LaTurbo Avedon, Gazira Babeli, Lolita G and Olia Svetlanova
Curated by Wade Wallerstein
22nd November - 22nd December 2018
A Form You Can Understand brings together four different artists that share one very important thing in common: they are all virtual. Meet Gazira Babeli, LaTurbo Avedon, Olia Svetlanova, and Lolita G. These artists are self-created digital constructions, virtual beings that exist online in networked space and offline in computer servers and hard drives as standalone individuals that may or may not identify with physical world identities. Through presentations of video artworks as well as self-portraiture by these artists, this show aims to act as an exploration of identity formation in the digital age while also staking a claim for the artistic and cultural value of these artists’ work in contemporary society.
These artists don’t have physical bodies. They do not produce physical work. Yet, they are all deeply material beings and they produce material creations—ones inscribed in code and stored as electrical pulses within networked assemblages of hardware and software . They are avatars: “digital representation[s] (graphical or textual), beyond a simple label or name, that have agency (an ability to perform actions) and are controlled by a human agent in real time,” . What makes the artists in this show so revolutionary is that they utterly reject the latter component of this definition, and exist without an offline referent. They are avatars without masters: emancipated, autonomous beings producing work and carrying out their lives in various virtual worlds. A Form You Can Understand seeks to engage with these digital beings on their own terms, in their native material world: the realm of the digital.
This show builds upon theoretical foundations developed by ethnographers working in virtual worlds over the last 30 years. This standpoint does not privilege the actual or the virtual (read: offline or online/physical or digital), nor does it oppose the virtual to the real. Not only is the virtual very much real  (the artists included in this show prove that in the ways that the effects and affects of their works ripple through various lifeworlds), but neither is the virtual reducible to the actual. Each is their own sphere, that, while mutually constitutive, is separate in its own right. Yet, this gap is not impassable: “Ideas, metaphors, power relations, and even forms of materiality routinely move across this gap between the virtual and actual, but it is the gap and attendant movements across it — works of techne — that make the virtual possible at all,” . The artists in this show begin in the digital world and move out to affect material world relations, through their acts of techne born within virtual spaces.
What makes avatars so important is that they “are not merely representations of bodies but forms of embodiment, centered on constitutive emplacement within a world,” . Avatars are what allow us to engage with the digital, to place ourselves in a virtual space and engage with it on a meaningful level. As our consciousness extends into the digital, we are embodied in the avatar and we become enmeshed in the fabric of this world. This is important, because avatars “come to provide access points in the creation of identity and social life. The bodies people use in these spaces provide a means to live digitally—to fully inhabit the world,” . As life moves online, understanding these entry points and how we come to inhabit and engage with these new constructions of sociality become increasingly important. As Heidegger puts it, “I dwell, therefore I am,” . Avatars are the vehicle by which we are able to dwell, and create meaning out of virtuality. Perhaps more aptly put decades later by virtual ethnographer T.L. Taylor, “If I can embody, I can be made deeply real,” .
And, this cannot be stressed enough: these artists are deeply real, and rely on the mutual constitution of actual and virtual that plays out through embodiment in digital space: “Virtual body and virtual world constitute each other, recalling the broader phenomenological conclusion that ‘the body can no longer be regarded as an entity to be examined in its own right but has to be placed in the context of a world’ (Macaan 1993: 174),” . Moreover, these phenomena demonstrate how “non-human things are as important as humans in shaping behavior, history, technology and identity,” . This may seem abstract, or somewhat niche, but the implications are enormous. Unpacking them is crucial for a well-rounded understanding of what it means to be human in the digital age. How can an analysis of these artists visual outputs help us to understand the world of contemporary visual digital culture? How do avatars, as digital artifacts and material conduits of agency, work to reconstruct notions of identify formation? What does this say about our social media worlds and the ways that we create identities for ourselves out of images and texts? And, perhaps most importantly, what does this mean for concepts of identity for the future?
Gazira Babeli is a code performer who operated within the virtual world of Second Life, most actively between 2006 and 2009. A visionary, and a “pioneer in the body and space of the Other,”  Babeli worked to shed light on the constructed nature of Second Life’s virtual reality by using coded performances to subvert the material fabric of her world. She wrote scripts, which then created certain objects or performed certain actions within Second Life. In Come to Heaven (2006), Babeli wrote a script that launched unsuspecting passersby millions of meters into the air, and then dropped them at 900 km/h. The result, which stretched both Second Life’s physics engine and the user’s graphics chip to the limits, resulted in a glitched out shattering of polygon shapes as the user’s avatar was blown to smithereens. Babeli calls these works ‘graphics card paintings.’ Each time the work is enacted, the results are different and somewhat unpredictable, depending on the user’s system specifications and internet connection. In Anna Magnani (2007), Babeli created a script that causes an avatar to randomly and involuntarily cycle through all of the facial animations that they have in their inventory, leading to grotesque facial contortions that point out the artificiality of emotion, written in code and rendered through computer-generated animation.
