I was asked by artist Rachel Wolfson to speak at Lewis & Clark College’s inaugural Art Week in April 2014, about my project Identify Yourself, and to continue my ongoing conversation with artist render LaTurbo Avedon. Below are the notes from my lecture on April 24, 2014, as well as a special video from LaTurbo herself.
Last year I accidentally wrote a book. What started out as an effort to construct an essay that gave both my art historical and personal view of the internet art community I have been following for a number of years turned into a much larger project both conceptually and physically. I’d written a long essay in the form of a website about internet art the previous year while in a contemporary art history course with PICA curator Kristan Kennedy, and it began a conversation about these practices, and my own practice with Kristan. Her challenge to me with the Time Based Arts Festival commission was to bring my own practice and work into the conversation, something I had never tried to really reconcile. I wasted a few months trying to resolve two distinct voices in my head – one that was hyper-aware of historical responsibility and accuracy – and one that had a lived, and living, experience with these ideas, artworks, and artists.
What emerged was not a merger of those voices, but two distinct essays with a strong interdependence. The first, Identify, explores a more distant history, attempting to track some of the core tenets of Identity as being shaped by the introduction and proliferation of the computer. The second essay, Yourself, is a more personal narrative about the experiences that have shaped me as a young person. I am part of maybe the last generation of people who remembers a time before the internet. I grew up on books, and got online at age 12, a key moment in my development which has radically shifted and shaped the way that I see the world and process information. Between the two lies a column of artworks that have shaped my view of the world, many of them by artists that I have befriended over the years. These people make up what I see as my community, addressing the overarching curatorial aim, “…and community declared itself a medium…”
These two essays exist as one document, both as a hypertext object and a physical book. This decision was made to call out a few key points that I see about the history of these media going forward. One is the frustration that I feel when attempting to read long pieces of writing on the internet. My eyes hurt and I lose my place. The second takes shape in the physical book, in that the artworks I am looking at and talking about are not effectively represented by stills on the printed page. This loss of context and energy that has plagued art history texts since the beginnings of film and video, performance, and now new media work keeps bothering me. This is why online archives and resources such as Rhizome and Ubuweb are so crucial to both the preservation and historicization of contemporary work.
The other part of this isthat I am afraid of forgetting. Change seems to happen so fast, and we quickly move on to new modes of thought and ways of being, that I am afraid I will completely forget what these early moments felt like, that the continual newness of my life experiences would completely obliterate that first newness, the exciting, transformative feelings that led me to where I am today.
I was aware of the work of LaTurbo Avedon while I was working on my project, but it wasn’t until my writing was finished that I began having discussions with LaTurbo about her work and following her many projects online. I became fascinated at the idea of not just an alternate identity for an artist to use, but an alternate body afforded by MMORPG worlds such as second life and 3d rendering software. Also that an artist that is not a “real” person could have so much work and success says something about identity to me, and what we as viewers need from an ‘artist’ as a being. I worked with Rich Ogelsby, who has a blog called ‘Prosthetic Knowledge’ on a chat interview with LaTurbo for Flaunt magazine, which only led me to have more questions about the meaning of this artist and these artworks.
A lot of the ideas in Identify Yourself can be illustrated by the work of LaTurbo Avedon. Her ‘existence’ would not be possible without social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Awareness of her work is perpetuated by social media, and some of her work hinges on participation from friends on social channels. A quote from my essay:
“The persona of an individual is rooted in the group. The persona exists for an audience, whether public or private, and gains context and meaning through its relationship, active or reactive, to this audience. The persona is not the inward self, but part of the public presence. It is the outward-facing schema of our identity.”
And another quote that is fully actualized by the existence of LaTurbo and well punctuated by this image she sent to me, a work called Signing the Social Network:
“Facebook has rapidly cemented the concept of the persona in the public realm. Alternate identities, or ‘alts,’ serve a function for users to achieve a goal otherwise unattainable through their true identity. Some of these alts exist for a single day for a single purpose, an avatar culled for work from various web-sourced materials. Others exist for years, a nom de plume of the computer age. Works and oeuvres may exist under completely fictional identities.”
So what is the goal of the artist render? What can be achieved through this identity that cannot be accomplished by the artist behind this project? Does it even matter that this artist is not ‘real’ in a certain sense?
LaTurbo did a project in 2013 that asked people in her social networks to send her selfies that she would use as source material to create a body of 3D sculptural images, which were then uploaded back to Facebook for consumption by this same social community. This project, called Club Rothko, illustrates another quote from my essay, “We are putting forth, creating and contributing, and participating in systems from which we receive feedback.” (Please see also: Athletic Asthetics by Brad Troemel) This also captures the spirit of some of my own work, and part of why Identify Yourself appeared as a website. The title of my essay that sparked this whole project was “Of and To The Database,” this idea that artworks inspired by the internet belong in the context of an online environment. Online surf clubs such as Spirit Surfers have always felt like such pure reverent internet spaces.
I also talk a lot about games in my essays, as they were a huge part of how I turned out like I did, for better or worse, and represent to me these free spaces of play that lead to experimentation and innovation in both hardware, software, and philosophy.
“Both games (The Sims and Second Life) involve the transference of identity into a virtual space that, in effect, mirrors our own. The control of the user is complete; he or she can create, manipulate, or destroy their characters without consequence to their real lives.”
