This presentation seeks to explore
virtual identity in relationship to physical identity in fine
art practice. Virtual Identity is the consciousness of a human
being that operates in virtual realms such as Second Life, video
games, websites, MySpace and Blogs through some sort of digital
means such as an avatar. Video games play a large role in fostering
a virtual identity for the general audience or participants. Online
games such as Everquest and The World of Warcraft allows game
players the choice of choosing a specific type of character to
control. Players begin with a character at level one and subsequently
nurture that character to power, riches and prestige. While inside
the games, players make decisions about the path of that character
and live the character’s life. Through a character’s
timeline players also develop alliances and find rivals and enemies.
Games such as these define the basic notion of a virtual identity.
The virtual identity is informed
by the personality of a person, but is not completely bound by
it. Since the potential dangers of the real world are not as prevalent
in the virtual realm, the factors that weigh in the quantitative
and qualitative analyses of decision making can allow the player
to form a virtual identity based on the shift of physical versus
virtual consequences. Generally, one quality of the Internet and
virtual worlds is that any person with a computer has the opportunity
to forge any type of identity in these virtual realms. Though,
most worlds that the user chooses to enter have their own set
of ethics that gamers are expected to follow. Some are clear policies
and some are unspoken codes. The rules and codes are enforced
according to a hierarchy of gamers. For example, in the game Battlefield
2, each server is managed by an Administrator, who acts as the
overseer of the game. The administrator is usually the person
that pays for the server space, and who usually starts a clan.
An abbreviated text tag that is placed in front of the gamer’s
user name identifies members of the clan. The clan members help
the admin to maintain a kind of artificial civility in the game.
Inside of most games, there is always the threat of hackers and
cheaters disrupting the experience of others players in the game.
Usually, hacking is done with small programs that are called "bots,"
which allow a player to see through walls, target players around
corners and other exploits that give them abilities that non-hacking
players do not possess. Though countermeasures for dealing with
the hacks are also commonly used, still better hacks are always
being made to subvert such countermeasures. Video games are no
longer simple or mundane forms of entertainment but are complex
environments with elaborate social and virtual-political hierarchies.
This can also be seen in the peaceful, non-mission based virtual
realm of Second Life.
|Second Front. Photo:
courtesy of the artist
is similar to the aforementioned video games in that each
player creates a unique character to explore the virtual
realm. Likewise, there is also a social and political infrastructure
in place to help maintain a level of civility in the virtual
realm. In this realm you will find artists such as the performance
group Second Front.
Because of this extension
of human activity, it is possible for artists to develop
sophisticated work with the assistance of collaborators
who operate near or far from one another.
Douglas Davis, in The Work
of Art In the Age of Digital Reproduction, makes a compelling
argument for work in the digital realm—
|"The fictions of "master"
and "copy" are now so entwined with each other
that it is impossible to say where one ends and the other
begins. In one sense Walter Benjamin’s proclamation
of the doom of originality, authored early in this century,
is finally confirmed by these events. In another sense,
the aura, supple and elastic, has stretched far beyond Benjamin’s
prophecy into the rich realm of reproduction itself. Here
in this realm, often mislabeled "virtual" (it
is actually realer than reality of RR), both reality and
traditional truth (symbolized by the unadorned photographic
"fact") are being enhanced, not betrayed."1
Because of the emergence of performance groups and exhibition
venues in Second Life, it seems that artists are discovering a
verisimilar extension of consciousness in what Davis describes
as the Real Reality.
Another event that shows how intertwined the virtual and real
are is the act of terrorism that occurred on Second Life.
|"Sick of watching his beloved Second
Life go down the proverbial toilet, long time player Marshal
Cahill decided to take matters into his own hands. Cahill
decided to set off "nukes" near two in-game corporate
stores, American Apparel and Reebok in a bid to gain attention
from Second Life creators, Linden Labs. Cahill, the self-proclaimed
political officer of the newly formed Second Life Liberation
Army, wants Linden Labs to give his army an opportunity
to control their environment through voting."2
This act of virtual terrorism was,
in fact a harmless particle animation that caused no real damage
to the game itself.
