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Troubling Utopia

AVATARA


DVD\"Machinima Documentary"

Cdn $20.00


by Donato Mancini, Jeremy Turner and Flick Harrison (536 Productions)

reviewed by Edward Picot

Avatara, from a Canadian team called 536, is a documentary about an online community - "a global subculture who spend their lives immersed in an online 3-D voice-chat program", as the blurb explains. What makes this particular documentary special is that "every second... was recorded in-world (ie. online, within the virtual environment), so we don't meet the people directly. Instead, their voices speak to us through the puppet-like 'avatars': rabbits, pharaos, seahorses, giraffes, the grim reaper, flowers, guitars, trolls (etc) which they've chosen to represent themselves in cyberspace." Because of this immersive approach the documentary is more than just a factual report about these people and their private activities: it gives us a sense of what their world feels like from the inside.

The software behind the online chat forum is called "Digitalspace Traveler". Its proponents claim that, compared with other virtual encounter-forums, it places a unique emphasis on social interaction. The majority of avatars in Traveler are "heads-only" rather than "full-body", which sets an automatic limit to their physical activity. Basically all they do is float around and talk. But this plays to the strength of the program, which is designed to duplicate the experience of "real" conversation:

Traveler incorporates 3D stereo distance attenuated audio. This means that if somebody to the right of you is speaking, you hear them more out of your right speaker or earphone. You will hear somebody near to you much better than those farther away. Just like real life... Other voice chats make you sound like you're all stuffed into the same closet... As well, our avatars lip-synch when speaking to further enhance the immersive illusion of reality. (http://www.ozgate.com/about/traveler.cfm)

What we get on the DVD is a sequence of interviews with bizarre-looking talking heads suspended in equally bizarre landscapes or rooms. The heads are roughly-drawn, geometric, their pixels grainily visible, their three-dimensional shading merely cosmetic, and their expressions masklike. The landscapes and rooms are mostly rough too: unnatural-looking grass, lumpish trees, toy-town trainrides, buildings without any mass, twinkling saw-toothed edges on the diagonal straight lines. Occasionally, however, there are spatial effects of considerable power. A seahorse-avatar floats above a range of mountains, with another range of mountains suspended upside-down over him in the sky. A black whirlwind sweeps across a flat green space signposted "Kansas", towards a building composed of giant grey Ms. A virtual ship glides weightlessly across a flat indigo ocean shot with silver ripples.

The extraordinary thing is how quickly this bizarre imagery comes to seem natural. Within a few minutes we have accustomed ourselves to the idea of a man's voice emerging from the disembodied, masklike head of a white rabbit; and although we don't exactly accept the rabbit's face as the man's face, we do learn to recognise it as a token of his presence or immanence. We also find ourselves listening with unusual intensity to what is being said or not said. Because the Traveler world is so conversation-based, silences there can be tremendously dramatic. There is one moment in Avatara when an interviewee is asked if he thinks it would be possible for software to communicate with the dead. For a few seconds he is completely at a loss for an answer. The silence is heart-stopping.

Questions of a metaphysical type seem to crop up naturally in the Traveler world, and undoubtedly this is something to do with the sense that the avatars themselves are not exactly alive, but inhabited by spirits from elsewhere. We feel all the time in Traveler, to a degree which we only experience very rarely in "ordinary life", that everything we encounter there is supercharged, resonant, symbolic; nothing is what it seems; everything points to another dimension beyond itself. It's quite difficult to describe this scenario in non-metaphysical terms, and the 536 team themselves, in the article (The Making of Avatara) they wrote about Avatara for the trAce organisation, used a quote from one of the Upanishads:

[In Traveler] the voice itself becomes the manifestation of... spirit/identity. To re-contextualise an image from the Aitareya Upanishad, the voice pierces the surface of the strange graphics: “as a hawk bursts through a net”...
It becomes evident from an interview with Jeremy Turner (one of the 536 team) by Christiane Paul, published on the Intelligent Agent site, that the Upanishads were important to the team's ideas about Traveler from the start: "We wanted to show the Upanishadic qualities of cyberspace and the metaphysical properties of existing as an avatar." On the Avatara DVD they play up this metaphysical angle by including an interview with a philosopher/artist called Pravin Pillay. As they explain:

We do think of Traveler as a metaphysical space, and of avatar travel as a metaphysical experience. Pravin is not one of the Traveler community and has no direct relation to the other Travelers - he is an outside observer we brought in ourselves. We were originally going to structure the piece along a counterpoint between interviews with hard-core Travelers and (in-world) interviews with outside observers and commentators like Mr Pillay. We changed our minds for various reasons but decided to include the interview with Pravin on the DVD as... an appendix.

Pravin appears in-world as a seahorse-avatar and talks at some length about the spiritual aspects of Traveler experience. He starts by pointing out that the world we live in as human beings is in some sense a virtual world from the beginning - we don't rely purely on the information of our senses but on an interpretation of that information. The example he gives is of visual images, which are actually upside-down when the optic nerve receives them because they are inverted by the lens of the eye, but which the mind puts back the "right" way up, in order to make them fit with the information from our other senses. Language, Pravin argues, heightens and restructures this separation from pure sensory input; and cyberspace is a further development of the same process, "a reflection of the emergent reality of our minds".

