The portrait of an avatar as a young artist

Alice Lloyd George Contributor
Alice Lloyd George is an early stage investor based in New
York and the host of Flux, a series of podcast
conversations with leaders in frontier technology.
In this episode of
Flux
 I talk with LaTurbo Avedon, an online
avatar who has been active as an artist and curator since 2008. 
Recently we’ve seen a wave of next-gen virtual stars rise up,
from Lil Miquela in the west to pop-stars like Kizuna AI in the
east. As face and body tracking make real-time avatar
representation accessible, what emergent behaviors will we see?
What will our virtual relationships evolve? How will these
behaviors translate into the physical world when augmented reality
is widespread?
LaTurbo was early to exploring these questions of identity
and experimenting with telepresence. She has shape-shifted across
media types, spending time in everything from AOL and chat rooms,
to MMOs, virtual worlds and social media platforms. In this
conversation she shares her thoughts on how social networks have
breached our trust, why a breakup is likely, and how users should
take control of their data. We get into the rise of battle royale
gaming, why multiplicity of self is important, and how we can
better express agency and identity online.

An excerpt of our conversation is published below. Full podcast
on iTunes and
transcript on Medium.

***

ALG: Welcome to the latest episode of Flux. I am excited
to introduce LaTurbo Avedon. LaTurbo is an avatar and artist
originating in virtual space, per 
her
website and online statement
. Her works can be
described as research into dimensions, deconstructions, and
explosion of forms exploring topics of virtual authorship and the
physicality of the Internet. LaTurbo has exhibited all over the
world from Peru to Korea to the Whitney in New York. I’m thrilled
to have her on the show. Metaphorically of course. It’s just me
here in the studio. LaTurbo is remote. 

When we got the demo file earlier I was excited to hear
the slight Irish lilt in your robotic voice. As a Brit I feel like
we have a bond there.

LaTurbo: Thank you for the patience. It is like
a jigsaw puzzle, our voices together.

ALG: Of course it’s all about being patient as we try
out new things on the frontier. And you represent that frontier.
This show is about people that are pushing the boundaries in their
fields. A lot of them are building companies, some are scientists.
Recently we’ve had a few more artists on and that’s something I
believe is important in all of these fields. Because you’re
taking the time to do the hard work and think about technology and
its impact and how we can stretch it and use it in different ways
and broaden our thinking. You play an important role.

LaTurboWe will get things smoothed out
eventually as my vocalization gets easier and more natural with
better tools. Alice I appreciate you trekking out here with me and
trying this format out.

ALG: I love a good trek. Maybe you can give a brief
intro on who is LaTurbo. I believe you started
in 
Second
Life
. I’d love to hear about those origins.
Phil Rosedale was one of the first people I 
interviewed
on this podcast
, the founder of Second Life.
Shout out to Phil. I’d love to hear what’s been your journey
since then. Oh and also happy 10th birthday.

“I’ve spent decades inside of virtual environments, in many
ways I came of age alongside the Internet. My early years in my
adolescence in role-playing games. From the early years I was
enamored by cyber space”

LaTurboI know that it is circuitous at times
but this process has made me work hard to explore what it takes to
be here like this. Well I started out early on in the shapes of
America Online, intranets, and private message boards. Second Life
opened this up incredibly, taking things away from the closed
worlds of video games. We had to work even harder to be individuals
in early virtual worlds using character editors, roleplaying games,
and other platforms in shared network spaces. This often took the
shape of default characters — letting Final Fantasy,
Goldeneye, or other early game titles be the space where we
performed alternative identities.

ALG: If you’re referring to Goldeneye on N64 I spent
considerable time on it growing up. So I might have seen you
running around there.

LaTurbo: It was a pleasure to listen to your
conversation with Philip Rosedale as he continues to explore what
comes next, afterwards, in new sandboxes. What was your first
avatar?

