Avatars and Virtual Spaces

Art and the Emergent Imagination in Avatar-Mediated Online Space by Denise Doyle/ The Virtual Panopticon: Whose Point-of-View is it Anyway? by Greg Patrick Harvey/ "Drifting and Imaging in Second Life: John Craig Freeman's 'Imaging Beijing' (2006)" by Maayan Glaser-Koren
Wednesday, 14 September, 2011 - 14:45 - 15:45
Chair Person: 
Elif Ayiter
Denise Doyle
Greg Garvey
Maayan Glaser-Koren

Art and the Emergent Imagination in Avatar-Mediated Online Space

by Denise Doyle

This paper presents a framework for what is termed the emergent imagination (developed through a recent PhD thesis) that arises out of the transitional spaces created in avatar-mediated online space. Four categories of transitional space are identified in artworks developed and presented in the virtual world of Second Life: the surreal, the fictional/poetic, the emergent, and the spatio-temporal. Through the writings of Gaston Bachelard, Elizabeth Grosz, and Edward Casey, this paper examines how the contemporary notion of the virtual has changed our framing of the imaginary. It takes up the challenge laid down by Grosz suggesting what Bergson ‘did for time’ should also be ‘done for space’. Referring to the heterogeneities of space explored in virtual worlds the paper argues that as the virtual remains connected to time, the imagination becomes connected to space. The shared characteristics of the virtual and imaginary reveal a dimension of materiality to each, and further, they demonstrate that both can be seen as a field of becoming. The analysis of the imaginative effects of the artworks presented in the two virtual (and physical) gallery exhibitions of the Kritical Works in SL project demonstrates a mode of artistic exploitation of the particular combination of user-generated and avatar-mediated spaces. A further analysis of a phenomenology of practice of artists in avatar-mediated online spaces utilising a method of imaginative variation analysis reveals that the imagination is experienced as embodied. Further to this, a materiality to space is identified through an imagination of the senses that responds to the presence of the (imagined) body of the avatar. This paper argues that the conditions for the emergent imagination are best generated in avatar-mediated online spaces, where the experience of space as heterogeneous and where the plasticity of time-space relationships is articulated.

The Virtual Panopticon: Whose Point-of-View is it Anyway?

by Greg Patrick Garvey

Virtual worlds such as Second Life privilege a single point-of-view, i.e. the user. When logged into Second Life a user sees the virtual world from a default viewpoint, which is from slightly above and behind the user's avatar (the user's alter ego ‘in-world’). This point-of-view is as if the user were viewing his or her avatar using a camera floating a few feet behind it. The user can also see from the avatar’s point-of-view or even move that camera completely independent of his/her avatar. Easily changing point-of-view has ramifications. The practice of using multiple avatars requires a transformation of identity and personality. When a user 'enacts' the identity of a particular avatar, their 'real' personality is masked by the assumed personality. In real life such change can lead to psychological distress. In virtual worlds and games a change in identity or point-of-view is thought to be desirable, liberating and fun.

Yet we should take pause. While MMORPGs, virtual worlds and electronic games seek to provide a fun experience, all require that the users/players agree to Terms of Service (TOS). Rather than liberating TOS is a regime of ‘soft’ surveillance. Most include provisions that content created by users cannot infringe on the intellectual property rights of a third party; users agree to indemnify the owner of the virtual world from liability; all content created by users becomes the property of the virtual world owner and the owner retains the right to cancel a user’s account anytime for any reason. According to Greg Lastowka submission to the TOC is equivalent to a new feudal order: “Like peasants tilling fields around a medieval castle, users will lend their copyright labor and creativity in ways that will build the value of the virtual world platform, often paying for the privilege of doing so.” Foucault’s discussion of Bentham’s Panopticon applies equally to typical Terms of Service: “to induce in the inmate (user) a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” Today, the mummified Jeremy Bentham is locked in perpetuity in a box. But his omniscient gaze remains omnipresent.

"Drifting and Imaging in Second Life: John Craig Freeman's 'Imaging Beijing' (2006)"

by Maayan Glaser-Koren

In this paper, I will discuss the way in which the existence of the dérive is possible in Second Life and how this is demonstrated by John Craig Freeman's "Imaging Beijing." Freeman is a contemporary American artist from Boston, Massachusetts. His "Imaging Place" is an ongoing place-based work combining photography, video, documentary and virtual reality. It began in 1997 as an exploration of the forces of globalization, and was installed in the virtual setting of Second Life in 2006. Freeman's overall project and its individual components such as "Imaging Beijing" can be analyzed through Jean Baudrillard's 1983 essay 

“Simulacra and Simulations,” particularly his notion of the simulation. Most importantly, "Imagining Place" assesses the realization of the dérive in Second Life.

The mid-1960s Situationist theory of the dérive explains that in order for a social change to arrive, subjects must re-experience the activities of daily life. Guy Debord, writing of an era characterized by the soaring popularity of television viewership and the wild proliferation of commercial media and advertising, noted that society itself was being transformed by technology.  His Society of the Spectacle (1967) describes this emergence of consumer society and proclaims that the spectacle that dehumanizes us. One of Debord's proposed solutions was the dérive, which was to arouse in subjects an increased interest in the geography of the city. Most evocatively, the dérive was to create new encounters that were not otherwise possible, and through this allow for to positive social change.

Freeman follows Debord to critique our contemporary social geography as defined by computers and the Internet. Viewers encounter his work through an avatar that takes the role of the dérive's psychogeographer and allows for a new awareness of the terrain. For example, in "Imaging Beijing," the player’s avatar enters the city through satellite images and experiences it through panoramic documentary photographs. Focus on Beijing's Hutong neighborhoods calls attention to the communities and individuals that bear the brunt of rapidly expanding globalization.  I find that Freeman's insistence on active versus passive viewership is in alignment with Debord's hopes for the dérive.