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Avatars as performative icons

Avatars as performative icons

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Digital Creativity

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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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I am very well aware that this seems to be old news. I merely wish to contribute to this ongoing development by concretising and differentiating the notion of performativity and agency. 21. thereby fulfilling a mainly performative purpose that triggers the participant’s belief in the other’s avatar. 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. pp. or by the user.aau. archetype and inverse perspective are discussed and applied to the art piece Can You See Me Now? by Blast Theory. Keywords: avatar. performativity. But the avatar-portrait functions as embodiment. Vol. Thus. The reason for this comparison lies in my observation and hypothesis that the portrait is shifting from a reflective to a performative function.Digital Creativity 2010. icon. The paper looks at Eastern iconology. The method applied in this article will be a comparison between portrait avatars and some distinctive features and aspects of the Byzantine icons. ISSN 1462-6268 # 2010 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10. 1. 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. used as an avatar in social online domains (like. 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. No. Denmark falk_h@hum.com . I want to point out the ongoing cultural and epistemic displacement of the function and significance of the portrait in general.1080/14626261003654236 http://www. various art pieces or some applications for mobile phones.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. My definition of portrait avatar is very simple: a digital picture of. at least since the notion of performativity has been discussed at length by poststructuralism and performance studies. It describes an ongoing modal shift from an ontological understanding of the portrait towards the portrait as performative acting. communication. I will do so by looking closely at the portrait picture used as an avatar. In accordance with the Western semiotic divide between representational fiction and material reality proper. Facebook). belief 1 The portrait picture as an avatar The subject of my investigation is the portrait avatar as used in various online worlds.informaworld. At the same time. for example. Key concepts such as prototype.

However. The PC and PDA give access to the virtual data representation of the very same urban space.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. which are chased by the runners (Figure 1). agent and patient. which will be followed by a short introduction to Byzantine icons. I discussed the dissolution of the epistemic and ontological reality–fiction divide brought about by our use of those aforementioned technologies. who can participate in the game from a personal computer. The game consists of two parties. Can You See Me Now? is an urban gaming project that effectively combines and juxtaposes urban. Vol.g. communication is made possible by PDAs. In this article. Let me start by describing my main example. although clearly based upon technological and scientific epistemologies and methodologies. they are represented in the virtual space by avatars. In my paper for the DAC09 conference (Heinrich 2009). Players. in my view. using anthropomorphic silhouettes). depicting in the older versions a cartographic. do so by controlling their own virtual avatars. On the runners’ side. I would like to discuss the notion of belief and ‘performative embodiment’ as one aspect of it.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 communication between those ontologically different realms is done by conventional PCs on the side of the players. 1. Subsequently I would like to discuss the notions of index and prototype. No. In a way this changed belief system contradicts the very ontological foundation of technology. our use of those technologies seems to render a modified belief system. 5 . the runners in the urban space Digital Creativity. I want to emphasise the term belief and discuss this assertion later. at the root of the functional significance of the avatar-portrait. 21. as described by the anthropologist Alfred Gell. 1 Figure 1. the internet and smart phones) and the implementation of digital calm technology in every domain of everyday life. with GPS navigation systems and auditory transmission devices. Blast Theory’s Can You See Me Now? Reproduced with permission of Blast Theory. Runners are flesh and blood persons located in well-defined real urban districts chasing virtual avatars. so-called runners and players. 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. One can criticise my conflation of portrait photos and pictograms/silhouettes: no mimetic personalised form connects the player with his avatar. material spaces and their virtual representation on screen. However. This blending lies.

