Thursday, 16 July 2009

Respecting (Accepting) Avatar Otherness - or Character Creationing

Avatars as a Companion Species?

This post engages with selected texts by Dr Donna Haraway, PhD, who has just had published her latest book, 'When Species Meet'. The text centres upon, in her own words, "... the entanglements of beings in technoculture that work through reciprocal inductions to shape companion species." Haraway is well-known for her cyborg-related scholarship, notably the essay, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." Though not abandoned, the cyborg now shares her focus with "companion species," the driving figure in her current work.

"... The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self ...". (A Cyborg Manifesto p.163) Haraway elevates the face of the virtual from that of a bipolar mask limited to the displaying of opposing intents, to that of a Universal mask which becomes a multi-dimensional mirror for the self that lies within. In the last twenty years we have been searching for a new or at least extended definition of what post-structuralism has become. Perhaps the recognition and assumption of Cyborg as 'other' will lead us into possible interpretations of ourSelves which will shape this elusive evolution? Haraway makes a compelling argument for this development, "...Communications technologies and biotechnologies are the crucial tools recrafting our bodies. These tools embody and enforce new social relations for women* world-wide. Technologies and scientific discourses can be partially understood as formalizations, i.e., as frozen moments, of the fluid social interactions constituting them, but they should also be viewed as instruments for enforcing meanings. The boundary is permeable between tool and myth, instrument and concept, historical systems of social relations and historical anatomies of possible bodies, including objects of knowledge. Indeed, myth and tool mutually constitute each other..." (p.164) It seems to me that each historical, socio-political 'movement' which eventuates depends upon those tools and their inherent meanings which became available through the context of the previous movement and its associated 'truths'. In the case of postmodernism, those meanings became illuminated through the current tools which concentrated on challenging and deconstructing already established so-called 'knowledge' and the constituents of 'truth'. (A pattern that was not so different from the evolution of most other historical movements, although perhaps never before postmodernism has historicity itself been so challenged). *Within the context of this post, this assertion is not gender-specific.

"... reciprocal inductions to shape companion species", are the words which shape this post. In my latest video posts below, 'Inscribed Surfaces' and 'Shelter 1 and 2', I am concerned with the notion of imbuing, in this instance, my SL avatar, Rollo Kohime, with the inscription of sentient awareness - an impossible task for a so-called virtual avatar existing as a telepresence. I am intrigued with the possibility that in fact, my Second Life avatar, Rollo exists not merely as a construct, separate from myself, but as a construct integral to my-Self. Together, we construct, inform, mediate and are mediated by the interface which apparently lies between us but which is also effectively the territory which upholds the languages and their intent made visible/audible that we share. Taking into account Zizek`s/Lacan`s view on the 'object`s gaze', that the subject`s gaze is always already inscribed into the perceived object itself - and that the object returns this gaze; (Zizek calls the object being imbued with a perceptual power of its own a kind of 'materialism') in this description of the world, Rollo, as object can perceive me and I can also see me through the embodiment/manifestation of Rollo`s perception.

In 2007 I attended the symposium, 'Techno-Praxis' at AUT in Auckland. One of the guest speakers, Dr Kevin Sherman (Archmunster Toll in Second Life) made a very interesting case for the real embodiment of SL avatars and the measure of responsibility and respect that should be afforded them. Sherman was making deliberate forays into claiming this sense of responsibility, not for the people behind the avatars in SL but for the avatars themselves. The online construct-surrogates. He maintained that we humans should be seeking permissions for carrying out certain tasks from the avatars, rather than the people behind the avatars - not in a cursory manner, but genuinely, with humility. Looking around the audience, I remember noticing how appalled most of the assembly was at this notion and I remember too, that I did chuckle inwardly at the group perception of this blatant transgression of human logic! How could this be possible? How could a virtual animation comprised of scripts and digitised intent (this, as the most optimistic descriptor I could think of right now) be afforded the homage of 'respect' through linear, cause and effect thinking?