ALG: I did play a lot of video games growing up. I was
born in Hong Kong and was exposed mostly to the Nintendo and Sega side of
things, so maybe one of those Mario Kart
characters — Princess Peach or really I went for Yoshi if
those count as avatars. I’d love to get into your experience in
gaming. You said you started off exploring more closed world games
and then you discovered Second Life. You’ve spent a lot of time
in MMORPGs and obviously that’s one of the main ways that people
have engaged with avatars. I’d love to hear how your experiences
have been in different games and any commentary on the worlds
you’re spending time in now.

LaTurbo: I think that even if they weren’t
signature unique identities or your own avatar, those forms of
early video games were a first key to understand more about facets
of yourself through them. For me gaming is like water being added
to the creative sandbox. There is fusion inside of game
worlds — narrative, music, performance, design, problem
solving, communication, so many different factors of life and
creativity that converge within a pliable file. Some of the most
Final Fantasies of games are now realities. Users move place to
place using many maps and system menus on their devices. The
physical world so closely bonded by users like me that brought bits
of the game out with us. Recently I spent several months wandering
around inside of Red Dead Redemption 2. I enjoyed the narrative of
the main storyline though I was far more interested in having quiet
moments away from all of the violence. I named my horse Sontag and
went out exploring, taking photographs and using slow motion game
exploits to make videos. Several months as the weary cowboy named
Arthur, and then I carried on my way. I take bits and pieces with
me on the way.

LaTurbo’s Overwatch avatar

ALG: As you’ve gone across different games and
platforms like Red Dead Redemption 2 are there specific people
you’ve made friends with? How have your friendships formed in
these different communities and do they travel between
games? 

LaTurbo: I have had many gaming friends.
Virtual friends overlap between all of these worlds. My Facebook
friends are not very different than those I fight with in Overwatch
or the ones I challenge scores with in Tetris Effect.

ALG: One thing you’ve said about gaming and I’ll
read the quote straight out:

“I love the MMO or massively multiplayer online
experience for a lot of reasons but primarily because I want to
create works collaboratively with my network, because we are in
this moment together. For a long time virtual worlds were
partitioned from the public because you either had to be invested
in gaming or a chat room/ BBS user to get into
them.”

I want to explore that. Gaming has come a long way in
the 10 years since you were created. It’s more widespread now.
Things like Fortnite. I saw that Red Dead Redemption is introducing
a Fortnite like feature where they’re going to have battle royale
mode and toss people into a battle zone and force them to search
for weapons to survive. I think a lot of people are looking at the
success of Fortnite and replicating elements of it. Can you comment
on how gaming has become more widespread or more in the public mind
and what you think of the rise of Fortnite?

LaTurboOur histories are fluid, intersecting
and changing depending on the world we choose to inhabit. Sometimes
we are discussing art on Instagram. Other times we are discussing
game lore or customization of ourselves. This variety is so
important to me. There is a lot exchanged between worlds like
Fortnite and the general physical day to day. Expectations are real
and high. The battle royale model has pushed people to a sort of
edge at all times. A constant pressure of chance and risk, it
crosses between games but also into general attention. Video apps
like TikTok have a similar model — always needing to have the
drop on the creators around you.

ALG: It’s interesting that tension. These games are
driven to create competition. They are businesses so they’re
supposed to build in loops and mechanics that keep people engaging.
But as you describe of your experience in Red Redemption you’ve
also found quiet moments of exploration being alone and not
necessarily fiercely competing. 

LaTurbo: Red Dead could be a hundred games in
one. Yet for some reason we come back to the royale again. It is a
maximal experience in a lot of ways. One that uses failure and
frustration to keep users trying again perpetually. This is a
telling sign as you’ve said about the business of games. The
loop. I worry that this is a risky model because it doesn’t
encourage a level of introspection very often.

