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Sunday, May 19, 2024

LaTurbo Avedon Is Way Ahead of the Metaverse

LaTurbo Avedon waits for me in the center of Orbital, a cavernous, near-empty trance nightclub. Pulsing lights brighten their platinum hair as they groove alone under a floating, purple orb on the vast dance floor. Our meeting is in Second Life, so finding this space-themed disco involves nothing more than clacking away at a laptop keyboard. Yet I’m late. A novice, I’m still figuring out how to maneuver in this sprawling virtual space; Avedon stands politely as my avatar walks around them in zombified herky-jerk circles. Unlike me, Avedon’s an old pro at Second Life carousing. They look at home here. For more than a decade, they’ve been working as an artist exclusively on the internet, as an avatar. Virtual worlds are their permanent haunts.

The deal with Avedon is this: They don’t exist offline, simply describing themselves as “from the internet.” They are a digitally native creature, building art across online worlds like Second Life, Fortnite, and Star Citizen, and showing said art in prestigious galleries across the United States and Europe. (A recent exhibit is on digital display through the Whitney Museum.) There’s no separating the art from the artist, because the artist is the art project, a sprightly-looking, nonbinary virtual being untethered from a human body. You could call them a high-art version of avatar influencers like Lil Miquela, although the most apt characterization might be a cross between the Japanese hologram pop idol Hatsune Miku and the pseudonymous British street artist Banksy—the performance of persona is part of the project. Like the ethereal Hatsune Miku, Avedon is visually represented by an avatar. But while it’s out in the open that Miku is a software-fueled collaboration between teams of humans, Avedon doesn’t acknowledge that there’s a person or team behind the curtain, bent over a keyboard. Like Banksy (or, in the literary world, Elena Ferrante) they admit no identity beyond the one they’ve assumed as a public-facing artist.

This makes talking to Avedon a bit trippy. There’s no breaking character, even when all you really want to talk about is how hard it must be not to break character. When I ask Avedon when they were born, for example, they deflect, saying things began to “make sense” in 1995 while playing Chrono Trigger, an RPG for SuperNintendo. When asked what it’s like to have work displayed in real-life spaces without being able to walk through them—what one might think would be a major drawback of not having a corporeal form—they counter that it’s not unlike how gamers don’t have access to every part of the gaming world they’re playing inside.

Kelani Nichole, founder of the experimental art gallery Transfer, has worked with Avedon for more than eight years; like me, she met the friendly avatar in Second Life, where they were working on an installation that was eventually projected into a physical exhibit in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Nichole sees Avedon as an especially timely art-world figure, one who has taken the identity-tweaking ethos of an artist like Cindy Sherman and cleverly applied it to the virtual world. “They’re very prescient,” she says. Dealing with collaborators like Nichole by inviting them into virtual spaces, Avedon has built a career wholly within the confines of the internet. They have been working like this for more than a decade, long before “metaverse” became the Silicon Valley catchphrase du jour or the world took its work meetings to Zoom. In that time, digital art has exploded from a niche pursuit to the epicenter of an economic bubble.

And Avedon remains ahead of the curve. Better than most, they understand the actual creative potential of metaverses, how immersive online spaces can help coalesce communities and allow people to explore who they are and who they’d like to be. Take, for example, their work in Fortnite, where last year they created Your Progress Will Be Saved, a sprawling installation for the Manchester International Festival. By choosing such a super-popular digital destination, Avedon wanted to show that they could stretch the gaming world’s purpose. Instead of playing into its haywire battle-royale logic, they created a contemplative, playful harbor to wander through. Exploring Your Progress Will Be Saved from a laptop feels like exploring the online equivalent of a long-abandoned grand subway station, a vast and underused urban landscape that is simultaneously peaceful and eerie. “Sometimes we have to create safe rooms inside of these simulations in order to weather out the problems they also present,” they explain. “I can only do my part, and that is to hold a mirror to the metaverse and its possibilities.”

Sometimes holding a mirror means calling for better practices. Avedon is wary of the ways that some of these spaces are being built, with an eye toward commercialization rather than creativity. It’s an opportune time to be an artist who works exclusively within virtual worlds: Everybody wants a piece of the metaverse, and there are more of these worlds to explore than ever before. Sotheby’s is selling NFTs in a virtual gallery in Decentraland now, after all. “Crypto needed a use case, and it found it in digital art,” Nichole says.

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When Avedon’s career began, they looked like a novelty on the fringes of internet culture. Now, the wider world has caught up with their conceit. If they wanted, it could be high time for Avedon to cash in—and indeed, they have sold some pieces as NFTs, and even accepted bitcoin as payment for art way back in 2013. But thus far they’ve been unswayed by most overtly commercial overtures. “I’ve had so many celebrities and companies reach out,” they say, “and I’ve always turned them down.” Instead, they’re trying to move forward within the rapidly evolving digital art world in a more thoughtful way, which means taking part in projects like Pieces of Me, a virtual show at Nichole’s gallery meant to interrogate the values of the burgeoning NFT marketplace, in addition to their attempts to subvert the commercial uses of spaces like Fortnight.

This slow, thoughtful approach to the art world’s current fever for all things digital is, of course, a noble stance, albeit one that raises questions about the financial realities of operating as an artist-avatar. Even if they do go in for Beeple-level paydays, what does that actually mean? How do they file taxes? Pay rent? What about health insurance?

I didn’t ask Avedon about these behind-the-scenes logistics—perhaps a journalistic bungle, but it felt so rude to directly acknowledge that our conversation was about being an avatar and not being a person. As Nichole pointed out to me, the slipperiness of Avedon’s identity is central to their project. It seemed unsporting to dwell on their deliberately obscured relationship with the offline world, like trying to needle the person playing Princess Jasmine at Disney World into telling me about whether the benefits and salary are adequate, or like loudly yelling “MAGIC IS FAKE!” during a magician’s performance. The illusion, after all, was the point.

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