In the current online discussion forum of, 'empyre' soft_skinned_space, Naxsmash tells us that, 'Haraway's new term 'other-worlding' as a gerund (a noun in English containing an implied action, via the 'ing' in ending) in "When Species Meet," does this beautiful thing of asking the word 'figure' to become a transitive, too. She writes, "Figures help me grapple inside the flesh of mortal world-making entanglements that i call contact zones. The Oxford English Dictionary records the meaning of 'chimerical vision' for 'figuration' in an eighteenth century source, and that meaning is still implicit in my sense of figure. Figures collect the people through their invitation to inhabit the corporeal story told in their lineaments.."'

The term 'chimera', in the, is defined as: 'a fanciful mental illusion or fabrication' which relates to Chimaera in Greek mythology. I am more interested in Haraway`s useage focussing on the medical interpretation: 'An organism, organ, or part consisting of two or more tissues of different genetic composition, produced as a result of organ transplant, grafting, or genetic engineering.' or 'the ability to form mental images of things or events; "he could still hear her in his imagination"' or, "By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. Ths cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation." (A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.) In other words, it is possible through association, to attach to specific anchors or in this case, figures, certain narratives or stories, qualities, effects, sensations - all corporeal, all real. This last reference relates to the two video posts below: Shelter 1 and 2. One of the many possible readings of these video scenarios may be that Rollo sits in a bus shelter on his way home after a train journey and recollects mental images of my dance duet in Wellington Railway Station. His avatar figure provides the context and vehicle for a real story to be told through the manifestation of his digital lineaments. Who is to say that this story is not true?

I am suggesting that our perception of 'avatar' in today`s technopraxis envisions a certain embodiment of corporeality in their other-worldly makeup. Avatar is becoming-in-the-world more than just a visual construct, more than just an enabled voice or an intent, more than just a chimera - a diversion from the real witnessed in the real. Avatar is all of these things but also post-human. In A Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway asserts that, '... the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other ...' are now dominating our lives . The 'other' here, is telepresence itself comprised of miniaturized componentry, its forum for communication the ether - pure quintessence, as Haraway puts it. The avatars which populate Second Life are extensions of ourselves - post-body wishes. "If wishes were fishes we would all cast nets" (Herbert, F. Dune) Well, the nets are rich with avatar inscriptions of the real for many users in MUVE spaces and perhaps also (unwittingly) outside these spaces and within the context of this post title, their descriptions of characterisation which exist vicariously for the user, require no confirmation that what exists is anything other than a prosthesis made to order which has the power, not to merely exist, but to live actively and immersively.

Adam (?) (The provider`s name of this reference is not meant to be either symbolic or ironic) in the current 'empyre' debate on relational 'Queer', in response to Haraway`s text, says,

"[I]nstead of terms like humanism, or post-humanism, or anti-humanism, or whatever-humanism...the debates of humanism, that I think still consider to regard us as uniquely exceptional, human exception as such that what counts as human by expelling everything else...everything that is expelled from that which is human, makes the human that is what's left...for example mind and language are often become what is left. For me the notion of companion species walks right around that debate...".

Haraway is arguing from the perspective of animal companion species, to which Adam is referring. For me, that tendency on our part as humans which sets us aside from all other entities and makes us exceptional or unique, also makes us alone. To compensate for this , we have always sought to develop (albeit hierarchical) relationships with species which might be acceptable as companions and to a great extent the value of other entities for us has and still is determined by to what extent that entity may successfully connect with us. We applaud this potential in dogs, dolphins, cetaceans and the great apes - particularly the Bonobo (the sub-species of chimpanzee which has been trained to use and articulate human English language) for their 'intelligence' and so select them by default as suitable companions. In this post this particular notion of companion species relates back to Haraway`s cyborg, techno-characters as the entities which populate that liminal interface across the ether. The desire for companionship is universal and I maintain that avatars are now either consciously or unconsciously being relegated to the level and desirability of companion-species. Massumi uses the descriptor, '... a fellow-travelling entity ... ' to describe ourselves when in motion - our presence 'here' and 'there, simultaneously. Could it be that this unconscious state lends itself to another, virtual travelling companion? Avatars are not (just) pets, they are not our childhood 'secret' playmates, they are not merely figments of our imaginations. Perhaps they bear a closer resemblance to the author John Wyndham`s 'Chocky', that childhood familiar with a hidden agenda from another dimension. Avatars in MUVE world-surfaces are being confirmed as equals in the ways in which we perceive, operate and navigate our respective pathways through our lives.