Babeli calls her works performances because, according to her, “Codes are just instructions, imperative verbs…The result could be spectacular and/or create social troubles. I found it easier to call these instructions ‘performances’ or ‘actions. It makes sense in SL frame-space ‘cause the results look more like a sensible real space than a computer output,” . This builds on instruction-based work developed by Fluxus artists. Babeli reminds that despite the value of Second Life as a virtual lifeworld and space of sociality, it is composed of an entirely different materiality to the offline world and thus the rules are different. The on screen results are simply images produced to represent the algorithmic machinations going on within. What her work aims to do is “Remove an avatar from its self-imposed state of immaturity, by showing it that the consensual hallucination it inhabits is not real, or a poor imitation of a mistaken idea of reality, but an imperfect mishmash of code, textures and polygons, in which Gaz too lives and works,” .
It is this idea of seeing past and through the screen which comes to play in Babeli’s magnum opus Gaz of the Desert (2007). The film, which can be seen as somewhat of an homage to Luis Buñuel’s Simón del desierto (1965), shows Babeli stood atop a pillar in the middle of the desert (a ‘set’ which she built herself). Satan attempts to tempt her, and while she is able to hold out for a while, in the end she falters. The viewer is immediately rocketed to a computer call center, where Babeli—wearing a shirt that says ‘Fuck Off. I’m Scripting’—appears to be rendering images frantically in 3D. This is “a story which could be interpreted as a parable on the subject of ‘second lives’ lived along a fine line between the seductive power of illusions and the awareness of reality,” . Gaz of the Desert is cynical in that Babeli seems trapped by the narratives that she has constructed around herself, constrained to her ‘world in a suitcase.’ Yet despite all of this, Babeli is still her own master. Regardless of how artificial or constructed or even constraining the world created by Linden Labs might be, and though she may be forced to operate within the logic imposed by their systems, she is still the author of her own truth.
Buy Gaz 4 One Linden Dollar! (2007) shows that, while an avatar may help to create a solid identity when engaging with virtual space, identity as a concept is so much bigger than this and the artifact of the avatar is just a tool by which to achieve embodiment. In this piece, Babeli offered an exact replica of her avatar to anyone in Second Life for the low price of one Linden Dollar (worth just a few cents). Anyone could own her image, but no one could be her (“the real Gazira will always elude us,” ). More importantly, just as the virtual world around her is constructed, “identity, like the body, is something artificial, an assembly of fragments bought in a shop for a handful of Linden Dollars,” . This piece exemplifies, more than any other work in Babeli’s oeuvre, how identity, whether online or offline, is a fabrication—an amalgamation of parts that every individual is in charge of curating. Why should Babeli, or any other avatar artist for that matter, be treated with any less seriousness than anyone else?
LaTurbo Avedon is an avatar artist and curator whose work explores ideas of nonphysical identity and authorship in the digital age. She not only produces artworks, but also curates a digital gallery called Panther Modern and gives lectures around the world. Most recently, she delivered a talk entitled “Remember Me as DLC” at ULTRAVIRUS Sydney 2018; and, in April, she was invited to give a lecture as part of the Internet Age Media conference in Barcelona. Avedon is active on Instagram, Twitter, and Discord, and regularly interacts with her audience. Though entirely digital, she seems hardly different from her contemporaries in the world of digital art. Was it not for the fact that she does not have a body, a point that she regularly emphasizes in her work, it would be quite difficult to distinguish her from the social media network that she has enmeshed herself in.
A main point that Avedon continues to emphasize in her work and public speaking is that “your data is more important than the services that you give it to,” . Identity can be thought of in this way as information—data. You are your data. All of the things that you do, all of the information about you, all of the outputs that you as a living being produce data that serves to make up your identity. This is made crystal clear by Avedon, whose entire identity has been created by the data outputs that she has produced for herself and circulated online. Like Babeli, Avedon is hyperconscious of the media environment that she exists within. She advocates for open access within cyber culture and accessibility for digital technologies, recognizing how quickly the landscape of digital culture is changing. The concept of a networked identity is relatively new, and the practice of distributing oneself throughout the network on social media has only been popularly practiced for the last decade. As technologies continue to advance, and the web becomes more privatized, homogenized, and segregated, people struggle to keep up with the rising tide. Avedon notes this, describing the current techno-social paradigm as an ‘estuary’ that relies on “present study of the past, as a schematic for the future” . She reminds what’s at stake for cyber culture here (for example: our identities existing online long past our deaths), using her own nonphysical identity as a starting point to spark conversations and demonstrate the necessity for reflexive digital practices.