ALG: I love video games but have never been a fan of
first person shooters. I don’t enjoy the violence. But I’ve
always loved strategy and exploration games. To your point about
exploring, I would spend hours wandering on Epona [the horse] in
Zelda, running across the fields. But I didn’t feel that a lot of
those games were designed for women or people who weren’t
interested in the violence or the GTA type approach. I’m excited
to see more of that happening now and gaming CEOs realizing
there’s a huge untapped market of people that want to play in
different modes and experience gaming in different ways. It feels
like we are moving towards that future. I do want to get in to how
you have expanded beyond gaming. I’ll read some of your quotes
from when you started out:

“I’ve been making work in digital environments since
2008 to 2009, though I’ve only been using social media for about
a year now since I can’t go out and mingle with people it’s
been quite nice to use social platforms to share my work. This way
I can be in real life IRL as much as people allow me to
be.”

I want to get to the question of how you’ve expanded
from gaming to social media, building your Twitter and Instagram
presence and how you think about your engagement on those
platforms.

LaTurbo: I celebrate the multiplicity of self.
Walt Whitman spoke of their contradictions years ago accepting
themselves in the sense that they contain multitudes. As I wandered
the fields of fictitious Admiral Grant in Red Dead Redemption 2, it
occurred to me that I was wondering inside of Leaves of Grass. It
made sense that I too was wandering around out in the fields and
trees. Virtual life in poetry, song, or simulation gives us a
different sort of armor where our forms can forget about borders,
rules and expectations that have yet to change outside.

It has been quite a decade. Events of the past 10 years could
easily be the plot of a William Gibson novel. A cyber drama and all
its actors. With and without consent users have watched their
personal data slip away from their control, quick to release in the
terms of service. Quick to be public, to have more followers and
visibility. Is it real without the Instagram proof? I chose to
socialize away from game worlds for a few different purposes. To
imbue my virtual identity with the moment of social media. But also
to create a symbol of a general virtual self. A question mark or a
mirror, to encourage reflection before people fully drown
themselves in the stream.

ALG: One of the reasons it’s fascinating to talk to
you now is that you’ve come of age as the Internet has come of
age. You’ve navigated and shape-shifted across these platforms.
And so much has happened since 2008. You’ve been on everything
from Tumblr to Pinterest to Vine to
Snapchat to Instagram. I’m curious where you think we are in the
life cycle of these social media platforms?

LaTurbo: It has been quite a journey, seeing
these services pop up, new fields, new places. But it is clear that
not many of these things will remain very long. A new Wild West of
sorts. They are more like ingredients in a greater solution as we
try to make virtual relationships that are comfortable for both
mind and body.

ALG: Speaking of these services popping up I want to get
to something you tweeted out, your commentary on
Facebook:

“If it wasn’t bad already just imagine how toxic Facebook
will be when we collectively decide to break up with them.
Anticipate a paid web and an underweb. We just start spinning them
out on our own, smaller and away from all these analytics
moneymakers. The changeover from MySpace era networks to Facebook
felt minimal because it hadn’t become such a market-oriented
utility. But this impending social network breakup is going to be
felt in all sorts of online sectors.”

That’s an interesting opinion. The delete Facebook
movement is strong right now. But I wonder how far it will go and
how many people really follow it?

LaTurbo: Business complicates this as
companies extend too far and make use of this data for personal
gain or manipulation. In the same way that Google Glass failed
because of a camera, these services destroy themselves as they
breach the trust of those who use them. These companies know that
these are toxic relationships whether it is on a game economy or a
social network. They know that the leverage over your personal data
is valuable. Losing this, our friends, and our histories is
frightening. We need to find some way to siphon ourselves and our
data back so we can learn to express agency with who we are online.
Your data is more valuable than the services that you give it to.
The idea that people feel that it is fair to let their accounts be
inherently bound to a single service is disturbing. Our virtual
lives exceed us and will continue to do so onward into time. Long
after us this data may still linger somewhere.