fictitious spaces. As Hans Belting expresses it: ‘The difference between the image and what is represented seemed to be abolished in [the icons]. while the linear perspective tracks the onlooker into the picture. more importantly. miracleworking presence’ (Belting 1994). In the orthodox worldview ‘man must always relate to the spiritual through the physical’ (Auxentios 1987). represent something or someone. operationalises a ‘likeness in essence’ between the depicted (presentation) and the depiction (representation). which gives the avatar a performative. embodied status (which can be difficult to see when looking at photographic portrait). too. 21. transmitting the believer’s veneration to the depicted and vice versa. participating in it and integrally bound to it’ (Auxentios 1987). non-places. Furthermore. but they project the represented into the viewer’s space and not the other way round. Portraits used as avatars on interactive online sites do not invite contemplation but reaction. but transformations of material places. in one presence. the icon materialises the saint. One could argue that my description of paintings as windows into a remote space and time may be right concerning paintings of landscape. By constructing a division between representation and material world. Liturgical veneration as ‘dramatic enactment’ (Bek 2003) reveals and. the image was the person it represented. since our cultural mindset seems to be moulded by Alberti’s and the Renaissance’s window metaphor (Alberti 1977). The depicted person and architecture seem to come out of the picture into the realm of the human worshipper. namely in front of the picture. Consequently. Maybe a look at Byzantine icons can help us to disclose some of the hidden implications in this cultural shift. They. The image is in some way a “true” form of the prototype. urban scenery and depictions of concrete narrative situations. yet distinct players. the icon is a kind of material carriage. Auxentios writes that this ‘physical spirituality’ allows ‘that [the icon] constitutes a real image of that which it depicts. hence s/he becomes part of this earthly world. The Western divide positions the onlooker in a very distinct way. which stresses a divide between reality and mediated representations of it. the onlooker’s view establishes a virtual counterpart of the onlooker in the represented world of the picture. However. making the icon an energetic transmitter for the believer more than a reflection in a Platonic sense. at least this person’s active. 2 The concept of the Byzantine icon Clearly. 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. Painted mostly on wooden tiles or as frescos. eternal forces). these icons depict holy subjects such as the saints. the rules and structure of the staged game assign a well-defined function to the avatar. In this way. 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. the culturally determined perception of portraits is changing. Pictures are utopian realms. The Byzantine icon is originally a ceremonial and performative part of the Christian liturgy. when it come to painted or photographed portraits. 1 are chasing absent. No.Heinrich Digital Creativity. 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). 3 The inverse or reverted perspective The inverse or reverted perspective of the Byzantine icon does quite the contrary. who is situated in the vanishing point. Icons do not create utopian. this virtualisation and transportation of the human viewer into . This is hard to grasp for a Western mind like mine. Vol. It is simultaneously ‘a scenic representation and presentation’ (Bek 2003). These rules enable concrete action. Mary or Christ himself. The image and the depicted person conflate in the archetype.

the pictorial space seems to be wrong. The material realness of the urban place constitutes the background for the image and avatars shown on the little screen. No. The focus of art appreciation—as I would 7 5 Art and agency Also. 21. This objection. does not take context or settings into account. in which the performativity of pictures and texts exerts a kind of long-term influence on human bodies. etc. Vol. Both are ‘actors’ in a defined performance setting. which consequently is embedded in the space of the onlooker’s material presence. cultural identities and behaviours. Facebook users read and write within a very structured interface. mindsets. which lead to an act of interpretation. Digital Creativity. On the contrary. On the contrary. the Byzantine icon has a precise function in the religious ritual of veneration. 2006). The PDA screen is an intrinsic part of the reality of the runner. however. I do not want to deny this at all. This is very much in line with Alfred Gell’s anthropological theory on art and agency (Gell . The museum or exhibition hall setting diminish the direct interactional encounter between the portrait and the viewer. and ‘is effected’ by the worshippers’ intentionality. Here the viewer is asked to contemplate firstly the painterly craftsmanship and the aesthetic sensation and secondly the psychological content of the depiction. The icon effectuates intentionality. my argument is based on the concept of performativity. Mount Sinai. who sees the marked performance space as one of the main properties of performativity. The portrait-avatar forms part of very concrete interactions. since the represented human figure often looks out at the viewer. Downloaded At: 07:51 24 February 2011 Figure 2. Pantokrator. 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. the picture has been seen as an utterance with ‘real’ pragmatic effects. a sixth century encaustic icon from Saint Catherine’s Monastery. Here. The Blast Theory runners run in a well-defined and transformed urban space. the runners in Can You See Me Now? carry their PDA showing the cartographic urban place. I am following Richard Schechner (1985.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. being reminiscent of Austin’s speech acts (1992). with the difference that at least one human being is substituted or represented by an avatar. thereby establishing a direct communicational space. But I see a distinct difference between the concept of performativity presented by exponents of poststructuralism. which is right in front of them. Pictures do something.

