Artists and avatars. I’m always very conscious about the way I use my avatar, the message it sends to the world. Some call it branding, some call it self-expression, some call it communication. But my avatar represents me in some fashion. Kyle Chayka in LA Weekly wrote a thought-provoking essay about artists and their online avatars:
Think about your Facebook profile picture. For the most part, these small images are close-ups on faces or group photos with friends. Maybe it’s a vacation shot, or a cute picture of your pet. That profile picture is your avatar, a representation of yourself, or a particular aspect of yourself, on the Internet. Avatars, whether on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr, are our online ambassadors.
And this is what I said on the matter:
“I often obscure faces to focus us on what else is present in digital media,” Xiao notes. “How can we communicate our identity just through text, or just through images that we share of our life without us in them?”
These pieces subvert the traditional idea of an avatar by forcing us to work without the one avatar we are most comfortable with – our own bodies.
In addition to publishing my first Chinese pun*, the article covers the avatar work of Man Bartlett and Petra Cortright. Bartlett sees “avatar use as an unmediated, organic outgrowth of identity and personality”, while Cortright creates “weird, semifictional narratives” using a mixture of digital tools. It’s like Yin and Yang (and An) in a way: on the one hand, Bartlett says he “has nothing to hide”, Cortright obscures the avatar, and I tend to take mine away entirely.
The word “avatar” is a funny one. It has religious connotations–according to Wikipedia, it comes from Hinduism, where a deity may descend (avatar means descend) into the world. Part of the descent is the physical manifestation, the way the deity looked. But part of the descent was the behavior, the way he or she acted.
When Chayka asked me how I use my avatar, I had this definition in the back of my mind, and so I replied in broader terms, beyond the image and into the actual use of media. This is most pronounced when you compare how I use Sina Weibo and Twitter, both of which are microblog services. Whereas in the former, my activity is driven more by images and personal stories, in the latter I’m more apt to post links and quick reflections. My avatar, the way I project myself in these media, varies because the platforms vary.
Could we expand the idea of avatars, and avatar self-portraiture, to include the full social media presence, rather than just the image? Chayka rightly points out that much of my works obscures the image of our body and face (our primary definition of what an avatar should be) so we can focus on other things–namely, the interaction between us, the message content, the way we use language and tell stories about ourselves and to each other.
I think back to the postcard installation I developed for Yale’s Haskins Laboratories, and how I called it a Self-Portrait in Postcards, a portrait accumulated over time as I sent tweet-like postcard messages to the gallery. This is what Jan Ellen Spiegel wrote in the New York Times:
[An Xiao] came to art through photography, writing and an interest in communication that goes back to her childhood, when she wrote letters to her grandmother in the Philippines. The letters, she said, related little moments that add up to a portrait of the writer, the way social networking does now with a series of – as she put it – ‘totally inane things’
The inspiration for the postcard installation came from a long Times essay by Clive Thompson that changed the way I see the Internet and the way social media works. The essay argued–rightly, in my view–that social media and microblogging, over time, create a sense of who we are. More so than any other media:
Social scientists have a name for this sort of incessant online contact. They call it “ambient awareness.” It is, they say, very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does – body language, sighs, stray comments – out of the corner of your eye. Facebook is no longer alone in offering this sort of interaction online. In the last year, there has been a boom in tools for “microblogging”: posting frequent tiny updates on what you’re doing.
That article was written in 2009, which feels like ages ago. Since then, we’ve seen microblogging implemented in everything from the Obama campaign to the Arab Spring, and one famous writer argued that social media can’t possibly develop strong ties. But over these past two years, I’ve become even more convinced that the way we represent ourselves online reflects who we are. Our avatars–both our images and our accumulated self representations–are indeed self-portraits, whether we construct them consciously or whether we let them develop naturally over time.
* The Chinese visual pun explained. The first character in my Chinese name, An (安), consists of the character for “woman” (女) under a character representing a roof. My avatar, then, is a bit of a play on the common practice of iPhone-in-bathroom-mirror photography. Standing in front of a women’s bathroom mirror in Beijing, I used the bathroom ceiling to spell my name. Chinese isn’t my native language, so most of my attempts at puns fall flat, but this one got a few laughs on Sina Weibo.