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On the belief in avatars: what on earth have the aesthetics of the Byzantine icons to do with the avatar in social technologies?
Falk Heinricha a Aalborg University, Denmark
Online publication date: 26 May 2010
To cite this Article Heinrich, Falk(2010) 'On the belief in avatars: what on earth have the aesthetics of the Byzantine icons
to do with the avatar in social technologies?', Digital Creativity, 21: 1, 4 — 10 To link to this Article: DOI: 10.1080/14626261003654236 URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14626261003654236
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belief 1 The portrait picture as an avatar The subject of my investigation is the portrait avatar as used in various online worlds. It describes an ongoing modal shift from an ontological understanding of the portrait towards the portrait as performative acting.Digital Creativity 2010. communication. various art pieces or some applications for mobile phones. 1.informaworld. Vol. performativity. The reason for this comparison lies in my observation and hypothesis that the portrait is shifting from a reﬂective to a performative function. pp. 4– 10 On the belief in avatars: what on earth have the aesthetics of the Byzantine icons to do with the avatar in social technologies? Falk Heinrich Aalborg University. Denmark falk_h@hum. at least since the notion of performativity has been discussed at length by poststructuralism and performance studies. At the same time. I want to point out the ongoing cultural and epistemic displacement of the function and signiﬁcance of the portrait in general. I will do so by looking closely at the portrait picture used as an avatar.aau. used as an avatar in social online domains (like. icon. I am very well aware that this seems to be old news. thereby fulﬁlling a mainly performative purpose that triggers the participant’s belief in the other’s avatar.com . The method applied in this article will be a comparison between portrait avatars and some distinctive features and aspects of the Byzantine icons. the avatar-portrait is often still described as a representation that depicts the subject on the basis of a conceptual segregation between the living subject and the portrait. Key concepts such as prototype.1080/14626261003654236 http://www. Keywords: avatar. No. Thus. ISSN 1462-6268 # 2010 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10. archetype and inverse perspective are discussed and applied to the art piece Can You See Me Now? by Blast Theory. for example.dk Downloaded At: 07:51 24 February 2011 Abstract This article looks at the digital portrait used in the form of avatars in various online worlds and communication networks. I merely wish to contribute to this ongoing development by concretising and differentiating the notion of performativity and agency. My deﬁnition of portrait avatar is very simple: a digital picture of. The paper looks at Eastern iconology. or by the user. But the avatar-portrait functions as embodiment. Facebook). 21. where the iconic portrait is an energetic transmitter in which the depiction and the depicted converge in the belief in the realness of the picture. In accordance with the Western semiotic divide between representational ﬁction and material reality proper.
they are represented in the virtual space by avatars. with GPS navigation systems and auditory transmission devices.On the belief in avatars Downloaded At: 07:51 24 February 2011 This ongoing displacement can and should be seen as the result of technological advancements (e. The game consists of two parties. communication is made possible by PDAs. Depiction in newer versions includes a 3-D image that consists of both the player’s and the runner’s avatar in the form of a simple icon of a running man (the interface for the players look different. which will be followed by a short introduction to Byzantine icons. Players. the internet and smart phones) and the implementation of digital calm technology in every domain of everyday life. The PC and PDA give access to the virtual data representation of the very same urban space. Let me start by describing my main example. who can participate in the game from a personal computer. However. the runners in the urban space Digital Creativity. I discussed the dissolution of the epistemic and ontological reality–ﬁction divide brought about by our use of those aforementioned technologies. in my view. using anthropomorphic silhouettes). 5 . as described by the anthropologist Alfred Gell. 1. Subsequently I would like to discuss the notions of index and prototype. do so by controlling their own virtual avatars. which are chased by the runners (Figure 1). although clearly based upon technological and scientiﬁc epistemologies and methodologies. In a way this changed belief system contradicts the very ontological foundation of technology. I would like to discuss the notion of belief and ‘performative embodiment’ as one aspect of it. The communication between those ontologically different realms is done by conventional PCs on the side of the players. In this article. Runners are ﬂesh and blood persons located in well-deﬁned real urban districts chasing virtual avatars. agent and patient. Vol.g. One can criticise my conﬂation of portrait photos and pictograms/silhouettes: no mimetic personalised form connects the player with his avatar. 1 Figure 1. I want to emphasise the term belief and discuss this assertion later.2 Can You See Me Now? As my main example I will use Blast Theory’s art project from 2001: Can You See Me Now? I chose this piece not because it is a game but because of its exemplary blending of virtual and urban spaces. so-called runners and players. material spaces and their virtual representation on screen. Can You See Me Now? is an urban gaming project that effectively combines and juxtaposes urban. Blast Theory’s Can You See Me Now? Reproduced with permission of Blast Theory. at the root of the functional signiﬁcance of the avatar-portrait. depicting in the older versions a cartographic. 21. In my paper for the DAC09 conference (Heinrich 2009). No. On the runners’ side. our use of those technologies seems to render a modiﬁed belief system. This blending lies. However.