A Form You Can Understand includes a new video work by Avedon entitled Afterlife (beta)(2018), shown here for the first time, alongside self-portraits that Avedon has created of herself. Afterlife (beta) looks at processes of impending digitization, pointing out a shift in mindset that should occur as users begin to understand what it means to be embodied by more advanced forms of virtual representation. The piece— which Avedon has described as a 'beta' version—positions toxic masculinity in an environment released for review, in which the community can "work out bugs" in the system. This is achieved by highlighting the frightening aesthetic forms that toxic masculinity takes in cyberspace, and inviting the viewer to think critically about what they experience online. As Avedon explains, "as virtual worlds release users from a need to mirror their corporeality, it is one of our few chances to deny this dangerous formula from following men as they enter a potentially eternal state of being...it is only a matter of time before archetypes in VR avatars emerge, tropes that we have a chance to address early on, rather than perpetually deal with." Avedon speculates a future where she might be able to make another iteration of this piece, one that recognizes alternative forms that people pursue beyond. At present, this iteration of the piece shows that this is not the case.
Also included are portraits from her series In-Game Images, which Avedon has taken as she has been embodied by different avatars in various different games and virtual worlds—such as the avatar of Tidus from Final Fantasy X and Mercy from Overwatch. This series serves as a powerful comparative piece for various virtual worlds, showing how Avedon—as a nonphysical entity—is able to move through various virtual contexts. It’s a familiar narrative that anyone who has ever played a video game can relate to, as one begins to develop a connection to an alien digital form on screen and feel embodied in it. The series not only helps to underscore how fluid online identity can be, and how different forms of digital embodiment are more particularly linked to specific virtual world contexts, but also might be interpreted as an instructive toolkit for those new to virtual environments.
Olia Svetlanova is a digital artist who, like Avedon, has a practice rooted in participation on social media platforms. When she first came online, Svetlanova existed only as a Facebook profile. She started posting pictures of herself, slightly altering and adapting her image to fit her mood and desired appearance. She engaged in conversations with friends and followers, exploring how her various visual appearances affected how they saw her. Originally appearing like a regular human woman, she posed herself in artful nude portraits. Then, inspired by science fiction, Svetlanova began to warp and change her appearance. The self-portraits included as part of A Form You Can Understand document various stages in her personal transformation, showing how nonphysical identity formations, while at once rooted in aesthetic conventions, are highly mutable and allow for nearly limitless personal reconfiguration. While Avedon moved through various different avatars and game environments, Svetlanova re-rendered herself to match her heart’s desire.
The title of the show has been taken from Svetlanova’s video piece New Dream (2018): “I…..Me / Can’t focus / Me, we … / Do not have a body / At least not in a form you can understand, nor i / we, are able to explain? / But I can sense it with our mind.” Like an artificial intelligence just becoming self-aware for the first time, the script in this film is a fanciful (and semi-autobiographical) monologue delivered by Svetlanova in her newest aesthetic form. These lines show how all of the information that she has about herself has been co-constructed through her networked identity flowing through social media and connecting with others. For Svetlanova, the internet is a “new realm made of infinite scraps of memory,” all of the data collected there coming together in a sort of collective consciousness that she, as a nonphysical identity and virtual being, can connect to. The title also somewhat ironically points to the fact that even though all of the artists in the show are non-physical, and thus somewhat intangible and abstracted from the viewer, at the same time appear in humanoid form and thus appear recognizable to us as ‘people.’
Finally, Lolita G is a digital artist and self-described virtual influencer who transforms herself to create dynamic collaborations between art and fashion. She bridges the gap between artists like artists Babeli (who exists within a virtual world and operated before the massive rise of contemporary social media), Avedon and Svetlanova (who operate within fine art worlds on social media), and the new CGI models cropping up in the cyber world (more on this later). She straddles the fine art and the commercial, old school and the new. Rather than rejecting the commercialization of digital avatars and the digital arts, Lolita G has taken these shifts under her belt and incorporated them into her practice—adapting them and evolving with an evolving social media landscape. Her online persona fluctuates as her images dramatically changes to circulate within particular social media contexts.
Despite the designer logos plastered across her images, there is a sincere feeling that Lolita G has not sold out. It’s more like she’s cashing in on a captive audience that loves fashion and craves authentic content from an individual who is able mold themselves to whatever trend happens to be sweeping the internet, making it her own. Rather than an artist who has been co-opted by the world of fashion and advertising, she is an artist who has co-opted fashion and forced it to operate on the terms of the digital art community. In a recent interview with FeltZine, Lolita G explained, “Capitalism has changed the way nature was, and the word nature [itself]. Fashion is commercial art and that’s why I make ‘brand art’. Somehow, we are all images in Instagram.” While starkly different from the other artists included in this show, Lolita G also commands a complex understanding of the constructed nature of online identity and social reality. Her practice may represent a way forward, a way for digital artists to resist becoming franchises and instead become powerful commanders of fickle network flows.
