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."

21 October 2010

Burn 2: A few favorites

Okay, I simply don't have time to blog about Burn 2, mostly because I'm working on another post entirely that with any luck I'll have ready tomorrow or the next day.

But here are a few of my favorites, in no particular order, and not to imply that there aren't other good things -- I just crash all the time and I'll never get to everything!

Miso Susanowa's "House of Cards: The History of Social Networking Considered as a House of Cards" is both a trip down memory lane (for those of us old enough to have memories with lanes) and a warning about the dustbins of history.  Near the top are some playing cards with Philip Linden's (original) face ... and already he too seems to be in the dustbin of history.

Madcow Cosmos and Lorin Tone have an archaeological site rising from detritus to a spaceship heading to the stars. On the middle level of the part you see below, a little to the left, are buckets and oil drums which play drums and other percussion, and skulls which chant. You can easily spend an hour playing with them. Find some dances in your inventory, you'll want to use them.

Bryn Oh has a new, disturbing work -- another one of her cam builds, which you enter by leading your camera through a doorway and up a corridor to small for you to enter, until you reach a chair with a sit which you can use to get inside, later having to do more camming. The use of the sit is I think a step toward involving the viewer even more intimately than ever.

And that's all I can manage to blog about.

08 October 2010

Pick your jaw up from the floor, Div ... twice!

Jaw-dropper #1 is Linden Labs' bizarre asinine moronic obscene and I think self-destructive decision to double sim prices for nonprofit organizations and educational institutions, which (more or less by definition) are not major moneymakers yet are (more or less for the same reason) fonts of creativity. It's hard to imagine what LL's forecast is -- that these groups are heavily invested enough in SL that they'll choke down the additional US $150/month? Well, maybe a bunch of them will. My own university isn't doing squat in SL, but given its two rounds of layoffs, drastic cuts in the library acquisitions budget (ca. 40%), elimination of travel funds for professional (non-faculty) staff, etc etc, I doubt it would consider SL a great use of its cash. But maybe other schools are doing work in distance learning or other activities that would make the increased cost tolerable. It seems like a stretch to me. More endangered is involvement by nonprofits, many of which are small and often desperately underfunded; yes, there are a few enormous and essentially corporate foundations like the American Cancer Society, but it seems like time and again, LL's decisions favor the big guns and let the small players hang.  People keep saying small businesses generate the most jobs, maybe that should be a clue to what LL should really support....

Jaw-dropper #2 is a post John "Pathfinder" Lester (formerly Linden) wrote describing how people are already able to run OpenSim and Imprudence on a USB key. Yes: an entire virtual world and the ability to inhabit it, all on a single thumb drive, and all of its contents your own -- not rented, not reliant on someone else's servers. And since a viewer like Imprudence can be used with more than one virtual world, in principle it should be possible to seamlessly travel from OpenSim to Second Life to Inworldz and on. It's a declaration of Virtual World Independence. Go plug in.