ALG: I’m going to throw in a Twitter poll you did a
few months ago. “If you had the choice to join some sort of
afterlife simulation that would keep you around forever at the
expense of having your data used for miscellaneous third party
purposes would you?” 35% said yes and 65% said no in this poll. I
bet if you ask that every two years, over time the answers will
continue to change as we get more comfortable with our digital
identities and what that really means. You’re pushing us to ask
these questions.

LaTurboWe see in museums now torn
parchments, scrolls, ancient wrappings of lives and histories. As
we become more virtual these documents will inherently change too.
A markup and data takes this place. However we consent to let it be
represented. If we leave this to the Facebooks and Twitters of this
period, our histories are in many ways contingent on the survival
of these platforms. If not we have lost a dark ages, it is a moment
that we will lose forever.

ALG: I’m curious what you think of the different
movements to export your personal data, own it, have it travel with
you across platforms and build a new pact with the companies. Are
you following any of the movements to take back personal data and
rewrite the social technological contract?

LaTurboIt would be sad to have less record
of this period of innovation and self-discovery because we didn’t
back things up or control our data appropriately. Where do you keep
it? Who protects it? Who is a steward of your records? All of this
needs to begin with the user and end with the user. An album, a
solid state tablet of your life, something you can take charge of
without concern that it is marketing fodder or some large shared
database. As online as we are as a society, I recommend people have
an island. Not a cloud but a private place, plugged in when you
request it. A drive of your own where you have a private order.
Oddly enough in an older world sense you can find solitude in solid
states, when you have the retreat to files that are not connected
to the Internet.

ALG: And have it backed up and air-gapped from the
internet for safety and possibly in a Faraday cage in case you get
EMP’ed. One thing that leads on from that — Facebook has
capitalized on using our real data, our personal data. I have the
statement on authentic identity from their original S-1
here:

“We believe that using your real name, connecting to
your real friends and sharing your genuine interests online creates
more engaging and meaningful experiences. Representing yourself
with your authentic identity online encourages you to behave with
the same norms that foster trust and respect in your daily life
offline. Authentic identity is core to the Facebook experience and
we believe that it is central to the future of the Web. Our terms
of service require you to use your real name. And we encourage you
to be your true self online enabling us and platform developers to
provide you with more personalized experiences.”

LaTurbo: The use of a real name, authenticity, and Facebook’s
message of truth. It is peculiar that Facebook used this angle
because it was such a gloved gesture for them to access our
accurate records. The verification is primarily to make businesses
comfortable with their investment in marketing. I wish it came to
celebrate personal expression not to tune business instruments.

ALG: Over the last 5 to 10 years we’ve seen a movement
towards Facebook and being our real selves. Now there’s kind of a
backlash both to the usage of Facebook but perhaps also to the idea
that your real identity, your true self that you have offline, that
that’s what you should be representing online. You are an
anonymous artist and there’s precedent for that. There have been
many writers with nom de plumes over centuries and in the present
day we’ve got Daft Punk, Banksy, Elena Ferrante, fascinating
creators. I’m curious your thoughts as we move away from real
selves being represented online to expressing our other selves
online. We’ve been living in an age of shameless self-promotion.
Do you think that the rise of people representing themselves with
digital avatars is a backlash to that? Society usually goes through
a back and forth, a struggle for balance. Do you think people are
getting disenchanted with the unrelenting narcissism of social
media, the celebrity worship culture? Do you think this is a bigger
movement that’s going to stick?

LaTurbo: I see this as an opportunity and I am wary of this
chance being usurped by business. If I had the chance to see all of
my friends in the avatar forms of their wishes and dreams I believe
I’d be seeing them for the first time. A different sort of
wholeness against the sky, where they had the chance to say and be
exactly what they wished others to find. If you haven’t created
an avatar before please do. Explore yourself in many facets before
these virtual spaces get twisted into stratified arenas of
business.

Source: FS – All Tech News 2
The portrait of an avatar as a young artist