The virtual actions of Cahill and
his Second life liberation army relate to Hakim Bey’s comments
on Poetic Terrorism, as actions that may be interpreted
as terrorist in methodology. However, the out come of such poetic
actions may result in a subversively beautiful experience.3
The Second Life Liberation army’s action against commercializing
Second Life was not an actual threat. No code was damaged by the
"nukes." The nukes were basically particle animations
that were harmless except for the anti-corporate statement.
Though these works are compelling,
there is an interesting counter to previously mentioned works.
Synthetic Performances by Eva and Franco Mattes explores
the ethos of the virtual and performance art.
|"Eva once shot me in the
hand with an airgun, I still have the scar. We didn't
record it though, it was just for fun, more Jackass
than Chris Burden. That's how we started thinking
about this reenactment. We wanted to work on something
at the edge between true and fake, synthetic and
natural, real and virtual, direct and mediated.
Eva and me, we hate performance art, we never quite
got the point. So, we wanted to understand what
made it so un-interesting to us, and reenacting
these performances was the best way to figure it
out. We have always been very attracted by things
we don't like: Nike, the Vatican or Hollywood crap
While it is possible to see the potential in virtual realms,
Synthetic Performances calls into question the
importance of virtual performance. If a person actually
attended the Chris Burden performance Shoot,
and then attended the synthetic performance in Second
Life it seems that the actual performance would be stronger
because Burden was actually wounded. The virtual wound
of the virtual Chris Burden does not carry the same emotional
or psychological significance because of its synthetic
|Eva and Franco
Mattes "Synthetic Performances" - "Chris
Burden's Shoot." Photo: courtesy of the artist
Though the significance is not commensurate,
that does not mean that the virtual re-creation lacks an importance
of its own. If we were to transfer the same comparison to an ethical
scenario with heavy moral implications such as war, fascism or
corporate greed, the virtual simulation or image can then play
the role of expressing the actual. With these scenarios, it becomes
clear that simulations in the virtual realm can maintain a level
of importance even though it does not carry the same implications
of actually being in a war, subjected to fascism, or being a victim
of corporate greed.
Implications of the virtual and
the actual seem to culminate in the act of hacking. Hackers, in
general have an infamous identity in the virtual realm. In digital
culture, "Hackers are people who attempt to penetrate security
systems on remote computers. This is the new sense of the term,
whereas the old sense of the term hacker simply referred to a
person who was capable of creating hacks, or elegant, unusual,
and unexpected uses of technology."5
Based on this definition, one sees how the old sense of the term
is where creativity arises. Both old generation and new generation
hackers have ethical codes that may or may not be followed. Here
are the Hacker ethics for older generation hackers.6
Imperative: Access to computers and hardware should be
complete and total. It is asserted to be a categorical imperative
to remove any barriers between people and the use and understanding
of any technology, no matter how large, complex, dangerous, labyrinthine,
proprietary, or powerful.
Wants to Be Free": "Information wants to be free"
can be interpreted in three ways. Free might mean without restrictions
(freedom of movement = no censorship), without control (freedom
of change/evolution = no ownership or authorship, no intellectual
property), or without monetary value (no cost.) Some hackers even
take this to mean information is alive, free to act on its own
agency, as viruses, genetic algorithms, as bots and other software
programs do. Most hackers seem to advocate this principle in different
senses of the word "free" at different times. In any
case, when asked about the content of the Hacker Ethic, most people
assert this as the key principle.
Authority: Promote decentralization. This element of the
ethic shows its strong anarchistic, individualistic, and libertarian
nature. Hackers have always shown distrust toward large institutions,
including but not limited to the State, corporations, and computer
administrative bureaucracies like the IBM 'priesthood'. Tools
like the PC are said to move power away from large organizations
(who use mainframes) and put them in the hands of the 'little
guy' user. Nowhere is this ethos stronger than among the anti-statist
cypherpunks and extropians.
