Avatars, SECOND LIFE®, and New Media Art: The Challenge for Contemporary Art Education

Article excerpt

Social networking technologies and online virtual communities are popular among youth. In order to participate in the online environment and represent a user, people create avatars, which may convey certain aspects of their identities. The visual presentation of avatars in cyberspace is a component of visual culture in the virtual world. How people communicate their identities through online social networking technologies, such as MySpace®1 or Second Life®2, is a crucial question for understanding the impact of new media on identity and communication. Art educators can participate in this discourse by discussing new media art that concerns online identity. Second Life (SL), an online 3D environment, presents opportunities for art education, including art creation, online exhibitions, education and communication through virtual environment, and learning about 3D space experiences.3 SL also brings issues for educators to ponder, such as identity, visual culture, and capitalism. This article discusses examples of new media art, which uses SL as a medium for the creation and play of identities through avatars.

New Media Art

New media art encompasses the use of digital technologies and the Internet as media, but new media art is more than these. It is both a hybrid production and an interplay between art, technology, and humans. New media art includes digitality, interactivity, hypertextuality, dispersal, and virtuality (Lister, Dovey, Giddings, Grant, & Kelly, 2003). Digital communication technologies give rise to these characteristics and "are all imbricated into the organization of culture, work and leisure with all the economic and social determinations that involves" (Lister et al., 2003, p. 37). However, the characteristics of new media art do not simply show the function of technology, but also critique and creatively explore those functions as meaning-making systems within human systems of communication. New technologies not only provide artists with new ways of expression but also involve artists in every facet of life (Popper, 1993). Thus, the study of new media art involves the study of everyday experiences as shared social issues and requires an inquiry into technology and its impact on human society.

New media is not just a tool but also a medium, a cultural interface connecting humans, technology, and culture (Manovich, 2001). In The Language of New Media, Lev Manovich (2001) explained that new media art cannot be separated into content and medium, but must be combined to form the interface. He stated, "It is the work's interface that creates its unique materiality and a unique user experience" (pp. 66-67). Further, he described, when computer-based technology becomes a way of distributing cultural information, "We are no longer interfacing to a computer but to culture encoded in digital form" (pp. 69-70). He used the term "cultural interface" to describe a "human-computer-culture interface-the ways in which computers present and allow us to interact with cultural data" (p. 70). In other words, the computer is not a technology that artists use to create art, but a cultural interface that contains human experiences. Therefore, when looking at a work that includes the computer, ignoring its interface with culture is inappropriate. By approaching technology as a cultural interface, it is possible to interpret meanings of new media art in terms of technology's impact on humans, culture, and society. Culture encoded in technology, translated by new media art, becomes a language of art that reflexively criticizes its cultural meaning. For instance, the Internet, as a cultural interface, has an undeniable impact on identity transformation in contemporary society. The Internet provides a space for many people to experiment with different personas and challenges traditional understandings of identity (Turkle, 1995). New media artists, such as Tina LaPorta, critique and question "how we define ourselves in virtual as well as networked physical space" (Paul, 2003, p. …