Monday, May 30, 2011

The Not So Secret Life of Gracie Kendal Part Two and 1000 Avatars

Gracie Kendal at the site of 1000 Avatars

This would be my first visit to her new location, the site of Gracie Kendal’s 1000 Avatar project. She’d just moved there recently and I had thought it a good place for us to meet. I’d been to the two prior project sites, first at Artropolis where she’d started the project when I’d volunteered to be one of her early photographic subjects. At that time it was only 100 Avatars. Later as the project grew she’d moved it to a site at one of the New Media Consortium SIM’s (NMC) where I’d popped in few times to view the photographs and get a sense of how the project had progressed. The scope and scale of the site had been large then and the project an ambitious one. How does one explain something as vague as virtual identity? 1000 Avatars is Ms Kendal’s attempt to do so, via the imagery of avatar photographs, and in her words; “specifically the construction of Avatars, our online representations”.
I’d met Gracie nearly two years ago when I’d interviewed her for a piece I’d written for Second Arts. We’d talked about her art and where she might be taking it in the near term. She had told me, “I am working on my MA in studio art right now … going to be finishing in May and my thesis project is going to involve the Life of Gracie Kendal as an artist and a woman.” Well that idea blossomed to become the predecessor project to 1000 Avatars and was called, “My Life as an Avatar: The Gracie Kendal Project.” I’d been to a few of her presentations as she’d held a series of talks at multiple venues in Second Life and also where she’d presented at a collaborative exhibit held at Caerleon called the “Ambiguity of Identity”.
We’d had arranged to meet on the 26th of May. I’d arrived in world earlier then the appointed time and while I waited for her to do so, I read through a release announcement about the book. She had begun the promotional process and it is to be released shortly. As I read through her note, the one aspect I could very much relate to as I’d also attempted to do so through my fiction was, “the relationship between appearance and identity, illusion, belief, and reality”. She logged in shortly after I’d read through the note and sent me a TP request. Second Life had been acting up of late with teleports, but I arrived uneventfully at the site. It took a few minutes for it to rezz fully, and as it did I cam’ed around and uttered an audible “wow”. It had grown substantially from where it had begun at Artropolis. The space is huge and we stood very near to the center of the site, surrounded on four sides by a vast array of avatar photographs. There is a an arranged a seating area with sofas, rugs and other décor. There were several notecard givers nearby along with the globe that she’d used to take the photographs for the project. As I spun my camera around, I noted that Gracie was attired much like she had been when I’d first met her, wearing a black t-shirt and paint splattered jeans, an artist at home in her studio.
“Hey Nazz, it’s good to see you again.” She said as I arrived and then added; “Oh, Nazz I invited Nikki, I hope you don’t mind, she’s the books editor. Nikki this is Nazz.” She said.
“Hello Nazz, nice to meet you.” Nickola Martynov said in chat.
“Hey Gracie, it’s great to see you as well.” I replied with a smile and then added; “It’s nice to meet you as well Nikki”. We three then exchanged pleasantries in open chat, before Gracie asked if I’d like to sit and then suggested the chairs arrayed around a nearby table. I waited until the ladies sat before I took my seat on an open one. Gracie moved the chairs around slightly so our virtual selves faced each other and we began.
“When did the 1000 Avatars project begin?” I asked after we were all comfortably seated.
“In October it started and stemmed from the exhibit of ‘My Life as an Avatar’ I did at Caerleon, the ‘Ambiguity of Identity’ ... not sure what or how it got started, but I began to taking pictures.” She explained.
“I recall we’d chatted briefly there and then again after you’d begun to mail out notices asking for volunteers. It started out as ‘100 Avatars’ and it became ‘1000 Avatars’, how many avatar photos have you taken?” I asked.
“So far I have 1580 portraits and I’m going for 2000. This book will be of the first 1000. I think you’re in it Nazz.” She said and then added; “You were among the first people I shot ... It’s going stop at 2000, but don't know for sure … I’ve been on a little hiatus and it’s been a few a months since I last shot any with my computer issues.”
I was about to ask my next question when a couple of visitors arrived, Maxwell Graf and Lauren Weyland. We all chatted for a bit and then when Gracie mentioned the meeting, Lauren ported out and Maxwell wandered off to view the portraits. While they were there, I’d zoomed around with my camera control and looked for my picture, which given the number there, it would be like finding the proverbial needle. While I did scan around, I was amazed at the diversity of the avatars she’d captured in the photographs. Male, female … furry’s and all taken from behind, I noted. As I thought about that, it made sense as this is how we generally see ourselves in Second Life, from behind and at a slightly elevated view. I asked her about it.
“The portraits from the back side … it is symbolic of their real life ... you don't know who they are on the other side of the screen. Some people have reacted to that, the pictures from behind ... they want to see what the avatar looks like.” She said.
“Beside the Caerleon exhibit and I recall at one of the Pirats shows, you’d appeared in several different venues to talk about your work. How have those talks been received?” I asked her.
“My life as Gracie has had a good reception by people ... I’d received a lot of IM’s and e-mails afterward, telling me how much it’s been an inspiration for them and how much they could relate to it. I think there are a lot of people who’ve come into Second Life and have created an ideal versions of themselves ... they think I’m really brave because I put all of myself out there and they can relate to that.” She said in reply and then added; “You know when I first came into Second Life … when I first started my life as an avatar, I thought I should have all the answers ... friends told me to forget about the answers, just do the art.”
“What sort of questions did you have?” I asked.
“Well the same as when I started with the project, when I was taking pictures of Gracie and Kris. That I should know what it all means … how the two, Gracie and Kris come together. I'm still working on ‘My life as Gracie’ … I’ve paused it though and have been focusing on the 1000 Avatars.” She replied.
After the book release and promotional tours around Second Life, what’s next for Gracie?” I asked.
“Well, first is the book release party on the 31st, it starts at 5 pm (PDT/SLT). Then I have several ideas in the pipeline. There’s ‘The Body Project’, it’s about body image. Then a mixed reality performance called ‘Open House’. I’m working with Nikki … I'll live in the gallery for 2 - 3 days, and it'll be open for people to drop in … in either real life or in Second Life and spend the night or just hang out. We'll stream into Second Life and vice versa. I’ll also be doing performances in real life at galleries where I’ll be interacting with Gracie.” She replied.
As we concluded our meeting, we chatted briefly about our second lives. I thanked her for taking time form her busy schedule to meet with me and congratulated her on the book. I also made a note to make sure I ordered a copy and then ported back to my home before I logged my virtual self out for the evening. The real me then leaned back in his chair, took a sip from a now warm glass of iced tea and then searched in my notes for the information on how to order a copy of the book. 

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