23 October 2010

The Identity Fix(ation)

One can scarcely encounter a blog on art in Second Life (or indeed many other blogs about SL) without coming across a discussion of identity in virtual worlds.  Many artworks focus on that theme; some artists, such as Gracie Kendal, Vaneeesa Blaylock (who recently said she's leaving SL) and Botgirl Questi, devote practically their entire oeuvre to it; and now we have the Caerleon Museum of Identity, an exhibition running through the end of October.

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 Botgirl Questi's [correction:] Chrome Underwood's smart, witty cartoons, especially the one in which an avatar is unfaithful to one of his alts by getting into an affair with his other alt; but I liked many of the others as well.  My subject here lies not in the quality of the art, but in the nature of the ideas behind it.

Two comic strips by Botgirl Questi [correction:] Chrome Underwood
(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."


  1. 'STATE of Mind' was a critique of both state-sponsored propaganda/jingoism and consumerism that can use the techniques of Madison Avenue to sell a war. Both techniques are used to impart a false sense of "belonging," either to a nation/flag (branding) or to socially-approved action and thought (herd mentality) which can often subvert independent thinking.

    I agree that one mode of identity is social. We cannot be removed entirely from our social matrix; even "outsiders" have their place, their slot. In this case, "content is advertising; advertising is content."

    The other, philisophical mode has been the subject of intellectual speculation for centuries. Just who are you, inside the onion-layers of accretion; inside your social blankets and encrustations; in the dark at 4am when the false identities of your constructed social existence are 10,000 light-years from home?

    Thanks for the interesting column, and thanks again for mentioning the lack of Tinys, Furrys, Nekos, Cyborgs, SL Kids or some of the newer, non-anthropological avatars being seen lately. If the "identity question" is going to be confined to the same level as Prada vs The Gap, it is a narrow and cramped investigation.

  2. Yes, I have written some similar views regarding this show. It also, for me, highlights the dangers of 'themes' shows. I have to applaud it's brave attempt to add to the discussion which it obviously does (because of this and similar posts) but the idea that a group can pick a theme and run with it is one I question strongly.
    Surely good art cannot be commissioned to present a philosophical view when the thoughts behind it require years of exploration.
    I am also allergic to art used to 'promote awareness'.. e.g. Aids, torture etc. as these subjects are beyond debate, and therefore, in a way, sterile.

    It would be far better in my humble opinion to instruct the artists involved to make the best piece they can, independent of theme or the agenda of the sponsoring gallery.

  3. Hi Miso! Yes, I recognize the age-old practice of speculative introspection, though if I'm not mistaken, little of it is in pursuit of an "essential self." In many traditions introspection aims to eliminate ego, re-channel it, control it, submerge it within a larger supra-consciousness, etc. The modern concept of self as something that *should* be a self-contained essence dates more or less from Descartes's "I think, therefore I am" (though it began emerging somewhat earlier).

    But in these discussions it's important to distinguish between the *sense* of self, a sense of interiority and separation which we all have and which is most likely a necessary product of both experience and physiology; and the *concept* of self, which is historically, socially and culturally variable, but often shapes the experience and understanding of the sense of self. I suspect that some of the speculative tradition you mention concerns the effort to make that distinction. My post, obviously, is mostly on the concept of self. The sense of sense is not necessarily felt or conceptualized as an "identity."

    Hi soror! I have similar doubts about themed shows, but perhaps more ambivalently. Back when I bothered with writing conference papers, usually I hated the conference theme, but sometimes it proved a useful challenge that prodded me toward new ideas. I think the theme of "identity" is ultimately sterile, but I have to admit, good art can come from it nevertheless.

    Thanks, both of you!

  4. I loved your thoughtful post.

    First, although I appreciate your kind comments, the works you cited and linked to are by my good friend Chrome Underwood.

    My exhibit focused on avatar Identities that were born in Second Life that extend into other virtual worlds, MMOs, social networks, blogs and media sharing sites. The works I showed were created either completely or primarily outside of Second Life to illustrate the independence of avatar-based identity from any particular platform or medium.

    I agree that there's a lot of fuzziness in the way we use the term "identity". It has quite a few different meanings, but in general, I think of identity as the ways we attempt to objectify, define and project some finite conception of our infinite and fluid being.

  5. Hi Botgirl -- thanks for writing, and please extend my apologies to Chrome! (I liked your comic strips too, and as I have a knack of entering sites from the wrong direction, I must have missed the fact that I'd them walked into another person's region.)