Criteria: Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not
by "bogus criteria" such as race, age, sex, or position.
Nowhere is this ethos more apparent than in the strong embrace
by most hackers of the leveling power of the Internet, where anonymity
makes it possible for all such 'variables' about a person to remain
unknown, and where their ideas must be judged on their merits
alone since such contextual factors are not available.
create truth and beauty on a computer: Hacking is equated
with artistry and creativity. Furthermore, this element of the
ethos raises it to the level of philosophy (as opposed to simple
pragmatism), which (at least in some quarters) is about humanity's
search for the good, the true, and the beautiful.
can change your life for the better": In some ways,
this last statement really is simply a corollary of the previous
one. Since most of humanity desires things that are good, true,
and/or beautiful, the fact that a computer can create such things
would seem to mean that axiomatically it can change peoples' lives
for the better. However, this is merely a declarative statement,
which like the previous one reflects a deep-felt love of technology.
It does not state explicitly that computers should always change
peoples' lives for the better, or the principle that would follow
from that, which is that it is unethical to use them to make peoples'
lives worse. Many hackers see the Internet as an immense positive
The act of hacking carries its own
connotations of clandestine, technological wizardry. These connotations
combined with making art through video games is evidence of an
ongoing shift in the understanding of the virtual world, as the
video game that was once only consumed, but is now something that
may be explored and contextually shifted after changing its identity.
Hacking video game code for the purpose of art occurs with older,
2D video games, such as Super Mario Brothers of the Nintendo Entertainment
Systems. The artists from PaperRad collaborated with Cory Arcangel
to make a Super Mario Movie in 2005 at Foxy Production. The work
turns the video game into a much more surreal and distorted version
of the original.
The new media network CMN, the Conglomco
Media Network describes themselves as;
|"A collective of computer artists,
programmers, and cultural producers, working in the tradition
of the hacker, members lend their expertise to collectively
throw a wrench in the gears of the corporate machine. CMN
is both expansive and expanding, with members strategically
scattered throughout the US, UK, and the EU. CMN's tactical
bent against the infiltration of public space by major corporations
is the brandishing of a gratuitous display of technology
in subversive actions, exploiting said technologies shortcomings
while simultaneously putting these shortcomings on display
for public critique. Conglomco adopts the media facade of
a patriarchal corporation, satirizing a corporate/capitalist
pastiche of homogenized culture, financially motivated politics,
and monetary greed. Utilizing the expanding potentials for
copying, appropriating, sampling, and synthesizing provided
by the internet, CMN seeks to create projects that explore
the possibilities of social commentary and creative activism
in a networked and techno-savvy environment."7
An example of the Conglomco Media
Network’s project is the Rhizome.org 2007 commission called
zHarmony. It is described as follows:
|"zHarmony is an addition to Rhizome.org
that combines the Compatibility Matching System of online
relationship services, like eHarmony, with Rhizome's existing
database of artists to produce a unique artist profiling
system that can automatically match artists with like-minded
collaborators (or groups of collaborators) based on multiple
points of compatibility."8
Conglomco’s work follows the ethics and identity of an elaborate
hacker network. The collective does not attack infrastructure
like databases and email servers, but attacks the mythos and strategies
that have been invented by the respective corporation’s
marketing and advertising campaigns. The work of Conglomco shows
how virtual networks can allow many artists of different geographical
regions can collaborate under one unified virtual identity.
|Power Glove. Photo
|Though the video game itself is rich ground
for creativity, the way in which people interface with the
games, online environments and software is also viable territory
for creative exploration in the context of a virtual identity.
The mouse and keyboard, the joystick and the Wacom Tablet
affect the way users interact with virtual realms and act
as a portal to the virtual realm. In 1989, Nintendo released
the Power Glove designed by Grant Goddard. The power glove
could be used as a traditional controller, but one could also
use various hand movements to control the character in the
game. Though the Power Glove was an ambitious step in video
game interaction, its poor functionality aided in its obsolescence.
