (glasnost), sharing the entire contents of their computer, transforming it into a web server: the ultimate digital self portrait. The critics talked about “abstract pornography” (Hito Steyerl), “open-source living in the digital age” (Steve Dietz), “a complete form of self-exposure” (Tilman Baumgärtel), based on a kind of voyeurism stimulated not by images, but by data and information. Yvonne Volkart noted: “The project… exaggerates the assumption that our life and our identities are based on purely determined and determining accumulations of information”; and Marina Griznic insisted: “The identity of 0100101110101101.ORG is represented, not through the psychology of an individual, but through the formation of a new visual and cultural space, via the recycling of stereotypes.”. A concept that Franco Mattes summed up in a one-liner: “We don’t have emotions; we have a Hewlett-Packard.” [8]

Life_Sharing bears witness to a particular stage in the evolution of our digital identity. Although it was already possible to mediate this identity through a webcam or an avatar in a virtual world or chat system, it did not yet have a face, being composed of different types of data in a constant flow on the Internet. But our faces and bodies reproduced by a webcam are not the face and body of our identity on the Net, merely part of the data comprising it. This was why, according to 0100101110101101.ORG, the best way of representing ourselves on the web was essentially abstract, and involved putting the viewer in touch with the intimacy of data.

Virtual worlds heralded the advent of a new phase. The cloud of raw data has finally solidified into a body and a face. To show our identities we no longer need to expose the kernels of our computers, but just work on the bodies of our avatars, their skin, hair and hairstyles, clothes and accessories. The dedication we put into this alone shows that our public image, our avatar, contains a lot of ourselves. There is nothing under the surface. The striking thing about this new phase in the evolution of our online identities is the fact that all our characteristics (personal details, psychological and sociological attributes) are represented by the avatar, its features and possessions. Data is gathered in a face, and can be offered up in the form of a portrait. Indeed the fact that we can now portray this identity, in the most traditional sense, is the best demonstration of the concreteness now attained by our virtual identities. The simplification of the medium, in this case, is inversely proportionate to the sophistication of the subject.

This reveals the importance – and the radical nature – of something as apparently banal as photographing avatars. By taking these photographs, and then printing them onto large canvases and exhibiting them in an art space, Eva and Franco Mattes are performing two crucial operations. On the one hand they are saying loud and clear that the subjects they have chosen are neither simulacra or characters in a game: they are people, complete, complex identities with defined social roles in a society comprising two million inhabitants, and they are an effective representation of the canons of beauty of that society. On the other hand the duo reiterate this statement by including their pictures in the great tradition of portraiture.

Additionally, there’s an interesting interview with the Mattes and here is an excerpt:

In virtual worlds, the extraordinary is the norm. You could have played on the oddities, the weird or trashier aspects, but instead you have focused on beauty. Why is that?

We didn’t choose beauty, it was elected by people creating their own alter-egos. They built their characters matching the Western canon of beauty, when they could be whoever and whatever they wanted. Some people find our portraits “cool” and “sexy”, others find them “creepy” and “tragic”. Not unlike Tamara de Lempicka’s portraits, with their robotic beauty, I guess they’re a bit of both.

Second Life raises issues about identity, but also about social life, architecture and economics. Why did you choose to work with portraits?

In Second Life you are forced not to be yourself, to wear an ultra-modern 3D mask. But masks are not there to hide your real identity, on the contrary they are there to show who you really are, since you can ignore social restrictions. Since we’ve been living fake identities all of our lives, it’s obvious that we are attracted by a world of Avatars.

So, is the avatar a mask, or is the real inner self, if such a thing exists?

4 thoughts on “Life Imitating Art: The Quest for Truth, Beauty and the Inner Self in the Avatar

  1. Ooh, that sounds spectacular! I won’t be on campus anytime soon – any pics of the new ‘do you could direct us to? P-leeease!?

  2. Looking forward to seeing if you change the comments icon on your blog to one with the new look.
    I don’t really believe in the idea of a true self ‘underneath’. All those selves are true; if we perform something then that is who we are, then, and in that context.

  3. I just did a photo shoot with the marketing people doing brochures for our programs so if I see a nice photo I will swap it over. If not, the blonde look stays!
    I think you’re right about self and context… what interests me is that new contexts are revealing new selves, and sometimes we might like the new selves better and work on transference of that self across contexts.

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