Commonplace topics on this theme for bloggers and artists include the question of whether the SL identity is "real," the possibility of confusion between SL and RL identities, the "ambiguity of identity" (the Caerleon exhibition originally used that phrase for its title), multiple identities and the possibility that they each have their own personalities, and attacks and/or celebrations of gender role play.
But I'm not going to examine those matters: my focus here is the "identity" theme itself.
There are two curious aspects of how the topic of identity tends to be addressed. One is there is often slippage if not outright muddiness about concepts. When someone takes on the theme of identity, often what they actually discuss is personality, social role, social category, personality, visual presentation, sense of self, individuality, psychology, sexuality, or some other concept. But these are distinct ideas, or at least they can be distinguished. For example, I have a pretty strong sense of self, but I don't have a strong sense of identity in the sense of membership in a category. And designating an identity is often a way to safely pigeonhole someone, avoiding an actual encounter. (Identity theft? I'm tempted to say identity is theft.)
The other oddity is a certain, dare I say, narrowness. One can tell a lot by what is and isn't at the Museum of Identity. Lining the entry hallway and ringing the top of the central gallery, there's a cavalcade of avatar forms, from warriors to wolves to elderly ladies to businessmen to ducks to vampires to mermaids and on, celebrating the vast array of possibilities that SL offers. But these seem like token appearances: the identities depicted in the artworks themselves are strictly human. There's not a furry, cyborg, tiny or even neko to be seen. (There's Maya Paris's wacky mechanoid bird, which I loved, even though—or more likely because—it seemed to merrily fail to answer any of its questions; but in context, I think it's more of a costume than an avatar.) Somehow, alternative embodiments of identity aren't at issue: there's a distinct normativity about the sort of avatar that's up for consideration. The depictions and obsessions suggest that the norm is young, white, and most often female. Whether or not that reflects the demography of the real life artists in Second Life, it certainly doesn't reflect the span of avatar types in Second Life. It doesn't even reflect the range of artists' avatars (some of which are supposedly expressions of felt identity).
Maya Paris's mechanoid bird
I should emphasize, I am not criticizing the Museum of Identity exhibition curator, FreeWee Ling, who brought together many interesting and provocative works. The disjunction between expressed ideas about the plurality and fluidity of identity in SL vs the artistic representations about it is much more widespread than that. Nor am I suggesting that the pieces at the exhibition are bad art. In fact the overall quality is very high. My personal favorites are
Two comic strips by
Botgirl Questi [correction:] Chrome Underwood
(read the left one from the bottom up)
(read the left one from the bottom up)
There is yet another important characteristic to nearly all of the art and discussions about identity in SL: its individualistic mode of thought. The identities at stake are essentially independent beings, perhaps connected to an individual in the real world, but in all other respects separated or outright isolated from an overall social context. Of course, individualism (in both the moral and philosophical senses) is endemic to modern industrial and post-industrial societies. It is in fact one reason why the concept of identity is so appealing to many people: "identity" brings the self-confirming assurance of a drug that demonstrates individualism's correctness.
The one piece in the Museum of Identity that notably departs from straight-up individualism is Lollito Markham's "Identity Office," which perhaps not coincidentally doesn't portray any avatars at all: it is a police detectives' office, ready to pin down who we are in order to keep us in our place. I haven't decided whether Markham is engaged in social critique or following the simpler idea that society is an oppressive force opposed to the individual, which is a problematic theory too; the latter seems more likely, since the police office doesn't appear to gesture outward to underlying social structures, but at least Markham engages with a concept of society.
Lollito Markham's "Identity Office"
It is worth comparing "Identity Office" to two other works, not part of the Museum. Miso Susanowa's build "State of Mind," which had a theme somewhat similar to Markham's, was more clearly a critique, concerning a system of social structures and relationships involving the network of overreaching state power, surveillance, torture and propaganda. Bryn Oh's "Condos in Heaven" (blogged previously) extrapolates consumerism and economic imperialism by having them win a war again heaven itself. As far as I know, this is the only full-scale piece in which Bryn undertakes social criticism (although one should note her abandoned shopping carts), but in most of her artwork, society is felt through its absence: a key source of her characters' tragedy is their forced deracination from the world they came from. They are not loners or renegades—they are exiles. Because exiledom involves a relationship to one's society, Bryn's work departs from individualism, though perhaps only to an inchoate extent.
We do not exist outside society: on the contrary, society is the condition for our existence, and our ideas and experiences are deeply rooted in its structures. Our consciousness doesn't shape our being so much as our social being shapes our consciousness. History isn't the creation of Great Men and Great Women: we got here because of the doings of all who came before us. And the simple fact is, life is with people. We cannot understand ourselves outside of that fact—if understanding ourselves as personal identities is even so important. Identities are social.
Okay: I'm perfectly aware that if any artists are reading this, they'll take or leave it, and that's the way the cookie crumbles. Anyway I'm not interested in being prescriptive: my aim is to describe and interpret what I see, rightly or wrongly. Still, I agree with one artist in RL, Ben Vautier, who wrote: "To Change Art Destroy Ego."