Hmm. sorcery. 8 There is only one explanation for this (that satisfies my Western mind): the existence of an interaction system. Downloaded At: 07:51 24 February 2011 Digital Creativity. just data transmission. and another. while communicating in miscellaneous online and mixed reality worlds. If that is valid. The user and the other’s iconic avatar form part of an artificial interaction system. but two different systems: one. One thing is sure: in the moment of (inter-)action we have to believe in the realness of the avatar—like believers. This means that the game Can You See Me Now? does not establish only one interaction system. it can be concluded that it is the execution of a script behind the ritual of veneration that transforms the icon into a saint. thereby creating various types of artefacts and interactions (like artists’ art. The recipient (the player) is the primary patient. The attribution of passive and active. chasing. and not between the user and the other user. The sender (the runner) is the primary agent. recipient) can have an active or a passive attribute as either agent or patient. prototype. the target of social intentionality. the very act of communication occasions this belief. It is only our faith in the reliability of data transmission that makes us believe in the interconnectedness of these two interaction systems. This interaction system cannot. but let me apply some of his main ideas to the subject of my investigation: the avatar-portrait. No. I do not want to claim that the religious icons and avatar portraits demand the same kind of belief. presenting the prototype. in our case the very physical actions of running. who is represented by his/her avatar. . there is no mysticism at all. surely there is a difference between believing in the other human being’s representation and the deity’s being inside the material icon. mere representations. since we seem to know that the avatar is a virtual stand-in for a living human being. where the runner is interacting with the avatar of the player. however. 6 Beliefs Our communicational experience patterns and communication technology claim that this action – reaction cycle occurs between human actors by means of avatars. The artefact as index encompasses and reveals social intentionality. The avatar is clearly the index. Vol. All four elements of this relationship (index. his/her index (avatar) the secondary agent. since the icon is supposed to ‘be’ a dead Saint—and that is (for scientific minds) not possible. The runner relates to the avatar-patient by chasing it down. ‘agent’ and ‘patient’. No. In the case of religious acts of veneration this seems very odd. He heavily draws on the significances and functions of idols (cult images and objects) in mainly non-Western cultures. In the case of online or mixed reality realms. Still. This needs a script that controls the acts.g. the players and runners in Can You See Me Now?). possession). If we apply this explanation to the online avatar phenomenon. which distributes the agent and patient attributes. which in most cases is a living person (e. not fixed. 21. 1 7 Embodiment or the creation of bodies But how is this realness constructed? We know that avatars are portraits. the user/participant has to believe in the realness of the avatar. or more correctly. The relationship between index and prototype is established by an act of abduction by both the artist and the recipient. The player’s avatar is the secondary patient. since it is shifting all the time in an interactive process. A full presentation of Gell’s very intriguing theory is beyond the scope of this presentation. hiding and escaping. is. where the player behind the monitor is interacting with the runners’ avatars. my Western mind says. we can deduce that the interaction occurs between the online user and the other’s avatar.Heinrich 1998). patrons’ art. this is not odd. however. consist of the worshipper and the icon but of the communicational acts between the worshipper and the icon itself. The player’s avatar is a performative index of a non-non-existing entity in the urban space. artist. He sees idols as indexes (re-)presenting prototypes (the depicted).