Mary or Christ himself. It is simultaneously ‘a scenic representation and presentation’ (Bek 2003). miracleworking presence’ (Belting 1994). at least this person’s active. too. One could argue that my description of paintings as windows into a remote space and time may be right concerning paintings of landscape. Portraits used as avatars on interactive online sites do not invite contemplation but reaction. The image and the depicted person conﬂate in the archetype. The depicted person and architecture seem to come out of the picture into the realm of the human worshipper. hence s/he becomes part of this earthly world. eternal forces). yet distinct players. In the orthodox worldview ‘man must always relate to the spiritual through the physical’ (Auxentios 1987). represent something or someone. They. transmitting the believer’s veneration to the depicted and vice versa. By constructing a division between representation and material world. which gives the avatar a performative. 1 are chasing absent. 2 The concept of the Byzantine icon Clearly. In this way. more importantly. urban scenery and depictions of concrete narrative situations. This is hard to grasp for a Western mind like mine. non-places. the onlooker’s view establishes a virtual counterpart of the onlooker in the represented world of the picture. who is situated in the vanishing point. No. Icons do not create utopian. The Western divide positions the onlooker in a very distinct way. Vol. However. which stresses a divide between reality and mediated representations of it. the rules and structure of the staged game assign a well-deﬁned function to the avatar. Pictures are utopian realms. These rules enable concrete action. operationalises a ‘likeness in essence’ between the depicted (presentation) and the depiction (representation). The image is in some way a “true” form of the prototype. the icon materialises the saint. but they project the represented into the viewer’s space and not the other way round. the image was the person it represented. Painted mostly on wooden tiles or as frescos. Veltmann writes that modern art has to be seen ‘as a means of separating subject and object and hence creating aesthetic distance’ whereas he considers orthodox (oriental) ‘art as a means of bridging the subject and object’ (Veltmann 2001). Liturgical veneration as ‘dramatic enactment’ (Bek 2003) reveals and. participating in it and integrally bound to it’ (Auxentios 1987). namely in front of the picture. Consequently. ﬁctitious spaces. when it come to painted or photographed portraits. these icons depict holy subjects such as the saints. making the icon an energetic transmitter for the believer more than a reﬂection in a Platonic sense. A prototype (or archetype) is the energetic essence of the depicted and the 6 Downloaded At: 07:51 24 February 2011 icon thus the material medium for it. As Hans Belting expresses it: ‘The difference between the image and what is represented seemed to be abolished in [the icons]. Auxentios writes that this ‘physical spirituality’ allows ‘that [the icon] constitutes a real image of that which it depicts. in one presence. embodied status (which can be difﬁcult to see when looking at photographic portrait). while the linear perspective tracks the onlooker into the picture.Heinrich Digital Creativity. the culturally determined perception of portraits is changing. Maybe a look at Byzantine icons can help us to disclose some of the hidden implications in this cultural shift. Furthermore. the icon is a kind of material carriage. since our cultural mindset seems to be moulded by Alberti’s and the Renaissance’s window metaphor (Alberti 1977). 21. This duplicity is at the core of Eastern iconology since it contains two functions at the same time: it is both a visual representation (of the depicted venerated person) and a concrete materialisation (of the depicted and their supranatural. The Byzantine icon is originally a ceremonial and performative part of the Christian liturgy. this virtualisation and transportation of the human viewer into . but transformations of material places. 3 The inverse or reverted perspective The inverse or reverted perspective of the Byzantine icon does quite the contrary.