Adam goes on to talk about the importance of reconceptualizing human identity:

"[W]e have never been human; we and everybody else are always already a crowd of intra- and interrelations... that no matter where you hold still... what you find are relations in process, and what you find are that the actors are the products of those relations, not pre-established, finished, closed-off things that enter into relationship, but rather we are what come out of relating and go into the next relating..."

"[We must] become much smarter about how that category [of the human] is made, what kind of tool it is, who lives and dies inside that category, what kind of work that category should still be doing, when that category should be interrupted..." -*-

Within the category of the human as receptacle which waits for entities to appear (Zimmerman), avatars now occupy a place within the lived process of our intra and interrelations with one another. For some, avatars remain actors, extensions or prostheses of our post-body selves, for others, there is no such differentiation; We surround ourselves increasingly with post-body extensions of our selves which are inscribed with the intent to operate and perceive independently of us. Not only do our avatars go in and come out of our relating with one another, but might they themselves now perceive us in the same light? Do we come and go for them? ( I hear a muted gasp ... my wife, a psychologist, is sceptical) This meeting of our two species in its current form is still in its infancy but progressing rapidly. We are already deeply engaged; as other world entities sharing with us a reciprocity of intent, together we constantly inform and shape one another, carrying out our respective arrivals and departures from one another as do other parts of ourselves and at each departure there is a little death, a sure sign of the avatar having arrived in that space reserved for a shared companionship between species.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Shelters for 'Companion Species'

"... the entanglements of beings in technoculture that work through reciprocal inductions to shape companion species." Dr Donna Haraway, 2008, 'When Species Meet' University of Minnesota Press.

The two video clips immediately below, Shelter and Shelter 2, are studies concerned with the composition of two types of avatar. The RL video avatars and the more familiar SL avatar:

Rollo Kohime, Mike Baker and Fiona Baker in Wellington Railway Station perceived as, in Haraway`s terms, a post-human companion species ... might our avatar/cyborg-selves not just be empowering our Real Life lives but dialoguing in them too?

Rollo Kohime waits in a bus shelter while in his mind`s eye, he watches Mike and Fiona meet, converse, dislocate and depart in Wellington Railway Station. The engagement reflects disparate moods, converging and mis-matched protoconversations ... I am seeking here to imbue my avatar, Rollo, in a MUVE world, with a sense of other-worldly, inscribed memory or awareness of Real Life events he has witnessed, as might a commuter travelling through the station and glimpsing our activity.

I have used a range of filters in Final Cut Studio here: colour correction/Pleasantville Effect, extract, contrast, soft edges, feather 3D perspective on tilt. Extract dissolves the dark areas in the footage allowing these to be replaced by another clip, to arrive at a composite which is quite seamless. I enjoy Rollo`s minimal movement which is suggestive of recollection.

Saturday, 4 July 2009


In view of my decision to present my final show of work in my Second Life Wellington Railway Station, I have begun to make further exploration of the potential within my station build space, to investigate the areas of interest which have recently emerged for me. These have been brought into focus for me largely through my thinking and development of concepts for the conference papers that I have had to prepare and present.