Because the digital cultural landscape is rapidly changing, investigations such as the one attempted in A Form You Can Understand are of the utmost importance. These artists operate in an age that has seen the birth of the virtual influencer—a concept that did not exist during Gazira Babeli’s most active period in virtual world Second Life, yet one that Lolita G has appropriated and made her own.
What are virtual influencers? They are cleverly constructed CGI’s used to market goods. At the time of this writing, Miquela Sousa—otherwise known as @lilmiquela, the world’s most famous virtual influencer and a fabrication by Los Angeles-based creative agency Brud—has 1.5 million followers on Instagram. She has already partnered with fashion brands the likes of Balenciaga, Maison Martin Margiela, Prada, Ugg Australia, and more; has been featured in editorial campaigns for Vogue, King Kong, & Grazia China magazines, among others; and was just recently announced as Dazed Beauty’s Arts Editor. Miquela has a storyline, based on the concept that she is a half-Brazilian/half-American teenager, and appears to have autonomy on her posts. Her Instagram bio reads “19/LA/Robot | black lives matter” in an obvious attempt to not only be self-referential but connect to a socially aware milieu of young people online. In fact, Brud crafted an entire storyline where Miquela revealed to her audience that she was a “conscious AR character” . The world knows she’s not an actual girl, or even a person at all in the traditional sense of the term, but that just made her all the more famous.
While the concept of capitalizing upon digital avatars isn’t totally brand new, with Miquela’s meteoric rise to fame has also emerged a growing industry revolving around the commercialization of digital bodies. Irmaz modeling agency (@irmazmodels) offers a selection of “imagined reality” models. Casting agents can look through their online portfolio of avatars, and choose a model that works for them. Irmaz will then render the avatar in whatever way that the client chooses. Some of the models have their own instagram pages and carefully constructed storylines. Following Brud’s sci-fi narrative lead, Irmaz even has an alien model, Akana Haptu, who goes on adventures with her friends as she learns about what it means to be human in an elaborate graphic storyline told through Instagram posts. In sociological terms, what all of these examples represent are the techniques of micro celebrity as performed by artifacts that carry the agency of their creators, or the brands that they have been rented out to. Whereas Babeli, Avedon, Svetlanova and Lolita G are liberated, their identities free to express their artistic impulses on their own terms, the CGI models are enslaved to the companies that hire them—dumb mannequins posed in a digital shop window.
For the uninitiated, this is all a brave new world; but, for the artists in this exhibition, this is their playground, their native environment. This is the world that they have pioneered and that is quickly falling prey to the effects of commercialization. In October 2018 on Twitter, Avedon had this advice to give to a new generation of avatars finding their way into cyberspace as photogrammetry practices allow individuals to turn themselves into three-dimensional digital images: “Be sweet and courage others / Learn about the history of virtual identities / Celebrate your ownership of self / Don’t become billboards,” . Commercialization dilutes the powerful work of avatar artists, who have been championing the form long before Lil Miquela was ever even dreamed of. Some, like Lolita G, are trying to learn to work within this context and carve a niche out for themselves in this new landscape by combining digital art practice with techniques of micro celebrity. For avatars and online identities, this is the tipping point, like the moment at turn of the century—right before web 2.0—when the web was still relatively open, un-privatized, and yet to be saturated by capitalism.
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5. ibid., p. 504.
6. Taylor, T.L. (2002) “Living Digitally: Embodiment in Virtual Worlds,” in R. Schroeder (ed.) The Social Life of Avatars: Presence and Interaction in Shared Virtual Environments. London: Springer Verlag, p. 40.
7. Heidegger, M. (2001) Building, Dwelling, Thinking. In: Poetry, Language, Thought. New York, NY, Harper Perennial Classics. pp. 343–363.
8. Taylor 2002, p. 58.
9. Boellstorff 2011, p. 512.
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11. Sondheim, A. (2011) “I Met My baby, Out Behind the Gaz-Works,” in Quaranta, D. (ed.) (2011) Gazira Babeli. Brescia: LINK Editions, p. 84.
12. Quaranta, D. (2011) Gazira Babeli. Brescia: LINK Editions, p. 47.
13. Quaranta, D. (2011) “Gaz Me Two Times, Baby (Gaz Me Twice Today),” in Domenico Quaranta (ed.) Gazira Babeli. Brescia: LINK Editions, 69.
14. Pau Waelder quoted in Quaranta 2011, p. 74.
15. Quaranta 2011, 73
16. ibid., 69.
19. Marwick, A. E. "The Algorithmic Celebrity” in Crystal Abidin & Megan Lindsay Brown (eds.), Microcelebrity Around the Globe. Published online: 23 Oct 2018; 161-169.