Being Another / Being An Other
This is a visual phantasmagorical record of my experiences as an artist exploring various facets of my identities by way of using an avatar (digital body) in the pre-VR headset user-created virtual world, Second Life (SL).
My fascination with studying identity emerges from my lifelong habit of deep introspection. SL, as an open-ended user-created world, easily became an artistic escape for me from personal unresolved trauma, including relationship issues, sexual abuse, gender dysphoria, and body dysmorphia. Over the years, I have spent a lot of time, both recreationally and academically, pondering and studying the significance of the avatar as a stand-in for the physical body.
I first created a Second Life account in 2005 with the persona I named Nebulosus Severine. One of SL’s great strengths as a platform is its seemingly limitless options for the user to customize their avatar. It can be humanoid or animal or robot or anything the user can imagine; there are both in-world and external tools to create anything one can manage to build.
Even with so many choices available to me, I spent my first year & a half in SL presenting as a female humanoid avatar, as a way of reconciling feminine aspects of myself that I had previously felt at odds with. In SL I was able to live vicariously through my avatar, and to explore various aspects of gender and bodily forms by having the freedom to change my simulated appearance at will.
After the devastating end of a relationship, I made drastic changes to my avatar’s appearance. Using avatar customization tools, I changed it to a sexless, genderless, ambiguous being. I made a “skin” for my avatar that made it look as though “my” (Neb’s) genitals had been cut off/out, my breasts mutilated and removed. This somehow helped me to cope with my grief, so it became a motif I returned to often. If I was going through a bout of depression, heartbreak, or rejection, I'd make my avatar appear bloody, mutilated. This visual expression echoed my lifelong struggles with mental illness. In the past, I used to self-harm by cutting myself with razors. In many ways, “cutting up” my avatar fulfilled that same compulsion without actually hurting myself; I attacked my avatar’s body instead of my “real-life” body.
For a short time, I felt so disillusioned with having a physical body that for a brief time I wore an avatar that was simply a polygonal shape with no humanoid form whatsoever. It was sometime during this phase that an entirely different avatar and corresponding persona emerged. On Ebay, I had found a strange second-hand toy called “Bunnyken”: it is a kitschy collage creature, with the hard plastic head of a hybrid bunny/chicken (with rabbit ears and a beak mouth), and the body of a generic human doll wearing a fuzzy yellow suit. I became weirdly obsessed with this creepy-cute character and eventually felt compelled to create a Bunnyken avatar in SL.
Although I had returned to primarily using my “true” avatar (the gender-ambiguous Nebulosus) instead of a polygonal object, the Bunnyken avatar became a sort of alter ego for Neb with its own persona. In another sense, Bunnyken became my avatar’s avatar. While Neb is my avatar self-portrait of sorts, representing my essential, “true” (whatever that means) self, Bunnyken represents aspects of my identity that I felt out of touch with that only seemed to emerge again after I created Bunnyken “through” Neb.
Bunnyken has become a recurring figure in my artwork in almost every media I have tried, including experimental/New Media art. I have distributed hundreds of copies of the Bunnyken avatar to other SL users, which they have worn in performance art events within SL, involving many people simultaneously “being” Bunnyken in the same virtual location.
The Bunnyken character as an enigmatic “everyperson” (with unidentifiable gender and ambiguous expressions) has become a versatile protagonist for a wide range of subject matters, from whimsical to profane. Bunnyken has also become a metaphor for questioning and examining identity: in relationship to the self, and to others “outside” of the self; in one’s identity in context with others; and of losing one’s individual identity to merge with an interconnected, collective consciousness.
Toward the end of my education at Evergreen State College, I explored yet another facet of the Bunnyken persona/identity by bringing it outside of Second Life and “becoming” Bunnyken in the physical world. For the purpose of attending an anime convention, I created a full Bunnyken costume, including a hand-made mask, so that I could occupy the persona in the flesh-and-blood world. Although my exploration and fascination with avatars is ongoing, wearing my Bunnyken cosplay seems to have brought me full-circle into a metaphysical revisceralization of sorts, and has opened new doors for future artistic experimentation.
(Being Another / Being An Other book essay, June 2019)