who sees the marked performance space as one of the main properties of performativity. mindsets. cultural identities and behaviours. I do not want to deny this at all. Here the viewer is asked to contemplate ﬁrstly the painterly craftsmanship and the aesthetic sensation and secondly the psychological content of the depiction. Downloaded At: 07:51 24 February 2011 Figure 2. The PDA screen is an intrinsic part of the reality of the runner. Vol. On the contrary. Mount Sinai. This is very much in line with Alfred Gell’s anthropological theory on art and agency (Gell . The portrait-avatar forms part of very concrete interactions. The museum or exhibition hall setting diminish the direct interactional encounter between the portrait and the viewer. 2006). Both are ‘actors’ in a deﬁned performance setting.On the belief in avatars claim—lies ﬁrst of all on the content: who is or was this person? The exhibited portrait becomes a kind of host or guardian in the ﬁction/reality divide. which consequently is embedded in the space of the onlooker’s material presence. and ‘is effected’ by the worshippers’ intentionality. since the represented human ﬁgure often looks out at the viewer. being reminiscent of Austin’s speech acts (1992). I am following Richard Schechner (1985. Digital Creativity. with the difference that at least one human being is substituted or represented by an avatar. in which the performativity of pictures and texts exerts a kind of long-term inﬂuence on human bodies. Pictures do something. does not take context or settings into account. Pantokrator. the Byzantine icon has a precise function in the religious ritual of veneration. thereby establishing a direct communicational space. my argument is based on the concept of performativity. 1 4 Performativity At least since post-structuralism and its discussion and accentuation of the concept of performativity. enticing the viewer in a hermeneutic process into the ﬁctitious realm of representation. which lead to an act of interpretation. On the contrary. etc. 21. No. however. The focus of art appreciation—as I would 7 5 Art and agency Also. the picture has been seen as an utterance with ‘real’ pragmatic effects. But I see a distinct difference between the concept of performativity presented by exponents of poststructuralism. which is right in front of them. The material realness of the urban place constitutes the background for the image and avatars shown on the little screen. The Blast Theory runners run in a well-deﬁned and transformed urban space. the pictorial space seems to be wrong. This objection. The icon effectuates intentionality. Facebook users read and write within a very structured interface. the runners in Can You See Me Now? carry their PDA showing the cartographic urban place. a sixth century encaustic icon from Saint Catherine’s Monastery. Here.