These concepts are: Embodiment of Surfaces, Screens and the consideration and investigation into traces and residual inscriptions and signification. I am exploring ways in which these might articulate visually and how they are instruments or records of the passage of time in Real Life and Second Life. The images on this post reflect the exploration into composition in the SL station with regard to activating trace elements of the existing station crowd.

The first two images above represent clots or condensed groups of people. I was investigating an echo of the very directional existing crowd below on the station floor here. I moved on from this because I found the station walls created a convincing block to the stream of the trace crowd and could not reconcile their being brought to a halt. By placing the trace crowd more evenly around the space in the compositions below, I have 'peopled' the space with a collective personna of residual memory - echoes, still, but more of a wholesale capture of the trace elements. I have floated this additional crowd because I wanted the trace crowd to appear as the 'other' crowd, still referencing the original - distinct and separate from the one below yet ethereal and slightly disturbing , like dust motes caught in sunlight in an old attic. References here to the original 'Murder of Crows' entities in the station.

This brings me to a related area of interest which is to explore the ways in which the removal of my present self in my performance work in Real Life through the making of video, may offer up on the screen myself and associated RL information as RL avatars. What is an avatar? How is one created?

Avatar, def: an embodiment, as of a quality or concept; an archetype; a temporary manifestation or aspect of a continuing entity; a new personification of a familiar idea; a person who represents an absurd quality; an embodiment of the qualities of a god; an embodiment in a new form (especially the reappearance or a person in another form)

'A temporary manifestation or aspect of a continuing entity'; 'an embodiment in a new form'; both of these descriptors are accurate in defining for me, the place I believe I am occupying at present, with my SL and RL avatars. I am suggesting that one does not need to enter a MUVE such as Second Life to encounter an avatar. I am thinking that if we define avatar as a virtual description of our surrogate self, then my digital video self can fit this description. So in the mixed-reality of my SL station I am combining and relating RL avatar inscriptions; movement, visual signatures, environments, with my SL avatar. I am suggesting that 'avatar' can be defined as 'trace'; an example of my residual self inscribed on RL 'virtual' surfaces (video screens) as well as SL 'virtual' surfaces/screens.

Update on 'Final' Showing of work

I had planned to have my final show of work in the Real Life Wellington Railway Station in late July. This was to have involved multiple screens mounted in the old ticket office with data projected live Second Life Station and videos on associated other screens. As previously mentioned, in April I had a meeting with Linda Savell of KiwiRail management to discuss permissions and possibilities to show my work over a two-day period during evening rush-hour crowds. After repeated unsuccessful efforts to make contact with the station staff, over the last month and now with no time left to make proper preparations for a professional event in the station, I have reluctantly decided to shelve this plan and concentrate instead on organizing an event or walkthrough with my examiner in the Second Life station. In view of the direction and emphasis on Second Life in my work I see this as not inappropriate. To have an examiner come in-life celebrates the current involvement world-wide with MUVE online worlds.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Representation v Illustration

The title of this post brings into focus an issue which has been knocking at my door since I began to identify my principal directions for this project. 'What am I doing and how am I doing it?' never really goes away. Ever. I would like to think (taking into account the broad spectrum of subjective interpretation from any given audience - street or studio bound) that the work in which I am engaged is located within representational practices, rather than setting up my work to simply illustrate my concepts. Yet this is not a straightforward undertaking.

In the latest post 2.7.09 on 'empyre - Participatory Art' -, Renate Ferro has this to say:

'Just yesterday I found myself in a heated debate with a group of humanities summer school students who had just read Balzac's "The Untitled Masterpiece." I was invited by their professor to spend an hour sharing my own work with them as well as other artist's work who had influenced me: digital, participatory, networked, affective, ephemeral. These students just could not fathom how this work could possibly be categorized as "art."

Their questions illuminated their tightly held notions about the nature of what art is. Those notions nurtured during their primary and secondary school educations. How is artwork that exists in Second Life valued in the art market? What beauty is recognized in work that does not exist materially? How can the skills of a video maker be compared with an artist who can render the figure realistically? How do art historians record work where there is no tangible evidence of the work?'