where human ‘runners’ situated in a material reality are depicted as primitive avatars on the portable screen. but it can also be seen as the effect of an external system that is necessary for intersubjectivity to happen.On the belief in avatars nothing more. like the avatar makes the fellow person behind the avatar appear. Digital Creativity. too. the players’ avatar-portraits palpably touch on the reality of the runners. The important thing. though. yet connected to the materiality of the digital device. since the iconic picture constructs a direct material and sensory relationship between people in the act of communication. The interaction with idols make Gods and spirits appear. ‘the icon touches on the reality of God’ (Auxentios 1987). and an inverted one. The crucial point is that the describing machine (computer program) consists of the same informational alphabet as the described content (Finnemann 1998). Vol. The very action of running constitutes the communicational interface. The ritualistic predetermined interactions establish intersubjectivity between the worshipper and the idol on the basis of looking and being looked at. The avatarportrait as archetype surpasses our understanding of a technological medium. the avatar of the chased other is real. know that the avatar portrait is just a visualisation of digital data. They do nevertheless engage in rituals. but not the certainty of the player’s existence. Now. While running. The inverted setting augments the physical realm with a data-space. a stone or a piece of wood. so to speak! Of course. 1 8 Conclusion In Byzantine iconology. based upon extremely unsecure data that not only detaches time and space but also the very content from the communicational act (Luhmann 1997). despite the fact that communication technology only transmits measurable data based . The believers know that the icon is a painted picture on a wooden tile. This may be the reason simulation and recreation of face-to-face interaction is still the objective of technology and many online spaces. in the very act of looking at an anthropomorphic statue or image. The worshipper does not only look at the idol. 21. The idol looks back. the players’ avatars could be ‘run’ by a computer). Communicative understanding is. thereby dissolving the distinction between subject and its representation and between material and virtual reality. It motivates the runners’ belief in the chased player’s existence. and while doing so they believe in the power and realness of the idol. And we know that digital data transmission occurs on the basis of descriptions. this can be doomed as psychological projection and primitive animation. but the predetermined rule-bound relationship between the runner and the avatars of the other players. the viewer sees himself looking through the eyes of the other. being a translation from the one ontology to another. the avatars have real bodies (despite the fact that they cannot be sure about the existence of the player. We. No. where the player in front of a monitor controls his/her avatar’s whereabouts in a digital simulation. 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. even more intangible than the icon or idols. Alfred Gell asserts that the worshippers of idols know very well that the idol-artefact is just dead material. The same could be said about the Byzantine icon. Gell claims that the interactional aspect of the ritual prompts the correlation between the index and prototype. This makes the runners run. It is in and through the player’s actions that the avatar portrait emerges as a prototype. thereby conflating reality and virtuality. The runners know that they are chasing but mere ghosts. in Blast Theory’s piece. which makes the transmitted content extremely vulnerable. seen from this point of view. is not the relationship between the person and his/her avatar. 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. nevertheless the runners chase them as if they are real individuals.

History of art about and by means of computers. L. presence. 10 . In: J. The Iconic and Symbolic in Orthodox iconography [online]. measurable parameters of the voice). No.aspx [Accessed January 2010]. New Haven.. Digital Creativity. Veltmann. is Associate Professor at Aalborg University. PA: University of Pennsylvania Press. 20. Arco Noticias. Interaktive Medier. Performance theory.. On Painting. 2009. ˚ Bek. Computeren—Et medie for en ny skriftteknologisk revolution. 43– 68.co.B. On the contrary. He has worked as an actor and theatre director. London. R. beauty and communication—attempts to form bridges among certain discourses in the human sciences. How to do things with words. The performative portrait.uk [Accessed January 2010]. References Alberti. Proceedings of the Digital Art and Culture Conference. 1977.O. 21. F. Auxentios. H. Schechner. which has—I would claim—its foundation in the material human body as enclosed entity.orthodoxinfo. 1998.. L. 1997. N.L. Gell. He is the author of the book Interaktiv digital installationskunst—teori og analyse (Copenhagen: Multivers.Heinrich on physical laws (e.g.org/uc/ search?entity¼ace dac09 plenaries. IL: Chicago Press. 2003.F. He teaches digital aesthetics and artistic methodology. 1992. University of California: Irvine [online]. Multimedier. H. Philadelphia. Likeness and presence. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Belting. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.com/general/orth_icon. 2001. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Jensen. 2008). artistic work (interactive installations).. This subsequently calls for a revision of the humanistic concept of identity. Available from: http:// www. 1 Heinrich. Chicago. A.. Arhus: Aarhus University Press. There he is affiliated with the research group and educational programme ‘Art and Technology’.. CT: Yale University Press. questioning the notion of the body as a mainly biologically defined entity. 56–61. K. Falk Heinrich. New York: Routledge. Available from http://escholarship. Available from: http://www. engineering and neuro-science. Schechner. Luhmann.. N. His current research interest is ‘performative aesthetics’ and his work—focusing on notions of affect. Blast Theory. 1994.canyouseemenow. Hypermedier. J. 1985. The digital iconic avatar seems to undermine the Western epistemic distinction between the human subject and pictorial representation. the (technologically extended) performative body transcends those biological limits due to an act of belief within predetermined structures... 2001. and his theoretical investigation continues to develop in close relation to practical. Finnemann. Aalborg: Aalborg Universitetsforlag. Can you see me now? [online]. 1987. Denmark. Downloaded At: 07:51 24 February 2011 Austin. Reality in the mirror of art. 1998.. ed. Vol. December 2009.. Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. PhD. 2006. R. Between theater and anthropology. Art and agency. sociology..

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