where the runner is interacting with the avatar of the player. This interaction system cannot. In the case of online or mixed reality realms. surely there is a difference between believing in the other human being’s representation and the deity’s being inside the material icon. there is no mysticism at all. In the case of religious acts of veneration this seems very odd. which in most cases is a living person (e. since we seem to know that the avatar is a virtual stand-in for a living human being. is. The avatar is clearly the index. I do not want to claim that the religious icons and avatar portraits demand the same kind of belief. The player’s avatar is a performative index of a non-non-existing entity in the urban space. The artefact as index encompasses and reveals social intentionality. just data transmission. however. All four elements of this relationship (index. his/her index (avatar) the secondary agent. consist of the worshipper and the icon but of the communicational acts between the worshipper and the icon itself. The runner relates to the avatar-patient by chasing it down. Vol. . since the icon is supposed to ‘be’ a dead Saint—and that is (for scientiﬁc minds) not possible. possession). or more correctly. we can deduce that the interaction occurs between the online user and the other’s avatar. It is only our faith in the reliability of data transmission that makes us believe in the interconnectedness of these two interaction systems. recipient) can have an active or a passive attribute as either agent or patient. my Western mind says. Downloaded At: 07:51 24 February 2011 Digital Creativity. A full presentation of Gell’s very intriguing theory is beyond the scope of this presentation. the very act of communication occasions this belief. however. If that is valid. No. since it is shifting all the time in an interactive process. If we apply this explanation to the online avatar phenomenon. patrons’ art. 1 7 Embodiment or the creation of bodies But how is this realness constructed? We know that avatars are portraits. prototype. where the player behind the monitor is interacting with the runners’ avatars. the target of social intentionality. The recipient (the player) is the primary patient. hiding and escaping. while communicating in miscellaneous online and mixed reality worlds. 21. artist. Hmm. Still. in our case the very physical actions of running. this is not odd. The attribution of passive and active. 8 There is only one explanation for this (that satisﬁes my Western mind): the existence of an interaction system. the players and runners in Can You See Me Now?). thereby creating various types of artefacts and interactions (like artists’ art. One thing is sure: in the moment of (inter-)action we have to believe in the realness of the avatar—like believers. presenting the prototype. which distributes the agent and patient attributes. The player’s avatar is the secondary patient. No. and not between the user and the other user.g. sorcery. This means that the game Can You See Me Now? does not establish only one interaction system. ‘agent’ and ‘patient’. The user and the other’s iconic avatar form part of an artiﬁcial interaction system. This needs a script that controls the acts. but two different systems: one. it can be concluded that it is the execution of a script behind the ritual of veneration that transforms the icon into a saint. He sees idols as indexes (re-)presenting prototypes (the depicted). and another. the user/participant has to believe in the realness of the avatar.Heinrich 1998). who is represented by his/her avatar. chasing. The sender (the runner) is the primary agent. mere representations. not ﬁxed. but let me apply some of his main ideas to the subject of my investigation: the avatar-portrait. 6 Beliefs Our communicational experience patterns and communication technology claim that this action – reaction cycle occurs between human actors by means of avatars. He heavily draws on the signiﬁcances and functions of idols (cult images and objects) in mainly non-Western cultures. The relationship between index and prototype is established by an act of abduction by both the artist and the recipient.
the avatars have real bodies (despite the fact that they cannot be sure about the existence of the player. While running. The important thing. the viewer sees himself looking through the eyes of the other. based upon extremely unsecure data that not only detaches time and space but also the very content from the communicational act (Luhmann 1997). since the iconic picture constructs a direct material and sensory relationship between people in the act of communication. know that the avatar portrait is just a visualisation of digital data. too. which makes the transmitted content extremely vulnerable. seen from this point of view. thereby conﬂating reality and virtuality. Vol. in the very act of looking at an anthropomorphic statue or image. The avatarportrait as archetype surpasses our understanding of a technological medium. The worshipper does not only look at the idol. It motivates the runners’ belief in the chased player’s existence. despite the fact that communication technology only transmits measurable data based . a stone or a piece of wood. where the player in front of a monitor controls his/her avatar’s whereabouts in a digital simulation. and an inverted one. The interaction with idols make Gods and spirits appear. like the avatar makes the fellow person behind the avatar appear. where human ‘runners’ situated in a material reality are depicted as primitive avatars on the portable screen. the players’ avatar-portraits palpably touch on the reality of the runners. The ritualistic predetermined interactions establish intersubjectivity between the