The Other Avatar

Sometimes making it big in pop culture can get in the way of good information. Case in point? Doug Jarvis’ upcoming Fine Arts summer course, Avatars and Information Agents—which is hampered by association with the recent James Cameron movie Avatar (and, to a lesser extent, the popular anime-influenced TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender).

What will your avatar look like?

But to hear Jarvis tell it, avatars aren’t solely the realm of sci-fi spectaculars—they’re already a part of our everyday lives, which is the whole point of his course. “When it comes to popular culture, there’s lots of movies where humans have other representations—Avatar, Surrogates, The Matrix—and then there’s the representation of you that appears on Facebook,” he says. “That avatar is—or could be—an idealized version of you, but it’s connected to you, because it’s got your name on it. So people are already using these vehicles, these entities, in all of sorts of different ways—strategically, for promotion, whatever. I just want to explore this terrain.”

Doug Jarvis is the ideal instructor for an arts and technology course like Avatars and Information Agents. As an artist who is interested in conceptual strategies for the artistic production of perceptual and pseudoscientific devices that question technology as a human attribute, his art practice incorporates sculpture, drawing, performance, digital imaging and the internet to render the experience of being a sensory agent in the world. He is a founding member of both Noxious Sector, and the Second Life avatar performance art group Second Front. (And you may have seen his interactive installation, Ectoplasmic Scream, in the lobby of the Belfry Theatre during their recent SPARK Festival.)

But while that may sound complex, he insists the ideas of avatars and information agents are not. Avatars, he says, are merely “the object or image you use on Facebook or in a game world” while information agents are “more like your Google identity: your social insurance number, your telephone number, your Google preferences . . . all the bits of data that represent you in a mediascape or an informationscape.” Social media, online gaming, college and university all require us to create some form of unique digital profile to participate in a virtual or information space, explains Jarvis; we create these avatars and information agents to act as our “second self,” a collection of identities that represent us in the multiple dimensions of digital culture.

And what will happen when you send it out into the world?

In other words, most of us are fully immersed in the world of avatars and information agents. “These data bits are out there functioning on your behalf already, whether you like it or not,” says Jarvis. “It’s not a new idea, but it’s about how these things can be mobilized. It’s in your best interest to be aware of them. They’re being created already, so why not learn how to inhabit them, humanize them? How do we, in this administrative society, keep filling out these identity forms but do it to our own ends, and not just to be compliant citizens?”

When it comes to the actual course work in Avatars and Information Agents, expect a lot of hands-on action. During the first week, students will explore the use of avatars in popular culture and mythology, design their own avatars, learn about what they are, then print them out and have an art show of everyone’s avatars. “After that, it’s about teasing out what your relationship is with that avatar,” says Jarvis. “We’ll take it on tour, spend some time with it, get to know it, put it in some situations like Second Life and Facebook, and create a travelogue using Machinima. Then the students will have to determine its fate.”

And don’t worry if your computer skills aren’t exactly on the programmer level. Since it’s a hands-on studio course, Jarvis promises it can be understood and enjoyed by anyone in any discipline—business, economics, theatre, psych, history, visual arts, whatever. “It’ll be accessible enough for someone who doesn’t have a lot of experience working on computers or design programs that they’ll still be able to do it. But we’re going to go further than just the basics.”

Doug Jarvis plays with interactive images in his "Ectoplasmic Scream," seen here in the lobby of the Belfry Theatre

Course work aside, Jarvis also feels Avatars and Information Agents is just a good 21st century survival primer. “We all know your identity can be stolen, but what does that mean—what part of your identity? It makes you reflect on what you’re actually comprised of
. . . it’s all those things that are going on in this digital culture information space that you hear about. But what I’m trying to suggest is that we can learn about this a bit more from these two directions where we consciously put out other versions of yourself—other personas to culture jam the identity space—and then use the information agents like your personal artificial intelligence.”

“Avatar is a very popular term,” he says by way of conclusion. “But there’s no culture around avatars—so is it time for avatar studies in this day of neuroscience?”

FA 346Avatars and Information Agents with Doug Jarvis runs 10:30am to 12:20pm Monday to Friday, June 7 to June 29, in room 103 of the Fine Arts building. It is a 1.5 credit undergraduate course open to second years and above. Click here to see the Calendar listing.