LaTurbo Avedon is a pretty young woman who often wears her blonde hair in a ponytail, if her photos on Instagram are anything to go by. Like any millennial, she plays video games, hangs out with her friends on Facebook, updates her Twitter feed, and posts selfies to Tumblr. She is a digital native – but, unlike her peers, a digital native in the most literal sense. She was born online, a blinking cursor in a chat-room log-in page. She came of age as the internet did, friending people, posting updates and creating an online profile – a profile not of a human, but an avatar, a digital proxy for someone who, in this case, refuses to disclose their identity.
Being a cyber character is a full-time job. Avedon is an artist who has exhibited around the world, in Poland, South Korea, Peru and at the Whitney Museum in New York. Using the same software that developers use to design video games, she makes what she calls “digital environments and sculptures”: animations in which she wanders around empty, cavernous clubs tapping at her phone; and images of objects bristling with sharp edges, in which the play of light and shadow is so realistic, her graphics look almost three-dimensional – as if they were real sculptures. At a recent exhibition at Somerset House in London, where Avedon is a resident artist, viewers strapped on virtual-reality headsets so that they could see them in their natural habitat. Dotted throughout Club Rothko, a virtual gallery space where she DJs and showcases her work, her monumental sculptures rotated in place. Elsewhere, they have been exhibited as dibond prints hanging on walls, alongside screens playing her animations.
Avedon works in the field of “net art”, whose practitioners have, since the early 1990s, been making work that is native to the internet. The youngest artists in this movement, such as Amalia Ulman and Artie Vierkant, grew up on chatrooms and forums and eventually moved on to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. They believe that the internet is inextricably bound up with everyday life.
So does Avedon. What makes her stand apart from the crowd isn’t her visual art, it’s her performance art. She is a virtual character reciting the lines of a script that she has authored. The drama of this act lies in the way that she takes this idea, that the internet is now an inescapable part of life, to its logical conclusion. The internet isn’t just woven into the fabric of her existence, it is her existence. She is nothing more than a current of ones and zeroes flowing through fibre-optic, and yet all these bits and bytes add up to a personality. (She likes nail polish, Britney Spears and Jean Baudrillard; she is friendly – and flakey.) The anonymity of her maker(s) combined with her insistence that we play along with the conceit – that she is an avatar with agency – forces us to imagine what the near future might be like, when artificial intelligences have personalities as complicated as our own. She is a thought-experiment masquerading as art.
The curious thing about Avedon is that, even as she celebrates her virtuality, she insists that “I’m real” (a playful nod to the 2001 hit song by Jennifer Lopez and Ja Rule), as if she wanted to be one of us. Why?
Communicating with an avatar is not straightforward: you can’t meet in person or speak on the phone. Instead Avedon and I message each other on Gmail Chat, and later, after a few false starts (like I said, she’s flakey) I meet her in a club on Second Life, a virtual world which users navigate from the perspective of their avatars. Avedon spends a lot of time there.
Bathed in blue light with house music playing on the speakers, Club Culture is empty when my avatar arrives. Then I notice Avedon, who wears a short white dress, the seams of which pulse with light. As she starts to break-dance (my avatar struggles to keep up), we begin to message each other.
“My goal isn’t to be indistinguishable from a physical person,” she says, as she sashays across the dance floor. She wants to nudge us into re-evaluating our relationship with the virtual. “A lot of people want to believe that there is a threshold of real and fake between their physical bodies and the virtual world,” she says, “a sort of comforting binary.” The acronym “IRL” (In Real Life), often invoked to describe activities that take place away from the computer, encapsulates this view. If the offline world is real, the thinking goes, then the online world is fake – a view which strips virtual experiences of significance.
Avedon believes this way of thinking about the internet is wrong: while the virtual doesn’t take physical form, it is nonetheless real. Just like Avedon. “While you may not ever meet me walking through the park or on the street somewhere,” she says, “my experiences in…virtual places are lived and legitimate.” She exists wherever she is able to communicate a sense of herself to others, whether that’s in a chatroom or on a gallery wall. She exists in our minds, the same way an idea does.
By now I have learned how to control my avatar’s movements, and I join Avedon in a shimmy. She has one more thing to say. “Avatars are far more common than people might think.” I ask her to define “avatar”. It’s “a performance of self…In our correspondence [on Second Life and Gmail Chat] I’ve come to know you, the avatar of Charlie, in a way that you’ve chosen to present yourself.” Whether online or off, everyone has many parts to play. All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely avatars.
With that, I thank her for her time and sign out of Second Life. It occurs to me that the border dividing the virtual and the physical is becoming increasingly porous. Owners of smartphones criss-cross that border all the time, and so does Avedon, in a way. She exhibits her work in galleries, gives talks to university students and has a network of human friends and colleagues. She has a presence in the physical world. With the advent of augmented reality, she could one day acquire a physical presence. But I hope she doesn’t. I prefer to think of her as a Galatea for the digital age: disembodied net-art with a mind of her own. My phone buzzes. A message from Avedon: “Thanks for chatting! xoxo”
La belle vie numérique (It’s a wonderful digital life) Fondation EDF, Paris, November 17th 2017 – March 18th 2018