After the release of the Power Glove, hackers found a way
to make the Power glove operate like a mouse with a few complex
modifications. Though complex to actually hack, the Power
Glove mouse allows a user to have more intuitive control over
interfacing with a computer.
Following the notions of hacker
culture and DIY ethics, JennyLC Chowdhury has made an Intimate
Game controller. She writes:
|"The project began as an exercise
for networked objects. I made a pong controller that was
made from a bra. The mapping for the controller was simple
- touching the left breast made the pong paddle go left
and the right breast made the paddle go right. I then found
out about a phenomenon called gamer widowhood where men
essentially abandoned their wives to play video games night
and day. I wanted to create a type of video game play that
would center around a couple's intimacy and where two people
would touch each other in order to play the game."9
by JennyLC Chowdhury. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.
Both the Power Glove mouse and the intimate game controller are
examples of how the physical and the virtual have become more
enmeshed. The evolution of game interaction enhances the functionality
and directness of the virtual realms and makes our connection
to these realms more immersive. The less a player has to think
about interacting, the more freedom a player has to explore the
realm. Beyond this, the interface is being upgraded. New technological
advances have made it possible to interact with video games using
the mind. "Emotiv Systems, an electronic-game company from
San Francisco, wants people to play with the power of the mind.
Video-game makers will be able to buy Emotiv's electro-encephalograph
(EEG) caps and software developer's tool kits so that they can
build games that use the electrical signals from a player's brain
to control the on-screen action.
|Emotiv's system has three different applications.
One is designed to sense facial expressions such as winks,
grimaces, and smiles and transfer them, in real time, to an
avatar. This could be useful in virtual-world games, such
as Second Life, in which it takes a fair amount of training
to learn how to express emotions and actions through a keyboard.
Another application detects two emotional states, such as
excitement and calm. Emotiv's chief product officer, Randy
Breen, says that these unconscious cues could be used to modify
a game's soundtrack or to affect the way that virtual characters
interact with a player. The third set of software can detect
a handful of conscious intentions that can be used to push,
pull, rotate, and lift objects in a virtual world."10
One last type of virtual identity
that is used for digital creative practice and corporate practice
is the online identity.
An artist that uses an online identity
is Walid Raad, the founder or the Atlas Group archives. "The
Atlas Group is a project established in 1999 to research and document
the contemporary history of Lebanon. One of his aims with this
project is to locate, preserve, study and produce audio, visual,
literary and other artifacts that shed light on the contemporary
history of Lebanon. In this endeavor, we produced and found several
documents including notebooks, films, videotapes, photographs
and other objects. Moreover, we organized these works into an
archive, The Atlas Group Archive. The project’s public forms
include mixed media installations, single channel screenings,
visual and literary essays, and lectures/performances. The work
of the Atlas Group Archives fall into three categories:
for files that contain documents that we produced and that we
attribute to named imaginary individuals or organizations.
Type FD for files that contain
documents that we produced and that we attribute to anonymous
individuals or organizations.
for files that contain documents that we produced and that we
attribute to The Atlas Group."11
As the categories reveal, the archive
is largely of produced and not recovered documentation. However,
the works in the archive deal directly with issues that face Lebanon
today. By invoking a virtual identity, Raad achieves his intention.
Like The Yes Men, Raad exploit the Internet and the notion of
Identity to make work that carries strong social, political and
The use of the virtual identity,
whether through Second Life, the persona of the hacker or an online
identity gives the digital artist the freedom to explore creative
strategies that would otherwise be much more difficult to realize.
The virtual identity also frees the artist from what hackers call
"bogus criteria" allowing the art to be the most important
factor. The interfaces that digital artists create and use bring
us closer and comment on technology and our ability to connect
with our own virtual identities. The virtual identity has become
an enmeshed extension of not only how digital artists make art,
but how digital artists extend their identities to produce their