worshipper and the idol on the basis of looking and being looked at. being a translation from the one ontology to another. We. The very action of running constitutes the communicational interface. This may be the reason simulation and recreation of face-to-face interaction is still the objective of technology and many online spaces. in Blast Theory’s piece. The runners know that they are chasing but mere ghosts. nevertheless the runners chase them as if they are real individuals. It is in and through the player’s actions that the avatar portrait emerges as a prototype. ‘the icon touches on the reality of God’ (Auxentios 1987). the players’ avatars could be ‘run’ by a computer). The idol looks back. Gell claims that the interactional aspect of the ritual prompts the correlation between the index and prototype. Now. The crucial point is that the describing machine (computer program) consists of the same informational alphabet as the described content (Finnemann 1998). Both the so-called primitives and we ‘know’ about the existence of ‘the other’! 9 Downloaded At: 07:51 24 February 2011 Can You See Me Now? simultaneously constructs two different avatar – player relationships: a usual one. but it can also be seen as the effect of an external system that is necessary for intersubjectivity to happen. The believers know that the icon is a painted picture on a wooden tile. but the predetermined rule-bound relationship between the runner and the avatars of the other players. Digital Creativity. And we know that digital data transmission occurs on the basis of descriptions. even more intangible than the icon or idols. This makes the runners run. No. They do nevertheless engage in rituals. The same could be said about the Byzantine icon. the avatar of the chased other is real.On the belief in avatars nothing more. so to speak! Of course. and while doing so they believe in the power and realness of the idol. It is therefore not the certainty of the other’s existence but the speciﬁc intentionality represented and effectuated by the avatar that slowly changes our perception of portraits. The inverted setting augments the physical realm with a data-space. though. yet connected to the materiality of the digital device. but not the certainty of the player’s existence. Communicative understanding is. 21. Alfred Gell asserts that the worshippers of idols know very well that the idol-artefact is just dead material. 1 8 Conclusion In Byzantine iconology. this can be doomed as psychological projection and primitive animation. thereby dissolving the distinction between subject and its representation and between material and virtual reality. is not the relationship between the person and his/her avatar.
1992. He teaches digital aesthetics and artistic methodology. N. He has worked as an actor and theatre director. 1998. Available from: http://www.com/general/orth_icon. Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. Available from http://escholarship. December 2009. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp..F. which has—I would claim—its foundation in the material human body as enclosed entity. New Haven.. questioning the notion of the body as a mainly biologically deﬁned entity. IL: Chicago Press. He is the author of the book Interaktiv digital installationskunst—teori og analyse (Copenhagen: Multivers. 2006. Downloaded At: 07:51 24 February 2011 Austin. J. Philadelphia. measurable parameters of the voice). N.. References Alberti. Likeness and presence. K. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Heinrich on physical laws (e. Veltmann. F.B. Available from: http:// www. PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. 10 . PhD..O. H. Arhus: Aarhus University Press.canyouseemenow. artistic work (interactive installations). ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Computeren—Et medie for en ny skriftteknologisk revolution. 1997.. 2009.orthodoxinfo. 2001. beauty and communication—attempts to form bridges among certain discourses in the human sciences. 1977. This subsequently calls for a revision of the humanistic concept of identity. presence. In: J. The digital iconic avatar seems to undermine the Western epistemic distinction between the human subject and pictorial representation. Proceedings of the Digital Art and Culture Conference. No.. There he is afﬁliated with the research group and educational programme ‘Art and Technology’. Can you see me now? [online]. Denmark.. Reality in the mirror of art. Aalborg: Aalborg Universitetsforlag. R.co. CT: Yale University Press.L. Chicago. Arco Noticias. On the contrary. 20.org/uc/ search?entity¼ace dac09 plenaries.g. Schechner. Vol. engineering and neuro-science. London. 1 Heinrich. 2008). A. Belting.. L. How to do things with words. is Associate Professor at Aalborg University.. Blast Theory. 2001. 1994.uk [Accessed January 2010]. Jensen. New York: Routledge. L. 1987. sociology. and his theoretical investigation continues to develop in close relation to practical. H. Falk Heinrich. the (technologically extended) performative body transcends those biological limits due to an act of belief within predetermined structures. History of art about and by means of computers. Hypermedier. Art and agency. Finnemann. 43– 68. Luhmann. 21. The performative portrait. Multimedier. 2003. The Iconic and Symbolic in Orthodox iconography [online]. Interaktive Medier. R. Performance theory. His current research interest is ‘performative aesthetics’ and his work—focusing on notions of affect. Between theater and anthropology.. 1998. Schechner... Digital Creativity. ˚ Bek.aspx [Accessed January 2010]. On Painting. 56–61. Auxentios. University of California: Irvine [online]. Gell. 1985.
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