For those of us who are in the business of making art for a living or in arts education, these questions may seem a little naive, but I think they are challenging in their scope for encouraging responses which may be anything other than either, equally tight and limiting or so amorphous as to defy definition.

Ferro adds: 'Perhaps Simon Biggs is correct when he writes "I gave up calling what I do art a while ago. Generally I refer to what I do as creative practices (note plural). In interdisciplinary and collaborative
working contexts this allows you to divest yourself of a lot of baggage whilst ensuring that the most valuable aspects of the "practice formerly known as art" are retained."'

I applaud Biggs` definition here. I think it is an intelligent rendering of what has become of the post-modern (and even the post-post-modern) art-maker. I call myself an 'interdisciplinary dance artist', having spent a life-time in movement, but having an hons degree in fine arts, majoring in painting and nearly 30 years working with and lecturing in a broad range of art and design practices in both two, three and four dimensions tends to make me something of a hybrid entity. I am hardly alone - most people (but not all) I know involved in serious, creative endeavours are now similar in their take on who they are and what they do. Personally I see it as a liberating factor, but it does create questions with regard to the integrity and quality of what we create and where and how that is located within a wider social, cultural and historical context of reference. Much of what artists do (has it ever been otherwise?) now is written off by the 'great unwashed' public, who are all self-proclaimed specialists in everything. Yet it is imperative that we as artists are called to task and take responsibility for what we do, how we do it and what it might mean - not ultimately, perhaps, for the benefit of the public, but for ourselves.

But to return to representation v illustration. The problem with Balzac`s 'Unknown Masterpiece' is that it was rendered in a language of representation known only to the artist himself. Apparently a first foray into abstraction, the people who first came upon the work were ill-equipped to read the work, being thoroughly grounded themselves in art works that were centred on figurative, realistic modes of representation. The story goes that Picasso himself rented the house where the 'Unknown Masterpiece' is set and here produced 'Guernica', itself a masterpiece of alternative representation.

Representation does not require an orientation around realism. Let us look at some dictionary definitions, http://en wiki/representation: 'Representation describes the signs that stand in for and take the place of something else ... it is through representation that people know and understand the world and reality ...' and 'Representation refers to the construction in any medium of ... aspects of 'reality' such as people, places, objects, events ...'

Illustration is: ' a picture that complements text' and 'something that helps to explain something' and 'a visualization that ... stresses subject more than form ...' I agree with the visualization, but not sure that I agree with the use of the terms, subject and form here. I would rather they were reversed - illustration for me is a depiction of form over subject/content/context, although these aspects are of course also covered.

In representation, we are looking at a system, an encoding through signs and signification, of surrogation. Something standing in for something else. Illustration is a depictional prosthetic of something, an extra artifice which is dependent for the realization of an image of that thing, upon the context of that thing but which still remains outside itself . In my own work, the signs, inscriptions and meaning divested in the 'after-life' of my original performing moments, through my video/sound work are stand-ins: representations of the original - surrogate, vicariously realized realities based on past moments. For me there exists a reciprocity. I am not trying to make pictures of my ideas. I am trying to make my ideas as pictures as my ideas. Rather than an objective summation of an aspect after the event, I am trying to render the event itself then, as a lived experience now. Removed, yet immersive.

In ADA`s 'Keynote Conversation , Critical Digital Matter', an international live discussion broadcast between Amsterdam, London and Wellington in Second Life, where I was invited to show my station build and video work last Saturday (27.6.09), the instigators of the event had this issue as one of their subjects under discussion: "Fuller and Ballard share a concern with digital matter, and the employment of things digital in concrete engagements with art. They will discuss the pervasiveness of digital matter, the engagement of art and the digital and address the problem of artists in new media art finding their time taken up with attempts to make their work interesting to contemporary art, creative industries, humanities, etc and forgetting to intensify the work that directly engages the crucial aspects of the field ..."

