Me, Myself, and My Avatar

Desirée Holman, video still composite from Heterotopias, 2011, courtesy of the artist and Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.

Along with nine, hand-selected participants, artist Desirée Holman has spent the last two years developing a series of avatars. The resulting project, Heterotopias, 2011, a video and supporting drawings on view now at the Berkeley Art Museum, refers to corporeal reality’s relationship to virtual reality, the physical process by which the digitally rendered avatar is formed, and the ironic stasis of the body whilst the imagined self is set free.  Unfortunately, Holman only refers to these ideas.  While aesthetically engaging and fun to watch, Heterotopias fails to delve beyond the surface of her topic.

Shot as a sort of music video, the participants sit before laptops in similar, homey interiors.  They dance, are transformed into both live-action and digitally animated superhero-like characters, and engage in battle with long staffs. Considering the care taken in creating the colorful and fanciful costumes and scenery, as well as the richness of the concept, a viewer expects much more from these characters than what is delivered.

Desirée Holman, Mask of Agamemnon (Diffuse Map), 2011, courtesy of the artist and Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.

One cannot help but wonder: is sitting in front of a computer the extent of the lives of these individuals?  Even Superman’s Clark Kent has distinguishing characteristics, personal dramas and quirks.  If these avatars are an opportunity to exist in a space untethered by the bounds of the real, why do the avatars perform feats no more complex than hitting one another with sticks?

Not one of the actors or avatars has any true individuation, despite the potential offered by their appearances. The elaborately developed avatars are little more than costumes: digital exoskeletons worn by the subjects.  Holman and her participants supposedly spent a great deal of time and effort in the development of these fictions: why is the audience not granted access to this aspect of the project? We have all played video games, seen superhero fiction, or engaged in social networking sites as digitally warped versions of ourselves.  In each of these scenarios, the stories generated by fictional or semi-fantastic characters are engaging and multi-dimensional: both morally and socially complex.  We should be granted similar complexity from these characters.

Desirée Holman, Dancers Dancing in Their Own Digital Ectoplasmic Cocoons 1, 2010, courtesy of the artist and Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.

The show’s accompanying drawings are an interesting addition. Pieces such as Dancers Dancing in their Own Digital Ectoplasmic Cocoons are beautifully executed and freeze time in a manner that allows us to attempt a more in-depth connection with these individuals.  The “ectoplasmic cocoons,” incidentally, work better in the drawings than in the videos; in the latter, the pink lining on the characters as they jump between fantasy worlds seems to be a result of poor color-keying. Though not all of the works are as successful, one drawing of a costumed face alludes to information promised but never quite delivered: a man stares ahead, awkwardly, wearing a humorous headpiece.  His eyes indicate that he is unsure of the world in which he belongs, torn between his virtual self and actual self.  He is self-conscious, but nonetheless set free by his ridiculous garb.  Is this a drawing of the man, or of his digital armature?  Where in this spectrum does the drawing, and in fact, all art—itself a virtual rendition of reality—fall?