When I spoke to LT about her work, we talked about Second Life as a place for creative control, and a learning grounds for the work LT does now. This image, from a series entitled Transplanted Objects from 2013, shows the sculptural forms that appear in many of her works transplanted into the virtual space of Second Life, tethered to her immaterial body.
The concept and object of the mirror has been integral to my understanding of art, and a theme that comes up in so many places in my life. When I read this quote from Foucault’s essay Other Spaces, I immediately thought of social networks. Even just the internet overall.
“The mirror is, after all, a utopia, since it is a placeless place. In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the utopia of the mirror. But it is also a heterotopia insofar as the mirror does exist in reality, where it exerts a sort of counteraction on the position that I occupy.” — Michel Foucault, Other Spaces
The word ‘Selfie’ has sort of taken over in the last year, and I’ve really enjoyed LT’s use of the word both on social media and in her work. Her self portraiture, shrunk down to Facebook avatar size, is eerily real, and I’m not sure that I understood that LaTurbo was not a person for quite a while.
I asked LT about how social networks shape her representation of her self:
KS: How do social networks effect the representation of your self, both in and out of artworks?
LT: Well I suppose you could ask most people the first part — what is the divisor between selfie and self-portrait? Is there one? I see the selfie like a very custom emoji. For myself, I do change between the different platforms. I can emphasize specific things using software and services. Sometimes its best to go into Second Life, others to make a remix in Soundcloud. They are very different means, but all contributing to my character creation.
This is a quote that appears in both essays of my project. It is the only simultaneous statement that appears, and it is from an essay that was published in 1986, when myself and the Internet were both babies. Foucault isn’t talking about the internet, but he may as well be: “We are in the epoch of simultaneity; we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of near and far, of the side by side, of the dispersed.” Again, the heterotopia Foucault posits puts a magnifying glass on the way we think about the web, and what that has led our brains to become. There is a reason we like art that can be consumed on a phone while waiting: it fits our lives. While it may be vastly different than what we historically uphold as art, and shifting so rapidly that it’s path is hard to trace, I believe these new approaches to art production and distribution are effective methods of contemporary communication.
“Laturbo Avedon is an artist, but not a real person. On Avedon’s Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud and Tumblr pages, pieces of an identity can be gleaned of an ostensibly female character: Selfies of a glamorous blonde taken in different virtual environments; pitch-shifted remixes of pop songs by Kylie Minogue and Justin Timberlake; a first Tweet asking “A/S/L?” Laturbo Avedon is an artist-avatar without a real world referent, a digital manifestation of a person that does not and has never existed outside of a computer.
For her first exhibition at webspace.gallery, Avedon has erected an equally virtual monument to Mt. Gox: The Tokyo-based Bitcoin exchange that disappeared in February this year along with nearly half a billion U.S. dollars worth of bitcoins. For the duration of the exhibition, visitors to webspace.gallery are encouraged to anonymously submit images and 3D objects to be left at the monument on their behalf.
Every second day, new renders of the monument will be uploaded, showing the various acts of vigil, or vandalism requested by visitors. A video of the monument will be uploaded on April 14 to document the end-result of this month-long process.” — Statement from Sunset at Mt. Gox.
KS: How much do you think about social networks when creating your work? Does the method of distribution/platform of social media shape the form from conception to creation? You’ve engaged social networks to source content that you use as material for artworks. Can you talk about these successes and failures?
LT: Social networks play a central part of my projects — I try to imagine how these things will exist at both live and archived states. Social media is active and moving, and I try to incorporate that movement in the formative stages of the work. My recent show, Sunset at Mt. Gox, places a significant portion of the show’s presentation in the hands of the viewers. I started by presenting a space, a virtual monument created using 3D rendering software. I wanted to create a series of renders that could acknowledge a feeling of visitation—where people could contribute to, or change the appearance of the location. Over the course of a month, I would apply the submissions to the space and document the changes along the way.
Since the submissions for the project are anonymous and fairly unrestricted, its really up to the public to shape the scene. Just as any participatory project goes, a lot can change depending on engagement. There could be no interaction, too much interaction, lots of possibilities of how it could go.
I’d like to end with my favorite piece by LaTurbo, one that captures a certain feeling I have about computers, and renders, and poetry, and chance that borders on the Sublime. I first saw it on Facebook, as part of the YIBA pavillion of the large internet exhibition I was also a part of called The Wrong Biennale. I remember still being confused, at that time, as to whether LaTurbo was ‘real’ or not, alone in bed on my laptop, in the dark. Seeing this video reflected myself right back, a mirror to my virtual reality.
I asked LaTurbo to tell me more about the process of creating this work:
KS: Which came first, the poem or visuals? What is the source of the poem pieces? Is this a self portrait?
LT: For final fantasy (poem), I had started out working with a piece that I had written earlier in 2013. It is mostly sourcing lyrics from pop songs, with the exception of a quote from Donna Haraway. While people may be familiar with my renders, sculpture, and other works, it was one of my first pieces where i would give myself a voice. i do see it as a self portrait
I’ve since watched this video a hundred times, mesmerized sometimes by the parts, but mostly by the whole, something wholly artificial, but still so human and beautiful.