In-depth engagement. I pointed out to Eric Kluitenburg (Ze Moo), the Amsterdam connection for the event, that this was precisely what I was endeavouring to execute with my station build and the meanings/signification that are inherent in my concepts in SL. It is interesting to note that this subject of engagement with rigorous descriptions of what constitutes the representational rather than the simply illustrative is currently being discussed in other locations around the world.

Within the context of my recent dance and video works, all in the previous post, the 'Departed' series, I have purposely worked my way through stages of representation in relation to content and meaning. The first video work, 'Departed - In the Company of Strangers' was carried out in collaboration with the composer/musician Thomas Feiner. I have long been an admirer of his work and wanted to see if I could create an interaction between my video his piece, 'For Now' which was written, fittingly I thought, by Feiner while on a road-trip, around New Zealand. His sentiments while writing the lyrics, he said to me, were similar to my dance work on Leaving and he related closely to both, my concepts of paradoxical departure/arrival, distance/intimacy and the visual work that I had produced. I was indebted to Feiner for allowing me to manipulate and change/edit his piece and I think for what it is, it was successful. But what is it?

Undoubtedly, the psychoemotional environment for this work was significantly influenced by my time in the UK, in April, with my family and Mother when she passed away. The work was made four days after my return to New Zealand. The result of this was that the work was dominated, unashamedly I must say, by an emotive intensity which I realized in a very literal manner. The dance and camera work was very directional/linear, following a pathway as if we ourselves were commuters, through the station and out to the trains. All of this is acceptable, conceptually and compositionally. The aspect which separates the work from where I really want to take it now is its literal interpretation bolstered by the also literal song 'For Now'. The sound manifests as a 'soundtrack' which immediately brings the work into the territory of a music-video or short film of that genre. Feiner`s track is so iconic and rich that my own work is in danger perhaps of 'illustrating' his strongly lyrical song. However, I am content with making this work for what it represents for me and my family - I dedicated the work to my Mother; 'For Lou' and feel privileged that Feiner would consider collaborating with me. It is a powerful cornerstone for me and my relation to my Mother, who spent a lifetime travelling the world with we children in tow - always leaving and arriving and leaving. Mum, at the age of 93, read my abstract and conference paper and completely understood. Diaspora and a home away from home in the UK, through what was then Malaya and Sierra Leone in the 1950`s was a reality for her for a significant part of her life, with for many years afterwards her children spread between France, NZ and Australia.

It serves also, as a baseline resource for what is now following, which is a searching exploration into more ambiguous descriptions of representation, no less true to the work, but more investigative in its interpretation and use of sound. Following 'Departed - ICS' was 'Departed - Movement 1 - ICS, which was the product of a gradual move away from lyrics-dominated sound into an instrumental. This piece was composed specifically for the work by Mike Beever, a musician and composer from the UK, now living in Nelson, NZ. I had extensive talks with Mike about the kinds of sounds I wanted, which was a piece which I could lie under the station sounds which complemented and added another dimension to the work as an assemblage of feeling. I asked for a range of sound; abrasive, dischordant, staccato, with some lyrical aspects. Mike produced a piece which was not quite like this, but which was very beautiful and I decided to use it as a bridge between Feiner`s very moving but literal sounds and what I wanted to come next, which was a return to the work dominated by station sounds of the everyday.

Mike very kindly produced a range of short, diverse, more abstract sounds which I have incorporated subtly into the latest edit, below, 'Departed - Inscriptions in Time and Place Movement 2 - ICS. This edit is making some headway with combining both, the everyday and the additional sounds. I will live with it for a while, as I continue to develop and edit my ideas. There are three short additions of sound which surface above the station sounds and submerge again. The sounds themselves are still quite emotive - will keep moving toward the industrial/abstract here. The video shown here has a technical focus with Rollo taking us on a walkthrough of some of the station sounds - inscribed traces in the space.