As Pravin admits, however, our "ordinary" experience wavers between the physical and the conceptual. Devoted though we may be to our own dream-versions of reality, the material strand of our existence - physical pleasure, pain, illness or deprivation - retains its power to reshape or rupture the smooth continuum of our ideas. One of the creepier attractions of the Traveler world is its freedom from such disturbances, and hence its resemblance to an afterlife. "In here," says one of the interviewees at the beginning of the DVD, "there's no death, there's no injury, there's no physical pain, there's no hunger... This right here to me seems like the conceptualisation of what Heaven would be like."

But this disembodied heavenliness has its social and political aspects too, since Traveler is not a domain primarily designed for individual exploration but for community interaction. And the Traveler community is proactive as well as reactive: the Traveler multiverse now consists largely of "worlds" which have been designed by its users; and the history of Traveler bespeaks a do-it-yourself communal ethic, an ethic which has played a significant role in the development of the World Wide Web itself. As the 536 team explain in their Trace article, when the Traveler software was originally launched in the late '90s there was a big attempt to make a commercial success of it, but it flopped. "It is now owned, maintained, and operated wholly by a community of users who were once known by outsiders as The Utopians." On the DVD, community-members frequently explain their devotion to Traveler in terms of the community and relationships they have formed there: "There are qualities in many of these people that are admirable," states one, "and I refuse to be without Traveler because of it, because of the people. That's why we're here." "This is a collective intellect," declares another. "Any time you're in Traveler, if you have your headphones on, you're going to learn something."

In some respects, then, Traveler represents not only an opportunity to have spiritual out-of-body experiences but to participate in a Utopian society, a society which is largely unburdened by practical considerations such as food or sanitation, and therefore free to devote itself to philosophical discussion and creative self-expression. But one of the things which makes the Avatara DVD so fascinating is that it shows how even such an unburdened community is unable to avoid disruption and dissent. One interviewee, a woman called Purple Tears who has designed many of the rooms in Traveler, describes how a room called "Uninvited" came into being as a reaction to a personal situation she was in at the time: "I was seeing somebody here online that was very very very jealous... I was smothered by this person." The room consists of a metallic cage orbited by red keys, with a blue mural for a backdrop, showing a kneeling woman clawing the air in frustration. Clearly, not all relationships formed in Traveler are problem-free. There is also a section on the DVD entitled "Avatara Wars". "There's been a bit of hell on Traveler," admits one of the interviewees. "We went through a period in '99 to 2000 when there was a free speech war in here." What this war was about is never clearly explained, but obviously it was a major problem. There was damage to more than one of the servers on which Traveler was running. Several of the interviewees talk about the conflict, and interestingly two of them (both female) describe how the war bothered them in their dreams. Then, in the middle of one of these interviews, the DVD shows us a "bonking attack", which consists of an avatar deliberately running into another avatar's personal space, resulting in a glassy bonking noise. "You get that sometimes," explains an interviewee. "You get the adolescents in here..." During the free speech war the problem was even worse: "There was this huge doughnut-shaped avatar, and I mean it was absolutely massive... Just turning the avatar would bonk tens of people at a time; so that was abusive just by its very creation..."

Associated with the question of bad behaviour is the much-debated matter of online identity. "Inside of here," announces one of the interviewees, "we are an anyonymous being, and we can conduct ourselves as such." Anonymity brings freedom from expectations and preconceptions, and hence the chance for individuals to reinvent themselves. It is one of the most liberating things about online communication. But it also offers a chance to misbehave without being held to account. A community-member called Dominic, who clearly uses more than one avatar, describes how he puts on an ugly, multi-coloured mask and calls himself Smitty when he wants to tease or play jokes on other people. "Everybody picks on Smitty... Maybe he's another personality I have..." "Do your other avatars change your personality as well?" asks the interviewer. "No, no. It's not really a different personality, it's just me having fun. It's not like I put on an avatar and I change my personality." Elsewhere, Oz, one of the community leaders, describes how during the free speech war a troublemaker started to imitate him: "He dressed up his avatar painstakingly to look like mine. Then he went to his profile, and had it to read like mine... Then he went to another room and started raising hell. The only time somebody ever tries to assume somebody else's identity is to perpetrate something bad."

It is evident, then, that the Traveler version of Utopia is not an untroubled one; it has its emotional blackmailers, its hooligans and its downright troublemakers; and precisely because of the spiritual and idealistic terms in which the community-members describe their online world, these troubles automatically have a mythic dimension to them. They seem to represent humanity's inability to rise above its own fallen nature.

Themes such as this emerge all the more powerfully from Avatara because they seem unforced. The DVD presents us with a mass of evidence, a wonderfully rich and suggestive mixture of images and ideas, and leaves us to reach our own conclusions about them. It should be required viewing for anyone interested in cyberculture and digital communities.

© Edward Picot, September 2004

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